Why are QTE’s so popular?

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Mar 132013

Ah, the dread quick-time event. We may have to blame Shenmue for its wide adoption, though of course something like Dragon’s Lair used the same mechanic. They’re everywhere. They are one of the simplest game mechanics there is. And I have done my share of bashing on them too.

What is a QTE and why do big AAA tentpole titles love them? Well, the mechanic itself is “press a button within a very short time frame.” An incorrect press or failing to do it within the time limit results in a negative outcome. In other words, it’s basically whack a mole, or that game where you pull your hands away before they get slapped.

This makes it a mechanic almost entirely based on reaction time, naturally timeboxed to a minimal duration. As such, it’s incredibly accessible (one button!) and minimally disruptive to whatever else is going on.

  • Tentpole titles need to be as mass market as they can get, so by having an extremely simple mechanic, they minimize barrier to entry to the game.
  • Heavily narrative games want mechanics that do not break the story flow, and provide as cinematic an experience as possible. The QTE is about as small as a mechanic gets, and requires next to zero conscious thought.

In the case of AAA tentpole titles, narrative plus QTE therefore becomes the default gameplay mode. Often, we see highly varied stories where the protagonist can perform a huge array of actions, all condensed into the single mechanic. The story advances, the player feels powerful, and the systemic gameplay is tissue-thin. This then gets interrupted periodically with richer game interludes, such as combat sequences — still pretty simple, but rich enough to allow things like advancement and preparation and some degree of strategy, all of which are required to keep the player invested.

So QTE’s are there to help big titles reach the mass market, and to do better storytelling. But there is one huge irony.

Reaction time is not a mass market skill.

We all know this. Physical skill in general is not really mass market. When we examine the landscape of mass market titles, we find that most of the successful games are fairly slow (or at least start that way) or even turn-based, and that they generally involve mental skill rather than pure reflexes.

Just glance over the most popular genres:

  • hidden object games, heir to the adventure game. There are timers, sure, but the game is Where’s Waldo. The game skill is not reaction to stimuli, but visual perception.
  • match-3 games and puzzle games like Tetris, which require more advanced controls than QTEs do. There may be time pressure (usually ramping gradually), but the central challenge is a different core mechanic.
  • management games, where again, time is a factor, but the core challenge is actually planning and queueing.
  • the entire suite of games adapted from analog gaming, such as Bingo and poker and the like.
  • even game shows, where you may need to buzz in, but you have to know an answer

The mass market audience not only doesn’t seem to chase after games that are just about who can slap a button the fastest, but also seems to prefer games with deeper mechanics.

So who would prefer a purely reaction time based exercise?

  • Young folks, for sure. Reaction time is on a steady rise until age 20 or so, and the theory of fun would predict that therefore there would be a strong biological incentive to practice the skill. And reaction time declines gradually after a certain age, and rapidly after reaching advanced ages.
  • Probably those acculturated to show off their reflexes: men. Many studies have shown faster reaction times for males than females, though there is some dispute about measurement techniques. And the gap seems to be narrowing in more recent studies, so it may simply be that women were not given the opportunity to develop the skill until relatively recently. (And it may be that games are actually helping to train reaction times in girls, alongside things like greater access to sports activities, etc. Again, something mentioned in Theory of Fun).

All of which leads up to a big question: to what degree have AAA tentpoles actually been limiting their market by pursuing the wrong mechanic in the name of accessibility?

  21 Responses to “Why are QTE’s so popular?”

  1. I’d argue that they aren’t minimally disruptive. They are highly disruptive. When I’m enjoying the flow of platforming, combat or just a story sequence, the last thing I want is to be shoved into a reflex test, especially if it uses different buttons. Then, I’m just looking for the button cues so I don’t screw up, not really enjoying the spectacle of the storytelling. Heaven help me if I’ve been bouncing between game consoles, and my muscle memory isn’t yet acclimated to the new controller.

    …yeah, I can’t stand them. I have no idea why big game designers think they are a good thing. They aren’t.

  2. I think it starts by defining which mass market is being targeted, because it differs by platform and business. There are a lot more QTEs in Tomb Raider than Diamond Dash, however, I would argue that isn’t the connection. It’s the more core point you raise about manual dexterity and the masses. There I see a lot more correlation than distinction.

    Tomb Raider focuses squarely on the AAA console/core PC gamer crowd, while Diamond Dash is purely Facebook and mobile app. And their respective audience reaches are just as different, with the latter measured with numbers many multiples of the former.

    But both require dexterity of a similar mind/eye/hand coordination.

    To me, this points to an even more fundamental difference: use case and input device.

