Monday, November 22, 2010

Ponies and Space Marines: Demographics and Design

In this article, writer and designer R.M. Sean B Jaffe reminds everyone that it's the designer's job to make a game fun, even if the game is about topics outside of the designer's comfort zone.

I have a powerful friend on the West Coast who asks his potential hires two questions. I’ll skip the first one since it’s irrelevant, but the second one is pretty straightforward:
“Let’s say we have a position open on My Little Pony Farmland Adventure. Would that interest you?”
As you may have guessed, the correct answer is yes. Because, as he puts it, "games are games."

While you may not have dreamed of that *exact* project when you were playing Final Fantasy or Doom back in the day and fantasizing about being a game designer, you should be aware that what sets apart a good designer is the ability to make almost anything fun. One of the most pervasive, successful, and well-known games of all time is about real estate and rent control in Atlantic City. I’ll let that sink in.

With the entire idea of games and game design turning on its ear, one of the great unspoken fears of a large element of the industry is the shift towards casual games and the demographics that come with that. The elephant in the room is that a lot of designers in the industry didn’t get into this biz to write for bored housewives, teenage girls or the elderly. They’re into goblins and lasers and space marines, and those are a hard sell for the above demographics, who seem much more into jewels, farms, and the aforementioned ponies. So, as a guy who got his start with vampires, antichrists and were-sharks, I’m writing this for you.

There was an adage in the tabletop industry where I got my start: write the *system* for the *game*. What this meant was that if you had a combat-heavy world like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, you didn’t spend days and days coming up with a perfect system for public speaking. Using that sort of logic, it makes a lot of sense to see what that people outside your comfort zone like about games, what makes them work, and what keeps them playing.

Recently I’ve heard a great deal of complaining about Farmville: “It’s not even really game!” “ You don’t *do* anything”, but not a lot of real assessment of what *does* makes it work. And while there are plenty of arguments to be made about Farmville, it can’t easily be argued that it doesn’t work.

Certain mechanics are popular with certain types of gamers: most FPS players have a fondness for “twitch” mechanics. These don’t go over so well with the casual crowd, who like a lot more time to make the decisions they are going to make. Small details like this are crucial in writing for specific demos, and it’s worthwhile for a designer to play every game they get their hands on, regardless of who it’s marketed to. That way, you get a feel for each demographic’s type of game, and can readily adapt to what a specific job might require.

When creating for any specific group, the most important thing to do is maintain a balance of what you may or may not know appeals to that group, and what you know as a designer is going to be the most fun. While Ponies and Space Marines all have their place, simple fun always has a broad appeal.

R.M. Sean B Jaffe is a writer and designer with a background in tabletop gaming and over ten years of experience in the industry working for companies like Griptonite, Vogster Entertainment, and White Wolf Game Studio. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey with his wife, his dog, and a fanatical devotion to old-school arcade games and tabletop RPGs. He is a bad enough dude to save the president, and for a reasonable fee, he can be convinced to rise from his grave and rescue your daughter.


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