When you live in a house with other gamers, sometimes you have to be content with watching them play rather than playing yourself. So what makes for a good game to watch?
It's a topic Nels Anderson, a programmer at Hothead Games, explores on his blog. Anderson identifies three aspects he feels are crucial in determining whether a game someone else is playing can still be entertaining to watch.
1. The Nature of the Challenge - that is, what is the player tasked with doing?
It's important, Anderson argues, that it's obvious what the player is meant to be doing. It's much easier for the observer to engage with the action if the player is pursuing a specific goal, say, collecting a star, defeating a boss or solving a puzzle.
2. Camera Perspective - that is, how is the game viewed?
Anderson feels that first-person viewpoints can become disorientating for the observer, while a third-person perspective provides a focal point. It makes sense, as it's much more comfortable to watch someone else than to see the world through their eyes.
3. Limited Systemic Information - that is, how much of the game is on the screen?
Perhaps the most interesting point is Anderson's reference to how much of a game takes place in the player's head as opposed to on the screen. He cites strategy games where the player's enjoyment derives from mulling over the myriad possibilities as being boring to an observer who cannot access those thought processes.
For me, third-person adventures and platformers make for ideal games to watch. I can see, looking at Anderson's three areas, that something like Super Mario Galaxy ticks all the boxes. As an observer, you can appreciate where the player is trying to go, plot your own path to get there, and empathise with each failed jump or close shave.
A more puzzle-focused platformer such as Braid also makes for compelling viewing as you can gain as much enjoyment as the player in devising solutions to each obstacle. You may not be implementing those solutions directly, but you can offer suggestions and participate in the process.
Proving the validity of Anderson's theory is Grand Theft Auto. Rockstar's sandbox can be hilarious when you're passing the controller back and forth, alternating turns with a friend. It's got the third-person camera, it's got defined mission objectives and requires little abstract thinking.
Yet it can be extremely dull outside of a specific mission when the person you're watching is just roaming aimlessly around the city. Set your own goals - see who can make the highest jump or who can survive the longest six-star wanted level - and suddenly it becomes far more entertaining for the observer as they're now invested in what happens. That is, the experience is no longer confined to the player's head.
Has Anderson nailed the requirements for a good game to watch? And what are some of your favourite games to watch others play?
Follow the link below to read Anderson's blog post in full.
Watch Me Play [Above49]