The Player Pyramid – Who are you targeting?

For today’s article, we are going to look into the differences in player groups and discuss the business merit of each group.

Hello everyone, welcome to another installment of The Other Side. My life has been pretty hectic as I’ve just moved. I’m hoping to get back onto a regular schedule soon. This article is a repost of an older one I wrote. It’s an important one and I will reference the concepts in this article in future articles a lot.

With that little disclaimer out of the way lets jump into todays topic.

Often in competitive games we assume players fall into 2 categories, the Casual Player and the Core Player. Both groups tend to have conflicting expectations for a game, which can put developers into really interesting positions.

If you group all of your players into either casual or core players, you will be able to make some decisions to improve your design and, by extension, your revenue. The real treasure trove of information is breaking your audience down even further to really understand who they are and how they are engaging with your game.

Let’s start with a basic example of a Player Pyramid: –

My paint skills leave room for improvement...
A Basic player Pyramid

This takes the original 2 groups and breaks them down into 2 additional groups, the Hard Core Player and the New Players. No matter what competitive game you build, without fail, your game will eventually look like this if you are succeeding. First, let’s put together some customer profiles for each of the groups to make it easier to describe what’s important for each group.

Hard Core Player – Gary/May

This type of user is on the cutting edge of competition and is deeply invested in your game. These may be your streamers and content creators, they may be the people winning your tournaments and setting the metagame (the best strategies to win in your game) for the rest of your player base. You can count on these players for almost infinite data by tracking their playing habits and even just looking at their social channels. Depending on your business model, these users may also be your whales (big spenders) that drop lots of money on your game. It is important to note that this group does not necessarily spend the most money on your game, for example, if your game uses physical materials this group may borrow materials or get them donated by a sponsor. For example, Aaron Donald of the LA Rams probably isn’t spending money on his equipment anymore, but he’s definitely a hard core player of American Football that influences other fans. If you’re a card gamer, this may be players that simply borrow cards from sponsors and don’t actually invest in buying product. It is important to know what a hard core player looks like for your particular game to be able to define the best way to reach/utilise them for sales.           

Core Players – Barry/Sandra

This user is actively taking part in tournaments and wants to climb the ladder and be on top. They have likely invested a lot into the game, either time or money. This user will also travel to events to compete, so it is safe to say they do care about your game (even if their tweets can hurt at times). This group is usually the loudest and most represented opinion across social media and places like Reddit. These guys really want to get into the upper echelons of your competitive ladder and will look to the Gary’s and May’s to lead the way or reveal their secrets to success. This group will make up the bulk of all players that participate in tournaments and will give you the most data about the average to veteran tournament player. It’s important to recognize that players in this tier can have a huge range of differences in skill level. While it’s important to listen to player feedback, always look at the data to see if it supports what’s being said. Sometimes what the core player sees is not the bigger picture. If you snap react to their feedback, you may compromise your game on a loud minority opinion. The best method to avoid this is to trust what they are saying is an issue, but verify with the data you have access to.      

Casual Players – Nick/Susan

These users made it past the tutorial and decided to keep playing your game! These players have a high chance of making multiple small purchases in your game. They tend to not keep up with the mega tournaments or really grind the ladder. They enjoy the game, but can be put off if they are consistently paired with Gary/May or Barry/Sandra. These players are invested more for the fun of the playing experience rather than the goal of winning events and making a name for themselves. The difficulty with these players is that they are likely not vocal on social media or sites like Reddit, so you either have to seek them out or know how to identify them by looking at the data. They will likely collectively spend the most on your game due to the sheer volume of them compared to the other groups. A core player may on average spend much more than a casual player, but in most cases you will have more casual players than you will core players.

