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Game design lenses help target your games

This post presents three different "game design lenses" which game developers can use to examine the pacing, habitual targeting and habit formation from a birds-eye view which can be effectively applied to more concrete game design.

This post was originally published on my website on April, 2016.

A lens give you different viewpoints of the world. A lens give you different viewpoints of the world - also of the game. Photo by Paul Skorupskas, from Unsplash.

A lot of my time goes into talking with mobile game players and trying to understand their needs, motivations, constraints and behaviors so that we here at Seepia Games could make the best games for our specific user group.

On my quest to understand mobile players, I've come across a set of game design dimensions through which we - the developers - can use to develop better games for a given target group. This is by no means scientifically validated set of dimensions but rather, a conceptual framework that is born out of experience.

I hope this framework helps fellow devs to better understand their users and make better games by using the framework to direct the design of the games. Also, if you feel that the framework misses any important elements, feel free to write me or leave a comment below. But for now, let's just dive in to the first one.

1. Temporal Experience of Games

Mid-core games

The first element revolves around how gamers devote their time to playing games.

In the first end, there are casual players who entertains themselves with games when time presents itself (e.g. playing when taking a dump). In my experience, for these players, games are fun hobby that is done when there is nothing else to do. In other words, they are killing time with casual games, but they also can put the game aside very easily when another opportunity comes by.

Mid-core players, on the other hand, arrange their gaming around their daily schedule. This means that they form playing habits based on their free time, which can dictate how they progress through the game . Mid-core players are more involved in the game itself and when they are hooked, don't leave so quickly from the game as the casual players do. I count myself as a mid-core gamer. I'm playing currently two F2P games and I have formed playing habits around my free time so that I can meaningfully progress in the games without spending money.

Lastly, hardcore players typically arrange their schedules around their gaming. For them, playing games is a very fun and engaging activity - more so than many other activities in life. That's why they are willing to make the arrangements so that other parts of life get less attention and games get more. For example, my brother is a hardcore gamer. He doesn't mind if he spends 50% of his salary to buy a new equipment to his PC so that he can play the latest game with the best graphics. Also, he doesn't mind staying up until 6am on Saturday morning to investigate the newest tactics how to get over that one really difficult end boss or whatever.

Of course in real life, the categorization is not so tight and clear as in here. There are real hardcore players of Candy Crush who play games hours and hours per day without even thinking about it. And there are not-so hardcore players of Clash of Clans who just play the game to kill time and fight boredom.

So how you can use this first lens to make informed decisions in your game design? Well, first off by recognizing that there are such categorizations. If you are developing a mobile F2P game to males between 25-45 years of age, it may not be the best decision to require them to spend hours and hours of time in the game per day to make any kind of progress in the game. Or, you can of course make the decision, but then it may not be the best decision considering your business model and target platform since that demographic group don't typically have a lot of free time to spend on gaming.

So you need to take into account that different people behave differently with different kinds of games and based on the demographic targeting, people usually different amounts of free time in their daily life. On a very broad and "black and white" perspective, young people tend to have more free time, less disposable income and tend to be less motivated and focused to gaming. As people get older, they tend to have less free time, more disposable income and they tend to be more focused and are able to exert more focused attention to gaming.

2. Habitual targeting

Second lens which you can use to examine different target groups of games is habitual targeting. In essence, this mean to take into consideration that people have ingrained habits in their daily life AND that people also form new habits all the time.

Most of us usually brush teeth twice per day; once after getting out of bed in the morning and once before going back to bed in the evening. Smartphones and other mobile devices have also created a set of tiny habits which are ingrained to our daily life, such as checking our phones all the time.

The amount of time I check my phone daily.

The amount of time I check my phone daily - on average 81 times a day!

Game developers can use the habitual targeting first by understanding which triggers cause people to play games. When you understand which triggers cause people to play games, you can tailor your game to their habits.

Secondly, game developers can use the psychology of habit forming to create compelling habit creation loops inside their games. For instance, daily quests are particularly effective tools inside games for habit creation. One novel idea might be to start the "daily grind" for new players with minimal effort - maybe 1 or 2 actions to complete the daily grind - and prolong the grind as players have formed the basis of the habit in one or two weeks. The key is to think how to help players form new habits as easily as possible.

3. Bartle's personality categorization

I'm not going to describe Bartle's categorization since it is so fundamental categorization player types that everyone should have read it. Those who haven't read it, you can find the original article here.

