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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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Matt Martin


Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.