What European developers need to know about American online gamers

Don Daglow's five-point plan to designing for a North American audience

Veteran games designer Don Daglow detailed key differences between European and American online games consumers at GDC Europe today, suggesting that developers need to flip their understanding of audiences if they want to see success in North America.

Speaking to a packed audience in Cologne, Daglow delivered a warm and witty assessment of his countrymen, gained during more than 40 years in the business of creating video games.

Firstly, he pointed out that American schools emphasise the student as a free thinker. Students do not fail in class. They are challenged and they are encouraged to learn from the experience, but the actual idea of failure has been dramatically reduced. Failure doesn't kick in until students reach the age of 17 and begin to apply for colleges and discover that rejection and failure is real and there's a steep impact from that. So American users see failure in a game or app as a problem with that game, not a user error. This is an issue for designers because traditionally failure is used as an inducement to succeed. So the solution for games designers is to break down the experience simply, minimise text and show the audience things rather then tell them. And reward success constantly, even in tutorials where there is only one button to press.

"American schools emphasise the student as a free thinker. Students do not fail in class"

The second point raised by Daglow is that users are 'turbo-browsing' the internet and their attention span is tiny. As an example he pointed out that commercials on TV used to be 60 seconds long, then they were reduced to 30 seconds, and now clicking on a YouTube video you'll be faced with a five second advert. With such an extremely tiny window to grab eyeball attention, anything frustrating will cause the player to switch off. Daglow also pointed to the console business, where once a player bought a game the designer would spend time slowly introducing them to the mechanics and story. In the online space this is all an obstacle and the first few hours need to be streamlined. This is where the games designer needs to think like George Lucas or a James Bond movie - grab the player's attention in the first ten minutes with a thrill ride. Whatever your expectations of the time it takes a player to warm to your game, cut it in half, said Daglow. And if you're coming directly from the console space, slash all you expectations by a factor of ten because the patience of American users is so much less.

The third point is that users crave to be individuals. In America people are taught to be an individual able to blaze their own path through life. Daglow observed that US coverage of the 2012 Olympics focused on individual sportsmen and women over the actual sporting event in which they competed. Discussion and montages of their performance was more valued than the act of competing. He described this as the lowest hanging fruit, and games should begin with avatar creation because American players are happy to begin paying for content to make them stand out, even in a game with 3 million users. Do that first and more revenues will follow.

"Americans know who Steve-O is but not Stalin"

The fourth point focused on the traditional queue. Before online stores, users would buy a game and then wait two or three years for a sequel or the next game from the same development team, happy to line up on release day. But now, with the success of app stores that offer thousands of games, it's the developer who's queuing up to reach a customer overwhelmed with content. Although designers have gained so many new routes to market, they need to grab the audience when they get the chance, treat the player as a celebrity and focus on that first impression.

The fifth and final point was that European designers need to understand that American history is not taught the same way. People know who Steve-O is but not Stalin, said Daglow, who illustrated his point with a six-point slide on the shallow history knowledge of his countrymen:

  • Romans Vs Barbarians.
  • Dark Ages, nothing happened.
  • Renaissance, then we got cars and planes.
  • Stuff was going on in China and Japan, too.
  • US got Independence, had Civil War over slavery.
  • Lots of big wars in the last century.

While the slide was humorous, the point was very real, said Daglow. If you're going to build a game based around history your best bet is to latch on to popular culture, so follow the success of shows based on Spartacus or the Tudors right now, he suggested.

Daglow's' summary was simple enough:

  • Craft the opening minutes to hold attention.
  • Use a simple, clear interface.
  • Minimise text: show, don't tell in tutorials.
  • The player is a celebrity, give them unique customisation.
  • Recognise that we're in the queue and the user is the master.
  • History rarely sells and is often unknown.

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Latest comments (21)

This was a great talk, had pathos, humour and carried across some salient points.
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Pier Castonguay Programmer 9 years ago
Please don't dumb down games even more, it's already bad enough like that.
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Paul Smith Dev 9 years ago
I think if at any point in a games development you ask your self "would the average player like this?" you should just back your bags and go home. Im sick to death of games these days with their crazy nanny hand holding Its just ridiculous now, its got to the point where you don't even need to think anymore. Any mission where you have to find/go something all you do is follow the on-screen display, I miss rewarding games.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Smith on 13th August 2012 4:12pm

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Show all comments (21)
Graeme Quantrill Mobile App Developer 9 years ago
But on the flip side, we have games like Dark Souls which is the polar opposite of many of the points here. There is no tutorial, it's got a tonne of text throughout the game. the difficulty vs reward factor is offset etc. And yet, Darksouls sold well. Other examples include say the MMO Eve Online with it's horrific learning curve and death/reward is black and white.

I do find it annoying that console games often give you an achievement for completing a tutorial. They might as well give you one for turning on your console.
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe9 years ago
Of those 6 summary points, #1 - #4 have always been long-standing components of good design, online or offline.

#5, "...we're in the queue and the user is the master" is common sense for modern online design, but certainly worth highlighting.

