Wii Fit

Challenging Game Design Assumptions through Focus Groups

As I explained in another post it was suggested at the German game developers conference that domestic studios instead of focusing on an "innovative", "cool" genre mix should rather concentrate on the booming family-, online- and party-game sector as the development costs for these genres are lower while they are also useful for establishing a console track record. Said developers might want to take a look at two highly interesting articles which deal precisely with these type of games – in terms of focus group testing.

In an attempt to discover how family-friendly our consoles and games really are, Gamasutra collected together a selection of families, games, and liberal helpings of soft drinks and let them play a mix of games comprising both those aimed at a younger audience alongside some more general games: From Cars and Ratatouille on 360, PS3 and Wii to some more child-specific games such as EA Playground on Wii and a clutch of DS games including Pac 'n Roll and Nintendogs. They completed the mix with a driving game (Sega Rally), a sports title (Madden) and some classic franchises such as Super Mario Galaxy and Gran Turismo HD.

What they found was that

[q]uick start times, automatic saving, friendly controllers (and control options), cross-ability multiplayer, deeper localization, simple handicapping, short episodes, performance advice and low cost will all play their part in opening up our favorite pastime -- and vocation -- to a wider audience.

Kotaku on the other hand reports on Threewave's casual subdivision Gnosis Games which has turned to Facebook to help the company create better games - and better retail sales.

Writes Kotaku

Gnosis has created a series of simple casual titles that can be played directly on Facebook, and then studies the feedback and user behaviour around these simple little embeddables to glean information that's useful in the creation of more complex titles.

Gnosis sees who's installing and uninstalling the games, how long they play, the ratings users give the games and other types of both positive and negative feedback, and uses that data to inform their game development. It lets the studio's developers access the huge mainstream user base on Facebook and learn from their tastes and behavior.

Games built on user feedback will not only be more enjoyable to the audience, goes the theory, but will also be lower-risk investments and permit more creativity and innovation - a formula that hopefully translates to better success at retail, something that PC games in particular especially need at the moment.

What I find fascinating about these approaches - and that especially goes for the Gamasutra piece - is how they can help to challenge deadlocked assumptions about games and game design, going to fundamental levels developers hardly (if ever) think about.

Take the issue of deep localization and how some gamers were frustrated by the way the games ignored the finer points of childhood in their locale:

An interesting example was the use of spelling in tutorials. One parent remarked, "I spend all day enunciating letters phonically to help my little girl at school, and then all my hard work is undone by the game joining up all the letters again." These kids are being taught to pronounce letters the way they sound in words rather than (as used to be the case) as abstract concepts. For example, they are taught to pronounce "a" as an "ah" rather than as an "A" sound.

For some it's a mere technicality for others a key nuance of her children's education.

It also makes me wonder how personal preferences and a still influential technicity – that is hardly compatible with family games – are involved in the design process, respectively how difficult it is to overcome these. Instead of trying to cater to an audience as large as possible the industry still seems like some autonomous zone, caught in a world with its own rules, traditions ("We always had tutorials there!" etc) and expectations – sometimes leading to such absurdities as kid's games which are frustratingly hard to play.

It is interesting in this regard that with Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the most successful and influential designers bases his design choices on observations he made in his family – take the smash hit Wii Fit for example. Or Sony's immediately accessible Buzz, a game intended to appeal to Miyamoto's wife, and, as I can testify from my own experience, a title that has to the potential to lure people to consoles who in all their life never touched one of those things and barely confuses them.

Interestingly enough these two games also attract the ire of the more (for the sake of brevity) traditional hardcore crowd. Seems accessibility is never a desired quality as it always threatens distinction – something that goes for art as well as for games. Get over yourselves! Just like developers should get over themselves and think outside their field to get some valuable feedback to maximize their audience (if that is what they are potentially aiming for)

(But please don't stop make masterpieces like GTA IV, which like other pieces of art, needs substantial investments of time, effort, and resources to be appreciated!)