Whose Game is it Anyway?

Graham McAllister finds that too many devs don't know who they're designing for

Who is your game for? This might seem like a trivial question, something which any developer should be able to answer clearly and concisely, yet it's common for responses to use broad terms or involve a large degree of guesswork.

This seems at odds with the very essence of design. After all, design is not just about creating a product, it's about creating a product for an intended audience. The reason why design paradigms involve a feedback loop is so key assumptions are regularly validated against a well-defined set of users, but if you haven't defined your intended audience accurately and you're validating against the wrong players, are you really evaluating your game's design at all?

Problems in Defining the Gaming Audience

When products fail to live up to their promises, one of the top reasons is due to designers not having an informed understanding of their intended audience. The games industry has its own vocabulary for defining player types, and with the rise in prominence of mobile gaming as a platform and free-to-play as a business model, the scope of the potential gaming audience has vastly increased. This expanded audience also brought us new definitions to help describe them. Some terms were related to the player's ability, free time, or experience (core, mid-core and casual) whilst others were related to how they spend money in the game (whales, dolphins and minnows).

"The commonly used terms of casual, mid-core and core are at best vague, but perhaps they make some developers feel better"

The terms relating to a player's willingness to spend are reasonably well defined and understood, but terms describing players' abilities, interests and preferences are typically poorly understood and agreed upon. The commonly used terms of casual, mid-core and core are at best vague, but perhaps they make some developers feel better as they have at least some label against the players they think they're making the game for. In most likelihood however, this lack of specificity is having a negative impact on the game: these definitions don't help inform design decisions as there's no underlying information about the player. Also, these terms are often interpreted as a skill ranking - casual players have less skill than core gamers. However this rather simplistic interpretation doesn't explain why gamers can fit into all three categories. Some gamers may play Dark Souls 2 and also Candy Crush. Their disposition to play any given game will be affected by factors other than just skill.

This has led some developers to state that their game is for everyone, especially if they think their game is for the casual end of the spectrum. Yet there are games which have received universal critical praise, but will fail to capture the interest of many gamers. These games are clearly not poorly designed or executed, but rather, they're simply not for all types of player. So although everyone could play your game, it doesn't mean that everyone is interested in playing your game. The label 'everyone' then, is also not helpful for making better design decisions.

Making Better Design Decisions

"how can a design decision which affects the player experience be made without an understanding of who the game is for?"

Designing the best possible game depends on making the best possible design decisions. But how can a design decision which affects the player experience be made without an understanding of who the game is for? To address this, the first step in most design paradigms is concerned with understanding the users' needs, and in the software industry one design tool for understanding users has demonstrated success over the last 20 years. That design tool is called personas.


Pioneering software designer and programmer Alan Cooper always strived to make the applications he created easy to use. He was aware that, as a designer and programmer, he was responsible for creating software which others found confusing and difficult to use. The standard approach to making software at the time (the early '80s) was mainly focused on the engineering, and he realised that unless the way software was developed also factored in the needs of the user, then it was less likely to be successful. Challenging the established software development approach, he decided to put the needs of the user first, and before design of his software would begin, he would spend time interviewing the users who would end up using his applications.

He would take the rich detailed information that emerged from his interviews and cluster them into groups of users who had similar values. So although he may have interviewed a reasonably large group of users, there may only have been a few distinct types of users. He referred to each of these types as a persona.

Personas for Improving Design Decisions

As these personas were derived from real users, Cooper found that using the captured information as a practical design tool helped him improve design decisions. Having a wealth of specific information at hand, such as what features users need, why they want them, how to present that information, difficulties they may experience, attitudes, reservations etc, along with whatever else the interview covered, reduced the level of guesswork involved in determining the best design decision. As several personas would be created, he would evaluate his potential design decisions against each persona, before making a final decision which best reflected the real values of his target audience.

Personas for Improving Communication

Evidence-based decision making not only helps the designers have confidence that the right choices are being made, it helps the whole team. Debates can often arise during development when one person's opinion is contradictory to another's, and without any evidence, a resolution may be difficult to agree upon. Being able to show evidence behind a decision allows teams to see how the design has arrived at this point, query any uncertainty, and move forward knowing that this is the best information they have at this moment (decisions will be validated during playtesting, of course).

"Evidence-based decision making not only helps the designers have confidence that the right choices are being made, it helps the whole team"

Personas are also useful for distancing new ideas from being attributed to a particular designer. If a new game concept or feature is to be discussed, it can be presented as if one of the personas would benefit from it. Taking this approach helps justify to the team why the new feature is needed. "Hey, our primary persona, Tara, has little free time and finds the initial barrier at the start of each game to be a hindrance, couldn't we get her into our game quicker if we automatically created a character for her?"