New Player – Lucas/Rachael

These can be subdivided further into new players you want to reach and new players that picked up your game. We will focus on the new players that actually picked up your game. These players are in the most vulnerable stage of your user acquisition as they are likely still making up their mind if they like your game or seeing if it’s too complicated. These players need to see the fun in and find it accessible in order to transition into a casual player. It is up to you where you draw the line for the definition of a casual player. If you are a digital game, you may decide that if a player continues to play past day 10 you can move them into the casual player group. Something to keep in mind with new players is that there will always be more new players that you could acquire than there are existing players. This is affected by things such as how old your game is and what alternatives are in the market for the new players to gravitate towards. That said, the general rule that there are still more potential new players than existing players still applies, even with games such as football, there are more people who don’t play/invest in the game than people that do. In recent years, the competition for new users has gotten fierce. Due to this, many games give players a large number of easy to get rewards shortly after they sign up and roll them out until the player transitions into the causal user group. Because of this, new players do not need to make a snap decision on purchasing in your game if they are unsure about buying, there will be something else they could be doing with their time. Quite a few games actually offer limited time new player deals to try and get the new user to buy in as fast as possible. If a new user puts down cash on your game, even a small amount, they will likely stick around to get their money’s worth (and hopefully invest more into the game).           

These are very basic user profiles to consider for the purpose of explaining the Player Pyramid. If you create your own user profiles you will likely go into more detail about specific characteristics of the user (such as Gary is addicted to coffee and still listens to Savage Garden, if those are useful traits for identifying your target audience).

One question that needs answering here is “Why do all competitive games end up looking like this?”. The answer to this question is that if your game is skill based (ie not a coin toss or a game of luck), players will grow and get better and will progress. They will want to battle stronger players to match their skill. If player skill influences win rate then only a small number can rise to the very top. This creates the player journey through your game from their first game to the final destination. If you just do a free-for-all pairing of players, the top of the pyramid will beat the lower half easily and lower their morale, potentially making them quit the game entirely. This is why many games use an ELO system or Matchmaking Rating (MMR) systems to keep players of similar skill in games together, while protecting your weaker players from heavily one sided games. 

On first glance, it might seem as though the Hard Core/Core players are the ones that are funding your game and giving you all the feedback. This is an extremely common trap to fall into as a designer, these players frequently represent a loud minority of your player base. These players can give you excellent insights into top level play and the micro interactions that make or break matches within your game. Something they are often not so good for is understanding the new player experience or features dedicated to the casual users. When you start designing your game more and more towards the top end of the pyramid, new players will find it harder to actually get into your game. This can shorten the lifespan of your game. Being highly complex and focusing on a small loyal player base can be a successful model. Players that get invested will stay with you for a long time, just remember that if you can’t get players in, eventually the ones you do have will leave.

I must consider...
The Skill grid from Path of Exile

Hard Core players can be drawn in by complexity, this is where games such as Path of Exile can be really appealing due to their depth and huge number of options open to the player.


This is amazing for core players because it gives them so many options to edge out advantages over other players. You could spend hours upon hours just planning your character level ups without even playing the game! This hook for core players, however, can be completely overwhelming for new players that like the concept then freak out when they see how many options are open to them. Path of Exile were aware of this and had a way of making this grid easier for new players to understand. Players can only move around the grid in connecting lines from the starting position. This means that a new player isn’t actually choosing 1 option from the whole grid, but rather they have to move around to the nodes, which will be one of a few choices each level. By limiting the players’ active options each level up, the game still has the chance to offer all of these choices to the hard core players without running brand new players out of the game before they really get started.

It is imperative for your game’s success to be able to identify the different types of player that you have and really understand why and how you are getting money from them. Each group has different motivations and despite all playing the same game, their reason for purchase can be very different. It’s also a very good idea to make sure that your game is accessible so that new players can jump into your game at any time. Card games are notorious for being difficult to get into after 1 or 2 years due to players being overwhelmed by the number of cards and the complexity creep that follows. It is up to you as the designer to make sure you know how people are going to pick up your game from the beginning at any point in the game’s lifespan (especially in an age where games as a service is becoming the norm). Just remember at some point some of those new players will be your Hard Core players/ Whales that will be influencing other players in your pyramid, so you want them to have a good experience and get invested.

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