Articles

Perspectives in Game Design for Streaming.

Antti Ruonala

Media Lab, Aalto University

for Games Now! 2016

14.12.2016

Keywords: Video Games, Mobile Games, Game Development, Game Design, Streaming,

  1. INTRODUCTION

Competition for publicity in the game industry is fierce. As games are ever increasingly viewed a social phenomena, to succeed, a paramount importance has grown around building and catering a community of fans. YouTubers and Twitch streamers have risen to influential position in finding and engaging these players [7]. However, video makers and streamers come with particular preferences. A game that retains their attention has to be designed including these perspectives. This essay explores recent developments in game design discourses around the topic of live streaming, and means of finding solutions that are beneficial to all stakeholders involved. The focus is mainly in the live streaming service Twitch. While the YouTube is the most popular game video platform counted bytotal viewership, it appears that the innovative features spearheaded around Twitch provide rich insights to the future of game business.

1.1 Background

Benefits of streamer exposure are major during the whole product life cycle. Streaming helps in marketing, building energy around the game, gathering community, providing valuable development feedback and keeping the retention rates up. There is researched causality between twitch streams converting to sales, especially when timed with publishing platform promotions. Unsurprisingly, games designed for streaming have improved conversion rates from viewers to players [2].

There are technical and legal issues related to streaming. However, these issues are not significant from the design and development perspectives, as better solutions for them are being constantly evolved. Streamers will make the content regardless of technical challenges if the game is tempting enough, as was seen with multi-phone setups used to stream Pokemon Go and number of applications tackling on the problem of mobile streaming. There are immaterial issues involved, such as licensed music triggering autodetection algorithm and causing transferral of the video profits from the broadcaster to external copyright holders. Developers and platforms are aware of these questions and are addressing it, for example by patching the game with option to turn off content that might clash with interests of copyright holders.  Also, the stream viewers are accustomed to watching content from DIY setups with lower overall technical quality, just as long as the sound quality is tolerable  [4, 8, 10,11].

Twitch streams are only partially about games. The overlooked part has been seeing the broadcasters as professional performers creating a show for their audience. Popular streamers make their living from their shows, and the rest aspire to reach this. As performers they have their own distinct  brands: a persona with catchphrases, poses, common jokes and reactions that play to their particular audience. For a game to be a successful source for entertaining shows, it must provide ample opportunities for spontaneous showmanship. The performers are constantly looking for opportunities to react and inject their brand in the game [4].

Importance of engagement over the ease of streaming, was an observation that Twitch developer team learned during 2015. The company made an update focusing on making content creation easier. This increased the total number of streams but did not affect the total viewership. To address this, Twitch  turned their attention to making the streams more engaging, leading to the release of “Stream First” tenets in March 2016 with support available for developers embracing them [1, 4].  These tenets, alongside content design practices for emergent storytelling,  and integration of influencer marketing, form a  signpost guiding the coming years in the quickly shifting landscape of game industry. The rest of the essay explores these viewpoints in detail.

  1. DESIGN PERSPECTIVES

2.1 User interface

Foremost, the user interface should be legible to the viewers. While the player is aware of different contextual information about the state of the game, if a viewer arriving at midgame cannot figure out the current situation at a short glance, he is likely to leave [2,4]. This means having both a clear visual interface, but also a reactive environment that reflects the progress and success of the player.  Legibility desired by streamers is the same that makes the game accessible and inviting for a player that enters the game for the very first time [10]. For a seasoned player, some information and acts become mundane, even reactive, even though they are significant in understanding the flow of the game, and thus must be expressed, even though the player might no longer have use for it.  Example of this are the building upgrades in Starcraft 2. They used to happen so fast in professional matches, that observing their initialization and completion was almost impossible. To address this, a patch added a countdown slider visualizing the last 15 seconds before upgrade completion. This simple addition transformed the StarCraft commentary. On mobile games, the legibility is constricted by the small screen space of the device itself, but compensated by the proportions of the stream, leaving room on the both sides of the actual game play view. Clash Royale has pioneered the use of this space to show the contextual information and succeeded in making the game a highly streamed mobile e-sport [4,16].

