“The Average Gamer” == /rolleyes

04 Jan
4 January 2011

Over the last few months, I’ve been presented with some interesting facts about “the average gamer”:

  • Facebook has become the platform of choice for the average gamer.
  • The iPhone has taken over as the most popular platform for the average gamer.
  • The console continues to be the primary gaming platform for the average gamer.
  • Due to the massive popularity of free-to-play, the average gamer won’t pay for anything anymore.
  • The average gamer has a subscription to Live.
  • The average gamer loves microtransactions and cannot wait to buy absolutely anything offered for sale.
  • The average gamer doesn’t  have any online friends, is unfamiliar with chat, and would never imagine asking a question in a general chat channel while playing a MMO.
  • The average gamer is a member of a younger generation characterized by familiarity with technology and a desire to be constantly in touch with friends via things like texting, Twitter, and Facebook.
  • The average gamer is in his mid-30s and gets older every year.
  • The average gamer is (or soon will be) female.
  • The average gamer only wants a “bite-size”, casual experience.
  • Competitive PvP is very important to the average gamer.

It would appear the average gamer is a great many things.

 

A rational person might conclude that several of these “facts” cannot be true if certain others are assumed to be.  However, this is not the case.  You see, details about the average gamer are often accessorized with a slick-looking graph festooned with numbers computed well into the fifth or sixth decimal place.  Much as any highschool term paper immediately becomes A+ work when sheathed in a report cover, any chart with a sufficiently professional appearance is undeniably accurate (even if completely unsourced and nobody can answer any questions about the underlying data or collection methods).

That in mind, I realize the picture painted by the above facts can leave a normal person scratching their head about “the average gamer,” so I’ve provided the following helpful clarification:

The concept of “the average gamer” is a bunch of bullshit and worthless in every way.

About as accurate as most charts.

 If you don’t believe me, just look at this crazy awesome chart:

Twenty years ago, “the average gamer” meant something.  But twenty years ago, games were still being published for the Commodore 64.  The must-play game of the year was Wing Commander.  Id was four guys making Commander Keen while holding down day jobs.  So, twenty years ago, “the average gamer” meant something because at that point the people uttering those words probably knew several percent of the people players buying and enjoying games by name.  The audience was far smaller and vastly more homogenous.

This is obviously not the case in 2011.  Today, gaming has progressed into a more advanced state, one where we’re fortunate enough to have to think about audience segmentation.  The overall player population has never been larger or more varied and there have never been more platforms offering a more diverse selection of games.  You could sit down with half a dozen “gamers” today, find different ages and genders at the table, and have each person mention a different million-plus selling equivalent game as their favorite only to find that all of the others had not only not played that game but hadn’t even heard of it.

Much as it would be counterproductive for a writer to plot chapters in a novel using “the average reader” as guidance or for a musician to build songs around what “the average listener” seemed to want, it’s damaging to steer a game using a mythical “average gamer” as your touchstone.  What people are looking for in a country-western song is different than what hip-hop fans enjoy.  Still, the composite listener derived from averaging both sets of preferences will support a decision to back up your banjo player with beatboxing (hey, 50% of the respondents liked it).  An approach of this sort will yield no better results when the subject is a Facebook game guided by an “average gamer” profile skewed by the inclusion of millions of hardcore RTS and MMO players.

The utility of “the average gamer” in any all-encompassing form has simply been rendered useless by the expansion of the audience.  Yet it continues to surface with unfortunate regularity, an artifact of a misguided belief that it is possible to make games that appeal to (translate that as “will be purchased by”) the entirety of the gaming population.

Building something that delivers to an audience – something where you make a group of players very happy and are comfortable telling another group that this might not be the thing for them – has vastly better chances for success.  It’s also infinitely more enjoyable to create.  You can know an audience.  If you aren’t fortunate enough to be an actual member yourself, you can still learn the sensibilities of an audience to a degree where you’re an expert and the decisions you face have clear solutions.  Contrast this with attempts to develop something for everyone, where every crossroads is an exercise at interpreting studies and surveys and arguing about the correct direction because nobody involved can actually know who the hell you’re trying to entertain.

In the end, trying to satisfy “the average” is a pretty good way to create something that is similarly average.  Ask David Simon, creator of The Wire:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him.

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1 reply
  1. princessstomper says:

    Yesterday, the annual stats came through for my blogs. My game modding one had received a huge number of hits despite being rarely updated. My music/film blog, updated daily, had underperformed in comparison but the stats say it’s growing. What’s *really* happening is that a couple of posts had a ridiculous number of hits and it’s those ones that bump up the page counts.

    Those “star” posts aren’t the ones with the most thought or research or insight. They’re not the ones I laboured over or even spent a while planning. They’re just shallow, flippant, jokey posts made on the spur of the moment, and it almost annoys me that they get so much more attention than the ones I spent the most time on. It’s just a human reaction to consider whether to make more of the “silly” posts, if that’s all the average reader is interested in.

    Then I think about why I do it in the first place. I never started that blog to pander to the widest audience – if I had, I’d be blogging about Snooki!

    It’s the same with my game mods. Sometimes I’m frustrated that the ones I’ve made particularly for Fallout 3 seem to be “ignored”, but I have to face the fact that the average player just is not that interested in the sort of things I make. I’m OK with that because I look at the most popular mods for that game and I’m not that interested in those either. I’m not a *unique* player, though, because other people, however few, want to download the mods I make to customise the game to my own tastes.

    If I then tried to make mods to please those players, I couldn’t possibly please even the few hundred people who happened to want a pink vault in Fallout 3. Each of them would have some criticism that was different than the last, so if I tried to cater to them all, I’d end up disappointing everyone. I’m much better off making what I want to make to the best of my ability, trusting that it will naturally find its own place. I can ask for input, but not let a cacophony of divergent opinions turn it into some Frankenstein’s monster of other people’s bad ideas.

    Something doesn’t have to underperform to be good, but it has to fulfil some specific vision from the director. You can’t look at the real AAA games, or even something like WoW, and think that they were made by suits staring at flipcharts. They’re audacious and distinctive, and that passion that inspired them to take that risk is contagious – look at a little game like Braid that got popular because someone thought “what can we do to make this great?” rather than “what will the average gamer like?”

    Yes, you can put things in that you know that certain types of player will enjoy, and it would be both foolhardy and strange not to do that. You’ve worked hard on something and you want everyone who tries it to enjoy it, and that’s great. It’s just when “catering” becomes “pandering” that you have issues. Something that panders becomes necessarily bland because everything that is unique is a risk that someone might not like. A panda eats shoots and leaves – it’s a fickle bastard, best ignored.

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