The Thirteenth Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2018
horseshoe Group Report:
Designing for Passive Engagement
Participants: A.K.A. "Who Watches The Watchmen"
Steve Meretzky, Independent Dave Rohrl, Mobile Game Doctor
Juan Gril, Independent Ian Schreiber, RIT
Kenny Shea Dinkin, King  
  download the PDF


Mission statement:
to understand why players passively watch games … either as a pure spectator, or in their own gameplay during periods of low interaction or low agency … and to give gamemakers a blueprint for creating watchable games.

Problem Statement

What makes games watchable?

YouTube influencers and Twitch streaming have become a major force affecting the game industry. Each year, tens of millions of players enjoy spectating the growing category of esports, while at the same time the growing phenomenon of player walkthroughs has many millions of players watching videos for game hints and help or pure entertainment.  In addition to these purely passive experiences, there are important and widely adopted forms of gameplay that in many ways looks more like traditional experiences of watching rather than traditional experiences of playing.  These include games where the player has little or no control of the game’s outcome (as in a slot machine or an on-rails linear narrative game) and games where the player only interacts with the game quite infrequently (as in idle games, anthill-type simulations, and map-based MMORTS games like Travian).

We now live in an environment where games don’t just have to consider what it’s like to play them, but also what it’s like to watch them - even if the player gets to interact with them sometimes.

Professional sports have been designed this way for many years (although we only get a new one of those that catches on once every several generations), but it’s a relatively new design consideration for today’s video game and board game designers.

So, what makes players watch games? either spectating other players, watching idly for long periods during one’s own gameplay, or playing without significant agency. 

This group set out to understand how to make games more watchable to create a set of viewer motivations and design best practices specifically towards creating games that are at least as fun to watch as they are to play, and to explore how these design principles may differ from those of traditional high-interaction high-agency games.

Preliminary Exploration:

Links to content we watched and discussed:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRfVXO4Acjg - Overwatch

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NBKDiqEtn4&list=UUdKuPY64fEpI4cdlBSyvEJw - Rocket League

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bluiXRc-uU8 - Fortnite

https://www.twitch.tv/playhearthstone - Hearthstone Global Games (live as we were doing this)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCz8u9UQq9M - League of Legends

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfOa_NGikBg - Candy Crush Game Show


We looked at the passive game space by graphing along two axes. The X-axis is the cadence of interaction; to the left are games with no interaction, or very occasional interactions, or a burst of interactivity followed by a long period of passivity, and to the right are games with constant interaction. The Y-axis is the impact of the players’ interactions on the outcome or direction of the game; toward the bottom are games where the player has little or no effect on the game’s outcome, and toward the top the player has a great deal of control and agency.

For most of the history of electronic games, the focus has been on the upper-right quadrant. Our workgroup focused on the other three quadrants.

The lower-left quadrant contains two main types of player activity.  The first we called the Spectating (S); this is the activity of watching competitive games being played - often live and often by high level players.  The second type we called Watching (W); this is the activity of watching recorded playthroughs of (usually single player) games. Both of these types of activity involve a player watching a game without any interaction or agency at all. 

The lower-right quadrant, we called the Low Agency games (L) are games where your actions have very little impact on what happens, either due to the design of the game (as in Slots, or Hooked) or due to the fact that you are only one of many players whose choices affect the outcome.

The upper-right quadrant, we called Burst Interactivity games (B). These are games where there’s a long time between interactions, often separated by periods of watching game action. When interactions come, they might be a single interaction, as in narrative games such as Episode or Choices, or a burst of interactions, as in a typical idle game, followed by a long period of passivity.