There are also many other additional communication benefits such as explicitly agreeing on who the game is for, which can be particularly useful if the development team is spread across multiple locations. It's also useful when communicating to those outside of the actual development, such as marketing, publishers or investors. And not least of all, it stops designers designing for themselves. Pinning your personas up around the studio is a useful way to allow them to become ingrained within the team and used in all design decisions.

Personas are Data-driven

Creating your own personas is relatively straightforward to do, but can be time consuming. It's important to stress that personas must be derived from real data, not simply fictional users which you have made up.

"It's also useful to observe players playing games which may be similar to the one you are creating. Are they playing it in the way you expected? If not, find out why"

There are a few approaches you can take to defining your own personas, and you may use more than one approach. The primary method for collecting data is interviewing users, this provides the richest data of all as it allows follow-up questions to be asked until a useful response is given. This can be supported by analytics data if available, it's possible that in some cases analytics even provided you with approximate persona types to start from. It's also useful to observe players playing games which may be similar to the one you are creating. Are they playing it in the way you expected? If not, find out why.

Other sources could include an analysis of game reviews or survey data, but the data won't be as detailed, and without the ability to ask follow-up questions you might not get to the real underlying causes of responses. For example, if you are making a F2P game you may decide to interview users who are new to the genre, those who are new to the IP, those familiar with the IP, and those who have never made an in-app purchase before. You may also decide to interview users who are not likely to enjoy your game (for whatever reason), as having an understanding of what puts them off creates opportunities for expanding your potential audience.

Extreme Personas And Inclusive Design

Still convinced your game is for everyone? Try adding several personas which push your assumptions to the edge. What if the player hasn't ever played a video game or held a controller, would they be able to play? What if your players are blind, or deaf, or can only provide input via a single button, is your game still playable? This concept is referred to as extreme personas, and can help assess the accessibility and inclusive design of your game. Although this may sound extreme, it may help you challenge many of the assumptions that you have made.

Design Validation Through Playtesting

Playtesting is about closing the design loop and evaluating how well your design decisions were made by observing real players interact with your game. Once a version of your game is ready to play, you need to recruit players to assess if your game is being played the way you intended. This is an additional benefit of personas, it allows you to accurately specify who should be recruited to playtest your game rather than simply relying on finding anyone to play your game. If you're allowing players to playtest your game who do not match your personas, then which design decisions are you validating?

"Playtesting is about closing the design loop and evaluating how well your design decisions were made by observing real players interact with your game"

As a result of the playtest, you will have evidence to support whether your design decisions were correct or not. Perhaps two of your three persona types recruited are experiencing your game as intended, however the third is having issues. At this point you can decide whether to address the issues so that this persona type could also enjoy the game, or perhaps your game will never appeal to this player type and the persona type is now invalid and should be dropped. Either way, you should have evidence to support that decision.

Personas, Design, and Success

Personas in software development have been a successful design tool for over 20 years and will almost certainly help your game too. Not only do they help you make better design decisions, they help the entire team align on who the game is for. They may also reduce your budget, if you are spending on user acquisition and don't know which users to target, then you may be paying for users which will probably never show you a return on investment. Having evidence for who is more likely to enjoy, and pay for, your game is an activity well worth engaging in.

There's no excuse for guessing who your players will be, and why they will love your game. Having evidence about who your audience are is not just for marketing and user acquisition, it's also about making better choices in game design, reducing development time and risk, and delivering a better player experience.

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Latest comments (14)

Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios2 years ago
thanks for the tips, Graham, how many video games have you designed, built and shipped?
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
I think it's very dangerous to make a game that's focussed that narrowly on a specific type of person. You will get a broad answer from most developers because a broad target makes the most sense, not because they're clueless.

Our Combat Monsters game is targetted at "people who liked magic the gathering but wanted a bit more". The people fitting in to that are as diverse as people get. If it turns out that "white males aged 36 with a slight limp who vote Labour" are dominant, how would we focus more on that anyway and why exclude others for it?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 10th March 2015 8:41am

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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend2 years ago
Exactly. How about make the game for yourself? That is usually a good place to start if you love video games.

I hate the "make round peg to fit in round hole" kind of design when it comes to games. I would argue most shite cookie cutter trash from AAA studios these days are all because they try to fit a market.

Creativity has nothing to do with conformity, period.
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Show all comments (14)
This kind of design, while useful if used correctly, is pretty alien to games making generally, barring the few moneyed studios that can (a) afford it and/or (b) don't trust their designers enough. And lines like this "There's no excuse for guessing who your players will be, and why they will love your game." is simply ahistoric and seems to be talking about some other medium completely. Yes some games use research like this, no its not the norm by any stretch.

