Define Your Players

Understanding and thinking about ‘who actually will play my game’ gives valuable focus to your development priorities.

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Your game is not for ‘everyone’. 

With over 3 billion people in the world who actively play games, there’s going to be a huge amount of variety in people’s behaviour when the play games. The type of people who play Candy Crush will be different from those who play God of War, and those will likely be different from those playing Undertale. 

You’ll notice that experienced game studios are laser-focused on who their audience is, to avoid wasting costly development time or effort on misguided ideas, and decrease the amount of iteration required to reach a game that has market fit. 

Understanding and thinking about ‘who actually will play my game’ gives valuable focus to your development decisions, and is time well spent. In this post I look at why top-performing teams spend time defining their players early, how to do so, and how to ensure this information is relevant for your game design decisions. 

You’ll come away understanding how to define your player, and be ready to get started doing it yourself.

Understanding your players is useful throughout game development

Dont be put off defining your players

The effort put into understanding your players will pay off throughout development, and so it should be started early in your roadmap. 

Making more accurate design decisions

If you know your players better, you’ll have a better intuition of what they will understand, what they will enjoy, and what will detract from their gaming experience. This means you’ll have better quality ideas and more successful implementation of those ideas. 

Targeting marketing

Marketing is expensive, either in terms of time or money. It’s especially expensive if you spend a lot of money showing ads to people who will never buy your game.

Spend your advertising time and money better with a clearer definition of who you are going to target.

Finding the right playtesters

Playtesting is an essential part of game development. By having a better understanding of who your players are, you can recruit the right type of people for playtesting. 

This will increase the representativeness of the data you’re gathering from your playtests, and allow you to make more confident decisions from your playtests.

Personas are frequently bad

If you read on the internet about personas or defining your players, you’ll often see something like this: 

An example of a bad persona

This is terrible, and exactly what we want to avoid. The information here is either irrelevant (like the demographics) or feels fictional (like the bio and personality charts).

The information about games they play could be helpful – it’s good to know what else your players are playing, because it’ll impact what knowledge and expectations they bring to your game. But here it’s too vague and generic (who doesn’t dislike bugs or losing?) that it won’t actually change any game design decisions you have to make. 

Ugh. I hate these types of personas – they give the whole field of user research a bad reputation because they are so pointless….

So what should we find out instead about our players?

Capture useful information about your players instead

Instead of capturing demographics or life stories, our focus instead should be real actionable information that will inform the production of a game. 

Some relevant questions to understand about players

In-game design decisions

Understanding what your players have already learned from other games, the precedents and expectations that other games have given them, and why they stick with or reject games will allow us to make smart decisions. 

It can directly inform game design decisions such as “what do we need to teach them”, and “will this idea land with players”. It will also allow us to identify which are the more risky creative ideas we have, and prioritise what we need to put infront of players in a playtest. 

Out-of-game behaviour

Knowing something about when and where people play games will also be helpful. Do they play in short bursts? Do they have the sound on? Are they frequently interrupted because they are looking after kids? All of these might inform your design decisions.

Speaking from personal experience, I was powering through the Metal Gear Solid series on Vita and having a great time. Yet I couldn’t play the fourth game due to the hour-long cutscenes with no ability to stop and resume. And I’ve yet to make it through the tutorial on Hearthstone as it doesn’t allow me to stop halfway through and resume later. Understanding the context of play will avoid you making it difficult for people to play your game! 

Purchasing behaviour

Hey, you also need people to buy your game. It would be helpful to know what makes players like yours decide to pick up a game, or puts them off a game – and what’s attracted them to buy a game in the past. This can make your marketing a lot more targeted and relevant. 

Expose your assumptions about your players

Start by capturing your assumptions about your players. Here’s some of the things you might want to think about include:

  • What other games do they play?
  • What are the themes that attract them to buy a specific game?
  • What makes them continue playing vs dropping a game?

Capturing these assumptions works great as an internal workshop to get alignment within your development team on who the players are, and expose everyone’s assumptions. This can be facilitated by a UX designer or user researcher.  

A format I use with teams I work with is a proto-persona workshop, where we:

  • Long-list games in our competitor set, which we think our players will eventually be playing
  • Vote as a team on which games we think are most similar and relevant to our players
  • Come up with the themes around those games which attract players to them, and group the themes together.
  • Then create an assumption-based proto-persona based around these themes, capturing our assumptions on questions such as why does our player play these games. What do they like about them? What are their expectations from the experience? What has turned them off other games in the past?

All of this information is made up currently, and not safe to base game development decisions on. That’s ok, as our next step will be testing those assumptions and revising them based on real player data.

Use user research to test your assumptions

Once we’ve captured our assumptions, we can test them by speaking to real players. Recruit people who play games in your competitor set, and ask them about relevant in-game, out-of-game, and purchase behaviour topics. 

When interviewing, people’s answers usually start vague. Get them to move beyond generics by talking about specific past events. Ask them to tell you what the last game they bought was, how they heard about it, what they did next, etc…

Use similar past event questions to get specifics rather than vague generalisations for all of the areas you’re interested in – tell me about the last time you abandoned a game. Tell me about the first time you played ‘competitor game’.

Having interviewed hundreds of players when running playtests, I’m confident that you’ll start to spot patterns after only a few playtesters.

By speaking to enough players you’ll start to see the same points come up again and again. Reaching this saturation point is a clue that you’re starting to build a real understanding of player behaviour, and your conclusions will be safe enough to make game design decisions based on.

If you need support running these type of player interviews, the Playtest Kit is designed to help you gather unbiased, efficient data from players.

Capture your understanding in a shareable format

Once you’ve starting to build an understanding of your players, you need to keep this front of mind, and socialise it amongst the rest of your team. One way to do that is to create a profile for your player, and distribute it around the team,

Here’s what your profile could contain:

An example of how you could display your players

(This template is part of the ‘Find your first 100 players’ course which is free to subscribers)

This can then start to be used to inform your playtests – you can convert your understanding of the games they play into a screener questionnaire and remove inappropriate playtesters. Understanding where they hang out online can help recruit playtesters, or with marketing.

Your understanding of your players will evolve over time. Teresa Torres’s opportunity solution trees are one way to capture an evolving understanding of the needs of your players.

Other ways of socialising these conclusions across a game studio include making posters, running workshops, role-play activities or creating shareable cards. 

Understanding your players is an iterative process

This shouldn’t be a one off activity, and your understanding of your players will continue to evolve as you continue to talk to more players, and more patterns of behaviour emerge.

Successful teams aim for a regular cadence of playtesting, to de-risk their game decision decisions as early as possible, before other systems get built ontop of them creating dependencies. At the start of every playtest spend a few minutes asking players about what else they are playing, and what they like or dislike about those games, to continually iterate your understanding of your players. Discuss your conclusions regularly in your team.

Once you have your players, you need to decide what to do with them.

Continue your playtest journey by signing up for one free article about playtesting each month, and get free access to my course on recruiting playtesters below.  

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Meet the author

Steve Bromley is an expert user researcher, who works with studios of all sizes to run playtests, and integrate user research into the game development process.

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