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Bill Gardner, Blogger

October 17, 2014

9 Min Read

“You’re kidding me…That player isn’t even going to use that meatball launcher he just picked up?”

“Why won’t that dude read any of the text we’re shoving in his face!?!”

“Please stop!  Stop and look at the beautiful vignette I created!!!  Why, God – whyyyyyyy?!?”

If you’ve had the pleasure of watching a gamer play your game, you may have found yourself asking similar questions.  To many, watching someone actually experience your content can be as baffling as it is frustrating.  But if you stick with me, I can offer you a few pointers that might help take the sting out of some of the slings they hurl your way.  And if you really open your mind, you just might have a Don Draper-esque revelation and come away with newfound confidence.  Along with all the answers.

You don’t need to trip balls to reach enlightenment.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that the industry as a whole appears to be increasingly aware of their users’ needs.  Each year, we see a greater emphasis on UX in all aspects of the game creation process.  However, I also believe we have a ways to go before we can say we truly are keeping our users in mind in the process – particularly in design.  I think with a slight shift in thinking, dev teams can stay ahead of the curve and proactively anticipate user strengths, weaknesses and values, rather than reactively try to patch up content to meet these needs.

Traditionally, over the years, I’ve watched many teams establish amazing visions and work valiantly toward realizing those visions.  Unfortunately, more often than not, the pursuit of this vision is done with little to no understanding or consideration to these fundamental user values.  What this usually spells is the inevitable damage control and crisis mode that comes when the game is mature enough for broad usability testing.  Suddenly, designers are panicking because they never anticipated a player would engage their game in the ways they see in testing.  Or worse, they didn’t even know an entire type of gamer existed. 

Thankfully, a lot of these headaches can be avoided with a little bit of openness, forward-thinking, and a few simple adjustments.  And all these adjustments come from embracing personas

No, not that kind of persona.  I’m talking about the persona coined by Alan Cooper in his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.  Through personas, Cooper attempts to put a name and face to different segments of the audience.  It’s worth noting that personas are completely different than demographics, which describe things like income level, race, etc.  In short, personas create a more accurate picture of a subset of the audience.  Demographics are the broad strokes, while personas are the finer details.  Even though this may seem a bit simple, the sad reality is that too often we all think of the audience in the wrong way. 

Apologies to any Neanderthal devs who may be offended.

While Cooper’s book came out in 1999, and has become a common touchstone in marketing and UX circles, it hasn’t really gained much traction in games.  We should fix that.

Persona Value

How is this not just a waste of time marketing exercise?  Well, if you’re creating content with the audience in mind, you’re part of the way there.  If, say, you create a sniper sequence, hopefully you’re considering how “Speedrun Sam” (more on him later) will play since doesn’t like to wait for his targets to happen past his line of sights.  He likes to get right up in his enemy’s face and blow past him as efficiently as possible.

Now, this is a tricky example.  Some of the greatest levels in gaming history force you to play certain roles from time to time.  Imagine playing Modern Warfare’s sublime “All Ghillied Up” with a rocket launcher.  The point is that the LDs at Infinity Ward had a very clear goal here – create the coolest sniper level of all time – and they took all the right steps to walk players down that path. 

When you finally come across the sequence where you’re hiding from the enormous tank patrol, the level has eased you into the role effectively.  Everyone was shown why sneaking and sniping is crucial. The fact that the event can result in insta-fail isn’t an issue for most.  Now, I can’t say that they took personas into account here, but I can say that having personas in mind would have helped.  Speedrun Sam here would have been a helpful reference in that he could have informed how long one end of the audience is willing to remain prone during the incredibly tense tank scene.

One of the high-water marks for scripted sequences. (image from Inner Message)

To point out another example, when creating sequences for BioShock, at Irrational we had to consider countless different playstyles.  After all, the game let you customize quite a bit for a shooter.  Anyhow, the level of choice made it particularly difficult to create scripted sequences.  Let’s talk about “Twilight Fields” in the Medical Pavilion for example. 

