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Thousands of Onetime Players, or Hundreds of Diehard Players?

A game for everyone ends up being a game for no one. Are you designing your game to be for experts in your genre, or beginners?

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

Photo: Swamibu

Are you making your game to be enjoyed by novice players, or expert players?

There is a concept in media, film, books, and television, of customer expertise.  Customers or people who consume different kinds of media are experts in different areas.  Someone who is an expert in sports would spend all day watching ESPN, while someone who is a novice in sports would be fine skimming the sports section of the newspaper or hearing the evening news.  Someone who is an expert in history would read academic journals and book reviews, while a novice would read Wikipedia.

Games also have their experts and their novices.  Some people have beaten Goldeneye 007 on the hardest difficulty, others have never  walked across a single map in Halo.  Some people have earned Knights of the Round, the most powerful summon in Final Fantasy VII, while others have only played a few games of simple Facebook RPG’s.  Some people have accomplished endless achievements in games, others scarcely play games on anything but their lightweight netbook.

People are different from one another, that’s one of the things that makes ours such an interesting world to live in.  Everyone has their interests, their passions, and their boredoms.  Everyone is an expert in something, and everyone is a novice in something else.

In games, smart designers have an obligation to consider their audience and their players.  And in crafting a game title, who you are making the game for affects everything.

Two Kinds of Players

Starcraft II, the decade-long development child of legendary game studio Blizzard, is a game for experts.  The title is not type of game that someone is likely to just pick up and play for a few minutes; on the contrary, it is one of the most demanding and hardcore titles out there.  If someone says, “I play Starcraft II”, then they probably don’t mean, “I’ve played it once or twice.”  They probably mean, “I play it every day for several hours”.  Starcraft II players are typically involved in tournaments, in leagues, in online communities discussing the strategy of the game.  It is a game that demands dedication, and its players, hungry for the experience, are happy to give it.

These players are experts in games and in Real-Time Strategy.  They understand the genre deeply, they see things that other people, even other gamers, can’t see.  They can appreciate the nuance between the three races, and the care and delicacy that went into tuning every number in the game.  From the build times to the building costs, damage and movement speed, they appreciate Starcraft II for the work of art that it is.  Where novices may see just a game, these experts see beauty and perfection.

But the Starcraft series, though it has been very successful, has a relatively limited audience.  Although it has millions of players worldwide, it can’t compete with other games that boast tens of millions of players, one example being our good friend, Wii Sports.

Officially the best selling console title of all time (by being packaged along with the Wii), Wii Sports is not just for the experts who play Starcraft; Wii Sports is for everyone.  When someone says, “I play Wii Sports,” that doesn’t really tell you much of anything about that person because the audience is so broad.  They might have played Wii Sports once at a frat party.  They may have a Wii and play it with friends or family every Christmas.  Or they may be going after the medals and trophies and played it ever day for a few weeks or so before quitting.

People who play Wii Sports aren’t sports fanatics.  They often aren’t even game fanatics or really fanatic about anything having to do with Wii Sports.  But that’s fine because they are novices, and Wii Sports is a game made for novices.  It is accessible to them, allowing them to pick up and play for a couple minutes and then move on.  No hour long playsessions.  No final bosses or competitive online tournaments.  And because of this, the number of these types of players who are out there are much larger.

As you can see, there is a strong contrast between these two different groups of players.  One of the groups is full of  experts in the game they play, while the other group is full of  novices who simply lightly enjoy the game they play.  These are two distinct types of players and two distinct types of markets.

The Playerbase Pyramid

This kind of breakdown doesn’t just exist for Starcraft II and Wii Sports, of course.  It exists across all games and all genres, on every platform and every team size and budget.  The core Dragon Quest games were made for experts, while Dragon Quest Swords was made for someone who hasn’t played RPG’s before.  The weapons system is simplified, the character dialog is short.  The player doesn’t even have freedom of moment; they are confined to a rail based system where they can only move forward or backwards.

Why did the developers of the game do this?  Why would they seemingly dumb down the gameplay to the point where it seems boring and pointless?  Because to someone who has never played RPG’s before, to a novice, it isnot boring and pointless.  In fact, it is the exact right amount of complexity and entertainment.  ”You go to a town and purchase equipment that makes your defense better?  What a neat idea!” says the novice.  ”What, there’s no limit break or class system?  This is so boring!” says the expert.

One argument that I seem to have over and over again is that all experts were once novices themselves.  While they often seem to forget, there was once a time when an expert in RPG’s who can tell you how to min-max every Square Enix game that’s ever been created also didn’t know what HP stood for.  Dragon Quest Swords effectively creates the same experience that the original Dragon Quest created.  There was a time when the now-experts who played the original game twenty years ago, as novices, knew nothing about their subject matter.  And so while it will take more entertain them and appear as a new idea, it doesn’t take much at all to instill the same Interest, one of the 5 Degrees of Fun, in the novice.

And this is how experts are made.  Starting off with a simple concept, and the building on it one by one over the years.

One or the Other, not Both

Potential game audiences are like the pyramid pictured at the beginning of this article.  At the top of the pyramid are expert players, players who deeply and instantly understand the depth of the titles they are enjoying.  But there are far fewer of them.  At the bottom are the novice players, who don’t think deeply about the game they’re playing, who may be overwhelmed with sequels and add ons or complicated systems that require prerequisite knowledge.  Games can be made for millions of novices or thousands of experts.  Experts will be able to dissect and understand the intricate essence of a craft.  They will be able to master and appreciate it.  But there are far fewer than the novices who will not be able to appreciate complicated genres and games.

If the newer games cater only to the experts, then the novices are shut out.  It’s too much to learn at once and so they give up and disregard it.  Are they simple minded?  Not at all, they are just at a different stage in their development on that subject matter, a stage that the expert passed through long ago, but still passed through nonetheless.  With Starcraft II there are several million hardcore gamers who are completely obsessed with their game.  They love it and they live it, and they want more and more and are willing to pay up to get it.  The likely own a specialized gaming PC.  They probably own other game consoles.  They are experts.  And at the bottom of this pyramid you have players like those who play Wii Sports.

As with many other game design decisions that we’ve covered in other articles, I don’t believe that there is any kind of moral baggage that goes along with this choice.  That is to say, going after either type of player is neither inherently good nor bad.  It’s a choice, a choice that will have consequences for the design and development of the game, of its reception, and of its success, however the developer decides to measure that.

It takes time to turn a novice into an expert.  Which stage along that path will your game take?

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

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