2.2 Inclusion

Broadcasters, their audience and developers have all vested interest when looked through the lens of inclusion [4].  The developers want to build recognition for their game, stabilize a community and acquire rounds of feedback before the game is officially launched. At best, developers find their target audience early in the development project and engage them in the forums. Twitch recommends engaging the community early and often. There is a fear that showing an incomplete game early will create a negative image and discourage streamers from playing it again. Answer to this lies in having built a community of engaged fans who,  being informed of the state of development process and knowing that their opinion matters to the developer, will defend the game in their streams and focus on the potential. There is a high value in having such involved community as it lets the developer test how well the game performs among streamers. The benefits of involving the community closely at the core of the development process outweigh the costs.

A broadcaster, especially a mid-tier one, is eager to increase their foothold.  They are always looking for exclusive content and means of making their show more entertaining.  Common practices by the game developers to help the broadcasters in reaching these goals are giving them event access, promotion, asset packages and customized in-game items. A broadcaster with their brand injected in the gameworld  is more likely to continue streaming the game [5].  This can happen for example through allowing them to name objects or modeling an NPC with their face to the game. On mobile front,  Seriously has succeeded in this with Best Fiends by hiding symbols of their broadcasters in the game, which when found, give the fans huge rewards and great engagement. This requires a fast update cycle built hand in hand with the marketing team [6]. A promotion feature brought up is  inclusion of the relevant twitch streams within the game menu, thus guiding more watchers towards the most active channels.  Exclusive content can be e.g. early builds of the game, developer interviews  or even developers visiting within their stream, answering the questions of the viewers. Also, developers themselves often become broadcasters streaming their workflow and thinking. There is a stable audience for this kind of broadcasts, and for many indie studios, the small streams of income from Twitch microtransactions can be a significant motivation [4].

Lastly, the audience enjoys being engaged with both the broadcaster and the developers, and having their voice heard. Stream viewers want to play with the broadcaster both  through the interaction provided by the Twitch and in the actual game. Currently, there is a lack of games with straightforward matchmaking tools to add and queue players from a twitch channel. The scope of this feature can be expanded to  support matching viewers of separate broadcaster channels to play as teams against each other.

Inclusion of the fans is significant especially in the the designs of e-sports games. For a new game to succeed, it helps to embrace the bubbling community with ability for them to organize their own tournaments, ladders, and rewards and supporting this organic activity with publicity. Supercell did this during the very first week of Clash Royale. There was single broadcaster in Twitch who wanted to organize a small tournament by himself.  He contacted SuperCell, who then agreed to advertise this tournament though by short message within the game. This brought new free exposure to their new game and its features while multiplying the followers of the said streamer. Another example of engaging the Twitch community to build launch hype was the release of Tiny Pills Punch Club. Backed by the lessons of their previous game,  developers launched a channel with the game and a co-operative controller mechanic popularized by “Twitch plays…” -stream’s. They promised the community that if the fans can complete the game the game before the official launch date, the  game would be released immediately. Developers expected the playthrough to last for a week. Instead the Twitch viewers got through the game in two days. This made it another win-win situation, where the viewers got the game early, and the developers got a boost in publicity [4,16].

2.3 Influencer marketing

Engaging broadcasters heavily in building game publicity is influencer marketing. Guidelines and code of conduct have been created to keep the marketing ethical and within the law. For example, paid streamers, or early reviews with contract to only say positive views of the game, must be clearly identifiable as marketing.  [5]

2.4 Viewer feedback as game input

The core of Twitch focused games is the ability of the audience to influence the gameplay. Audience becomes input to the game as the chat acts as a programmable controller. The phenomena of “Twitch Plays … ” -streams is solely structured around removing the broadcaster persona altogether. For games with a player, common methods of interaction are things affecting the environment, enemies and powerups appearing in the game by voting through chat. Messing with the gameplay of the broadcaster offers plenty of opportunities for entertaining performances by the broadcaster. This interaction creates personal bonds within the channel [4, 12].

