Audience Engineering

"The Customer is Always Right."

Now there’s a sentiment that we can all applaud. It drips with entrepreneurial moralism, the Horatio Alger sense that we ’do well by doing good’. It stakes out a high ideal by which to live, but we all know that if we can truly live by that ideal, we will be rewarded by our grateful customers. Yes, the Customer is King. We live only to serve the customer. We humbly subordinate our egos to the greater good as established by The Market. After all, this is business, not art, and if we want to justify those huge development budgets that we need to build our products, then we must be able to demonstrate that our work will result in sales. It’s not crass -- it’s just facing up to brutal business realities. If we want to survive in a tough world, we have to live by the adage presented above.

That represents the conventional wisdom that our industry applies to its product design decisions. Only, in this case, "conventional wisdom" is a poor choice of words, because this way of thinking is not wisdom, it’s folly.

The Customer doesn’t know what’s right
Let’s talk about what the customer wants. In some markets, the customer has a perfectly clear idea of what he wants. A programmer seeking to purchase a computer can nail down his specifications with great precision. A hungry customer in a restaurant can readily decide which item on the menu appeals most.

We sell information. It’s a special kind of information that we’re selling entertaining information. That’s what sets us apart from so many other markets, because with tangible goods, the customer wants sameness, but with information, the customer wants difference. If I decide to buy a car, I want a car just like what I already have, only better. I most certainly do not want to take a wild leap into a completely new kind of car, unless I really have no choice, and then I shall approach the task with trepidation.

But that’s never the case with games. Having purchased
Balance of Power, who would ever want to purchase it again? I’ve owned three Honda Preludes; I’ve consumed scores of Chile’s Chicken Sandwiches; I’ve bought dozens of pairs of Levis; but in all my life I’ve never purchased two copies of any game for myself.

This is a fundamental property of information as a marketable commodity. To be in any way valuable, information must be different from what the customer already owns. You can’t sell anybody a second copy of any piece of information. You’ve got to offer them something new and different.

Digression: Sequels
Now, at this point, I must pause to answer a potential snag: what about sequels? Let’s take the grandaddy of them all, the Ultima series of games, a sequence of closely related games that steadily built on the concept introduced so long ago with Akalabeth. We see plenty of sequels in the movie business, too, and in books.

The distinction here is that a sequel offers a constant context with new content. Consider the James Bond movies, arguably the longest-running sequel in entertainment history. We all know the basic parameters of a James Bond movie: Bond is suave, debonair, unflappable. He’ll go up against an exotic criminal with a fantastic plan to commit a sensational crime. Bond will probably be captured and will confront the mastermind, who will devise a suitably exotic means of putting Bond to death. But Bond will escape, foil the crime, and save the day. Along the way he will seduce one or more of the sexiest women on the planet.

We all know these basic parameters, but what we don’t know is the actual content. Just how wild and crazy will this criminal be? And what fantastic crime will he plan? And what color/shape/size woman will Bond bed this time? This is the part that’s new, different -- and valuable. If I offered Goldfinger at a movie theater, I wouldn’t get many ticket-buyers; but if I offered "the latest James Bond movie", I’d have plenty of customers.

Back to business
So the popularity of sequels does not compromise the soundness of the assertion that we sell new and different information. But this raises a problem: how can an audience communicate its wishes for "new and different information"? It’s easy with tangible objects to articulate my desires. I want fresher bananas, faster cars, bigger television screens. But how can I articulate "difference"? The feedback I offer for tangible objects is constructive (fresher, faster, bigger) but for information it is fundamentally negative (not what I already have) How can I specify what isn’t there? Thus, the customer can’t be right -- he doesn’t know what he wants.

The games industry has failed to come to grips with this problem. It has instead tried to take what it perceives to be a constructive approach to the problem by trying to answer those desires that customers do articulate. These are always matters of degree. Instead of "fresher, faster, bigger", it’s "more color, more graphics, more sound" that was an Atari marketing slogan back in 1980, and it aptly describes our prime strategy twelve years later.

Yet this strategy fails to address the fundamental issue, which is that we can only sell new and different information to our customers. So we flounder. My impression from talking with product managers, marketing people, producers, designers, and executives throughout the industry is that all these people share a fundamental sense of rudderlessness. Nobody really seems to know where the hell we’re going. There are only two things that inspire confidence: sequels to successful products, and sensational new technologies. When offered such a product, publishers seize it with something like frantic relief. And so our industry inches forward, tentatively placing each foot an inch in front of the other before taking a step, and so intent upon the fearsome size of such a step that it never, ever looks up to see just where it is headed.

A Creative Approach
Our fundamental failure here is our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our actions. Our desire to please our customers is misplaced; we cannot please them by slavishly listening to the inchoate results of product registration cards, marketing surveys, and focus groups. We must accept the responsibility to create. We cannot rely upon our customers to point the way to the future, for they don’t know what they want; we must shoulder the burden.

