December 5, 2013

A Designer’s Perspective on Audience Feedback

When at BGGCON I was discussing game design with a friend and fellow game designer. He asked me what the biggest lesson was that I learned in the process of getting Hegemonic designed and published. I don’t think I had a very good answer to that question at the tip of my tongue. I believe I muttered something incoherent about streamlining mechanics or some other gibberish. I wasn’t satisfied with whatever it was I said, and I’ve been mulling over what I should have said ever since.

After a week or so, I’ve come up with the following answer, which is a little more insightful:

Realize that your game can’t be everything for everyone - even within the intended audience.

Maybe that’s obvious, but one of the central challenges, I believe, for game designers is knowing who your “intended” audience is and knowing what you can (or can’t!) deliver to that audience. We all have different preferences, desires, and tolerances for the various attributes and qualities that differentiate games. This ranges from the amount of luck in a game, or the amount of politicking the game calls for, or the levels of abstraction involved in the mechanics and theme.

Hegemonic is newly released, and there is already a fair amount of a feedback rolling in - mostly positive and a little negative (as expected). As a designer, it is important to recognize that for many people, your game just isn’t going to work for them - they don’t like theme of space empire games, it’s too long, too thinky, whatever the reason is - and that’s fine as they are probably outside your intended audience.

However, a more subtle obstacle for Hegemonic is that it departs from the party line and common 4X genre expectations. It’s not trying to recreate TI3 or Eclipse with similar-but-different mechanics, but rather comes at the 4X space empire genre from a totally different direction - namely one that strives to capture the grandeur and sweeping movements of empires as they grow, shift, and intertwine across “an entire galaxy” over a “very long time scale.” I often tell people I imagine each game round lasting 1000 years to put it into perspective.

So I think a number of 4X-genre fans are going to jump into Hegemonic and it isn’t going to jive with their expectations or assumptions. Hopefully, those people will take a moment of reflection to ask themselves whether that’s okay and then give the game a second look armed with a better understanding of the game’s goals and how its trying to differentiate itself. If not, those people may come to the conclusion it just isn’t for them; and that’s okay too.

But ultimately this goes back to the big lesson, albeit with even more nuance. Even if you have an intended audience, recognize that you game has to be processed in terms of expectations and presented in such a way that people know what they are (or aren’t) getting into. Even more curious have been people who specifically DON’T like 4X space empire games nevertheless being quite enamoured and interested in Hegemonic because the different gameplay approach/goals resonates with a slightly different group of gamer interests (mainly more complex eurogamers less interested in the theme and more in the gameplay). Hegemonic IS really a hybrid in this sense, as it straddles the thematic 4X space empire arena and the conflict-heavy eurogamer one - but we need to recognize that there are members of those two groups that the game isn’t going to work for.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to watch the feedback and comments trickle in and see how a given aspect of the game (e.g. how conflicts are calculated) might be lauded by one person as elegant and exciting and critiqued by another as cumbersome and dull. One commentator loved the openness of the design, likening it to Go with its huge open decision space (an inspiration for the game); while others found the vastness of the decision space directionless and overwhelming. Others are really thrilled by the more genuine and dynamic politicizing and negotiation that the game thrives under, while others aren’t looking for that experience and so the game comes up a little flat without it. Again, these all hinge on our individual desires, tolerances, and expectations.

To rattle on a bit more about specifics, some people find the focus on area control, as the primary scoring driver, to diminish the game’s impact as a “4X eXperience” yet others have found it a breath of fresh air in the genre. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m often irked with 4X games’ (and other genres) focus on “what” you are doing, and rewarding points/VP’s just for doing things, instead of focusing on “why” and having that be a driver for the gameplay. In other 4X games, you are rewarded VP’s for fighting, for tech’ing up, for being diplomatic, for exploring, etc. In Hegemonic, all those actions are a means to an end for controlling the galaxy; different tools in the toolbox of galactic hegemony.

Perhaps we could have been more overt in the game’s presentation, but I was asked at BGGCON about the title, and why that was chosen. My response (consistent since the idea for the game first emerged) is that the VP’s you accumulate via the area control scoring is a representation of your cumulative cultural impact on the galaxy. That’s the idea of the game - have the most influence on the galaxy and become the dominant cultural force. The Industrial, Political, and Martial empire tracks are different avenues for imprinting that cultural influence on the galaxy. When framed in this way, people’s eyes start to light up a bit more - which is cool to see - as they start connecting the mechanics with the theme.
So now its your turn. Are you a game designer or a game player (or both?). How do your expectations or preferences temper your reaction to games? How does criticism for a given game highlight or reinforce what type of audience may be most appropriate? Do tell!

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