Our preliminary exploration of the topic through this lens, revealed a wide array of relevant games and behaviors that fell loosely into the three passive categories:

Low agency/low interaction experiences:

  • Watching Esports (Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League)
  • Watching Strategy games (Hearthstone, Magic: the Gathering, Chess, Poker tournaments)
  • Watching Game Shows (Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, the Candy Crush game show)
  • Watching Sports (Baseball, Football, Cricket)
  • Watching Board Game Sessions
  • Arcade Game Spectating (a crowd standing around and watching Dragon’s Lair, watching two players fight in Street Fighter 2, or just watching a master player go for the record on Pac-Man)
  • Watching walkthroughs of narrative games on rails (streams of Firewatch, Night in the Woods, Gone Home)
  • Watching speedruns, skill runs, or similar displays of excellence
  • HQ, once you’re eliminated
  • Interactive television (EKO’s That Moment When, HBO’s Mosaic)

High Agency/Low interactivity experiences

  • Idle Games (Cookie Clicker, Idle Heroes, AdVenture Capitalist)
  • Simulations (SimCity, The Sims, ant farms)
  • P-Link multi-player multi character story games (Hidden Agenda)
  • Massively multiplayer strategy games (Travian, Game of War, Clash of Clans… or even going back to BBS Door games like Yankee Trader and Trade Wars)

Low Agency/High Interactivity experiences

  • Slot machines
  • Choice-based narrative RPGs (Choices, Episode)
  • Texting novels (Hooked, Yarn)
  • Narrative games on rails (everything from Telltale, Quantic Dream, Night in the Woods, Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch)
  • Couch spectating / kibitzing / backseat driving
  • Twitch Plays Pokemon

Player Motivation
Before getting into how to make games more watchable, we first must answer why a players (or game designers) should care. What drives players to watch instead of play?

We then took these player motivations and measured them against the types of games we were discussing.  In the table below, S stands for Spectating competitive games, W stands for Watching walkthrough and gameplay videos, L stands for Low agency games, B stands for Burst interaction games, and Hi-Hi represents typical High agency High interaction games.









Improve your A-game, learn to play




Rooting Interest

 I care about which team/player wins, often supported by “human interest reporting




Save time/trouble, get unstuck




Save Money

Interested, but not enough to spend $$




Curiosity (how does the story turn out)

What is this game all about?  Where will it go next?






Admiration of Players

This player is incredible!  I could never play that well.





Massive special effects






Cultural Context

Fischer-Spassky 1972, Miracle on Ice 1980, Britain vs. Argentina 1986



Entertainment of the Commentary

Commentators are funny/enlightening/dramatic/screamy




Pride in my Creations

I enjoy watching my ant farm, my Sim City city, etc.




Imagined Community (watercooler talk)

Everybody is playing it / talking about it (Superbowl, big console releases)






Points of high action during play, “big plays”, comebacks






Extrinsic Rewards

Betting, Fantasy Sports, Viewer Rewards



Intrinsic Rewards

Metagame, gamification






Being that player would be awesome





Feeling of Superiority

“I wouldn’t have made that mistake”, trying to out think the coach




Human Interest

Following individual personalities and their story arcs, developing a rooting interest, knowing more related trivia than anyone else




The comfort of repeating familiar and pleasurable experiences




Relaxing/Killing Time

 I can’t play a game right now, but I can still immerse myself in one








What makes a sports fan?:

There are a number of player motivation principles driving why players watch sports events. The current crop of esports games hit some of these motivations, but miss on others:


They gather in stadiums, they go to bars, they join organizations. Every sports fan is a fan so he/she can be part of a winning team. Being a fan is having a sense of belonging to a group of winners, or committed losers, but the fact that that person belongs to a group makes them stop feeling alone.

Left: Chicago Cubs Fan (Baseball). Right: London Spitfire Fan (Overwatch League)


There is no sport without rivalry. Sometimes is just simple rivalry (like the other team they are playing against), but in any sport there is always the arch-enemy. The nemesis team. The Red Sox for the Yankees in Baseball. The Real Madrid for FC Barcelona in Soccer. 

In eSports, the first rivalry goes back to the early 2000s, when Jonathan Wendel, a.k.a. fatal1ty, was considered the best Quake III Arena player in the world. He was challenged multiple times by Sander Kaasjager, a.k.a. voo. Both players played in the Cyberathlete Professional League, a pioneer in eSports tournaments. The best example of this rivalry is the 2005 CyberAthlete Professional League World Tour.  Of all finals except one, these two players met.

fatal1ty vs voo at the 2005 CyberAthlete Professional League World Tour Grand Final in New York City

National rivalries are now manifested in eSports as well. One of the best examples are the rivalries between Chinese and Western teams in The International (Dota 2) Tournament, organized every year, with the highest prize money in eSports (as of 2018, over 25 million dollars in prizes).