Otoh its no surprised if devs aren't moved by this stuff as we're not necessarily the intended audience. These kinds of words are generally written for money chaps and execs to make them feel better about investment. Though of course in mobile gaming it's prolly more widespread, as any old research and/or collection of data is routinely thrown in the pot as legit.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Barry Meade on 10th March 2015 11:36am

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 2 years ago
You never make art for your audience.

You make art for yourself. Why? Because you aren't second-guessing. When you try to second-guess you'll fumble.

When you make it forr yourself, it's a labour of love and that comes across. THAT is what wins the audience.

(C'mon, you should know this... This is Art 101.... Have they stopped teaching this?)

Now, admittedly, you should playtest... For sure... But only to see if the audience is "getting" what you are trying to deliver to them. Still: the experience you're making is one you want to make for them.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 10th March 2015 6:28pm

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Renaud Charpentier Game Director, The Creative Assembly2 years ago
May I add "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice... in practice, there is".
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Jason Avent VP, Studio Head, NaturalMotion2 years ago
I'm surprised by the negative comments here. Personas sounds like a useful tool. It's not an alternative to gut feel or market knowledge. It's just another lens to look at your games design through.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend2 years ago
I suppose it is mainly down to the fact designers don't want tools that limit how they come up with game ideas, no matter how useful they appear to be. Its not that the tools are not useful for some people, but most designers don't want to follow the 'optimal design pattern derived from targeted metric data', or some boring line like that. They just want to make awesome games.
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Andrew Ihegbu Studying Bsc Commercial Music, University of Westminster2 years ago
I would say it's probably interesting to see who likes what, but at the same time I really don't see (outside of CoD and the casual AAA market) any real correlation between gamers day to day habits and the games they play. I mean, I'm a 18-24 year old black male in the UK that plays lots of PC strategy games, story driven RPGs (hate most JRPG though), and a small amount of F2P FPS. I prefer the gameplay of Garry's Mod to Mass Effect, would never play Minecraft without modding it to the gills, and games like NBA 2k15, FIFA and Madden which I know various stereotype would suggest I would love is completely lost on me, yet I love Halo purely for storyline reasons.

Please, by all means, break my existence down to a bunch of numbers and find the stereotypes I fit into that will help you to tailor the perfect game for me, but don't mind me being a skeptic about that being possible whilst you do it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andrew Ihegbu on 10th March 2015 9:30pm

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Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop2 years ago
I get the impression people have got very confused about what a "persona" is, maybe even just skim-read the article. It's not a caricature or stereotype. It's not something to dogmatically beat designers with until your game is "by committee". Making a persona with "a slight limp" is pretty useless too (unless you're making a Kinect game, maybe?)

Realising that your players mostly only have time for short sessions during the week but like unwinding with an hour long session at the weekend - that's something that will help you design a game that satisfies your audience.
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Like most people commenting, I too have a feeling that the article is very general and not that well suited for game design.

Would be nice to hear how do you define your target audience (or don't) as that is something we have had many discussions in our dev team.
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"Realising that your players mostly only have time for short sessions during the week but like unwinding with an hour long session at the weekend - that's something that will help you design a game that satisfies your audience."

For sure. Catering to non-leet players, revealing your plot at a good pace, a sensible UI, easy progression and feedback, all these points are valid, but they are also very near to common sense if you're a game maker. Moneyball was a great movie for showing how intelligent parsing of data can raise chances of success, but in videogames and creative media generally, intuiting your way around most of these questions is not rocket science either if you've been exposed to a lot of good work in the past.

At a guess, I think user data matters more the further away you are from making a game 'for yourself' or in your own tastes. If you're making a casual game that has to appeal to 100 million players whom you don't know, personal intuition cuts less and less deep and data can be a real help. So I don't know that anybody has an issue with it per se, it's just a bit miffing to have someone professional suggest in print, yet again, that if we're not making games using this kind of data, we're irresponsible yahoos. The author here is quantifying & selling what many devs do without paying for it. He just can't seem to believe we can.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee2 years ago
Archetypes and use cases? There's good information in this post though, always nice to consider a range of approaches to making great content for your audience.
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James Marsden Managing Director, FuturLab2 years ago
Designer gets uppity when given advice they believe they don't need. We designers are such an egotistical bunch.

A lot of what Graham talks about is common sense to *excellent* game designers, but on balance there aren't that many of those around are there, judging by the ocean of crap one has to sift through to find quality.

If using Personas can help the less gifted designers among us look more objectively at our games, then that's surely a good thing.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Marsden on 11th March 2015 6:02pm

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