In the early days of online multiplayer gaming, being able to re-examine one’s failures was nonexistent gameplay factor. In your Quakes and Unreal Tournaments, death was a momentary break, and the manner in which one died was relegated to a verbal description – fragged, sniped, you name it, because the games did.
With the advent of widely-played shooters in the mid-noughties came a radical departure in form: the killcam. Defeat was no longer something glimpsed in your peripheral vision, and explained by a one-line killfeed entry. Now, in Call of Duty 2, it was an event to be replayed from your killer’s perspective, to eliminate any doubt over quite what mistake was made, what quirk of timing lead to the fateful moment.
Then, of course, a respawn and a return to normal service. In moment-to-moment gameplay terms this was not a massive shift. Rather, as Infinity Ward used it, players were being treated to a delay and a tantalising glimpse of another player that had, even if only that once, bested them. This was less a question of game and match balance, and more one of mentality and psychology.
The killcam rapidly became a power play, a chance to demonstrate skill and flamboyance, from 360° spins and no-scopes to tea-bagging and spray-tagging. While professional players might have previously been prone to showboating, now every player was guaranteed an audience of at least one for each of their kills, and felt some modicum of pressure to impress that viewer. Specifically this replay offered a chance to prove to their victim that they had lost because they were worse the inferior, less skilful player.
As time has passed, the killcam has faded into expected ubiquity. Some developers have used it in subtly different ways – DICE’s Battlefield and Battlefront series show you not your own death but your killer’s next few seconds of movement, to help expose their location and destination. This is more of a direct gameplay mechanic, and less of an opportunity for boasting (emotes aside). Indeed, the replays are often optional and frequently turned off by keener players. In Overwatch, for example, watching your death again is only sometimes useful, and spectating the wider arena for a few seconds might provide more valuable information and oversight.
Spectatorship, indeed, is a key and mutable element of games design in this of all times, and perhaps holds the key to the traditional killcam’s future. Compare and contrast –Unreal Tournament 2004, with no killcam to speak of; Call of Duty 4, with a brutally revealing killcam that lasts just long enough to reveal your demise; this year’s sensation Fortnite, with the option to spectate your killer, then their killer and so on until the game is eventually won, potentially half an hour later. Defeat turns the player into effectively an audience member.
As games have grown in cultural relevance and commercial power, so too has the market for watching them be played. Often scorned by the ignorant (“why would you watch when you could play?”), eSports has grown beyond the point of scepticism, and shows no sign of stopping. Alongside this professionalised model, aping the leagues and divisions of traditional sport broadcasting, has sprung a more unique playground for amateurs and personalities – streaming.
The rise of the most widely-used and famous streaming service, Twitch, has been stratospheric, and is now inevitably corporate, owned as the platform is by Amazon. In a manner similar to YouTube, this arena has catapulted lucky and tactical media operators into the big-leagues of earnings and audience. Already attracting millions of daily viewers and billions of minutes of content each year, the platform has now produced perhaps its first, and certainly its most widely-observed cultural moment. In early 2018 the rapper Drake, and a succession of other celebrities, joined the game of it-boy streamer Ninja for a night of Fortnite. They were watched by over 600,000 viewers at the peak of the stream, destroying Twitch’s previous record for viewers on a single stream.
This was a mainstream event, tweeted about in massive volumes and dissected in memes and analysis afterward. Greeted by the relative wit and inane chatter of the players, these half a million spectators were happy to watch cultural figures playing a game, rather than playing that game themselves.
The games themselves have brought us to this point, though. The rise of Player Unknown’s BattleGrounds, and the subsequent audacity of Fortnite’s cloning of its premise, has brought the next step in players’ understanding of their in-game defeat. While the impatient player can immediately quit their match and respawn into another within a minute or two, more involved, patient or eager-to-learn participants have a new freedom to observe. Where spectating would once mean a purely passive experience, whether on Twitch or through a dedicated spectate function (as in DOTA 2), it has now become the final portion of any game that isn’t won by the player.
Upon defeat in Fortnite, players immediately begin to spectate their vanquisher, observing them as they continue about their business. Since this business is the whittling of 100 players down to one eventual victor, there is a strong chance that an early kill will not be made by the final winner. Thus, when the player who killed you is themselves killed, you switch in turn to the newest survivor. Eventually, you will be watching one of two remaining players, before discovering in due course whether your bracket of the contest ended with the victorious player. If you didn’t back the right horse, effectively, did you back the horse killed by the right horse?
In mainstream gameplay terms, this is a new paradigm, but it feels at its core inspired by the traditional killcam. This is a method through which to either gain knowledge about the playstyle of your killer, or in more meta terms to learn about the game itself. It isn’t clear whether the designers of PUBG and Fortnite happened upon this confluence of streaming and gaming by design or luck, but their stratospheric and mainstream success will have clear cultural results
Moreover, just as countless planned games will now be adjusted to include massive ‘battle royale’ modes, the inherent ‘streamability’ of a game may be a growing part of its marketability and revenue model (for the suits, at least). Whether this bodes well for the prioritisation of interactive excellence and player enjoyment over the spectator experience remains to be seen. What is certain is that the in-game death bears little resemblance to its heritage, and is driving fascinating changes.