Character Class Design: Profiling Your Audience

More and more games are moving away from the single character choice. Especially in RPGs and FPSs, the players are able to choose from a variety of character “classes”. This is a great option for designers to add variety into a game while also maintaining control over the balance. Just as most randomly-generated dungeons quickly become unsurprising and lifeless, most fully-customizable characters are uninspired, become boring, and in general are hard to balance. Even the incredibly popular Elder Scrolls series leaves some fans grumbling because their favorite fighting style was underpowered in one game or another.

So we’ve all heard the overused design statement “know your audience”. Most designers get that, and will take a serious look at their target audience before diving into the design of their game. They ask themselves questions such as “who would want to play my game?” and “how can I tailor my design towards them?”. But a lot of times, once they’ve focused it down, they forget to ask themselves “who else would possibly want to play?”, “who are my audiences friends?”, and “how can I possibly reach a larger audience without moving away from the focus of the game?”.

Character classes are usually a great way to increase the audience of a game. However, I’ve found that most of the time designers focus on the class itself, rather than the person playing it. Just as you should design your game around a target audience, the character classes you implement should be designed around a target gaming style. For example, lets say you make a hack-and-slash. The first thing you might think of is a beefy warrior who charges in and swings his sword. You have to ask yourself though, “who is playing this warrior, and why did he choose it”? The answer to that is to make a profile of your target warrior gamer. In order to do this you could research other games, do surveys, or whatever you need to do. However for this post, we’re just going to think on it.

John Warrior is a teenage male, somewhere between 13-25. He likes killing, drinking, and women. His humor is dumb, and in general perverted. “But Ryan!”, you declare, “I can see where this is going: the most stereotypical warrior class ever”. Here’s the kicker: John does not want to play the dumb, drinking, inbred warrior that most games seem to produce. There are many male 13-25 year olds that don’t play warriors, so which of them do? Gamers choose to play something that they can’t be or do in real life, so a strong, tall warrior type usually has a small, scrawny kid at the controls. It empowers him… completes him… gives him what he really wants out of his gaming experience.

So instead of giving John a dumb tank of a warrior, give him a character who overpowers his foes with brute strength. Give him not a let-me-soak-damage character but a powerful killing machine. Give him not the football player he hated in high school, give him the badass hero he wants (Brock Sampson?). Now I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. I don’t play warriors. I actually choose slick, fast rogues more than anything. I’m a big guy, and the rogue makes me feel nibble and quick, where I have never been so in real life. Rogues fill that hole in me that allows me to be sneaky and witty.

So go beyond your classic “audience”, and really dive deep into what you can bring to your game with different character classes. Look at the players that will be playing. Know their real-world strengths and weaknesses. Know their other hobbies. Think about why they’ve stepped into your game and chose that specific character class. Give them what they want, not what you think would be cool. Yes, being unique and different is just as awesome, however profiling your audience is even more important to those character “classes” that have not yet been explored by other games. If you’re going to produce something unique, make sure there’s someone out there (preferably a lot of people) willing to play it.