How to design for the vast gaming universe

Date 2023-05-24

“One big stat that people often don’t consider is that there are over three billion gamers in the world,” said Ben Thrasher, strategy director at Design Bridge and Partners, in a panel at the D&AD festival in London in mid-May. “That segmentation, that demographic, is also different to what we would expect,” he said, highlighting the 55-64 age bracket, gaming ‘grandparents’, and new mothers seeking immersive experiences at home as three audiences that have grown enormously.

The inescapable rise of gaming has infiltrated all parts of our lives, whether you consider yourself one of those three billion gamers or not. Thrasher pointed to the Super Mario Bros film, which grossed over $1 billion, as evidence. Or there’s the Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s enormously successful game-turned-TV series, which shattered the boundaries between different forms of screen-based entertainment. “And if we need any other nod that this is a category for everybody to get involved with, our favourite disruptor Netflix is also increasing the investment in Netflix Games, which now has over two million users a day,” Thrasher said.

“When I started in this job in the mid-2000s, it was like nobody understands you – you were those aliens, those weird nerds that nobody wants to touch and see,” said Kai Kienzle, VP of marketing at leading esports company ESL FaceIt Group. “Now, you have so many people and gamers in news edit rooms, you have them in parties, in political institutions, in companies, in agencies, in audiences, that it feels like a generational shift has made it easier for us because now there was someone [on the inside] that understood us.”

Yet that surfaces a new conundrum. The more an industry grows, the more its audience inevitably becomes fractured. For creatives, the question is how to cater to so many demographics, and their personalities, tastes, and interests, without isolating anyone else.

Kienzle said it’s best to treat these different audiences as subcultures, some of which overlap, but are ultimately distinct. He wondered whether “very traditional personas”, which have become somewhat outdated, still have some use here, where you might have “the explorer type, the parents and kids type, the I-really-don’t-want-my-parents-around type, and then you cater for these micro-communities... rather than one size fits all solutions that will probably not work.”

“You need a way to ... talk to one tribe without alienating others,” said Marta Swannie, creative partner at Design Bridge and Partners. The panellists highlighted a handful of projects that manage to do both at the same time, including identity designs for ESL and ESL FaceIt Group, both by Design Bridge and Partners. These two projects involved abstracting references from popular games and covertly baking them into the designs, like Easter Eggs. It was about speaking to audiences of those particular games while still appealing to people interested in different games, or outside of that space altogether.

“We were very conscious that esports fans tend to follow one game competitively. So, for example, if you’re really into CSGO in sports, it’s unlikely that you might follow, say, Fortnite,” she said of the thinking behind the ESL identity, which featured game scenes disguised in the graphics. “If you were a super fan, you could spot them, and if not, it would just look like really great camo.”

Swannie and senior designer Erik Brattested praised brands like Dove and Burger King for finding effective entry points into the gaming ecosystem, which is ultimately half the battle. “It’s such a fast category, there’s so much noise going on. If you’re not creative, you will just go like a ship in the night and you’ll not stand out,” said Thrasher. The point around creativity is more important than the element of speed; no matter how quickly things move, brands and their agencies should spend time ensuring what they’re contributing is creative, contextual, and makes sense — particularly if, like Dove, they’re relatively new to the gaming space.

“There are a lot of clichés in gaming. We spend a lot of time just cutting ideas out,” explained Swannie. Brattested makes it clear that phrases like ‘boss level’ and ‘levelling up’ should be avoided at all costs. (Perhaps the UK government should be taking note.) Being original is so much harder now for several reasons: the saturation of this space, the visibility afforded to gaming, and the ease with which audiences can make their feedback known. All of those factors, combined with brands’ awareness that they’re often seen to be encroaching on gamers’ territory, easily leads to safe work.

For Brattested, overused references equals underwhelming results. He believes it’s essential to know gaming inside out, both by playing games and by staying afloat of this “constantly shifting landscape” through games journalism. “The fact that there was no genre called Souls 15 years ago, and now Elden Ring is a bestselling game, it’s so important to stay on top of this.” Yet he suggests venturing beyond the category for cues. To create original work, “Sometimes you also have to look outside of gaming. I think that’s sometimes where the best creative ideas can come from: when you take one ingredient, which could be gaming, and then combining it with something completely different outside of gaming.”

Swannie, who began her career doing work for the likes of PlayStation, indicated that designers and other creatives need to encourage brands to push the envelope, too. Back then, creatives were simply preoccupied with “trying to be as radically creative as you could to sell consoles and games. That was it. Back then, I think maybe it was just PlayStation, but I feel you could take a lot more creative risks,” she says, describing it as a “wild west”.

Nowadays, creativity is still the main objective but there are new pressures from clients who are often very conservative in terms of design and communications. “So you have to constantly be trying to push your ideas that are a little bit more risky, and try and take clients on this journey with you. I think as more and more brands actually engage with gaming, they’ll feel confident and probably will take more risks. But I would say a big [part of the job] is not just the challenge of [adapting to] this ecosystem and all these great things you can do, it’s also being able to push more ground-breaking work.”

First published in Creative Review.