Game Design

What makes a game fun to watch?

There was a game jam last weekend, ‘Indies VS PewDiePie‘, with the theme ‘Fun to play, fun to watch’. But, isn’t a game that’s fun to play automatically fun to watch?

This was supposed to be a post about why a game that is fun to play is not automatically fun to watch, but the more I wrote, the more I contradicted myself, and it started to make less and less sense. I suddenly came to the conclusion: Yes, everything that makes a game fun to play, also makes it more fun overall: avoiding repetition, having a good story, giving a lot of feedback to player actions (making a game “juicy“) and having great depth. But there are other factors that are important when watching someone play a game.

Silent Let’s Play of Tetris anyone?

What’s really important are the circumstances under which you watch a game. Are you watching a speedrun or flawless run or somebody playing it for the first time? Is there any commentary or is it just the game? Are you watching live and in person or are you watching a video/stream? Why are you watching? For the music? Some gameplay tips? Or do you simply want to have a laugh? All this things determine how the game is perceived.

An example: You are playing Portal 1 at home for the first time with a friend watching, and that friend has already played through the game. He is watching you struggle to do a puzzle, and he is trying to be a smart-ass offer his help, but you are refusing, because you want to find out the solution yourself. This makes it frustrating for both the player and the observer. (Not that anything similar has ever actually happened to me.) But watching a Portal speedrun, is just mind-blowing.

Also playing Guitar Hero with your friends is a lot of fun [citation needed], but when you watch a video of somebody playing a song flawlessly without any commentary, you could just watch your media player for similar effect. But when all you want is listening to the music, then it’s probably fine for you.

There is more?

Still, there are some factors that make some games exceedingly good games for “Let’s play” material.

  • Randomization: How do you ensure that there won’t be much repetition, and every playthrough will be different? Through high amounts of randomization! Rogue-like(-like)s are great when it comes to doing Let’s Plays, as every run will be different, meaning you can be sure to always see something new and unexpected. Other games, on the other hand, achieve the same effect with a neverending flood of player created content.
  • Absurdity: When a game is different, unique or simply absurd in any way. This can be story wise or gameplay wise. When there is something unique or silly, this makes not necesarilly a good game, but gives a lot of potential for funny commentary. This is essentially what PewDiePie got big with.
  • Depth: When there are a lot of options and possibilites available to the player then it’s really interesting to see what pro players do in certain situations. Or seeing how new players get crushed completely.
  • Competition: Watching humans playing against other humans instead of AI adds a whole new meta-layer to everything. People can cheer for the side they like most and fanbases can develop. The players can become even more important then the actual games they are playing. This is true for e-sports as much as for regular sport. This is the reason why there are millions of people watching other people play Football or DotA.

Does every heading have to be a question?

I think, that for #indiesvspewdiepie one of the most absurd games will probably win.

I wanted to participate in that game jam myself, but unfortunately, inspiration had not struck and I also had a lot of other things to do.

Having said all that, great commentary can make even the most boring gameplay video interesting. Even watching someone die for the 1000th time at the same place can become entertaining.


Player Motivation in Below Earth

My first plan for Below Earth was, to procedurally generate levels, and generate different set of levels the further you advance. Quite similar to Spelunky‘s level system. But since I didn’t have much content I made a prototype with only one type of random generated levels to test it. But there was no motivation to explore levels or engage enemies, as all levels seemed similar and the only goal was to get a high score. And score doesn’t mean anything, if you don’t have any global or friend leaderboards ready and an interesting mechanic for amassing points like combos or chains. Just making a counter go up is (most of the time) not something you feel motivated to do.

In Spelunky on the other hand, you have a set amount of levels and you can find items and collect gold to buy even more items at the shops. This way exploring the level becomes a viable option. So you have to decide if you want to risk fighting against that enemy to maybe find some item or gold or leave it and try to advance further. But for Below Earth I didn’t want to have shops and lots of items. I wanted to keep the scope small (considering it’s a Ludum Dare entry), so I had to find a way to make it engaging despite it being limited in complexity.

That’s why I switched to a fixed amount of hand-crafted levels. Of course this would also be possible with generated levels, but hand-crafted levels are faster to get good results with. So the new goal for players was to advance to new levels to see what new content and what new situations await at the next level. I also thought keeping the score system was a good idea back then, but in hindsight it only felt slapped onto the rest of the game, as score only played a secondary role. There still were no leaderboards or combo system, so your score was essentially the amounts of enemies you killed. Not interesting.

So either you go the arcade-y point centric system of player motivation all the way, or don’t go it at all. One recent example would be Bastion, as it has a separate story mode and score-attack mode. In story mode, there is absolutely no score system to distract you, it’s just pure story. In score-attack mode it’s all about piling up points, the current score is permanently displayed on the screen, there are combo systems in place and after every level you can compare your performance to the global or friend-wide leaderboards. That’s score done right.

Finding the right way to motivate your player can be pretty tough. For the Below Earth post compo version I’m planning to completely drop the score system and instead rely on advancing levels, boss fights and maybe some items as player motivation. Speedrun leaderboards could be an alternative to the score system.