If someone were to ask you who your target audience is would you have an answer? Is your answer everyone? Core gamers? Hearts? People who love indie games?
You have probably had debates with your dev team over things like “well I think our players would like X because they are Y type of gamer” or “ I think they would like this screenshot because they like game Z.” Usually when you hear arguments that start with “Well I think our audience…” that person doesn’t know what they are talking about. You are not your audience. You have no idea without evidence.
As indies we have to be super careful with our marketing because we have no money and very little influence in the press. We are playing a totally different game than the huge companies who can saturate the media channels with tons of ads. We can’t just say our market is hardcore gamers because how do you even advertise to them? We have to be guerilla fighters that target our limited resources to where it counts. But how do you know where it counts?
Well the best way is just ask. In this week’s column I want to give you some tips for getting a better understanding for your audience and what you can learn by using audience surveys.
Don’t be intimidated by surveys
You can get some useful insights without knowing how to calculate margin of error and confidence level. Although if you want to here is a cool calculator.
Your main goal with this survey is to find out more qualitative data and clusters of similarities about your audience. You are more interested in finding unexpected patterns or clusters of people that you didn’t know existed. The results should be treated more of like a single sonar ping that identifies where groups of people are hanging out instead of a map that tells exactly what you need to do.
Nobody can tell me how to make my art
“Survey my audience? What is this some sort of corporate focus group where it is design by committee? This feedback will just sand the corners off of my vision! I am an auteur who creates games by the will of my inspiration. No one can tell me where my muse will be.”
Whoa whoa there Godard. The internet by its very nature is anonymizing. Worst yet, the app stores are crassly transactional. The best way to sustained success making games is to build a fan base that knows who you are and feel like they are part of your vision.
In the restaurant industry the successful chefs will come out and talk to their patrons. Over a complimentary glass of sherry, they listen to what their customers liked about the meal they just ate, what they didn’t.
Comedian Chris Rock tests gets audience feedback by going to tiny clubs and reading his jokes (without windup) from a yellow legal pad.
From back stage, musicians peek at their audience and see if they are gray haired, teeny boppers, or bikers.
The internet makes it so the personal connection that Chefs, comics, and musicians have very very hard. However a survey is one of the best tools we have to reach across the gap left by technology and understand who our fans like.
Furthermore understanding who your audience is helps you shape your vision. I have a running google doc that is made up of 79 pages of wild-ass ideas that came to me as I struggled to turn my brain off at 2AM. Most of these ideas are terrible that nobody will want. However, many of them are just as creative but are something that someone will actually want to play. If I am going to dedicate 6 months to 2 years building something, I want to at least figure out which of my ideas are actually going to be something someone wants to play.
This is one of my favorite scenes in all of Mad Men (from season 5 Episode 3) trying to understand the younger generation Don Draper starts an impromptu survey of some teens at the back stage of a Rolling Stones concert.
Who to survey
The absolute best populations you can survey are the people who have purchased your past games. These people liked what you made before and are theoretically willing to pay for your next game. You want to find out who they are so that you can go track down and market to other people who are just like them but have not yet heard about you.
I hope you added an email list signup form so that you can communicate with those customers. Your list is where you are going to get the highest response rate. Similarly, with an email list you have the capability to send your survey to just the subset of your biggest fans (aka the ones open every email you send out.)
If you don’t have a mailing list (shame on you, here is how to fix that), Twitter is your next best bet. Be warned though, Twitter is not as reliable as email because your followers are not necessarily your customers, they might be following you because you post pictures of baby Echidnas. Similarly twitter has a very low conversion rate for clicking links.
If you don’t have an email list or have never released a game you can still make it work. Consider putting out a beta of your in-progress game but require people to sign up for your mailing list to download it. Then, send a link to the survey to those people who have signed up and played your game.
Another option is if you have been posting a regular dev log to a forum, post a link to the survey there. Again these people are not your customers and have never played your game so the data might not be as trustworthy.
