It's no secret that livestreaming has changed the way people consume games. The rise of Twitch over the past few years has seen a shift in the role stream hosts play in exposing titles after and, in some cases, prior to launch.
PRs are constantly searching for ways to get Twitch users playing their games, and even journalists among the traditional games press use streams to create editorial events, giving their readership a longer look at an upcoming game.
More recently Microsoft announced that, following its acquisition of streaming tech Beam, it was bringing new broadcasting tools to Windows 10 and building them into Xbox One to give more users the chance to host their own streams. And Lumberyard, the game engine launched by Twitch parent Amazon, contains several features that integrate with the video platform.
"Over 80% of the top games include multiplayer in some capacity, and 90% of the most watched games on Twitch are multiplayer"
But why, beyond the obvious benefits of Amazon connecting two of its businesses, is the firm (and so many others) working so hard to cater to streamers?
"With the advent of the Internet age, community became an integral part of the video game world," says Garnett Lee, who handles developer relations for Lumberyard. "Over 80% of the top games include multiplayer in some capacity, and 90% of the most watched games on Twitch are multiplayer. Game studio roles that didn't exist previously, such as community manager, are as important today as game designers were ten years ago.
"Streaming is yet another social evolution and brings community participation to a whole new level. So we don't think it's surprising at all that community, multiplayer, and cloud features are critical to tomorrow's game engines and devices."
In fact, while Lumberyard currently has the advantage in terms of direct ties to Twitch, Lee fully expects all major games engines and tools provider to introduce functionality designed with livestreaming in mind.
"Today, if a game engine shipped without a physics engine or an animation system, that would be unthinkable," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We strongly believe that community features and deep cloud integration will follow the same pattern. We already hear that frustration from developers, building the same backend or fundamental social features from scratch over and over again. Tools and technology that don't embrace the cloud and the existence of mass communities like Twitch are going to struggle."
"Tools and technology that don't embrace the cloud and the existence of mass communities like Twitch are going to struggle"
Amazon is attempting to lay the groundwork for this with features such as ChatPlay - which allows viewers to influence a game with chat commands, spawning powerups or triggering traps - and Metastream - enabling hosts to overlay customisable statistics onto the streams in order to better present information to their audience. However, while the company can outfit developers with these tools, it's down to studios to unlock more of their game to meet broadcasters' rising demands.
"Metastream was designed to give developers the power to decide what they expose to streamers," Lee explains by way of example. "One game may expose player and game stats, but another game could expose variables that are normally 'under the hood' of a game, like AI patterns or world conditions. What we've discovered is that even once a game has been released, no matter how much a developer has exposed, streamers want more exposure to delight their players. So we strongly encourage developers to continue to have conversations with their streamers, long after their game is released."
It's all well and good to have the ability to develop a game with streamers in mind, but when should studios be taking these influencers into account? After all, a game's primary purpose is to satisfy its players rather than those who are watching them.
"The simple answer is from the very beginning of designing your game, but let's dig into that," Lee says. "The games industry often thinks of technological innovation in terms of visual fidelity. Great graphics often determine the hottest game of the moment. While graphics represent an ongoing evolution, streaming presents a whole new frontier for designers.
"Few games have been designed from the ground up for that kind of audience interaction, but developers are thinking hard about this challenge"
"Just a few years ago, streaming was simply a broadcaster showing a game as they played it, and few game designers thought about streamers as customers. Then streamers started customising their broadcasts and using third-party software to become more professional. Today, games are taking the audience perspective into account, such as cameras or HUDs designed for spectators. More and more games are getting the audience directly involved in the action, which absolutely requires a game designer to think about this interaction from day one. Imagine the possibilities as designers incorporate both the player and the audience into the game from the start."
The key to harnessing this new medium, then, will be designing gameplay that appeals to the audience as much as the player. While eventually this will mean developing new genres and new mechanics, it will also require some innovation with established gameplay formulas.
"Playing a first-person shooter is exciting, but a spectating audience wants to see more than just one person's perspective," Lee suggests. "They want to see that enemy coming around the corner from behind you for a stealth kill, or even a cinematic replay of the best moment of the game.
"Designers also have to consider pacing and presenting stakes to an audience, so spectators clearly understand who's leading, when a team is coming from behind, or when a superstar player is having an incredible lucky streak."
"Designers can mine great material just from watching professional sports programmes"
Rather than looking to fellow games developers for inspiration, Lee actually suggests studios turn their attention to another, long-established medium: TV. Professional sports programmes, he says, have become experts at presenting information that summarises the match and delivers interesting statistics on the players and teams involved. It can even be used to set up dramatic moments.
"Designers can mine great material just from watching television," says Lee.
As the Lumberyard exec has observed, the majority of the most popular titles on Twitch are multiplayer-centric. Watching these games online taps into the same competitive nature that has thousands cheering their favourite football team on. The appeal also goes beyond this, encompassing people who want to be involved in something with other people - such as those who took part in the Twitch Plays Pokémon and Twitch Plays Dark Souls events - and those who seek to improve their own gaming skills, whether that's in multiplayer or single-player titles. As such, there are no specific genres that will help increase developers' ability to bring streamers on board.
"Competitive games like MOBAs, CCGs, and 'Twitch Plays' games get a lot of attention - but this is just the story of today," says Lee.
"Some people watch streams to learn deeper strategies and get better at the game, some watch purely for entertainment, and others watch to be inspired by the creativity and modding that some games offer," says Lee. "The connective tissue isn't actually genre - it's that all of these experiences are connected, and use the cloud to power their multiplayer, social features, and user-generated content. 'Crowd and cloud' are deeply intertwined themes.
"Audience interaction is a fantastic tool for game designers, but it's one that won't work with all games. The Twitch Plays phenomenon made it clear there's a desire for large audiences to play together. So far few games have been designed from the ground up for that kind of interaction, but we hear all the time that developers are thinking hard about this challenge."