Member Spotlight: Dustin DePenning on Market Differences: Hobby and Mass-market Games

IGDN’s Member Spotlight series is a chance for our members to share their interests. Each Member Spotlight post reflects the unique viewpoint of the author, and does not represent the views of the rest of the IGDN or its membership.

I grew up playing Magic, D&D, Warhammer, and other games you find at hobby stores. Nowadays, I design games for families and children that are purchased by mainstream consumers at retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. Involvement in both worlds has taught me about a few differences between these markets.

1. Mass-market companies expect a large volume of sales.
It is important to understand the difference in scale between the hobby and mainstream games. Mass-market games I have designed which sold from 20,000 to 100,000 units were considered failures, even though these numbers sound large in the hobby market. Only games that sold 200,000 or more units in a year were seen as successes. Results like this often require immense efforts from skilled designers and large marketing teams.

2. Casual and hobby gamers want different things from games.
In contrast to hobby gamers, mass-market gamers (“casuals”) prefer simple games. Some people attribute this to a casual gamer’s intelligence. This is an insulting assumption. The true difference is hobby gamers are interested in gaming as a primary source of entertainment. Casuals see games as a fun distraction, but their primary interests are elsewhere.

3. Interest is the key driver behind what you choose to play.
Hobby gamers will sit down to play a complex game they know nothing about to broaden their experience. However, casual gamers worry about losing time and mental energy that could be spent on something they might enjoy more. As such, it’s difficult to get casuals to risk playing – and especially purchase – an unfamiliar game. You have to find powerful communication to capture their attention, time, and money.

4. Investment shapes communication.
Highly invested gamers have acquired a subconscious cluster of visual cues, game mechanics, story themes, jargon, etc., to interpret new experiences. Uninitiated casuals have no such advantage. This makes simple and culturally familiar experiences easier to communicate. They perceive such games as lower-risk investments.

This phenomenon makes classic games such as Sorry and Monopoly everlasting, despite some opinions they aren’t very fun. When the occasional mood to play a board game strikes, Sorry offers an experience both simple and familiar. Monopoly isn’t simple compared to Sorry, but is so widely known that it’s a cultural icon.

5. Designing new experiences for casual consumers is difficult.
It is difficult to make something that feels familiar and is easy to learn, yet still fresh and fun. The palette of mechanics you can employ is limited, and themes must be inherently appealing or trendy. This balancing act can apply to hobby gamers as well, but they have a wider language of mechanics and theme trends. Finding the perfect intersection of fresh and familiar is extremely difficult. It can take collective knowledge of an entire team to get it right.

6. The American game audience is changing.
For designers of hobby games, the good news is that the market is growing every day. Video games and apps have made complex game mechanics accessible, and digital gaming’s high entertainment value makes classic board games less appealing. Consumers are starting to desire more novel experiences found in hobby games, and each year it becomes easier to turn an uninterested gamer into an engaged one.

Dustin DePenning has worked in the gaming industry since 2008, first at Hasbro and now at Spin Master Games. In his off-time, he is developing an RPG called Synthicide.