#6 History doesn't sell? Age of Empires Online and several other examples seem to have done good numbers in the US online space, so I'm not too sure about that one ...
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises9 years ago
What was this story all about? I read it for five maybe six seconds but became frustrated at the lack of rewards so far.
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Rory Madden Support Associate, DDM Agents9 years ago
Perhaps I am just a foolish American, but is this really stuff that won't resonate with the rest of the world? Aside from the bit about history, most of this stuff just seems like solid game design.
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Jason Sartor Copy editor/Videographer, Florida Today9 years ago
The read was interesting, and I agree with attention spans diminishing, but the broad generalization that American kids don't understand failure until 17 is an overreach.
We play sports, too and we keep track of the score and know exactly who won and who lost, as competition has been a hallmark of America from its founding - we're pretty damn good at it - we have a few successful individuals and a handful of successful businesses.
Also, we know who Stalin is. Hitler, too. Castro, yeah we've heard of him. Ignorance is not a border issue, but an individual issue. Demon's Souls and Dark Souls each sold exceptionally well in the States. And that game design is not a hand-holding walk in the park. It involves a lot of failure.
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Joe Robins Creative Team Artist, Unity Technologies ApS9 years ago
A very interesting and incredibly scary article :) One point I would have to disagree with is the talk of 'turbo-browsing' especially surmising that users have incredibly short attention spans with the reference to the 5 second youtube adverts. I'd argue that the majority of videos on YouTube the users are watching far exceed the 5 second mark and the 5 second advertisement is, if anything, more of a distraction/annoyance than the much longer content they intended to watch. I very much doubt that gamers in America watch adverts with avid interest and as a source of viable and reliable information.
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James Ingrams Writer 9 years ago
STALKER series sold 7 million units IN EUROPE. Gothic 1, 2 and 3 sold 6 2 million units,. Sacred 2.8 million units, EYE: Dark Cybermancy (indie game) 1.2 million units. Two Worlds 1 and 2, 6 million units, Divine Divinity series 5.6 million units.

EUROPEAN PC gamers don't need America, American PC gamers NEED Europe!.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Ingrams on 14th August 2012 12:36pm

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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
Graeme, giving an achievement for completing the tutorial mission is a perfectly reasonable idea if part of the purpose of achievements is to help people other than the player earning the achievement (such as other players or the game developer) to track player progress.

When I see a friend hasn't made the achievement for completing the first five (trivial) missions in Borderlands, I know that he hasn't even tried the game out, or was turned off within the first few minutes.

If you look at the Borderlands gameplay stats on Steam you'll note that less than 80% of the owners of the game actually got that far, which is an interesting statistic.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 14th August 2012 2:44am

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@ James - Daglow was providing insight with regards to online gaming, and how to appeal to North American audiences. Particularly, relevant when you look at the sea of products in a app store. How is one going to make your product stand out?

All in all, this talk had more impact in person. Mainly because daglow got the point across of how it was worth getting the current new expanded family of potential gamers through the proverbial front door (and these issues were less in the traditional core gamer)
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Roland Austinat roland austinat media productions|consulting, IDG, Computec, Spiegel Online9 years ago
@Rory & James: As someone from Europe who's lived for almost ten years total in the US: these are very astute observations and no generalizations at all. Everybody is a special snowflake here, schools are graduating students who'd have to repeat a year in other countries.

And ask yourself about this one: "Daglow observed that US coverage of the 2012 Olympics focused on individual sportsmen and women over the actual sporting event in which they competed." Back in Europe, they actually show the whole competition even if there is nobody from the specific country among the top three or medal contenders.
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John Young Interactive Software Developer 9 years ago
I had to look up who Steve-O was.
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Henry Durrant Programmer, SUMO Digital9 years ago
It might sell but it would be a pile of forgettable mulch. All the points raised might be true, but IMO they are problems to be fixed not pandered to. The suggestions are obvious enough that they apply to all audiences.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Henry Durrant on 14th August 2012 12:54pm

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Neil Alphonso Lead Designer, Splash Damage Ltd9 years ago
Lectures are often tailored to audiences. There are grains of knowledge swaddled in all the hyperbole.
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David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers9 years ago
Assassin's Creed and all of it's sales in the U.S. and elsewhere say 'hi'. It's not like most games are heavily historical to begin with, but to write it off right off the bat seems a little silly.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
Assassin's Creed is hardly "historical," except in the Dan Brown sense: i.e., utter rubbish. You might as well call the Uncharted series historical as well.

Americans love conspiracy theories, which is why AC does so well. (Personally, though I liked the game and loved the setting and the art, I had a bit of trouble stomaching the storyline.)
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David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers9 years ago
Of course Assassin's Creed isn't real history, but it has historical settings and is often based around real historical events, giving the conspiracy theories that form the backbone of the story some context and substance.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
If I'm understanding Daglow here and he's correct, that simply means that it's extra richness for the Europeans, while the Americans neither know nor care that there are real historical events in the game.

(Some of his dicta seem more like common sense for all games rather than anything to do with Americans, however. Are "Craft the opening minutes to hold attention" and "Use a simple, clear interface" really things we wouldn't work hard on even for just European audiences?)
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Robert Mac-Donald Game Designer, Lethe Games9 years ago
In my opinion the problem here is that we still just call everything "games".

In one hand you have a game about challenging the user, forcing him to get better at it and learn something from the experience. In the other hand you have a game about not making the user fail, not forcing him to get better nor learn anything. Just a laid back experience to get some passive fun.

We may call both just "games", but they have absolutely nothing in common other than the fact they are interactive software.
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