The larger good versus the smaller great

by Gil Hova

Here’s a design question that fascinates me.

Say you have a prototype that is playing fairly well. People are enjoying it, and they tell you they like it. They may even ask you when it’s coming out.

You’re thinking of making a change. It would alienate half your potential audience, but the other half would become rabid about the game. They would sing its praises until the end of the world.

What do you do? Do you make a good game that appeals to a wide audience? Or do you make an incredible game that appeals to a narrow audience?

(The question works in the other direction as well; maybe your game already has a narrow appeal, and you’re wondering whether you should widen the appeal at the expense of toning down what makes its fans happy.)

There’s a lot this question depends on. I know a lot of new designers who would immediately make the change without a further thought. They want to make the best game possible, and if their vision limits the audience of their games, so be it.

But many other designers out there care about game sales. It sounds cold and possibly selfish to a new designer, but it’s a reality; designers who sell many games are considered most successful. And of course, publishers will tend to put out games they believe will sell more copies.

And have you ever had people decline to try out your game, because they don’t think it’s for them? Imagine doubling that. It’s not fun. So if you’re looking for a simple, one-size-fits-all answer, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Again, the answer to this question depends on a lot of things.

So now that we’ve established that this is a question without a simple answer, let’s look at ways we can work towards an answer.

First, what is your game’s core engagement? Does the change preserve it? Does it refine or amplify it? Or is it a completely different approach to the game?

Second, what is your goal for the game? Will you be happy with a highly-regarded game with lower sales? Or would you prefer a game with broader appeal, that you can show to many possible demographics? Of course, neither of these answers is always correct; it all depends on your approach to game design.

Third, can you approximate the game’s quality and appeal before and after the change? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much appeal does your original design have, and how enthusiastic are players after finishing it? On the same scale, how much appeal do you think the new design has, and how enthusiastic do you think players will be after finishing it?

If the new game has one value under 4 and the other value isn’t at least an 8, I don’t think it’s worth making the change. If both values for the new game are around 6 and 6, that’s also not a good sign; the new design may be too mediocre to survive.

But if the new design has at least an 8 in one category? You might have something there.

Fourth, can you branch the games? If their core engagements or experiences are different enough, perhaps you can retheme the new design and see where it takes you. If you keep fiddling with it, it may turn out to feel completely different than the original game. You’ll have two games from one!

Of course, we would all like our games to have the best of both worlds: wide appeal and an enthusiastic audience. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and we must pick one.

Personally, I would make the change if it brought either a huge, cult-like devotion of fans, or if it would become widely, massively popular without compromising any of my creative vision. I would not want to dial my games down just to make it feel more generic without some sort of hook that would gather game fans’ attention. If the old design was an 8 or more in appeal, and the new design was an 8 or more in enthusiasm (or vice versa), I would look at branching and developing the two as separate designs.

But it’s a question with a different answer based on the circumstances. Just like a good game. That’s what makes it so fascinating.