Pawn Takes Megabyte

One of the hot-topic questions asked in the hallowed halls of game design is “how to reach a bigger market.” This question actually comes in many different forms, sometimes referring to the female demographic (“the other 50 percent”), or just the broader potential market in general. Harmonix, developers of the hugely-successful Guitar Hero, referred to the game as “the other 90 percent” at this year’s Game Developer Conference. (As did Relentless Software’s David Amor.) The general sentiment is the same: There is a huge, untapped game-buying audience.

There are a lot of people in the world, and just about every single one of them is a game player. Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games argues that games are not a niche activity by nature, but rather a necessary cultural one. Somewhere along the way from tag to Final Fantasy, though, arises a stigma. To understand how the digital world might overcome its negative connotation, it helps to look at another medium that has: the modern German boardgame industry.

In North America, boardgames generally have fallen into one of three camps: family-friendly (Monopoly), party (Trivial Pursuit) or geeky (Talisman, Arkham Horror). Boardgames live an entirely different life in Germany.

Simply put, Germany is the world center of boardgaming. If you’ve heard of great games like The Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne or Bohnanza – two of which will be gracing your Xbox 360 by the time you’re reading this – you have Germany’s love for boardgames to thank.

The most important factor that contributes to the German game industry’s success is a simple one of demographics: boardgaming in Germany is not niche. Quite the opposite, it’s seen as a healthy, family-oriented activity suitable for after-dinner entertainment. And “family” means cross-generational; grandmas through granddaughters can all be expected to play in the same game.

While at first this doesn’t seem unusual – Monopoly is a family game, isn’t it? – the truth is the Germans are onto the Holy Grail of the videogame world. They make games appeal to a wide age group and a large assortment of mental faculties or attention spans. And more importantly from a revenue perspective, they have a consuming public trained to buy new titles every year instead of fixating on the aforementioned Monopoly and playing it to death for 30 years. Each year brings a whole new crop of games, flashily marketed with the premiere designers’ names (in fact, a common alias for these games is “Designer Games”) and capitalizing on existing franchises. It’s a direct parallel to videogames.

At German game shows, press and public flock to see new releases and purchase them – picture an E3 where you can buy the games you see demoed right away. The SPIEL game fest (aka “Essen”) regularly grosses crowds of over 100,000 people – 151,000 in 2006 ! Compare that to Gen Con , the largest specialty game convention in North America, which generally tops out around 25,000 . Now consider that Germany is a country with 27 percent of the population of the United States.

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Why is the German market is so successful at reaching a wide demographic? The answers lie in deconstructing the qualities that make up the most successful German-style games. It’s easy enough to spot a common thread in these amazing and amazingly-successful games.

  • High Production Values. Quality components and well-executed visuals contribute a pleasant aesthetic to the play experience. Wood pieces and heavy chipboard are common.
  • Session-based Play Times. With rare exception, games top out at about the 90-minute mark, the high end of what can be comfortably played after a nice dinner. “Appetizer” games in the 20-40 minute range are also an important part of any publisher’s catalogue.
  • Family-Friendly Themes. It’s not an issue of censorship; it’s an issue of marketing. The more risqué the subject, the less buyers there are.
  • Make Games, Not War. War is not a popular subject in Germany, and it’s one that is by-and-large absent from Euro-style games. Don’t confuse this for a lack of direct player competition, however.
  • Low Downtime. Downtime is clunky, and it engenders disinterest in the waiting (bored) players.
  • High Player Interaction. Playing against other humans is what keeps things fresh, unpredictable and challenging.
  • All Players Survive ’til the (Bitter) End. May the best player win, but may all players have fun.
  • Balanced Randomness. A skillful application of randomness is the key to making a game appeal to both experienced experts and rank beginners.
  • Mechanics over Theme. Innovation is a major factor; players won’t latch onto a game with ’70s, ’80s or even ’90s mechanics.

The common message here is to maximize inclusion. For each rule violated, the prospective marketplace is reduced. Make a game about war? You exclude those who don’t enjoy them. Increase play time? You exclude busy people. Vitally, the reverse is not true: If you make a family-friendly game, you won’t necessarily exclude the hardcore gamer who enjoys adult content, as long as the game is good. If you make a short game, you won’t scare away those with iron-butt potential for 36-hour World in Flames marathons. Don’t get me wrong; I love long, hardcore wargames, but if I want to reach the mainstream with my game, you can bet I will design it to be short and unobjectionable.

Take Home Lessons for Digital Designers and Gamers
If designers observe these nine tenets, their game will be awfully hard not to like. More specifically, it will have the potential to break into the mass market. Interestingly, a scattershot review of hugely successful digital games often shows a strong inclination toward many of these guidelines.

  • Myst. High production values. The graphics were stupendous enough to wow passersby and get them interested in playing, despite ponderous and unforgiving gameplay.
  • Counter-Strike. Emphasis on session-based play ensures low downtime and enormous amount of player interaction. Timed matches overcome the lack of “all players survive ’til the end.” It’s still a game for hardcore players, but it does boast some mainstream qualities.
  • Nintendogs. This game about has it all: high production values, session-based play, family friendliness, low downtime, high player interaction (dog trading) and interesting mechanics (DS touch-screen).
  • Bejeweled, Tetris, Sudoku. Jackpot! Session-based play, balanced randomness, mechanics over theme, family friendliness, make games not war, no downtime, innovative mechanics.

Bejeweled and company shine the brightest, unsurprisingly. If you look at the casual game industry as a whole, it’s obvious the products are the closest to getting things right. However, even the most successful of the casual games are generally missing a fairly large component: multiplayer (player interaction). If sweeping, friendly multiplayer modes make it into the casual market, the sky’s the limit. Bear in mind, though, the formula is not a guaranteed success. If everything went according to plan, Puzzle Pirates would have had 100 million people playing, right?

What does give me hope, though is if World of Warcraft can amass 8.5 million subscribers, think of what a truly mass market-friendly game can do. Multiplayer Sudoku-Bej-Tetris, I love you.

Tyler Sigman is a consulting game designer and writer who loves paper and digital equally. He was the lead designer on Age of Empires: The Age of Kings for Nintendo DS. Reach him at [email protected].

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