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Spectator Sport

Let's talk about action, an aspect real-time gameplay. Before continuing make sure that you are familiar with real-time, the DKART skills that are largely dependant on real-time (reflex and timing), how the skill spectrum shifts according to game speed, and how gamers generally simplify real-time. All of these concepts complicate how we understand video game action. And though we may intuitively understand that action requires real-time, it's less obvious understanding how action is connected to the progression of game time. Even in games like Bangai-O Spirits and Bullet Time, the action seemingly stays constant when the game time drops dynamically.

Look at all these spectators at MLG!

Action is a quality of real-time games that doesn't require engagement or interactivity. It's essentially the story of interactive elements. Because each event in this story can be woven together into a timeline, "action-time" is a very flexible construct. TV shows and movies take full advantage of this flexible property. Using flashbacks, flash forwards, flash sideways, scene cuts, and slow/fast motion intricate stories can be presented that make up one coherent story.

Real-time gameplay in video games is typically limited to presenting the action in a single, forward moving direction with no breaks in the continuum. The game starts, players act, and the consequences play out rippling forward in time. This is the way it has been for many games especially multiplayer modes. There are several factors that can affect how well the player can weave the action together. If a game's speed is too high or if the action frequency is too great, the ability for a player to understand the events drops significantly. Playing video games is hard enough. They engage our minds and our bodies especially when they're challenging. But even the simplest games occupy some of our attention. So, with less brain power available to actively see and weave the story/action together and less flexibility in the presentation of events through time, real-time video games have a much harder time keeping the player in a state where he/she can perceive and participate in the action simultaneously.  

Fortunately, there are many design features that can be implemented into a game to give the player some mental breathing room. Lowering the game speed and action frequency is an obvious option. One can also implement pauses between moments of fast action to give the player a chance to reflect and catch up mentally. After dying, instead of jumping right back into the action with a quick respawn being forced to spend a little time to reflect on what went wrong goes a long way. Naturally, the cleaner the game the easier players can weave their stories. 

Likewise, moments when one to all players in a match are forced (or nearly so) to merely observe the results of an action event play out is a highly effective design feature. By contextually and momentarily taking away or greatly reducing the amount of control a player has in a match (mostly in terms of interplay), players don't have to worry about playing. These moments leave the player free to devote more brain power to observing. These spectator sport moments can help the player weave together the action. As the players suspend control and hold their breath, a unique kind of tension can be created and sustained that's not possible with non-stop action gameplay. 

The following are a list of spectator sport moments (whether hard coded into the mechanics or emergent occurrences) in games that are otherwise action packed. 