2.5 Recognition

Active participants in the channel enjoy being personally recognized by the broadcaster. The first crude iterations of this were messages appearing on the gameplay screen, often paid for by the viewers. This however breaks the flow of the channel and abrupts the concentration of the player. More subtle solutions have risen in popularity since. They aim  to display content from the stream chat in a manner that is more in line with the game world. This can be automated, or initiated by the broadcasters. For example, naming NPCs, enemies, and gravestones etc. by the viewer handles gives the broadcaster an opportunity to engage with their audience on a personal level [4].

2.6 Motivation

Another way of motivating the viewers and encouraging conversion to customers, is rewarding channel audience activity with in-game currencies and community achievements. These stats are tracked even though they do not own the game themselves. Once they buy the game, the assets from gained by Twitch viewing are transferred to it. Participating to a  stream becomes thin mean of actually playing the game, which rewards all all of the participants. Players get head-start, broadcaster involves their audience in rewarding way, and developer gets an higher sales from the already involved players. [4]

2.7 Accessibility

However smoothly the interaction through chat flows, the barrier to actually use the chat in Twitch is surprisingly hard. As much as 58% of viewers never say a word in it and just watch the stream. As everyone in the co-operating community should feel included, Twitch guides and supports the developers to build alternative methods of participation. In practice, this means building a mobile application where these viewers can take part in voting by pushing a button instead of writing their selection in the chat window. These mobile controllers have also other features, such as gathering a bingo of in-game events, betting on match results, and showing contextual information such as delay times. These have proven successful in involving the more introverted audience members and others  who are uncomfortable with chat [4, 16].

2.8 Emergent content

Games with a sandbox world to explore thrive when they provide a multitude of unique unexpected, unpredictable events for the broadcaster to react upon. Making the playthrough unique for each player allows the producer to improvise jokes, reaction and show his wit in storytelling and narration [9, 12]. The player should also be able to express their brand by injecting it into the gameplay. For this, ability to modify the environment, character and create things like houses is paramount. By doing this the broadcaster is offered a plethora of opportunities to perform for his audience and create humorous content. Example of this is Besiege. It is a game that thrived solely on the ability to create most imaginative medieval siege machines and seeing them succeed or fail in a spectacular fashion. Besiege  became a viral phenomenon in 2015 leading to 10/10 score in Steam with over 19k positive reviews [14].

Overall, to find out the most popular content for stream audiences, there are two heuristics to follow: What are the players who play most doing in the game, and what are the best players doing. Recording and dissecting this data provides the map on features to prioritize during the development process, and providing the type of content that stream audiences love to watch. These can be e.g. better visualization on item crafting, or slowdowns of the skillful gameplay by the very best players. One surprising popular category are videos, focusing on opening random loot chests and booster packs. This category is popular mainly with mobile games. These videos benefit from the minor opportunity for the viewer to be able to win an copy item from the loot by just being present in the stream.[16]. Catering to the known popular stream content among the fans, the developer improves the engagement and longevity of the game. The user installation data, and the publishers promotion dates can be used to time stream content provided by the developer’s community team. There is a critical window of 3-6 days after installation during which the retention drops most. To keep this player involved, installation dates can be used for targeted engagement with the player. Another important window is when a platform updates its promotion page. This causes a peak new players to research the game. On the days following the update, it is important to provide the onlookers with quality streams, leading to higher sales. [2]

  1. CONCLUSION

Streams are all about community. Engaging with the community early and often, and including their perspectives should be seen as a rudimentary building block of iterative game development and promotion. The multifaceted benefits gained by this integration improve the chances of the game to succeed by any meter. Understanding streaming is paramount for any game developer, as it has been stated that the amount of streamed hours that can be produced from the game is a metric of its quality [15].

  1. REFERENCES
  1. Twitch, 2016

Stream First Tenets
Manifest on Twitch Developer page

  1. Kathy Astromoff, Twitch, 2016

7 Ways to Succeed with Twitch Streamers.

Talk given in GDC 2016. Accessed 13.12.2016

  1. Brooke Van Dusen, Twitch, 2016

Turbocharge Your Fan Base with Twitch.