Anyways, the point to include the categorization here is to remind fellow devs that different people have different kinds of motivations and goals in games. Some give themselves clear and explicit goals which they then strive to achieve (achievers) while others want to engage into social activities in games (socializers). Again, there are no clear lines here since different people posses aspects from different kinds of types of players. Also, players tend to drift from one type to another in the course of a game.Bartle's categorization of player types Bartle's categorization of player types (source: Tutsplus)

Bartle categorization might not suit for every kind of situation and for different kinds of games, but it gives you a good overview of the broad types of players within the game. In my experience, some of these apply a little bit differently depending on what type of game you are making. For example, I have noticed that a lot of people in mobile F2P strategy games are a mix of achievers and explorers in a sense that they are constantly finding the optimal set of actions which they can use to progress as fast as possible within the free time which the game grants them to play. Term "progress" might be either collecting in-game resources, leveling up their units or buildings or going up in leaderboards. Since I haven't personally been able to categorize these players either as achievers or explorers I've coined them as "optimizers".

Conclusion

The key in this framework is to think how you can use this categorization of player types together with other elements in the framework. Again, if you are targeting employed males of 25-45 years old who are technology enthusiasts, you'd need to consider their daily life in your game design. First step is to understand how much free time they can devote to playing games, and how and when they do it. In my experience, I can say that typically players in this age group are playing games in the morning and after work to relax after hard work day. On the other hand, if you target younger people, aged 18-24 I would guess that they have more free time, usually play games for killing time and like to socialize in the game as well. They also tend to have a lot shorter time frame of focus, meaning that they are more likely to play more casual games than games that require more than a minute or two of focused attention.

To give you a more concrete example, think how Clash Royale and Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes target their design so much differently. Both have similar demographic targeting; dominantly male, aged 25 or above, but when it comes to habitual and temporal targeting, the games are quite different. First of all, Galaxy of Heroes has quite long set of daily quests which takes anything from 30 minutes to 1 hours to complete them. And that's only the daily quests. If you are a real optimizer, you want to use all free possibilities to upgrade and level up your troops which the game offers. Also, EA has different strategy in the live ops phase than Supercell since after the latest update on Feb 09, they constantly give you this extra energy called "Bonus FREE energy" on top of the already quite lofty energy. Daily Activities Screen Daily Activities screen in Star Wars - Galaxy War of Heroes.

Supercell, on the other hand, has quite a different strategy. Whereas Star Wars relies heavily on limited-time events, monthly events and different game modes, Clash Royale is solely focused on PvP matches (one game mode) and player-initiated habit formation loops. In Clash Royale, players can play as much as they like, but at one point, the in-game currency and card-rewards will go off, and players only gather trophies to level-up their rank. What is genius, is how the reward gathering and accumulation works. The game has different kinds of chests which grant players different kinds of rewards. To get the rewards, players first need to unlock the chest. Depending on the type of the chest, the unlocking takes 3 or 8 hours. And players can decide when to the clock starts ticking on these chests. 

Opening different kinds of chests take different time in Royale Opening different kinds of chests take different time in Royale - but players initiate the opening of them!

For me, this works like a charm. I get up from the bed in the morning, I get the rewards from nights 8-hour Gold Chest. Then, I play few rounds of the game, get chests, and unlock Silver Chest which takes 3 hours. Next time I'll play during lunch time in work, and again start to unlock another Silver Chest. When I get home after work, another round and another Silver chest. Last time when I play the game is before going to bed, when I start the unlocking of Gold Chest, which I'll unlock the next morning. Brilliant or what?

Going back to the framework - in the end, it's not about throwing ideas how one user group MIGHT behave, but actually develop a solid process to identify and validate your target user group, their needs, habit and goals and what they are looking in games when they are playing those. I'm calling this process a customer development process - a term which is broadly used in technology start-up world.

I think it's appropriate to use the term in the game business as well. Despite the fact that we are not looking for solid business model anymore. My experience shows that we - the game developers - are very good at coming up with novel ideas and the use of intuition and creativity overall. However, we have challenges to combine the creativity with a research-backed processes to uncover and validate customer needs and goals. More often than not, we tend to keep with our first great ideas and not caring about possible voices of disagreement and contradiction with our ideas. My quest is to uncover the myths around customer thinking and validation so that we could actually make better games and fully utilize the creative power of our minds. In the end, we all are here to create and offer awesome experiences and great games to players which could be remembered years after now. I hope that this framework helps at least few of you in that adventure.

Useful Resources

Here's a list of useful resources for you to dig out general information on this topic.

  1. App Annie just released a nice report of user engagement patterns based on the age groups of mobile users.
  2. Excellent post by Justin Carroll on how to research your games target market for free, based on similar games already out there.
  3. Great picture of natural triggers to stack onto - works for game devs too!

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