Here, we wanted to create a simple moment where the player can see a doctor doing something icky to someone on his table (as they are wont to do in dystopian shooter/horror titles).  Well, since BioShock doesn’t take control of the player, we had to account for a million different ways to break the sequence.  In playtesting, some players would blast the doc from the other end of the hall the moment he was on screen, effectively missing the events to follow.  To fix this, we simply put the doc around the corner and cast his shadow in the player’s view.  We also found that some players would haul ass down the…umm, hall, and miss the intro tease with shadow.  So, we flooded the hall with waste-high water to slow them down. 

Sound like standard iterative design based on usability feedback or QA?  Well, had we been more cognizant of personas, we could have avoided these situations altogether.  Had we been aware of Speedrun Sam, we would have anticipated the approach and placed the water there to begin with.  Similarly, “Shoot First Shawn” would have guided us to put the enemy around the corner so his persona would not have missed the cool content that follows. 

Getting inside the different personas heads in this way can save time, heartache, and ultimately result in a better product.


Creating Personas

By now you may be wondering where personas come from.  Well, creating them ain’t exactly rocket science.  To begin, all you need is to answer the following:

  • Name – Be descriptive, creative, and/or alliterative.  Make them easy to remember.  Have fun here, but remain respectful. 

  • Age – Obviously, we’re talking about a range, but put a stake in the ground and pick a number.

  • Picture – Get on the web and find some fun pics that define your personas.

  • Motivations – Write a brief description about this individual.  How do they play games?  What interests do they have?  What are their strengths and weaknesses?  What are their shelf moments?  Keep it short, distinct, simple and memorable. 

Perhaps a few examples are in order.  I’ve taken the liberty of using a few that I’ve established over the years. 

Speedrun Sam, 19

Whether for bragging rights or just to get through the content as quickly as possible, Sam cuts corners, avoids text like syphilis and goes right for the jugular.  His main objective is to just get through the game. 

Narrative Nancy, 26

Nancy is in it for the story, the world and the mythology.  She gobbles up any tidbit about the game’s universe.  She likes to take her time, tends toward being a completionist, but isn’t necessarily interested in achievements/trophies.

Mind you, these examples are very broad. And they could use more detail.  As you get to know the personas you establish, you’ll want to flesh them out further.  You will also likely have a few personas that are very unique to your title, genre and company.  What about Daredevil Dave, Competitive Cathy or Tire-kicking Tim?  Find personas that work for the type of game you’re trying to build.  Get your team involved in creating them.  Participation = buy-in.

Leveraging Personas

Now that you have your personas, print them out.  Post them in the office.  Ask your colleagues what would Sniper Sally do here? 

As you build and get familiar with these personas, you may find yourself building a personal relationship with some.  You may find that Speedrun Sam gives you hives.  It’s important to keep personas in perspective though.   Even though Speedrun Sam is tearing through your content, the question that matters with personas is: are they having fun?  Remember, mach-9 is how Sam experiences most of if not all games.  As long as your game is meeting their expectations, you’re good.  Now if supporting speed runs is a key part of your design, then obviously you’d want to cater more to Sam. 

Keep in mind that personas are a tool.  Don’t allow yourself or your team to get bogged down in creating every possible persona.  Nor should you attempt to cater to every persona.  Unless, that’s your thing (I’m looking at you, Skyrim). 


Congrats!  You’re using personas!  Don’t leave it at that though.  Games change.  Audiences change.  So should your personas.  It’s up to your team to keep them updated.  As new titles are released, the collective interests of your audience shift.  When BioShock was first announced, mixing shooter with RPG was a concept that was mostly shoved into the niche corner.  A couple years after release and you were customizing sock stats in sports games. 

As you begin to put your game in front of testers, and you build up data on reception, return to your personas and tweak them.  In some cases, put them in cryo-sleep to revisit for another project.  The more you push to understand the audience, the less they’ll seem like that monolithic, insatiable obelisk. 

In the end, if you care about your player’s needs, they’ll care about your product.

About Bill

Bill spent over twelve years in various design roles at Irrational Games. On games like SWAT 4, BioShock and BioShock Infinite, he worked as Level Designer, Lead Designer, Design Director and User Experience Specialist. He's had his hand in all aspects of Irrational's award-winning design.  

Recently, he created Xperienced Points, a consulting company focused on enhancing games through services like expert reviews and usability testing, . He vows to take the mystery out of game reception.

Bill lives in the Boston area with his wife and two young boys.  When he’s not gaming with them, he’s busy pretending he’s going to invent something world-changing.



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