Every fan is proud of the knowledge they have of their team and of the sport they prefer to watch. It’s a common thread in any sport fans conversation. For certain sports, there are decades of data and lore fans can use, memorize and espouse.


Left: NY Yankees memorabilia. Right: Overwatch Chibi Action Figures

It doesn’t matter how big or small fan of a sport anybody is, they will always collect something regarding that team, or that moment. A photograph. A shirt. A hat. And they are not always tangible objects, because memories are also part of any sport fan collection. The last minute goal, the incredible play. Those moments are engraved in your memory, and cherished.

Brief Esports History

From Wikipedia: The earliest known video game competition took place on 19 October 1972 at Stanford University for the game Spacewar. Stanford students were invited to an "Intergalactic spacewar olympics" whose grand prize was a year's subscription for Rolling Stone...In the summer of 1980, Walter Day founded a high score record keeping organization called Twin Galaxies. The organization went on to help promote video games and publicize its records through publications such as the Guinness Book of World Records...In the 1990s, many games benefited from increasing internet connectivity, especially PC games. For example, the 1988 game Netrek was an Internet game for up to 16 players...In 1993 it was credited by Wired Magazine as "the first online sports game".

Tournaments established in the late 1990s include the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), QuakeCon, and the Professional Gamers League. PC games played at the CPL included the Counter-Strike series, Quake series, and Warcraft. The growth of esports in South Korea is thought to have been influenced by the mass building of broadband internet networks following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It is also thought that the high unemployment rate at the time caused many people to look for things to do while out of work. Instrumental to this growth of esports in South Korea was the prevalence of the Komany-style internet café/LAN gaming center, known as a PC bang. During the 2010s, esports grew tremendously, incurring a large increase in both viewership and prize money. Although large tournaments were founded before the 21st century, the number and scope of tournaments has increased significantly, going from about 10 tournaments in 2000 to about 260 in 2010.

The popularity and emergence of online streaming services have helped the growth of esports in this period, and are the most common method of watching tournaments. Twitch, an online streaming platform launched in 2011, routinely streams popular esports competitions. In 2013, viewers of the platform watched 12 billion minutes of video on the service, with the two most popular Twitch broadcasters being League of Legends and Dota 2. During one day of The International, Twitch recorded 4.5 million unique views, with each viewer watching for an average of two hours.

Physical viewership of esports competitions and the scope of events have increased in tandem with the growth of online viewership. In 2018, the Luxor Las Vegas will open the first esports Arena on the Las Vegas Strip and additional locations are planned to open in the coming decade.”

More information at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esports

Recommendations: modifying elements that surround the watching and playing experience 

For esports it is important to emphasize that a significant part of the reasons why a esport can be successful go beyond the design of mechanics for the game:

Cultivating Rooting Interests

Even though it is quite possible for esports fans to watch a game of two teams they are not familiar with, the activity of watching becomes a lot more exciting when the watcher feels they have some stake in the game. Teams need to be clearly delineated, with its proper attire, logos and colors so fans can identify each other.

Left: Detroit Red Wings Logo (Hockey). Right: SK Telecom Logo (League of Legends)

Building Community

Today there are a myriad of social media tools that fans can use to gather people together. However Social Media and Community Managers for the games should pay attention to those communities and refer fans to them.

Traditionally, in sports we have seen that communities have been formed geographically. The Chicago Cubs, the Oakland Raiders, Manchester United. We have seen that the Overwatch League has put emphasis on creating teams with a geographical attachment (London Spitfire, Philadelphia Fusion). However, we shouldn’t discard the opportunities that the Internet has brought to form alternative communities regardless of geographical location. Technology savvy people, in particular, have been able to form communities that transcend geography, creating bonds and allegiances that are as strong as physical communities.

Since the current esports audience is very technologically savvy in its majority, we shouldn’t be surprised that fan groups are formed by other reasons, such as play-style, or even personal traits of the players (see below for more information on Human Interest).