Talk given in Casual Connect USA 2016

 

  1. Saralyn Smith, Blizzard, 2016

Influencerers and Opportunity

Presentation slides from GDC 2016

 

  1. Petri Järvilehti, Seriously, 2016

What comes after shipping a hit game

Talk given in Pocket Gamer Connects Helsinki 2016

  1. Newzoo and Nevaly

Online video audience for Games to Surpass 500 Million in 2016.

Market Analysis on Website Newzoo, accessed 13.12.2016

  1. Alex Wawro, 2016

Remedy listens to YouTubers, makes Quantum Break’s licenced jams optional.

Article on the website GamaSutra, accessed 13.12.2016

  1. Robert Wiesehan, 2014

Can’t Get Viewers on Twitch? You’re Playing the Wrong Games

Article on the website Make Use Of, Accessed 13.12.2016

  1. Phil Cameron, 2015

Spectators and players need the same thing from your game design

Article on the website Gamasutra. Accessed 13.12.2016

  1. Andrew Hayward, 2016

How to live stream Android games to Youtube and Twitch

Article on the website Greenbot, Accessed 13.12.206

  1. Joel Couture, 2015

Designing Games that let livestream viewers take part in the play

Article on the website Gamasutra. Accessed 13.12.2016

  1. Leigh Alexander, 2014:

Designing for a new frontier

Article on the website Gamasutra. Accessed 13.12.2016

  1. Steam,  2016

Steam store statistics for Besiege, Accessed on 13.12.2016

  1. Christian Nutt, 2015

Gamasutra Explains: The YouTuber Phenomenon,  Accessed on 13.12.2016

  1. Garnett Lee, 2106

The Power of Fanbase

Panel discussion in GDC 2016, Accessed on 13.12.2016

 

Wonder of foreigness and games

Wonder of foreigness and games

TL:DR: Observing unexpected patterns and behaviours creates best puzzles and genuine feeling of wonder – rare phenomena in our trope saturated culture.

I just finished reading The Arrival by Shaun Tan. An excellent surreal graphical novel about immigrating to a foreign culture, without a single written word. It conveyed the being present it genuinely different place, the boundaries set from not understanding the communication – language, visual traditions, patterns of how machines operate etc. This was contrasted and bound together with cultural experience of being human – eating, sleeping, working, playing, and how all this was happened without and regardless of the common language.

Wondrous parklands by Shaun Tan

Wondrous parklands by Shaun Tan

A Clock that reads in unknown way, a Ticket machine that has handle and a dial, but no instructions, peculiar musical instruments. foreign food that is prepared with odd objects and eaten with peculiar manners, alien pets and flowers, their life cycles and behaviours, odd machines of industry and agriculture, the ballgame without familiar rules, unusual means of transportation etc. The little things of daily life where the meaning is roughly known but without insight on the the culture, makes the application difficult, even dangerous.

Brought up the idea of usage of pepper mills in our cuisine and how would it appear to someone who doesn’t know of it – an oddly shaped cylinder rotated on the top of a veal but not on top of a ice cream? Why, is it because the other is hot and other is cold, shaped differently in different container, because of the taste or order of the servings? Why exactly is it done – does it add or remove something,  maybe the veal has poison that is neutered by the workings of the cylinder, what is the grounded stuff? Maybe it is just a form of habit, like a prayer mills, and only some foods are deserving of it? What social means are there – why it is the “waiter”(without knowing what a waiter is) that usually does it – and is there a risk of offending or breaking a cultural norm?

Foreign map and cityscape by Shaun Tan.
Foreign map and city scape by Shaun Tan.

 Other works that with similar effect of genuinely foreign culture have been the Little Nemo books where the dream world works with their own surreal logic, Works of Bilal with unusual dark worlds and geometric forms in works Möebius, Surreal Codex Seraphinianus with its odd plants and machines, and in gaming, Journey and the Dig. Of indies, atmosphere of ipad game Sword & Sworcery reaches for it in a subtle manner.