The Two-Way Street
This leads me to my next major conclusion: that the decision-making flow in our industry is a two-way street. In most markets, the decision-making flow is a one-way street. The customers decide what they want and the producers scramble to meet customer demand. In these markets, the customer truly is king. But in our industry the customer doesn’t know what he wants. Therefore, we must assume leadership and offer the customer what we think best, while still paying attention to their feedback.

Here’s where we get to the Big Idea. Our product mix will appeal more or less to different people. And remember, entertainment is not a need but a desire; thus, our audience members come and go as they please. Our product mix will therefore attract some groups of people into our audience even as it repels others. In other words, we shape our audience.

Thus, our relationship with our customers is far more interactive than that of most industries, which simply react to their customers. Our customers decide which products and companies succeed, and we decide which customers remain in the audience. Customers drive bad companies out of business; we drive "inappropriate" customers away from our audience.

Audience Engineering
All of which leads me to a simple suggestion: why not consciously recognize this relationship and act upon it with deliberate intent? Our audience has shifted and evolved over the years with no conscious effort on our part. Should we not take this phenomenon into consideration in our planning? Shouldn’t we undertake audience engineering -- the deliberate attempt to influence the constituation of our audience?

I realize that a proposal of such magnitude appears daunting. After all, most of us struggle from one product to the next in a hand-to-mouth existence; talking grand strategy seems a megalo-maniacal act of fantasy, not prudent business planning.

But the sad truth is, we cannot evade this responsibility; if we don’t seize the rudder, the boat will drift wherever the rudder happens to point.

A perfect example of this is provided by our industry experience over the last few years. Two years ago I published an essay in this Journal ("Portrait of the Gamer as Enemy") that spelled out the process. The aficionados of games go to greater than average lengths to provide feedback to publishers, who harken to their advice and build ever more complex games, which in turn make beginners feel like idiots, which drives beginners out of the marketplace, which leads to the withering away of our audience.

When I published that article, my warnings were dismissed as so much doom and gloom. But in fact much of what I predicted has come to pass. Games today are undoubtedly more complex than the games of a few years ago. And the market for computer games has definitely shrunk in the last two years. Whereas the top games of 1990 sold in excess of 250,000 units, not a single game released in the last twelve months has broken that barrier. Where a score or more games of 1990 broke the 100,000 unit mark, barely a handful have done so this year. We’re not hearing the howls of doom largely because most publishers have diversified enough that they aren’t hurt by the deterioration of the disk-based games market. If you look at the entire spectrum of products (cartridge games, early learning and edutainment products, CD products, and computer games) the industry continues to grow. But if you look at traditional computer games all by themselves, the picture looks bleaker.

The single most important factor in the deterioration of the disk-based market is the loss of the beginners and dilettantes. These were people who would wander into a computer store a few times a year, browse through the shelves, and pick out a game to try. Individually they didn’t amount to much, but in aggregate they added up to a large portion of our sales. This is the group we have lost.

And let us realize that the responsibility for losing these customers rests squarely on our shoulders. This was no act of God, no unavoidable Fate that descended upon us from on high. This was the direct result of our actions. We chased those people away by producing games that made them feel stupid, games that required too much time commitment, games that came with manuals that were too long.

Like it or not, we were engaging in audience engineering, only we didn’t know that we were doing so. Our inadvertent audience engineering shaped our audience. Perhaps we should be happy with the audience that we have created. After all, it is a well-defined group whose needs are easy to satisfy. Indeed, some people in our industry feel that we should abandon the pursuit of a mass market for our products and instead focus on the niche market that we have established. But I think that, despite our missteps, it’s too early to give up.

I propose that we factor audience engineering into our planning. Specifically, I propose that a game’s potential be measured not only in terms of its direct sales, but also in terms of the indirect sales it will generate. For example, let us compare
Loom with Civilization. We all know that Civilization achieved much higher sales figures than Loom. But how many people, after playing Loom, were induced to try another game? How many were so induced after playing Civilization? I believe that Loom’s indirect sales figures were higher than Civilization’s.

Now, one might object that this is all speculative. Direct sales figures are readily confirmed, but indirect sales figures are impossible to verify. This is true, but it does not nullify the existence of indirect sales. The phenomenon of indirect sales is undeniable. Just because we cannot measure its magnitude does not mean that we can ignore its existence. To put it more mathematically, the inability to measure the value of X does not mean that X = 0. We all know that X > 0. We must estimate X using our experience and our judgement.

My point is that we should add our estimate of X into our sales projections for a game. By doing so, we come up with a figure that more realistically measures the contribution a game makes to our overall economic viability.

At a higher level, we need to take into account the reality of audience engineering. We cannot change the fact that our actions shape our audience; the only choice we have is whether we shape it deliberately or thoughtlessly.