Proffering Allegiances

In many cases players will pledge allegiance to a team based on the team’s performance. But that’s not always the case. The are several reasons why a watcher may feel related to a team or a team player.

Admiration and/or aspiration: In general, watchers have admiration for a team of a team player because of their skills playing the sport. However, we shouldn’t discard opportunities for creating affinity between watchers and teams or players cultural reasons.

Human Interest: As part of a sport broadcast, before and during breaks, the show will highlight team or player stories in order to create an emotional connection with players. US sport broadcasters make heavy use of this during the Olympic Games, as the athletes are not usually known to watchers. A really good example is NBC’s special interview with Lindsey Vonn and her late grandfather recorded the summer before the 2018 Winter Olympics. Watchers got to learn about Lindsey’s grandfather, how he inspired Lindsey’s dad and her to be ski racers, and there were plenty of photographs and video recordings shown during the interview. It was even more emotional due to the fact that Grandpa Vonn passed away before the Olympics began. The full interview is here.

Lindsey Vonn and her grandfather

Another example of Human Interest is the family or friendship emotional connection. Many sports fans are fans of a team their family pledged allegiance to generations ago. When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, after a hiatus of almost 110 years, Cubs fans were tweeting images of their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents who rooted for the Cubs their entire life, but didn’t survive to see their 2016 victory.


Providing Cultural Context

In many cases, what makes a sport event memorable is not related to the match, but the cultural, social, and political events surrounding the sport match that makes it transcend the pitch and become an element of popular culture.

Because of the nascent nature of esports, there are not many examples of matches or team rivalries with a cultural context. However, in the case of traditional sports, there are many. Two examples:

“The Hand of God” Argentina v England 1986.

On 22 June 1986, Argentina and England played the quarter-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The game was held four years after the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom, and was a key part in the already intense Argentina–England football rivalry. It was also a match which included two of the most famous goals in football history, both scored by Diego Maradona.

The first goal, after 51 minutes, was to become known as the "Hand of God goal", which Maradona scored by using his hand. His second, four minutes after his first, saw him dribble past five England players, Beardsley, Reid, Butcher, Fenwick, Butcher (again), and finally goalkeeper Peter Shilton, and became known as the "Goal of the Century".

“Miracle on Ice” United States v Soviet Union 1980

The "Miracle on Ice" was a medal-round game during the men's ice hockey tournament at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, played between the hosting United States and the four-time defending gold medalists, the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had won the gold medal in five of the six previous Winter Olympic Games, and were the favorites to win once more in Lake Placid. The team consisted primarily of professional players with significant experience in international play. By contrast, the United States' team—led by head coach Herb Brooks—consisted exclusively of amateur players, and was the youngest team in the tournament and in U.S. national team history. In the group stage, both the Soviet and U.S. teams were unbeaten; the U.S. achieved several notable results, including a 2–2 draw against Sweden, and a 7–3 upset victory over second-place favorites Czechoslovakia.

For the first game in the medal round, the United States played the Soviets. Finishing the first period tied at 2–2, and the Soviets leading 3–2 following the second, the U.S. team scored two more goals to take their first lead during the third and final period, winning the game 4–3.

The victory became one of the most iconic moments of the Games and in U.S. sports. Equally well-known was the television call of the final seconds of the game by Al Michaels for ABC, in which he declared: "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" In 1999, Sports Illustrated named the "Miracle on Ice" the top sports moment of the 20th century.

Enhancing the Entertainment Value of Commentary and the Opportunities for Learning

Though oft despised and frequently ridiculed, expert sports commentators often provide meaningful contextual wrapper for what is seen on screen, and can explain the nuances of play that sports fans appreciate. Commentary is only effective when the sport has been designed from the get go for watchers. The current commentary on the Overwatch League is ineffective due to the fact that the game is difficult to watch. Building structures block a clear visualization of team and team colors, it’s hard to identify proximity to outcome, making the game only enjoyable to watchers who have a really good understanding and deep experience playing the game. 

The Overwatch League has provided the most professional broadcast so far. This clip has highlights from the 2018 Grand Finals broadcast:

Collection Opportunities

Collectibles… especially collectibles signed by sports stars… are big part of fandom, especially as a status symbol (showing off to others what a dedicated fan you are). esports could gain from this and similar extra-game activities to extend both the mindshare and the monetization opportunities.