A Vechile in Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini

A Vechile in Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini

The Citroen Sequence by Moebius

The Citroen Sequence by Moebius

Coal mine storage cages for personal belonging during work shifts, (© Bradley Garrett)

Coal mine storage cages for personal belonging during work shifts, (© Bradley Garrett)

Cultural habits stay foreign as long as the exposure is new. Recent video underlined how much the Aliens (1986) have changed our culture. The first common exposure to pulse-rifles, space marines, motion sensor and other tropes of the genre. To someone who has never seen the original, it all seems so familiar trough other stories, while when it was new, it was visionary.  Unlike comics, I can’t pinpoint a single movie where the new that it represented hasn’t already become a cliche.

Now that we are on the golden age of indie gaming and game industry in general, it is saddening to see how little wonder there really is. Use of tropes is common – elves sleep in beds, white glow in weapon means ice or electric bonus, aliens might have foreign font and face, but they use weapons in same way as we do and the faces are readable. One could go long for how little there are truly alien species in fiction, but I rather leave it with this link in io9 which has gathered few successful examples of it.

In games on the other hand, scenic design and architecture often manages to go out there. but the cultural reading is common. There are beds, utensils, screens, vending machines, weapons, means of travel, maybe even on purpose, things seem to return to more readable form. Example being the water-dwelling Murlocks of WoW – why do they build huts, when something way more fishy dwellings could have been there, say, a shell-formed hole-like construction, and some strawpill+knife typed utensil for sucking in the edible parts of the meal. Being an unplayable enemy species, I love that there is portrayal of culture and habits which lifts them above them mere beasts, but there is so much more that it could’ve been.

Mountain landscape in Outland Expansion, (c) Peter Lee, Blizzard

Mountain landscape in World of Warcraft Outland Expansion, (c) Peter Lee, Blizzard

Argument against genuine alienation has been that they are not really stories about aliens, but stories of of us, human nature and conflict, in situations which the fictional setting allows. Thus common ground is elemental.

Often in fiction, oddity is portrayed as form of religion, and justifying the surreal behaviours because the inherent mysterious natures of religions. This is a easy and boring cope-out and of the the portrayed religions aren’t that foreign. Ritual sacrifices or totem poles might have been odd 60 years ago, but in our saturated culture, we are aware of the stories relating to them. Are there actually fictional religions that are truly odd but with solid internal logic? That logic in general is the part that is required for fictional world to be beliavable, rules and forms maybe different, but they behaved in a coherent manner. Figuring out the rules behind the patterns are the puzzles of wonder. Like a newborn child figuring out the rules of the environment and their role in it. This emotion and the puzzles offering it are the gems that I seek in games, and knowing we live in the golden age of indie game development – the treasures must be out there, somewhere hidden in app-store with poor marketing and less than 50k downloads. Among thousands of games without any significant creative insight and with similarly poor marketing, execution and success.

In a manner, I feel that this, genuine creativity and feeling of wonder that dares to take risk of portraying something unfamiliar is requirement for making a successful game of exploration. I realize that this is the reason I disliked Minecraft, while great, it was very familiar. In the end, it is a question of cultural saturation.

If your game has a elements of exploration, wonder and mystery, you should seek to create something genuinely foreign, unseen, and create foreign culture with habits and patterns, instead of reskinning known tropes our our own behaviour in odd colours.

Post notes:

  • What is the interesting amount of familiarity? Can it be too foreign to be interesting?
  • What is the scientific research relevant for the topic. Alienation and cultural conflicts are certainly aspects of immigration. How about in fiction – what are the means to convey foreigness?
  • This explain the fame of awarded comics by Matti Hagelberg, (which I personally have aversion for, just because of the art style). It is a view to a odd world with coherent internal logic, that the fans truly appreciate.
  • What indie games reach for this? How would one find them?
  • Assigment 1: Design alien post-service. How in a truly foreign world, one would go about sending a present to friend living far. A juicy topic that conveys trough many aspects of culture.
  • Assigment 2: Comment and describe a baffling foreign experience, real or fictional you’ve experienced.
  • Any sci-fi / fantasy books or comics that do aliens and cultures well without being tropes yet?
Yksityiskohta, Matti Hagelberg

Yksityiskohta, Matti Hagelberg

Drawing by Mathew Borrett

Drawing by Mathew Borrett

 