    Mass market adoption of the touch screen has resulted in manual dexterity for the masses at a scale beyond traditional controllers. While AAA console has largely focused on the ever-aging male demographic, web social media and mobile devices have provided a more frictionless platform to let a much larger audience dabble in a broader array of experiences, self-selecting into game genres that bear a lot of resemblance to AAA titles in the important ways.

    Collapse for the iPhone doesn’t require the back-back-left-left-X-X of a Mortal Kombat for Xbox 🙂 But nor is the latter common much more either. Screen slows down, find/press the right key or two-key sequence. My wife couldn’t play Tomb Raider. But she sure kicks my ass in Collapse 🙂

  3. I probably should have made a distinction between “broad audience” and “mass market.” What I was getting at is that QTEs seem to be used to broaden the appeal of AAA games by reducing the total cognitive load and maximizing the storytelling — but they are a mechanic that calls for specific skills. So they broaden the audience, but only to a point.

    I think the sort of dexterity called for in Diamond Dash is qualitatively different. The primary skill isn’t “whack button when light flashes.” That’s true of virtually all casual games… very few of the long-lasting hits have been built purely on reaction times.

    Also, the prevalence of QTE’s used in this way, and the difference between QTE-laden AAA games and casual games, long predates the touch screen. I agree that the device and interface make a difference, but even in the ultra-casual touch game market, what we see is stuff like Cut The Rope, Angry Birds, and even the endless runner genre, where factors like timing, physics, and rhythm matter more than pure reaction time.

  4. @raphkoster From my perspective, QTEs in AAA games exist not as a game mechanic, but as a cinematic/storytelling tool masquerading as a game mechanic. Games over the years, right or wrong, have striven to be more and more cinematic, aka more like film, and this brought about the phase where we watched endless cutscenes in between gameplay. There was a backlash against this, and so in response, the FMVs evolved into QTEs, giving the illusion of control back to the player during select cinematic moments. I’m guessing I’m in the minority here, but I do not mind QTEs in AAA games for the simple fact that I do not view them as gameplay per se.

    One exception to this relates directly to your final question — if you think about it, rhythm action games implore the QTE mechanic exclusively to provide their gameplay. And I would argue, although it is a dying genre now, that it was very much an accessible mass market mechanic for those games. The trick to the accessibility is in the learning curve and the difficulty ramping, which games like Guitar Hero got right, and were rewarded with mass-market appeal.

    On a related note, touchscreens have also brought about a resurgence of the QTE — see Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride, et al. Again, showing that the mechanic can be accessible for the mass market.

    To address your final question directly, I would say that simply including the QTE mechanic to make a AAA tentpole title more accessible does not work, however, having it as the dominant game mechanic may in fact increase accessibility. Maybe it is simplicity in mechanics, rather than depth and variety, that is the true measure of accessibility.

  5. I don’t think QTEs have anything to do with mass-marketability, especially because they are such a bad way of doing it. I think it is pretty simply that the designers want the players to be able to perform a specific, highly cinematic and cool action with their character and there’s no other gameplay means to do that. What is the combination of buttons that makes Master Chief grab an alien who is up in his face, twist him around and toss him down the elevator shaft behind him? There’s no possible way to make a control scheme that detailed and still have a good game. But in this case you also don’t want an entirely passive cinematic experience – you still want the player to perform the action. QTE is the only known solution.

    It’s more accurate to call the modern QTE the next evolution of a context-sensitive control. We don’t want to give you a specific for control for every one of these complex actions your character can perform, so instead we’ll just have your button do something different at a certain place/time.

    Personally I would find them more fun if the timing aspect was not a thing. They tend to catch you off guard the first time, and are incredibly easy if you’re expecting them, so in practice you just end up playing some cinematic sequences twice for no reason. Annoying.

  6. I don’t think a QTE and a rhythm game are quite the same thing. If you know the pattern, you can do a rhythm game based entirely on internal timekeeping. A QTE requires that you see the alert. You have a fixed window in which to react.

    In an endless runner, not only is there a rhythm quality (they are built around blocks of distance between obstacles) but there is a timing factor with a lot of slop. One of the commonest reasons to mess up an endless runner is jumping too soon.

    That said, I AGREE with both of you, Ryan & Vontre, that the narrative aspect is really what drove most of it. But the narrative aspect is itself arising in part from a desire to broaden appeal, IMHO.

  7. “Let’s play a game. I’ll tell a story, you listen”.

    “That’s not a game!”

    “Ummm… okay, how about this? I’ll tell a story, you listen, and every once in awhile I’ll flash my flashlight and you raise your hand. If you don’t raise your hand, then I get to hit you and we start the story all over again.”

    “That’s a stupid game”.

    “But it’s a GAME!”

  8. Yukonsam, I think your game would be surprisingly engaging to children. Maybe sometimes adults enjoy being treated like children too; we occasionally suspend our rational thought and simply enjoy the escape into childish behavior.