How to actually get someone to fill out a survey
We are all busy developers who would personally never find the time to answer a dumb survey from some dumb corporation, why would we expect our audience to do the same? The friendly checkout lady at Target tells me to go online to fill out a survey every single time but I have never every filled one out.
The thing to remember is that we are indies and have a more personal connection to our audience. Don’t just send out an email that says at the bottom in tiny type: “Click this link to fill out our survey.”
Instead, send an email where the only thing in it is about the survey. Don’t just cram it in the bottom of an email that is about your new trailer.
Understand that there are several reasons why people take the time to fill out surveys. For more info, see this. Here are some tips:
- Phrase your solicitation personally and emphasize that you need their help. For example “I want to make sure that my next game lives up to your expectations. Please help me understand what you did and didn’t like about my last game…”
- Appeal to their sense of altruism: “Completing this survey helps building the community around this game so that we can bring in more people that want to play it as much as you do.”
- Many people fill out surveys because they are just interested in the subject matter and how you work. So you can phrase it as “I am seeking feedback from you on my next game, this survey will give you an early peek at what I am working on so I can get your opinion.”
- You could consider offering a giveaway. Maybe you have an old game that isn’t selling very well. Give a steam key if they complete the survey. In the study I linked to above, they found that offering an incentive does not unduly influence the responses.
- If you send your survey to your mailing list, you can see who clicked the survey link or not. After a few days, resend the email (with a different subject and different appeal) to those who did not open or click the link. You can also further encourage them by sharing some early results: “We found that the majority of people who responded to this survey think games are too hard, does that match your experience? Let me know if it didn’t: SURVEY LINK”
It still is hard to get people to complete the survey. To give you an idea of what you can expect, when I last ran a survey to my mailing list about 10% of the audience completed the survey.
I just use a simple Google form. To create one just go to your Google Drive and select New > More > Google Forms. Remember to set the name of the form so it doesn’t say “Untitled” and then start writing your questions.
What to ask your audience
Here are some good questions to ask your audience
Basic demographic data
Age range – I usually phrase it as 10-19, 20-29, 30-39..
Also ask basics like Gender, Education Level. I don’t ask country because you can get that data if you install Google analytics in your game or from your store’s data.
List three of your favorite games (excluding my games) OR
Name a game that you think is similar to my game
This freeform question allows you to find out a lot. First it gives you a general insight into what type of games your audience plays such as hardcore, casual etc. the other thing is that it allows you to target your marketing to similar devs.
If you find out the games that your audience likes another small indie game, you can reach out to the developers of that game. Say to them “hey I found out a lot of my players also like your games. Would you like to team up marketing efforts?” If they are nice and understand that indie games are not zero-sum you cross promote each other’s games. You can also bundle your games together to sell on the store. Because their audience will probably like your games and vice versa if you both have active mailing list, you can send out an email that say “Hey if you like my game you will also really like this game from this dev. In fact they are running a sale right now!”
What was your favorite level in my latest game and why?
If you get a response like “I love the open world emergent gameplay in level 3.” guess what your first bullet point should be in your store description. When you learn what your audience does and doesn’t not like about your games you can write your store descriptions in a way that makes them feel like this game is made specifically for them. You can also use this to find out if they are the type of gamer who likes beautiful scenery or if they like a challenge.
What was your least favorite part of my game?
This question will help you develop games faster because you can cut features that nobody really cares about. Maybe you don’t really need to spend another 2 months building that fishing mini game.
One of the biggest skills that you learn once you have released a few games is which features are actually important to spend extra time on and which you can cut.
In my game Wizard Golf RPG I added a sub-game that worked like the collectible star mechanic in Mario 64. I thought people would love it but very few people went after them and even more people were confused about it.
You might also find out that people think your game is too hard. I know challenging games are all the rage but you might find that the majority of your audience actually plays your games for the story and tolerates the difficulty.