Thoughts about lecture by Matt Costello regarding writing in games industry

The games now Games Now! lecture series in Aalto University was launched today by Matt Costello who has worked for example with Doom3, Rage, 7th Quest and Pirates of Caribbean. He spoke for 1½ hour about aspects of creativity and inspiration, his experiences in the industry and  answering questions. As whole, he was very entertaining and took time and effort to engage the audience for a memorable experience. Being a showman, performing tricks and showing ming-blowing videos. In good and bad It reminded me of some speeches by marketing directors and leaders of the game industry seen in Nordic Design Symposium and Free Your Play seminars: insightful in high-level but shallow on easy-to-apply anecdotes from practical level. Superfluous, While video of asteroid colliding to earth make for a good entertainment and wows the audience, be it ceos or financial backers and it was plausible to show, I felt the lecture was at its weakest then. Instead of victories, I would’ve valued more of stories of mistakes made and lessons learned. I seem to appreciate higher content-to-entertainment value of the lectures.

The most valuable lesson was the underlined the multitude of channels for creativity within the industry – for example. the Launch of Rage contained a comic, a novel and a casual game which completed the storytelling and world on a levels that could not have been achieved with the AAA-title alone. Another good one was made memorable with play-acting, was the applying of different casual puzzles to different settings (say, how to do the wolf-goat-cabbage-man-boat-river puzzle in alien or mafia setting? On mission design, as generally a bad observed pattern was the mmorpg-common “do A, B & C, return and the story continues” instead of continuing the story during the missions.

As guide words to inspire creativity: Plöay, Wodner, Experiment, Risk, Passion, Market, Where and what are the conflicts? How things in this world are run? Who you want to be? Location, Corporations ,Team, Problems, Media, Creatures, People, Society. Who are the villains and heroes? Something normal can be fun when made a game, and reserve, something fun in real world might not work as a game.

I have to raise a glass for him for making me remember and explain a childhood fantasy world. (Which was inspired by original Elite, imagining building awesome spaceships with which to travel and trade in distant planets, observe them undetected and engage in fierce laser battles of technology and wit).

Question that was left on my tongue was about the multiplatform marketing which happened alongside Rage. Before actual launch, there was novel, comic and a casual game released that all expanded upon the world and the characters. While sounding engaging and I know that Dead Space and Hawken have used similar approaches, I wonder about its efficiency. While making a comic or novella might not dent too much out of a AAA-budget, I wonder if same works for mobile games. Maybe the guys behind Tunnelground might have something to say about it? What makes this kind of marketing and hype campaign successful and what possible pitfalls there are?

Next lecture will be of new user interfaces. I feel I’m rather aware of existing and upcoming technologies, and instead of shallow look towards them I would wish to see experiences and speculations about their best practices. Say Kinect being already rather mature system – and Leap Motion having a good run for few months – what are the best UI-patterns that have emerged? Or those who have played with Oculus Rift for a while, what are the experiments that have been tried and failed for surprising reasons (like in Minecraft, it comes tiresome to neck to tie the movement of up-and down to head position), and on contrast – what works really well in specific cases?

Links from lecture: mattcostello.dom , Asteroid apocalypse without musicDouble HappyEventide  Greatest Puzzles book

Thoughts after lecture:

  • Get a traditional game book – you can always find material from them. This was recommended in Free your play as well, not this particular one, but similar. –
  • Write a own book, seems like a good merit for career. I have the idea ready, just need to get working on it.
  • Next time, have business cards ready and updated blog, maybe a prototype of a game to show and talk about during mingling afterwards. Btw, was nice to meet you Atte with great surname!
  • Coordinating and planning that kind of multiplatform community building sounds fun.
  • How about that 3D-modelling a updated version of Cobra MK3
  • Unity stores seems like a good place to sell 3D-models and build passive income.
  • That eventide transmedia project aims to do AR and location based. Good IP for that. Better check it out later how they’ve innovated compared to other AR/location based games, that ghost-character-system might work really well. And why there is no data of it online – name change ahead or way too immature stage to not even have a homepage yet?
  • Matt offered to give insights and answer questions – so first, ask how the coffee cup magic-trick was done and then the actual one. Smart move from him to build networks, I wonder if this is from some stage-performance book.

 

 

 

 

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