Game Design Recommendations

The last part of this section contains recommendations in the design of a game that’s highly watchable.

There are two main tenets when it comes to how easy it is to get into a sport.

  1. Understanding of the rules: if we take Soccer (Football) as an example, you can simply explain it as “Two teams playing against each other for control of the ball. The ball has to go inside the opposing goal in order for the team to score a point. Winner is the team with most points.” It doesn’t take a lot of time to explain how Soccer works. Every other rule in the game is secondary.

  1.  Replication of the basic core game mechanic: Going back to the example in soccer, if the individual gets to experience the sport in some basic form (for example: kicking the ball in a park with an improvised goal), then the idea of the basic rules are reinforcement for watching the sport.

Arena Design
For many historical reasons, sports have been designed in open arenas.

This makes it really convenient to serve both types of audiences: the audiences in the venue, as well as the audiences watching on television.

In the case of sports events where the sport field is bigger than what an audience can see from a stand (for example: car races), giant screens are added so they can follow the event when the action is not in front of them:

In eSports, the best example of arena design are MOBAs. Because of the player’s view, it has been easy to translate a similar type of view for the audience. Also, it helps that the map design in MOBAs is open, eliminating obstruction from camera view.

However, shooter games have a harder time to visualize the action, as there are many moments where because of the design of the scenarios there are many physical structures obstructing the camera view. Overwatch seems to suffer from this the most, as CS:GO. However, because of the third person perspective in Fortnite there is a better view angle from the player perspective, and makes it easier to understand the action.

An area where all eSports need to improve is in the visual recognition of teams. Physical sports like soccer and basketball have clear colors to easily determine which player belongs to which team. But in eSports many games either don’t have that, or they rely in simple tints of colors or UI labels. Even though this may be efficient for players to recognize each other, it makes it for poor viewing. It is true that skins are a primary monetization factor in many eSports, but artist should be able to work under the constraints of designing skins with the incorporation of a number of colors for team representation.

Spectacle is when the sport can provide a framework under the rules where the participants can demonstrate physical prowess.

Almost every sport has that defining moment that makes it memorable for ages.

Physical dexterity is one of the best ways for those who are not familiar with the sport to get attached to it, because since every individual is knowledgeable of what he or she is capable to do, then it’s easier to understand the magnitude of the feat.

This is one of the areas that eSports suffers the most when it wants to have mass market acceptance. Because of the design of the rules in the current crop of esports games, many times it’s hard to discern what the dexterity achievement has been.

This is because games are still designed for the players and not really for the audience. And in many cases the players can bend the rules to gain advantage, but makes it for silly spectacle. An example is the constant jumping of players in Fortnite and Overwatch:

There are opportunities for great spectacle in Fornite however. Watching players build forts is fun to watch, and there are certainly creative opportunities with the use of weapons. This video shows Ninja (one of the best players of Fortnite) using a rocket he just fired to jump over it and fly over a player while shooting at him:

Some of Rocket League’s goals provide for interesting spectacle, specially those where is a team rather than an individual effort:

However, and those who watch Rocket League matches can attest, there are multiple times where, for the non player of Rocket League, goals look more like it was a stroke of luck rather than a team effort.

Visualization of Drama / Surprise
A lot of times watching sports is waiting for that great play that will make the match memorable. In some sports, those moments are more rare, and hence they are harder to be watched by people who are not familiar with them.

A good way to have the audience engaged is if the sport is designed so the leading individual or team is constantly challenged. In sports, it is the case in Basketball for example, where many matches have a score that is too close to determine who the winner will be, and even the leading team changes many times across a match.

2016 NCAA Basketball Final. Considered to be one of the best basketball games in the history of the tournament. Villanova wins in the last second of the game

In Rocket League, there is the term “0 second goal” as one of the most exciting moments in the game.

Design of Tournaments
In order to keep audience engagement high, it’s important that the design of tournaments emphasize plenty of live/die moments for the teams, so to add dramatic events around each match.