  • Brawl Strong KO/hits (see video1 or video2): In this fighter, players must ring out opponents rather than whittle down their HP. The more damage a target has the faster and farther they are launched from attacks. When going for that kill shot, you never know how the target will influence the direction of their trajectory to try and survive the hit. So for most characters in most situations, landing potential kill shots is followed by a brief moment where players and spectators are united waiting to see the outcome. 
  • Basketball shooting the ball (particularly 3 pointers and game winning buzzer beaters): In real life sports and in video games the offense/defense action and floor movement often slows to a stop after the ball is shot. As the ball moves through the air the game seems to wait until it falls into the hoop or bounces away. 
  • Tennis lob shots (see video): When the volley is lobbed well above the head of a defender at the net, the only thing left for players and spectators to do is watch to see if it lands in the court or out. The higher the ball, the more suspense. 
  • Street Fighter 4 Ultras, Supers, and long combos (see video): After the first hit connects the rest of the sequence usually connects without fail. For Ultras specifically, the animations can be lengthy with each hit dealing different amounts of damage. Though the hardcore may know exactly how many points of damage is dealt from these combos, it's hard to tell when the target player will actually be KOed from them. With damage scaling and characters with varying HP, watching a combo play out until the end is often a suspenseful spectator sport moment. 
  • Mario Strikers Charged Mega Strikes (see video): In this soccer-hockey hybrid players manage teams of 4 players that are constantly moving around the field. Only the captain characters have the ability to charge a mega strike. When activated the mega strike can unleash a volley of up to 6 balls at the opposing team's goalie in a minigame sequence. As the opponent attempts to block the balls, the shooter can only sit back and watch.  
  • Resident Evil 4/5 Mercenaries Melee attacks (see video): Depending on the target, the attack you use, and a few other factors successful melee attacks can kill a zombie target or merely knock it down. When getting a kill in time is the difference between continuing a long combo and dropping it, each melee attempt can be an suspenseful spectator sport moment. Yes, these melee attacks are very quick (under 4 seconds). But the point is they give the player a moment of engaging non-interaction with a variable outcome. Also consider that the player is completely invincible during the melee attack animations, so there's nothing to worry about.   
  • DiviDrive pushing the core: When you ignite a fuel cell in this perfect, traffic directing, abstract puzzle game a special animation plays. As it plays, the gameplay is paused. It's difficult to calculate exactly how much distance (points) you'll earn for your efforts. During the animation, all you can do is hold your breath and hope you'll either earn another bonus car, not earn another bonus car (sometimes you just don't need it yet), or clear your previous high score. 
  • Mario Kart Series: There are large jumps on various tracks in this series where the player can do little while airborne. While flying through the air other racers can attack you with various items in various ways. Hit the jump, hope for the best, and watch the results. Riding the loop in Mario Kart DS Rainbow Road is especially vulnerable to incoming blue shells and lightening. 
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Reader Comments (5)

I must admit that it's mildly insulting to comandeer a latest entry for the sake of inquisition, but my circumstances are strained.
I am merely curious as to how you would percieve a recent rom hack, Normal Mario Bros (not the other one based around drug ereferences, the wonderful one based around limits). While critiques towards reductionist analysis and a particularly oddly limited scope may mean a less fascinating piece then that made by the creator or by Anthropy, you belaboured examinations of the original property may reveal some interesting truths.
[I mean to be less insulting but I'm running by stream of thought here and am apologetic for such lines.]

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClaws

@ Claws

Feel free to use my email (found in my "about me" page at the top of the site) or use the meebo messenger on the side if you don't think a comment is appropriate. I'm fine with any option.

You're not insulting at all. I'll look into this game. I'm surprised that you didn't leave a link to the site. I'm a bit busy this week, so in about a week or so feel free to give me a reminder.

Along with the points you made, I also see spectator moments as a useful tool for accentuating a game's action. I would classify it with other contrasts in games, such as the safe rooms in Resident Evil (which punctuate the regular feeling of dread by granting the player a brief chance to feel protected). In action games these brief jumps out of combat give the player an opportunity to anticipate the action once again, making it seem fresh once they jump back in. It's a good way to prevent the game from feeling like a grind I think.

In my mind I compare it the chorus of a song, which is usually the best part, but the song can't be all chorus, there has to something to break up the good stuff so that the entire thing doesn't become monotonous.

One game I've always felt needed a spectator moment was the guitar heroes/rock band series. There are times when it very much feels like a grind to get through a song. The Elite Beat Agents games break up the music gameplay three times in each song and because of that the songs never feel exhausting. Of course, with Rock Band being a party game, intended somewhat to be be played with actual spectators watching, I don't see how a break in that gameplay could ever be implemented.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSlampire

@ Slampire

Well put all around.

Though certainly some songs in Guitar Hero are a battle from start to finish others have simpler, familiar choruses that function as breaks just as they do when listening to music. As far as designing spectator sport moments into the game, don't real rock stars take time to march around the stage at a low point in their songs. Some performers even take turns tossing solos back and forth too. Maybe they could do something with these ideas.

Elite Beat Agents/ Ouendan does a great job breaking up the action to tell the story, give the player a break, and give the player some feedback on how well he/she is doing.

Being a spectator doesn't mean that you can all go watch and watch.
Learning some techniques can make you acquire by watching.

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