During development, the temptation is always there. You’ll add an element, then you’ll listen to that one podcast that claims the element is currently out of favor. So you scramble to replace the element (artwork, turn order, take your pick) and you happen across ANOTHER article praising a game with that element. You panic, and start designing (consciously or not) to please as many people as possible, and end up with a bit of a design mess on your hands.
With several years under my belt in live theatre, one thing I’ve carried over to life in most aspects is that you need to make a strong choice. No one rewards safety, at least not for long. Nothing that exists for everyone is memorable to anyone, because the concept of the “Audience” is by nature several sub-groups that only superficially cross.
This is why we get games like Wingspan, the excellent engine-building game from Stonemaier Games and designed by Elizabeth Hargrave. It is wildly successful, and it is uncompromisingly niche in its perceived flavor. If you had asked anyone (except obviously Hargrave, who stood behind the concept all the way) a few years ago if one of the most popular board games would be by a first-time designer and about, well… birds… they would have dismissed you.
But the thing is, the game is REALLY GOOD. It doesn’t matter (at least, not mechanically) that you don’t care about birds. The quality is there, and so anyone can play. The target audience has grown because the focus was so strong. That’s one of the primary benefits of making a strong choice. It’s YOUR choice, and everything else is informed by it. The audience- both in theatre and in gaming- are willing to come on that journey with you, but only if they see that you believe in it also.
Otherwise, what’s the point?
In short, you do you. You can’t design for an audience, but you can design with conviction, and the audience is more likely to come with you.
That is not to say that there won’t be aspects of compromise in design. I think it would be insane to state that there is a black-and-white design philosophy that is functional in all cases. You’re going to make some really, really bad strong choices. You’re likely going to get gunshy about the criticism that follows.
Taking criticism (in all its forms) constructively is a vital part of being a good and useful human being. One of the biggest risks creatives run is in having a crippling blow to the ol’ ego at a key point in a development process.
The concept of audience targeting in design has been one of my particular bugbears. I am currently working on a game called Heir Royale that has one glaring weakspot in that it might be a bit too niche for my immediate gaming group. The thing is, it’s probably not niche enough for a larger market. I’ve hit a form of writers block on this game- not for lack of ideas, but an unfortunate surplus that can’t and shouldn’t all be jammed in- because I’m trying too hard to please too many people.
In fact, the best version of this game probably exists as originally intended. My initial choice is being watered-down by market fear, and I think games like Wingspan prove that there is a level of bravery required to stick to your guns, and that bravery will result in a stronger product.
How do you guys feel? At what point is design no longer serving the game, but serving an imagined demographic?