Diversifying your audience

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We ask studios what steps could be taken to appeal to a broader audience when developing a game.

You've got your story. You've got your key art. Programming is going to schedule, and fans are responding well to the sneaky peeks you've been dropping on social media. But now that you've established a modest, passionate community, how do you expand it? What pragmatic measures can development studios - big and small - take to ensure their games appeal to as broad an audience as possible?

We’ve covered how to diversify your team and your leadership. We’ve covered representation in games. Now we’re asking developers to give us their thoughts on how best game makers can broaden the appeal of their products and maximise both their player bases and their profits.

Michaël Peiffert

The most important question you may need to ask yourself is – according to Michaël Peiffert, founder, CEO, and creative director at Mi-Clos Studio - often the most overlooked one: do you know what your game is about?

When he started working on his award-winning space exploration game Out There eleven years ago, Peiffert did "almost everything" himself - designing, coding, and creating all the artwork - before collaborating with his friend, the interactive fiction author FibreTigre.

Now a decade on from that launch - and a dozen employees later - Peiffert says this key question is perhaps the simplest.

"If you can’t communicate clearly about your game, it’s going to be difficult to convince people they should be interested in your project,” he says.

However, even when you do know what your game is about, sometimes the fans themselves may take on an entirely different perspective.

Charlotte Sutherland

For Charlotte Sutherland - who has previously worked at Sumo Digital, TT Games, EA, and Rare before establishing her indie studio, Cave Monsters - shows and expos have been invaluable. Taking her upcoming title directly to the public has revealed more about her prospective players than expected, including a different kind of audience than she'd originally anticipated.

"Although Lord Winklebottom Investigates isn’t released yet, I have taken demo versions of it to a number of shows, which gave me a good opportunity to gauge the interest in it from a wide range of players," Sutherland explains. "When I started development, I really only expected it to appeal to the core point-and-click adventure game-playing audience, so it was interesting to find that it also worked well as a family game."

She suspects that despite its text-heavy puzzling, its hand-painted animals are appealing to children, who then call on their parents for help. From there, it seems parents become smitten, too.

"Playing the game became a collaborative effort with the children and their parents, in a way I didn’t expect at all," she adds. And while she acknowledges that in a post-pandemic world it's harder than ever to get games in front of curious and open-minded players, the best thing she's ever done is take her new game to shows and "watch who plays it."

"Why are they drawn to play the game in the first place? And when they do play it, do they enjoy it?" Sutherland asks. "It’s a really great way to find audiences that you might not have expected, which gives you an opportunity to reach those players later on."

Mi-Clos Studio knows that its target audience is a mature one and specifically caters to it, but it's always "had the will" to open up its products to a wider community and has focussed on improved user research as well as accessibility to "gain an even broader demographic".

Part of this insight comes from player profiles, which all developers should have a rudimentary understanding of, Peiffert says - not least because understanding how some player groups interact with games may provide "useful hints on how to tweak your games to reach a new type of player."  

"Keep in mind that all aspects of the game can attract new players," he reminds us. "People respond differently to every component whether it is its artistic direction, sound design, gameplay mechanics, level design. 

"Like in every other form of art, there are trends in video games. A good way to diversify your audience is to study them and identify what would speak to your target audience. It is vital that you accompany players in their journey to discover, understand, and learn your game’s mechanics, logic, and purpose."

But how does a studio avoid typecasting and pigeonholing its games and its reputation? The key, Peiffert thinks, is to do your homework ahead of time, and anticipate "as much as possible,” agreeing with Sutherland that demos and streams are key to effective messaging early on, as well as "carefully made" screenshots and trailers.

"Streams, demos, alphas, and betas are a great way to present an overview of the game but to prevent any form of pigeonholing, communication is key," he advises. "Be sure to address any question the community may have, take part in interviews about your game, let your team introduce the game's features and interact with players."

Press is an important factor, too, particularly in the specialist press when different outlets may target vastly different demographics. 

"Knowing your target audience and knowing what press they are interested in allows you to better advertise your content," Peiffert says, before adding: "Picking the wrong press to communicate on a game is also a way to restrict a game’s appeal."

That said, he accepts that some "pigeonholing is inevitable". 

"Therefore, you have to be prepared: the first communication of your game sets the precedent and is therefore crucial to get right," he advises. "Aesthetics play a big part in the way players perceive an unreleased game."

Sutherland also thinks that effective and eye-catching key art is important, too. While she doesn't believe there’s a great deal developers can do to make a game appeal beyond its main target audience, the theme and style of a game has to reflect the kind of audience you're hoping to attract - especially if your plan is to entice a different demographic than you did with your prior projects. 

"It’s important to have the visuals be appealing to the kind of audience you’re building the game for," Sutherland suggests. "An unappealing style or piece of key art will immediately limit the engagement you get, and if you can’t get people to even click on a store link or open a trailer, it doesn’t really matter what else you do. 

"That said, I think it’s important to be honest. A well-produced piece of key artwork might get people to your store page, but if the rest of the game is in an entirely different style, it’s still unlikely to convert to sales."

Peiffert agrees, adding it's keen not to betray the "strong sense of loyalty" built up with its community over the years. 

"Most of the players who loved Out There are still with us, waiting for the next entry in the series almost ten years later," he concludes. "It is also very surprising and flattering to see that most people who apply to work with us are hardcore fans of our games."

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