Monday, July 5, 2010

Watch Me Play

When considering how a game is perceived by its player(s), it is also interesting to consider how a game is perceived by pure observers. How engaging is it for those merely watching? There is probably little financial incentive to explore this aspect of a game, but it's a curious design experiment if nothing else.

Thinking about this, it seems there are a few qualities that significantly affect how watchable a game is.

1) Nature of Challenge

Platformers have obvious challenges that are usually approached at the player's pace. Shooters are largely reflex challenges with a high degree of surprise. Puzzle-based games rarely require manual dexterity of any sort. How readable the goals are to an observer affects how enjoyable it is to watch. Having little understanding of what's going on, or being unable to follow the player's rapidly changing focus, makes for poor watching. But being able to gasp at whether the player will make that jump, or better yet being able to actively assist the player ("What if you put the red block there instead?") hold the attention far better.

2) Camera Perspective

Something of a corollary to the above, first-person games are probably less watchable than third-person ones. First-person allows, and often necessitates, changing the orientation of the viewport rapidly and dramatically. If you're not the one doing that adjustment, it's easier to become disoriented. Third-person tends to change camera alignment less often and more slowly, with all movement being respective to a fixed object (the player's avatar). Without the ability to mentally map controller input with the camera's output, having a representation that can be understood purely visually is much easier to watch.

3) Limited Systemic Information

Games that take place largely in the player's head, e.g. strategy games, are likely difficult to enjoy watching. When a great deal of gameplay takes place in the player's mind, there is little to watch. For the player, the game is really about internalizing and reacting to the game's state. Learning to parse that state from the game's visual representation takes time. If an observer doesn't have this systemic knowledge, there is little to observe.

Now there are some games that could be very engaging to watch for those familiar with it. Arcade fighting games, e.g. the Street Fighter series, represent this distinction well. As the crowds at Evo will attest, watching two masterful players going head-to-head can hold attention rapt ... if you're familiar with the game. If you aren't, well, it's a lot of confusing sound and fury that ends in 90 seconds or less. Starcraft is nationally televised in South Korea, but it's also so ubiquitous that just about any viewer is at least passingly familiar with the gameplay. I'm not sure I'd ever find watching someone play Team Fortress 2 or Civilization to be especially engaging, but seeing someone pull off a near-impossible stunt in Burnout is only enhanced by knowing just how hard that stunt was to accomplish.

There are other obvious things too, e.g. single player or local multiplayer is more watchable than online multiplayer, just due to physicality, console is better than PC or handheld, etc. Ultimately, it's about being able to understand the game's drama. Action tends to be better at this, since character-based drama obviously requires familiarity with said characters. Without that familiarity, character-based drama has to hang on the quality of writing and acting ... yeah. That one probably isn't to be relied up.

If there's any functional design goal here, it would be encouraging observers to become players. As you may have been thinking already, Rock Band does this better than almost any other game. It has a simple, understandable goal, creates a context where play feeds directly into the experience and it has an intuitive interface. Plus, given that you'll likely be playing with others, all someone has to do is push that plastic guitar in your hand and say, "Take a turn." No single player is put on the spot either. Many of Rock Band's lessons are design specific, but it's still interesting to see how they make their game so damn inviting.

As an aside, the co-op portion of DeathSpank was designed with these principles in mind as well. It's too long to get into here, but I believe I'll be writing something for about it next week. Look for it and I'll try to remember to put up a link too.

Are there games you found fascinating just to watch? Have others watched you play games? I'm curious as to what qualities other folks find engaging when someone else has the reins.

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Blogger Gerard Delaney said...

A recent game that I have non-players observing has been Rez HD. I have found that the observability of the game lies largely in the fact it looks unlike most games and it provides enjoyment from the synchronization of the visual effects and player actions with the accompanying music tracks.

Whilst my experience did not involve this feature Rez HD also has the option of enabling rumble on non-player controllers. This is an interesting way of using haptic feedback to further involve a non-player in the on screen action

July 6, 2010 at 7:58 AM  
Blogger Graham said...

You missed one very large point here, Nels: Is the game beautiful/nice to look at! It's not specifically gameplay, but it is an aspect of the nature of the game...

I'm also going to take issue with your first point under 3) regarding strategy games, for the exact same reasons you laud puzzle games.

A silent observer to either of these genres will be frustrated watching the player do 'something stupid'. But both puzzle games and strategy games give the opportunity for "single controller co-op". RPGs, with their heavy emphasis on story and decision making, also share this trait.

July 6, 2010 at 11:57 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Gerard Ah yes, definitely. As Graham notes, an interesting look (in the literal sense) is definitely important. Rez has that for sure, and the upcoming Planck has the potential for the same.

@Graham As noted above, visuals are huge. Thanks for noting that glaringly obvious omission ;)

The strategy games "single controller co-op" is a valid point for sure. I guess the difference between that and puzzles games is just a matter of degree. Watching someone play Braid for 30 seconds yields more than enough knowledge to be able to contribute in single controller co-op. It would take a lot more observation time to be able to do the same with Alpha Centauri. That's the only difference though. It's definitely possible for the same to emerge in more complex games, it just takes longer unless both players start together.

July 6, 2010 at 3:07 PM  
Blogger Codicier said...

I think my most vivid memory of this sort of experience was of playing GTAc3 tag team style back in uni.

It would often be 2-3 of us sitting around shouting instructions at each other (being back seat virtual drivers), cheering whenever someone pulled off a stunt, and groaning/laughing whenever they crashed.

GTA 3 seems to fit allot of what you were saying, it was easy to follow what was going on, and there was clear on screen feedback on what was going on.

But i think perhaps the most important thing about GTA 3 was its sandbox nature allowed the spectators to participate in a way by egging on the player.
'bet you can't jump that'
'come on you've got the rocket launcher its time to blow s*** up!'
I can't think of any games of the top of my head which allow players to set on the fly objectives for others in co-op but id be interested to know how successful it would be.

Anyways thanks for the nice thought provoking post.

July 10, 2010 at 3:00 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Codicier Ah ha, very interesting. I had a similar experience in undergrad with some friends playing Burnout 3. Just taking turns in the crash mode, shouting whenever someone pulled off the seemingly impossible, was a blast. The rounds being relatively quick and easy to switch (GTA's sandbox works similarly, I think) probably factored into this quite a bit.

July 11, 2010 at 11:57 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A recent game that had a bunch of my friends entranced was Heavy Rain. You could say it was like watching a movie, but even better!

For example, typical thing you hear people shouting at horror movies: "Don't open the door!" Saying this changes nothing. With Heavy Rain, however, my friends could grant these outbursts of advice that may persuade me to choose a different course of action. Also the story was enticing enough to keep my friends wanting more.

August 1, 2010 at 8:22 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 Yeah, Heavy Rain is definitely something that would satisfy to play with other folks watching. It kind of comes from the lineage of adventure games in that respect. Not to auto-pimp, but I wrote something for our website about how we tried to setup the co-op in DeathSpank to provide a similar experience.

August 2, 2010 at 3:25 PM  

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