Game Design and The Fallacy of Focus Testing

Let's face it. You don't know what people are going to like, what fad trend they're going to follow next, or what makes a killer idea that people are going to pick up in droves.

The trick is, to be honest, neither do those people. They think they do - and they'll tell you what they want to see - but it doesn't necessarily actually match what they'll really buy. Or what the masses will latch onto.

This is why focus testing is a little on the dangerous side. Peoples' preferences tend to be a totally subconscious thing - read Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink! for more on this. In fact (as you'll find out if you read the book), if someone is asked to explain their decisions, typically it can cause them to rationalize with random reasons, or just generally feel uncomfortable.

So, I ask you, why settle for watered down ideas that have been strained through a focus testing filter? Strong memes catch attention, and attention sells by itself - it's the buzz that people talk about. Provided that the execution on the meme is good enough to sustain the concept, and the vision is strong and doesn't get too diluted by committee or targeted and demographically focus tested to death (see: any of the Tycoon games, pretty much anygame that Microsoft made for the PC between 1995 and 2004), it'll typically come through the process well, and you'll end up with a strong game, with unique vision, that will capture the imagination.

It's one of the reasons why I'm wary of focus testing. People will buy games that they discover are fun to play (this is why demos are important), that their friends like to play (the power of personal recommendation), and that they're told to play by others (reviews). Focus testing short circuits this kind of community driven network by taking a bunch of people at random and saying "hey, so, do you think this looks good" - without the rest of the feedback mechanism in place. You can't play a focus test concept. Your friends can't advise you. You're left with nothing to go on but your prior experience - and anything that reminds you of the fun you've had in the past will get a big thumbs up. Anything unfamiliar or too complicated to understand within that limited framework of a paper description is likely to get a big thumbs down.

Not that this information isn't useful, but it's something to be taken with a little salt.

You see, you've not actually tested the game idea. You've tested their memories and preconceptions about what a fun game will be - which means they'll be wracking their brains for all the fun little moments they had in the most recent games they got sucked into. If you listen too hard, you'll just end with a watered down pastiche of the current AAA games on the market - and by doing so, you risk become yet another also-ran that doesn't actually nail what they did. Think of it as either Xeroxing the market leaders (never a good way to break out) or as cargo-cult game design.

Ask yourself: Are you making this game to stand out and sell, or is it for you own personal sense of achievement?"

The right answer, of course, is both. The thing is, it's better to make the game for yourself. Who cares if anyone else wants to buy it? It'll be fun, it'll have a strong vision, and it'll be incredibly unique.

Too unique for your audience? Will it not click with them?

Most people aren't - contrary to popular belief - unique and beautiful snowflakes. Something that a quick search on the internet for any idea you can come up with will tell you is that there are lots of people out there who think just like you. We're a product of our environments, and as much as we creative people hate to believe it, everything has been done before, every idea has been already had, and every story has already been told. There will be other people out there that the idea appeals to, because the very firmament you're dragging it from is the popular culture around you. The group mind, if you will. The only difference is, you're going to write and finish your game - and a million other people won't even get as far as putting chicken scratch on paper.

(In fact, the only person I can think of who contravenes this on a regular basis is Charlie Kaufmann - whose film ideas are so rich, unique and groundbreaking, that I'm not entirely sure he's human. I'm willing to put money on it that he's from the planet Glarg, and somehow through parallel evolution, they have a language just like English for him to write in. I still love his work, and I'd love to shake him by the pseudopod and thank him for it).

The way that ideas flow is important. Strong ideas first grab people they directly appeal to, then ripple outward. Or they terminate and die away, because the strong idea is too incongruous for others to take on board. The trick is to soften the idea just enough that people who aren't uniquely interested in them have enough to hold onto so that it can ripple to them, instead of just the specialist early adopters.

Soft ideas on the other hand (targeted at the broad spectrum of gamer) generally don't develop as much momentum - they end up relying almost solely on publicity, marketing, sales tricks and community memory. An example of this today would be GTA4- it's a soft idea. It's old hat. Its pretty much all been done. There's nothing new there. It's evolutionary, not revolutionary in nature. But when you see the advert for it, the community memory says "go buy this game - you'll enjoy it - you did last time!" ... and you might try other games as well that are similar in the hope of recreating that experience.

Either way can work and can sell in large numbers, but unless you're leveraging a franchise, it doesn't hurt to have a concept that makes people stand up and notice from the get go - whether executed through story, innovative gameplay, addictive gameplay, or whatever. Heck, if you want to, go ahead and pull a Hot Coffee, and use shock value and generate your buzz that way. Its worked for talk radio DJs for years.

Besides, why put so much energy into creating something you're not passionate about?

If you're going to spend years of your life creating something, then maybe tailoring it to the whims of an ultimately fickle audience is not the best thing to do. You'll do just as well - perhaps even better - if you just trust your instincts, and create the game you want to make. Because, guess what folks? You're one of them. You're not creating a tool or a machine that people unlike you will have to use - you're creating a space in which people can play. And people learn to play before they get bogged down in any of the rest of this crap. We're all the same when we're running around in our Superman underroos.

I've always said that art without an audience is masturbation - but that doesn't mean you have to cater directly to that audience and give them fast food. Go gourmet instead.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

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