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Beyond Player Experience: Designing for Spectator-Players

UX evaluation and design of video games (sometimes referred to as Player Experience) is an increasingly important factor in game development. While most of the current approaches are focused on users directly interacting with the game content (players), this article aims to start the discussion around UX research and design considerations specifically for interactive spectatorship (spectator-players). Spectator-players actively engage in the broadcast in some way, simply chatting with other spectators and players, or influencing or even participating in gameplay. UX researchers and designers focused on games face new challenges in designing guidelines and evaluation approaches for these spectator-players. This article, motivated by recent projects at UXR Lab, summarizes opportunities in this new area of UX and highlights interactions that affect spectator-player experiences.

It is important to start with a discussion of those elements that increase the watchability of a game and make spectator-players want to view and engage with the game content. The key factor is the game’s subject matter; it is often very difficult to motivate users to engage with entertainment content outside their interests. Hence, the first step would be to define and understand the audience. Once we know who they are, we need to understand the human factors that are involved in designing for our spectator-player audience. Could our design allow users to show off their own personal play style? Could it facilitate communication between players and spectators? Should it foster a sense of camaraderie? Should it make the spectators feel as if they’re winning or losing along with the players? Could our design create and foster a bond between the spectators and the player to motivate a deeper engagement? Understanding the underlying human factors behind these, and other similar questions, can influence and affect our design decisions. Some examples of these elements include:

Competition. Creating a sense of superiority, it makes the experience inherently more interesting for people to watch and engage. Combined with the team play element, spectator-players share a common goal that can lead to feelings such as shared defeat, victory, or accomplishment, and makes the overall experience more meaningful. These elements contribute to a sense of affiliation for spectator-players, creating and maintaining an emotional connection with the game content, players, teams, or even other spectators. Finally, in order to sustain long-term engagement and viewership, a game must be capable of providing some form of content variation. This variety can arise from the emergence of new play strategies, the unpredictability of players, the appeal of unique in-game events, or the generation of new game content.

Image of a television with 2 video game controllers plugged into it.
Figure 1. Consider design elements that sggrvy and increase the watchability of games. (Credit: Samantha Stahlke, UXR Lab)

We must also consider a set of mechanics allowing for the active interaction of spectator-players with the game, such as:

Chat Input. Arguably the simplest mechanic to incorporate since the vast majority of streaming platforms already have a chat system integrated that can be used to make spectatorship more interactive. The chat system enables spectators to enter their comments (often for social purposes), and with the addition of a simple parser, can also allow spectators to enter commands. An example of this can be found in the 2014 phenomenon Twitch Plays Pokémon, which implemented a chat system where input through the chat was filtered and parsed to create input for a port of Pokémon Red that was running on a Gameboy emulator. Similar systems could also be used to parse chat inputs into commands for voting or polling on game actions.

Polling and Betting Interfaces. These provide a more organized approach than chat input for spectator-players’ interactions, whether they are set up to receive votes on topics or decisions, or to select the next event in the game based on the community interest. Spectator-players can directly affect what is happening in the game world and watch players, streamers, or other spectators interact with that content. Thus spectator-players can engage meaningfully with streamed content with a low barrier to entry.

Cheering and Donation Incentives. Examples like Twitch’s “cheer” mechanic allows spectators to spend money (or in-game currency) on virtual tokens that can be used to display special emoticons during gameplay streams. These incentives can be used to support a particular player, game, organization, spectator, or streamer. Additionally, game streamers often offer call-outs or read on-screen viewer messages to spectator-players who donate or subscribe to their channels. This mechanic allows spectator-players an opportunity to stand out from others and provides a sense that they are really contributing or influencing the game, enhancing feelings of accomplishment.

Raw Viewership Population. Provides a sense of team affiliation and team play for spectators, which can facilitate long-term spectatorship. Game interactions are based on spectator teams, providing the spectator-players with collective rewards. A spectator team can win against individual players or another team of spectators. Being rewarded as a team facilitates feelings of group camaraderie and creates community around the game. A higher level of this interaction would be Direct Participation, which gives spectator-players a chance to play with or compete against players individually. This is a highly interactive and socially rewarding game experience. Spectator-players can play as the main character or enlist a cast of extras to control minor allies and enemies in-game.

Content or Game Modification. Allows spectator-players to directly interact with the game and influence the gameplay by modifying elements of the game world, such as dispatching enemies, sending in-game resources, supplying dialogue, or changing visual aspects of the game. This direct input over some aspect of the game world boosts the sense of consequence for their actions and feelings of control.

