Breakaway is a 4 vs 4 team battle sport, built to deliver fast action, competition, and teamwork, and to be as fun to watch as it is to play. The rules are simple: Work with your team to seize the Relic and score it into the enemy team’s base. But Breakaway started as a much different game.
Breakaway began life as a 48-player competitive platformer code named Portobello, where two teams of 24 players raced to gather a bounty of gold from a small port town. During development Amazon acquired Twitch.tv, and when Twitch CEO Emmett Shear stopped by the studio to play Portobello with the development team, he immediately saw its potential as a Twitch game.
Inspired by our conversations with Emmett, we shifted gears and started heavily researching highly watchable games. We found a few specific things that keep first-time viewers watching a stream: gameplay understanding, tension/suspense, and relatedness.
Gameplay understanding is the viewer’s ability to understand what’s going on. Can a first-time viewer look at the screen and easily understand the objectives, follow the action, and know who’s winning?
Tension and suspense is what keeps viewers on the edge of their seats and engaged with the action. High tension is a result of several sub-factors, including:
- Knowledge of the stakes moment-to-moment
- Visual clarity, or the lack of “chaos”
- The perception of skillful play (vs luck), and unpredictable results (no one-sided matches)
Relatedness, the viewer’s feeling of connection to the game, the people playing, the broadcasters, and other viewers can make a game more fun to watch. For example, if a viewer feels nostalgia for a game, or enjoys the broadcaster or the team playing, the game will be more fun to watch because of the deeper connection the viewer feels.
As we researched, we started thinking about ways we could transform Portobello into a highly watchable game. This meant making significant changes to the core gameplay loop. Here are 7 critical areas where we focused to address gameplay understanding, tension/suspense and relatedness, in order to improve watchability.
#1 - Showcase competitive, skill based gameplay
One critical piece of advice that Emmett gave us was, “you need to give individuals a chance to shine.” He discussed how all the popular games on Twitch at the time did that in different ways—for example, Minecraft highlighted creativity with building, while CS:GO highlighted precision with headshots.
There wasn’t one way a game had to do it, but any successful Twitch game had to let players show off a skill in a meaningful way. We made adjustments to simplify the combat while maintaining a skill gap. We shifted toward a cool down-based system for abilities that favored good spacing and well-timed attacks.
#2 - Show the whole arena
We made a deliberate decision to dramatically reduce the size of the maps and make it a requirement that the whole arena be visible from the starting point, very similar to what you see in physical sports.
This provided a number of benefits:
- Everyone shares the same experience, since everyone can see all the action at once
- It removes any hidden information, keeping the playing field level and reducing the possibility of cheating and stream snipping
- Players and viewers rarely miss out on cool plays, since from most angles you can see the whole battlefield
#3 – Promote explosive action
Once the bell sounded to start the match, we wanted players to be able to immediately get into action or conflict. We compressed the overall time, from rounds, to match length to cool down timers. Our time caps out below 20 minutes because of our game rules: Best of 5 rounds; rounds are capped to 4 minutes apiece; players can get into conflict within 5-10 seconds of round start.
We also changed the core gameplay to be round-based, with the two teams competing to carry the single Relic into the opposing base. Round-based gameplay provided some great results:
- It created fun starting-line tension, where people wait for the starting gun, then burst immediately into action.
- It provided downtime between rounds that players could use to talk strategy
- It gave broadcasters a moment to pause and discuss builds and the last round, or speculate on the next round
#4 – Create a single point of focus
In early iterations of Breakaway there were multiple treasures, and thus multiple points of focus. This scattered the action, making it harder to follow since viewers had to continuously switch their attention to the most important “hot spot.”
So we created the Relic, a ball that must be carried to the opposing team’s base to score. This had a few advantages:
- It created a focal point for the experience—everyone could easily track it and be sure they were watching the most important thing
- It ensured that everyone shared the same viewing experience
- It made it easier for a broadcaster to tell the story of the game
#5 - Create more meaningful moments with multiple win scenarios
Having a unified point of action was great for focusing attention, and we also wanted to create moments that increased tension in the match for both the players and viewers. So we came up with two additional scoring scenarios that built upon the round-based structure.
- Territory Wins – Clearing out the Relic from your side of the arena. As time runs out on the round, move the Relic to your opponent’s side to win.
- Team Wipes – Eliminating all of the members of the opposing team so they are all on death timers at the same time.
Both scoring types happen at a much lower frequency, which makes them more of a spectacle when they occur.
#6 – Supporting moments
When important moments happen, they need to be highlighted so that even someone watching the game for the first time can recognize their importance.
During a traditional score, the game camera shifts focus to a view of the portal, with a slow motion replay of the last seconds of action. During a team wipe, the action goes to super slow motion on the final hit, showing all players the final blow.
Our research also showed that games that provide opportunities for big, organic moments are more fun to watch. Everyone remembers Daigo’s full parry comeback or xPeke’s nexus backdoor. These thrilling moments create drama and excitement and get us to come back and watch again—and they highlight individual skill.
When we looked through memorable moments, we found that the best ones were: a) rare, b) hard to execute, and c) impactful on the outcome of the game.
So we went through Breakaway’s gameplay to make sure it supported organic moments. We already had some cool potential with scoring. We wanted to make sure there were more opportunities, so we looked at all the actions a player could take and analyzed them through the above filter. We started to find other potential moments, like interceptions, ring outs, jump fade away shots, dash scores, 2-on-1 pass plays. The community and players started creating plays of their own with the tools they were provided.
#7 - Support spectating
A growing part of the viewing experience revolves around watching tournaments. We are big fans of Evolution, ESL, and the LCS. So we wanted to develop tools that would allow tournament organizers ways to highlight the action during events for the viewers at home.
We started broadcasting out of our own studio, inviting members of the community to participate in matches with the dev team. Broadcasting ourselves, and working closely with community members, gave us first-hand knowledge about what was needed to showcase the action as a broadcaster.
We focused on key features for our spectator mode so that any type of broadcast could benefit.
- Ball camera – Stays centered on the core action
- Free camera – Highlights bigger views of the battle and important side events
- Ghost camera – Follows individual characters and sees exactly what that player sees
- Player camera – Locks to a character but retains camera control with the spectator
- Reporting tools – Brings up an abundance of stats that are interesting to viewers, including network, K/D/A, equipment purchases, and more
In closing, I hope that you will find inspiration from this post in developing your own games. Thinking about the people watching the game is nearly as important as thinking about the people playing. Visit us at www.playbreakaway.com/alpha to sign up for our upcoming tests.