A great example in current sports is the design of the FIFA World Cup. Through a series of regional tournaments and competitions, 32 teams qualify to a final that occurs every 4 years. There are 2 stages of the tournament.

The first stage is the group stage. In this stage, all teams are divided in 8 groups of 4 teams each. Here is the roster of the groups in the last World Cup in Russia in 2018:

Each team has to play 3 games, guaranteeing that fans of the teams get to watch at least 3 games of their favorite team in the finals. In every match, a winner gets 3 points, loser gets 0, and in the case of a draw each team gets 1 point each. At the end of the 3 games, the 1st and 2nd place team in points get to go to the next stage. The 3rd game of each group is played simultaneously, adding to the sense of drama as many times the result of one game can affect the chances of the team playing in the other game.

The remaining 16 teams are distributed in a bracket system. Here is an example of how the brackets played out in Russia 2018:

At every match, one team moved forward to the next round, the loser team went home (multiple of live/die moments). Each match is broadcast in a unique timeslot, assuring higher audience numbers.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that the success of the World Cup is partly because of appealing to nationality values. It’s worth looking at what Hearthstone has done with their Global Games.

In eSports, the Overwatch League is probably the most organized of all. For the 2019 Season, 20 teams are competing, each team representing a city.

Some of the teams in the Overwatch League

All teams belong to one of the two divisions: Atlantic and Pacific. All teams get to play against all the other teams, regarding of the division, through the regular season.

For the regular season schedule, there are 20 weeks of games already scheduled. The full schedule is here.

An example of two days of the week’s schedule in the 2019 Overwatch League

A few things to note about this schedule:

  • To maximize audience viewership, games are spread over 4 days during the week.
  • They are always at the same time slots, to make it easier for players to plan ahead.
  • The times the teams are scheduled are made to maximize viewership by the team local fans. In the example above, Chengdu Hunters vs Guangzhou Charge is played on Friday at 8:30pm PT, which is Saturday 12:30 pm China time. Similarly, London Spitfire vs Paris Eternal is scheduled for 12 pm PT on Saturday, which is 8 pm London time and 9 pm Central European Time.

8 teams will qualify for the Playoffs.

As of the publishing of this paper, the Playoffs and Grand Finals Schedule for the 2019 season have not been announced yet, but if they follow a similar structure to the 2018 season, there will be a few weeks scheduled for quarter final, semi finals, and the grand final.

Social Media Use

All leagues make extensive use of social media, to send messages during games, and also pre and after every match. The Formula 1 Twitter feed is an excellent example of keeping audiences engaged. Traditionally Formula 1 has always highlighted the pilots and their personal stories as a way of creating engagement, but the social media feed takes it to the next level by having a constant stream of content using animated gifs, or contests where they ask people to vote. Even more interesting is the fact that the feed keeps itself active during the down months (between December and February).

Extrinsic Rewards

There are great opportunities to involve the audience watching eSports. One of the most popular ones in traditional sports is sport prediction. In it, players vote or bet who is going to be the winner, as well as other variables depending on the sport. For example, in players can bet on number of goals scored, corners taken, fouls committed, etc.

During the game, there are prediction games as well. Players bet on different variables that will occur in the next few minutes.

So far, these apps are working as second screen apps, which players can use from their mobile phone or by a separate browser window. But it’s important to recognize the potential of integrating these prediction mechanisms into the broadcast, even have a leaderboard of correct predictions during a broadcast, and also have a meta-structure where the audience members can earn badges or achievements for their prediction skills.

Watching Walkthroughs

Though originally constructed as a tool for players who were stuck in a game and needed tips and tricks to get through a challenging or complex play labyrinth, captured videos and game walkthroughs have evolved into a differentiated and stand alone entertainment experience for a new generation of players and viewers.   Today’s game players have grown up with an understanding that interactivity and narrative can be woven together to offer rich entertainment experiences. As games have enhanced their approaches to narrative and story, games have become increasingly watchable, and because these games are often less constructed around skill challenges, they have pushed streamers and influencers to enhance their playthroughs by leveraging the power of their own charm and personality rather than their gaming prowess. This has led to remarkable new axis of fandom for popular YouTube streamers or, as marketing folks call them, “influencers.”  These influencers needs to be good at games, yes, but they also need to be entertaining.