By combining the human factors for content watchability with design elements and mechanics facilitating spectator interaction, we can create experiences that provide a deeper level of engagement and social connection for spectator-players.

A successful game in this domain needs to meet three key requirements: a rewarding experience for its players; watchability for passive viewers; and fulfilling interactivity for spectator-players. However, the majority of current efforts in games UX evaluation deals only with the first criteria (discussed in my previous UXPA article). Thus, understanding interactive spectator-player experiences requires the development of novel UX research approaches. Evaluation of such systems must recognize and adapt to the differences in users’ needs as they shift between roles as players, spectators, and spectator-players. We need to acquire information on spectator-player behavior (for instance, interaction with the system), the reasons for this behavior, and the experiences resulting from the interaction. By understanding the relationship between their behaviors, reactions, and emotions, we gain better insights into the complexities of these experiences. This can present a challenging task when evaluating spectator-player experience (SPX), as we are blending concepts underlying player experience evaluation (such as theories for flow or fun, for example, the intentional inclusion of challenges to make the experience fun) with those behind usability evaluation in web-based or productivity applications (such as evaluating ease-of-use in usability testing to remove or restructure any possible constraints).

A potential solution would be the use of a mixed-methods approach leveraging both analytics and other user research techniques, like interviews and focus groups. While game analytics can provide an effective source of continuous data regarding spectator-players’ actions, other methods can help to contextualize this data and provide researchers with a more complete basis for analysis.

An example of this mixed-methods approach can be found in a project at the UXR lab, where spectator-players interacted with a game through in-game currency that could be used to purchase items that would affect the gameplay. Currency management was the main mechanic for the spectator-players. The key goal of our evaluation study was to help developers understand the currency system of the game and spectator-player spending habits, and to measure the impact of purchasing on player engagement. Because this was a live steaming game, we chose to have all the study participants play the game in the same general session as other online players. We tracked participants’ information, time, and purchase data for every single change-of-currency event in the database. It was very important for us to know the total amount of in-game money spent by participants and the breakdown of spending between items. To achieve this, we created database queries that would format the data in various pivot tables (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2. Currency spend per spectator per item
Figure 2. Currency spend per spectator per item. (Credit: Thomas Galati, UXR Lab)

We also conducted a post-gameplay focus group to gather collective feedback from all the participants in the gaming session. Focus group questions were crafted based on the participants’ purchase metrics gathered during the gameplay sessions, targeted around the primary research goal of understanding player spending habits. For example, we could ask questions about specific participant behavior such as why User 2 (see Figure 2) did not purchase Item D when all other participants had. Metrics collected during the gameplay were used to structure the focus group discussion and helped us to identify what the player-spectators felt were the most impactful items, as we could see and ask them very specifically about their purchases. Our MIGS 2017 presentation (indicated in the further reading section below) provides more evaluation examples.

This article aimed to present design opportunities for the development and evaluation of novel games aimed at delivering interactive spectator-player experiences. This new category of games will need to effectively engage players, spectators, and spectator-players to fulfill its potential, providing both enjoyable gameplay and compelling entertainment. The mechanics discussed may be applied outside of the games industry, having wider applications in the field of interactive entertainment, such as interactive television programming and sports broadcasting.



This article is motivated by recent projects at UXR Lab where we contributed to two under-development game IPs. I would like to thank and acknowledge the researchers who were involved with these projects: James Robb, Samantha Stahlke, Thomas Galati, Naeem Moosajee, Nour Halabi, and Atiya Nova. This article summarizes the key lessons we learned from these projects. For more information, please refer to the further readings below.

Further Reading:

  • Pejman Mirza-Babaei and Samantha Stahlke. Designing and Evaluating Spectator Experiences. Presentation at Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS), Dec 2017. [Slides] [Video]
  • Samantha Stahlke, James Robb, Pejman Mirza-Babaei. The Fall of the Fourth Wall: Designing and Evaluating Interactive Spectator Experiences. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations (IJGCMS).
  • Pejman Mirza-Babaei and Thomas Galati. Affordable and data-driven user research for indie studios (2018). In Games User Research Book, Anders Drachen, Pejman Mirza-Babaei, Lennart E. Nacke (Eds). Oxford University press (2018).
  • Anders Drachen, Pejman Mirza-Babaei, Lennart E. Nacke (Eds). Games User Research. Oxford University press (2018).




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