    Reaction time probably doesn’t have to be a mass market skill just for men and young folks unless the game is PvP. The game just needs to be easy enough for everyone to play. Does being good at a game bring more enjoyment of that game? Certainly to some extent, if you are comparing yourself to others. But a lot of these games are single player and you do not have to compare yourself to anyone unless you want to.

  9. “A QTE requires that you see the alert. You have a fixed window in which to react.”

    Right, but also react with the correct input. I’m thinking Diamond Dash wasn’t the best example. Maybe Collapse. Yukonsam’s flashlight requiring the player raise their *right* hand. If they didn’t raise any hands, they get hit. If they raised the *left* hand, they get threatened. Timing and pattern recognition.

    Though I don’t know this was the point of your article. So back on that 🙂

    I saw the evolution of this handling of QTEs as a way to get the core to be more interested in the narrative of a game. In the past players would just click past all those “annoying cutscenes”, and would ridicule any game that wouldn’t let them. Clever use of QTEs adds value to paying attention to minimally-interactive scenes and almost by accident become more invested in the story or at least the telling.

    I don’t see that broadening the appeal to a larger audience though. These games seem to use QTEs mostly as a feature within a larger experience designed for a predefined audience.

  10. Lysle, it can be very engaging. I don’t know how much money I pumped into beating Dragon’s Lair in the arcade (although it’s not “straight” QTE — there’s an element of pattern memory involved that’s not unlike a rhythm game).

    But it’s still a “stupid” game, at least from the viewpoint of the audience. It’s an interactive movie where the interaction is limited to moving to the next chapter of the story.

    It’s somewhat of a tangent, but…

    What I always found compelling about RPGs, from the first release of D&D, was that the storyteller/dungeonmaster wasn’t in complete control of the narrative. Every player could change the course of the story. The more you tried to herd them along the path of a prebuilt module, the more likely they were to do something utterly unanticipated, creative and often gloriously and colorfully suicidal. Your players could literally ignore the kitten in the tree and embark on a self-appointed quest to conquer the world instead.

    We lost that when we went online and I want it back. There were aspects of it in the design of UO, you see hints of it in other sandbox games like EVE Online, and some single-player RPGs are experimenting with it.

    But here we are, still contemplating the most interesting lever to move the Viewmaster to the next slide. Maybe that’s mass market, but I don’t think it’s really stretching the potential of the medium.

  11. The sad truth is these events are driven by development needs not by audience needs. Studies performed on how players interact with games with narrative show a majority skipping all cutscenes, and if that option doesn’t exist they will sometimes leave the game to get a drink while it plays to itself.

    The idea of “cutscenes bad” permeated development studios enough for them to try and remove them, but the ideological attraction of movies still has so many in its grip they’re not able to give up on them. You only need to look at how much time and effort is spent in games on simulating obscure lens effects to know where too many in games take their inspiration from. As well as the status and respect, it’s also true movie making has a large body of theory that most trained artists are very familiar with which pushes games in this direction visually.

    The QTE allows the developer to feel like they’re making a movie, using skills they have learned in uni backed by a comprehensive body of theory, and avoid the stigma of the game just being cutscenes. It’s solving the problem in the easiest way given the teams and development community in the game industry, but of course it doesn’t actually solve the problem. In many ways it’s worse for narrative, the player cannot focus on a story if they have the view the screen as a series of pixels rather than an image. Scanning constantly for the shape of the arrow or X to tell them what to do.

    The QTE is not a design decision, the cutscene is the design decision.

  12. [Hurry, quickly press the X button] Um. which X button? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzyTJbubzr4 (recommended video)
    [Hurry press the triangle button] Um., I’m on a PC, I have no triangle button. (happens more often than you think, obviously a PC port issue that should never have happen in the first place)
    [You failed the quicktime event] Um, that’s because the QTE hint was shown on the other side of the screen of the action and for just half a second. (timing issue, framerate, rythmic clicking not so rythmic)

    I would just like to say that I have dumped (not bought/returned/burned/trashed/knifed/exploded) games when a QTE event has caused be to die for the n’th time (by n’th I indicate a value of at least 5).
    At that point it’s no longer a “interactive” it’s a frigging padlock and you’ve lost the key, they might have spend millions making the game, but if they actually want to hinder me progressing then that is their loss not mine. (I’m talking of the latest Lara Croft game here), luckily I got to test it for a few hours, and thanks to that I’ll avoid wasting any money on it, had I known the QTEs was that bad in it I would not even have bothered testing it.