Players will watch still watch walkthroughs of narrative games for a the expected reasons of wanting a tip, or in the case of narrative heavy games, preferring to get the story without the burden or time commitment (or payment) to play. But increasingly players are also watching such walkthroughs for entertainment, in many cases of games they’ve already played before. Do they do this to dive into something nostalgic and familiar? To enjoy the entertaining commentary of the streamer? To feel like they are part of an imagined community of players who play the same game? Or just to relax with something they understand as entertainment because they grew up in an era of interactive entertainment. More research is needed here.

One thing is clear, there is little game design thinking being applied to the phenomenon of watching walkthroughs.  Active games that thrive in these passive modalities tend to be designed with traditional cut scenes and elements of linear narrative informed by film and television.  Like esports which heavily emulates the televised arena sports format, their watchability relies heavily on their emulation of their traditional watchable form (film and television).

Low-Agency Experiences

These are games in which the players actions have little impact on the direction or outcome of the game. This can be true even if there is a high degree of interactivity … that is, frequent inputs from the player.

A good example is slots where the player may be interacting with the game (by hitting the “Spin” button) every few seconds … but that interaction has zero impact on the outcome. In fact, the only agency in a typical slots game or app is changing the bet amount, or switching to a different slot machine within the game or app. Also, note that with the auto-spin feature of most social casino apps, there is an experience which mimics a pure spectator mode.

An example that might not occur to people as a low-agency experience are Travian-like games (Kingdoms of Camelot, Game of War, Guns of Glory, and so on). However, one way that these are very low-agency experiences is that the tutorial for these games is extremely hand-holding… “Now build a Barracks. Now build an Academy. Now upgrade your Barracks to Level 2…” and so forth. And, this tutorial aspect of the game isn’t just a first-session experience, but literally goes on for weeks. Another way that these are very low-agency games is that everything beyond the tutorial phase is oriented around guild or clan gameplay, and other than the small percentage of players who are guild leaders, players are just following the orders of that clan leader.

Another example are the text storytelling experiences like Hooked and Yarn, which feature no ability to affect the story, or narrative-heavy games like games from Quantic Dream or Telltale Games or Supermassive, which offer a large amount of narrative cinematics, and simulate varying degree of control over the characters and the story outcome, but are predominantly on rails, offering a largely predetermined story which unfolds at a somewhat variable pace based on the player’s action and, in some cases, choices made.

There’s also the interesting case of narrative apps such as Episode and Choices, which feature both a very low degree of interactivity (perhaps one choice per minute of gameplay) and a low degree of agency (your choices have little impact on how the story unfolds). In between these rare moments of interaction, the games are relatively passive; the only interaction is tapping to advance to the next screen (think of it like advancing to the next panel in a comic book). Yet these games are very successful: both have been among the top 50 highest-grossing mobile games for several years.

Lastly, there are new entries from the world of interactive television; offerings like HBO’s Mosaic, EKO’s That Moment When, and even Netflix’ experimentations with choices baked into their streamed televised programming that offer an intriguing window into new ways that audiences might engage with largely passive content peppered by intermittent interactivity. Though these are generally light overlays of choice and interactive decision making, they offer players a deep sense that they are impacting the experience that deepens engagement and investment in the story. It seems that a little goes a long way here and we posit that that form of light interaction may light the way for strange bedfellows like esports and PvP.

Burst-Interactivity Experiences

This is our name for games where the player has periods of high activity and agency, in between long stretches of low interactivity to no interactivity and all they can do is watch and wait. The two most clear examples of this in games are idle games (Cookie Clicker, Idle Heroes, AdVenture Capitalist) and sim games (SimCity, The Sims), and MMO strategy games (Travian, Game of War, Clash of Clans), but there are other non-game activities that would also be analogous (ant farms).

Why do people play these games?