What blogs do you read OR
What forums do you post to?
You are going to get a lot of Kotaku, IGN, and theVerge.com with this answer but you might also find some little known forums for super hard core fans. With that knowledge you can double your efforts to try an appeal to the moderators and authors of that site.
Don’t go pay too much attention to the percentage of the responses because those can be influenced by any press coverage you already got. For instance, my game Return of the Zombie King was chosen as one of Touch Arcade’s best games of 2016 which caused many readers of that site to download my game. So, naturally, a huge percentage of the audience said they were Touch Arcade readers. You are more looking for sites you weren’t aware of or ones that have an unexpectedly high influence.
What is your primary social media platform?
In your survey software, don’t make this a choice where they can select multiple answers because many people have an account in all the big ones. You are asking what their favorite one is. This answer helps you decide where you should focus your social media marketing. Don’t be shocked if Twitter is not the #1 choice of your fans.
What consoles / gaming systems do you use?
This question really was eye opening to me and influenced my strategy. For many years I made mobile games but when I surveyed my audience I found that 81% of them also had Steam accounts (a far higher percentage than any other gaming system.) I will be releasing my first Steam game in a couple months.
I was shocked at how much of my mobile audience played Steam games. My hunch is that this survey was of players of my premium game Zombie King. People who are willing to pay for games are more likely to be traditional gamers.
(If you have an upcoming game) Which app store capsule image or icon do you like best?
Your in-store marketing is the first thing that most potential players will see. It must grab their attention right away. Since you have been looking at this material every day you cannot judge what is best. So provide 3 potential designs and ask your audience. You will be surprised to see how much one design outperforms the rest. Be sure that you use the “randomize” function on the multiple choice because you want to make sure players aren’t just picking a design because it is the first or last on the list.
What game should I make next
Take any response for this question with a grain of salt. And don’t let this be the only reason why you pick your next game. But, if you are hemming and hawing and wondering if you should make a sequel to your previous game, make a safe variation of a popular genre, or try to do something that is way out there, see what your audience thinks.
Limit this question to three choices. Write up a short 2 sentence elevator pitch for each game. Also create some simple mockup art for the style you are thinking of for each game.
I phrased the question as “I can’t decide what game to make next. Which one are you most excited about. Note: this is hypothetical and there is no guarantee any of these will be made.”
I tried this and was sure that everyone was going to pick choice #1 (I even secretly wrote the pitch to sound even better than the other two.) Sure enough almost 60% went for choice #3. Shows me what I know about my audience. I ended up not making any of the three games but it was a fun exercise.
These were the results when I asked my audience which of my 3 hypothetical games they were most interested in. I thought the red one was the surefire winner but only 28.8% of my audience wanted to see that get made.
- Keep your survey short: only about 8 or so questions. If you have more to ask, do a follow up survey in a year or 6 months.
- Make every question optional because it will boost overall response rate. One un-skippable tricky question is like putting in a really tough boss fight mid game, you will keep people from finishing the rest of the game.
- Start with simple questions at the start, place the ones that require written responses at the back. This prevents people from bailing right away when they see you are asking big questions.
- Ask them to fill out your survey as part of your onboarding email auto responder sequence. Doing this will give you a constant pulse on your audience as it evolves. Add the survey-related email fairly deep into the autoresponder sequence so that you can be sure that the people filling it out are truly an interested audience. If you don’t know what an autoresponder is check out my Email Marketing 101 column.
- Do Incentives Exert Undue Influence on Survey Participation? Experimental Evidence
- Your Target Audience Doesn’t Exist
- The Bartle Types – This is a very important essay about the types of gamers. It is a bit academic and as most stuff from the ivory tower overly generalized. I hope that your survey would review more detail. However it is good for getting a general background.
- If you are still unsure what to do with your email list, I wrote a mini eBook on the types of emails you need to send (both at the top and bottom of the funnel). You can get a copy here when you sign up for my email list