    The bad QTE’s are reactionary ones, a lot of times you need to press some key, and the next time some other key. If it was just a single “action” or QTE key then that would not be so bad as that would be consistent.
    But when the game shouts at you to press space and so far in no previous QTE have you used space, and before you know it you failed and you have to watch the QTE intro cinematic once again. If unlucky a checkpoint from several minutes earlier is loaded.

    Why does no games provide QTEs that make sense?
    Take this following idea (which I just came up with now, as I’m writing this)..

    If the developers want to make a QTE and have the player dodge left or right or jump, then do not pop up a QTE button instruction on the screen. Simply check if (on a PC) the player press the left or right direction key ((A or D for example).
    Or if the QTE is to have the player jump in time for something, do not show any text, just check if they press jump (on a PC usually it is the space key) in time.

    If the player dies running into a boulder they probably understand they should have dodged it (if not, then they have bigger issues than playing games), most likely they would dodge it on the first try (as the player retains character control at all times, unlike typical QTE’s which are interactive cutscenes).

    If the player fails 3 times in a row (3 deaths) then show a tip on screen (Press Space to Jump), if they die again then increase the timing so it’s easier, if they die again (fifth death now) raise it even more, if the the fail on their fith try (i.e they die a 6th time), then silently “fudge” the numbers so the player succeed anyway, they will think they finally got it right (until their friend tells them that “dude, it always succeed if you fail five times” that is…)

    If you fail 3 times and you still do not how to proceed the likelihood of quitting is very high (hence why a tip should be shown),
    if you fail 4 times you are struggling (timing, hardware, frustration, disability?) and you get more distraught, (hence why it should be made a little easier)
    if you fail 5 times then not only are you struggling, but possibly close to giving up/quitting, (either make it even easier or fudge the QTE so it succeeds, the game might take notes and lower the difficulty on future QTEs)
    if you fail more than 5 times I suspect that only the people with potential for gambling addictions (“just one more time”) will actually continue to try again.

    Just to add another example, in many games you need to pound a key repeatedly to “get to safety”, maybe running over a bridge.
    But why not simply let the player figure out themselves that “Hmm, maybe I should try running over the bridge, walking across it and it fell when I was halfway across), (on a PC the “sprint” key is often the shift key)
    some may even take a running start and jump when almost across (even though it wouldn’t matter) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IH4DqLceoAs

    There is no need to take the control away from the player for a QTE, and no need to press buttons they do not use (or which has other purposes otherwise), simply use the “normal” keys they use while playing the game.
    If a cinematic action sequence is needed for story purposes, then why not just make it a cinematic, maybe right after that bridge jump so the player can relax from the adrenalin rush they just got when they made it “on their own”.

    Good gaming isn’t difficult if you do it smart. One would think that after how many decades of gaming now that this would be basic logic by now but apparently not.

  13. QTE often seem to be game designers’ bridge between gameplay and cutscenes. It fails quite horribly at both. Firstly, press the button/fail to press the button is not a meaningful decision. Secondly, in order to ‘win’ the QTE you typically have to stare at a section of the screen where the flash will occur. This is like staring at the speedometer while you drive – you’re going to miss a lot of important information.

    If I spent thousands/millions on a cutscene, I wouldn’t want people staring at some fraction of it and thinking about their controller, I’d want them reveling in the awesomeness being delivered visually.

    Then there’s the QTE failure state. How would you like to watch your favourite TV programme, and every so often a symbol appears and you must press the corresponding sequence on your remote. Failure and you cannot proceed with the program, but are forced to rewatch the last few minutes and try again.

    Even an awesome multi-million cutscene gets rather annoying if you’re forced to watch the first 1/4 15 times, the first 1/2 another 8, the first 3/4 another 6, then make it all the way through.

    If you want a sequence to be interactive – leave it interactive with normal gameplay control, don’t make a cutscene! If you want a sequence narrative, leave it narrative and hands off the control (or with control giving optional content like the Metal Gear series)!

  14. […] A weekly roundup of articles of interest to the design contingent out there. Koster on QTEs. […]

  15. The aesthetics of quick-time-events really bother me: no matter how beautiful your game, some of that beauty is going to be ruined when you see a neon green “A” button appear at the bottom of the screen. And of course the developers have to find an appropriate level of annoyance and obviousness with the button instruction, leading many to throw a comic book style “bang!” bubble around the button instruction, and have it pulse and dance, while you panic to remember what button is labeled “A.” I think we can all agree that the absolute worst QTE instruction is rotating the sticks. It takes me just long enough to be slaughtered to find out if that rapid circle motion that I’m demanded to replicate is clockwise or counter-clockwise.

    I’m curious to know of any examples of more subtle implementations of QTE instructions on the screen. I think of a game like Dark Souls and wonder what an artist could do to present such an instruction in a way that suits the games atmosphere.

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