We identified a number of motivations behind players who are specifically choosing burst-interactivity as their game:

  • Curiosity: wanting to see what your Sims do once you’ve set up an emergent situation, what the next unlock is in an idle game.
  • Spectacle: as with most games, cranking juiciness to 11 makes it fun to observe.
  • Pride in my Creation: especially in Sims, it’s my and farm, I set it up just the way I want, and I created something beautiful (or set up a glorious train wreck).
  • Intrinsic Rewards: as with many games, the joy of play as its own reward.
  • Aspiration: especially in MMO strategy games, seeing other players at the top of the leaderboard who are much more powerful than you, fielding huge armies and generally seeming to be untouchable.
  • Killing Time: particularly in idle games, the idea of this being an “occasional time-waster” as its primary purpose. The bursty nature of activity in these games makes them an ideal gaming fit for the lifestyle of someone who wants to play a game but doesn’t have huge blocks of time to dedicate… but can at least log in for five minutes once a day to check in and do their dailies.

Best practices

  • Mesmerizing to watch. Easy for a player to just stare at it for awhile because there’s enough visual interest and variation in what’s happening.
  • High levels of player agency, or at least the illusion of agency, when the player is active. There is already plenty of down time in between choices, when the player may be thinking about their next moves. With so much time to consider and plan and analyze their play, make those choices count with big sudden leaps forward.
  • Reward for not playing… and then picking it up again. Idle games and MMO strategy games have very slow progression once the player reaches a certain point, but when the player idles and returns they have a giant pile of resources and a lot of stuff to do. Sims have a much shorter interaction loop, but the reward there is seeing your grand plans come to fruition as you set up a situation and then watch it play out.
  • Sense of progression. In all of these cases, the player is advancing in the game and getting more resources, more options, more stuff, and that is the primary motivator for returning to the game and playing.

Enhancing the Spectatorship Experience

It strikes us as odd that although much attention has gone into creating experiences that are watchable, the thinking around the experience of watching them remains remarkably similar to the experience of watching television (or at least the experience of watching television in the streaming era).  The viewer has little control over what they watch or how they watch it other than choosing to switch from one program to another. In an era where content creation has become far easier and more widespread than in the past, and more and more activities are becoming gamified, it seems odd that watching games in progress remains passive and lacks structure and rewards.

In the future it seems likely that both content creators and delivery platforms will (and should) create structures and loyalty programs that will makes the process of engaging in esports more robust, reward, and engaging.  For example, Twitch.tv, the current leading game streaming platform, has a currency called Bits that players can donate to their favorite streamers to increase their revenue and encourage them to continue creating content.  Twitch currently uses Bits as a monetization technique; the only way for viewers to get Bits is to buy them. Is there any reason that Twitch should not be awarding viewers some low number of Bits per hour to donate to their favorite streamers?  Or that some publisher, wishing to promote viewership of its hot new games, should not award a higher level of bits to viewers of that game?

Likewise, sports wagering, fantasy sports, and other ancillary activities providing extrinsic rewards based on the progress and outcome of traditional sports has a long track record of improving viewer interest in sports broadcasts.  Very little of this has emerged for esports, but there is no reason it should not.  Some publishers are beginning to experiment in this area currently.  For instance, Blizzard allows players to pick a particular team or player to back at its world championship tournaments, and then awards the players a pack of Hearthstone cards for each match that player wins.  We are surprised that this practice is not already more widespread but expect it to become so in the future.

Also, it is notable that viewers are only offered the opportunity to view streams prepared for them by others.  When watching many esports, the producers will frequently cut from one camera to another, showing different players points of view or displaying action from different parts of the arena.  All of these views, however, simply leverage existing game cameras which already exist as digital feeds.  Is there any compelling reason that viewers could not view all of these cameras in parallel in an array of small windows and create their own edits and feeds that better reflect their own interests and viewpoints?  We expect to see esports creators and show producers open up these feeds in the future to diversify the offerings for viewers.

We are also at the dawn of allowing the audience to deepen their engagement by taking partial control of the events they are spectating.  Twitch supports allowing the audience to vote on changes to the moment-to-moment gameplay of the streamers are playing, giving the audience more investment in the game and its outcomes.  Twitch Plays takes this one step further, using a simple polling mechanism for viewers to make moment-to-moment gameplay decisions.  And interactive television experiences like Eko and Mosaic give players a sparse set of slow-paced decisions that create branches in the TV shows they are watching.