Yesterday, for fun, I reposted the above image to my personal Facebook. It represents a pretty typical meme, similar to Twitter hashtag games (or gamelets, as I’ve taken to calling them). It went on to garner over 150 comments, far more than most things I post, and this is instructive. It teaches us once again about how important resonance is for engaging an audience.
Games (actually, all created things) are constantly pulled between what their creator wants to say versus what an audience needs to hear. This typically leads to two kinds of failure. (1) The creator makes the thing that expresses what she’s about, but her work falls on deaf ears, or (2) she cynically looks at what the audience already has and copies it, making an outright clone or a clone with extra features. And again, fails.
The problem is not that the audience is full of dullards who only want to be served the familiar. That’s a comforting interpretation in the face of obscurity, but not real. The problem is that the creator is not doing the difficult work of figuring out how to resonate with her audience. She’s either not speaking their language, or she’s saying the thing that they’ve heard a thousand times before.
And of course, there is no one fixed audience. Monument Valley‘s audience is not the same as Candy Crush‘s audience, and neither audience is the same as that for Cow Clicker. Bacon resonates while lamb doesn’t. Star Wars resonates where Battle Beyond The Stars doesn’t. In the world of fantasy fiction dragons are resonant. In the world of art games the ideal of the adventure game is resonant. What resonates for the E3 crowd doesn’t for the zinesters, and vice versa.
To get to the audience you want, you have to play into them. If yours is a horror crowd, for example, maybe you need vampires. If yours is the Steam Early Access audience, maybe you need an indie style (PS: read Jesper Juul’s latest on this here). If you want to make a game about human desperation then maybe you need zombies to be the bridge.
Of course every once in a while new ideas establish new signifiers. Old resonances die off for a variety of reasons. The difficult news is that the most common source of new signifiers is not games, nor movies. It’s books. Most other media don’t have the same capacity for depth as a book, and therefore the same capacity for originality. Instead they adapt what they see in the world of books and magnify. This is also true for games. If you do find yourself in the position where you want to create a brand new kind of universe, maybe what you need to do is write a book.
I’m not trying to deflate you here, but you will find it a hundred times harder to get game players to where you want them to be if they have no way to resonate with your game. Be cognizant of the landscape of signifiers but not slavish to it. Use the memes that you see around you to unlock your audience, but don’t then fall back on tropes. Push your audience into new territory, new forms of participation and new directions. But remember that you need to bring them along for the ride.