Traditionally, labelling a game niche is a sideways way of implying that it’s trapped in a ghetto. It invokes a sense of smallness, where games that are strictly for hobbyists struggle to survive.
In an industry that used to want to eclipse Hollywood, maybe that was a justifiable attitude. However in the age of single-franchise publishing, niches are really important. They are where tribes of engaged players come from, and if you want to change the world then a niche is where you need to start.
A social graph is your list of friends, family, colleagues, contacts and friendlies. It also describes how those people are connected, with you as the central node and everyone else branching out from you.
While we all have social graphs containing hundreds of people, our interest in what’s going on in their lives generally only extends as far as broad common denominators like news of births, deaths, engagements or marriages. Beyond those categories, our interests become much more about relevance to us. So lots of friends will like and respond to your wedding photos, but most won’t look through all 100 of your holiday snaps and comment on each unless that holiday is relevant to them.
Most people don’t share many common interests across their entire social graph. Rather, their graphs break down into many smaller groups of friends with whom they share some interests, and some (especially family) with whom they share none at all. Friends in your social graph who share an interest with you probably share it with friends in their own graphs too, and some friends in your social graph become friends because you encountered each other through a common interest rather than a common friend.
And so, through interests, groups of friends and strangers interconnect in ways that their social graphs do not capture. Instead they form interest graphs, also known as niches.
The primary difference between a social graph and an interest graph is that a person is not the central node of the network. Instead, the central node is a topic (which may sometimes be the public image of a person, such as a celebrity). Topics might be as broad as pop music or as narrow as Lady Gaga. They are frequently interconnected and loosely hierarchical, so broad topics contain many narrow topics. Heavy metal fans encompass the niche of Anthrax fans, for example.
Interest graphs also frequently have factions who dislike or dispute each others’ point of view. Anthrax fans may hate Slayer fans despite their common ground. Indeed they may hate Slayer fans more than they hate Lady Gaga fans, precisely because they have some commonality.
Interest graphs usually form communities, and some venues for communication are more active than others. The Minecraft Facebook Page typically has a new post every 3 days and will have hundreds of comments under each. On the other hand, the Minecraft Subreddit has only 80,000 readers but they share nearly 600 images, links, videos and thoughts every day.
Niches and Tribes
The key point for those who are inclined to pooh-pooh niches and aim for the mainstream is to realise that there is no longer such a thing. There are only larger and smaller niches. They each have their own pre-defined interests and world view, and yet they are the gateway to wider success.
Niches are always either growing or dying. Dying niches are often fans of relic genres and commonly have an older demographic. A dying niche doesn’t grow, evangelises only within itself and slowly shrinks as members leave. A growing niche, on the other hand, embraces change and its members evangelise about their interests outside of the community. So it attracts new blood.
Niches are the birthplace of tribes. A tribe is a movement of fans that emerges from within a niche with the energy to re-order everything. Tribe members have a cause, a story to tell (your marketing story) and a passion to tell it. They do your marketing for you, attracting more and more fans through their enthusiasm.
Tribes can evolve from either growing or dying niches. They sometimes flame out, complement or eat their original niche depending on circumstances. Some tribes massively outgrow the niche from which they emerge. Others remain a small part of a larger scene. Sometimes tribes that come from niches are reincarnations of older ideas in new forms. At other times they are sub-divisions of an existing niche formed for ideological reasons. Ideological tribes are usually the hardest to grow.
As niches are the breeding ground for tribes, so tribes are the seeds of new niches. A niche is essentially the grouping that remains after the initial energy of the tribe has worn off and a social structure evolves in its place. Once a niche is formed then it the best opportunities lie in pushing some members into becoming a new tribe. And around it goes.
Affirm, Then Push
People do not buy games just for something to play any more than they only buy clothes just for something to wear. Often they do, but when their interests are involved they also buy these things to reaffirm their identity.
When you buy an XKCD T-shirt (see above) and wear it proudly, you are both clothing and saying something about yourself. ‘Look’, you are saying, ‘I understand quirky science jokes’. And when someone reads that T-shirt and chuckles you know that you have a connection. Equally, when others – including people in your social graph – do not then you know they are T-shirt muggles.
The dynamic of how and why that works is pretty complicated, but it’s important to bear this in mind: When working with a niche it is vital to get on its wavelength before you push it toward forming a tribe. Tribe leaders are often members of niches because they understand the niche at a level that an outsider can’t. This means you either need to already be an insider or take the time to become one. Otherwise you will seem like (and in fact be) a fake.
When you understand who the niche members are and what motivates them, then you can figure out what their chief cause is. All niches have causes, abut these are not to be confused with niggles. Niggles are aspects of the niche’s favourite game that annoy players or test their tolerance, but not enough to make them leave.
Building a slightly better World of Warcraft is merely addressing niggles with that game, and has failed on numerous occasions. Many games have attempted to steal audiences from one another over the years by appealing to tolerance niggles with USPs, only to fail. They fall prey to their own lack of ambition.
A cause is more fundamental than a tolerance niggle. It is a major departure from the original game or genre that adds a whole new dimension or takes away another. Counter Strike players playing the demo for Battlefield:1942 and discovering the joy of vehicles is an example of a cause. It was a major departure from the standard setup of the first person shooter, which offered significantly different thaumatic experiences, yet FPS fans could grasp what it was at the same time.
The cause is aligned with where some people in the niche want to go next, but is rarely directly expressed. It is the answer to the question ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could…’, and the niche knows it when it sees it. Answering that question where you need to push.
Why You Need a Niche
When I wrote about finding games for your players, I suggested a to-do list starting with ‘Find a tribe’, but on reflection what I mean is that you should become an insider in a niche.
A better to-do list is:
- Be or become an insider in a niche
- Find out what its chief cause is
- Build a platform (as in a website or blog) to talk to that niche.
- Talk to them a lot. Push for the cause. Expect resistance.
- Build a community. This aids formation of a tribe.
- Build a game that speaks to the tribe
- Give the tribe the means to evangelise about the game
And keep doing that. If you launch cold into a platform without the advantages of great timing, a huge advertising budget or a platform story, your game will probably sink without trace.
Even if you do have those things, you will probably end up permanently yelling at the top of your lungs for attention while customers remain unfazed. Doing that can eventually work, but it’s hard to keep that kind of enthusiasm going. On the other hand if you have a niche in mind then it gives you something to build toward, a core of customers who are preferentially interested and who might well mushroom into a tribe.
The key to smart business these days is getting your customers to do your advertising for you, but if you want them to do that then you have to go to them first. So if you find yourself looking at a game design and asking ‘Isn’t that a bit niche?’, consider that it might not be niche enough.
Niches are where greatness begins.
(Today’s image comes from XKCD. You can buy the T-shirt and show everyone that you get the joke here.)