Game Design,  Travel

toy story midway mania and carnival games: fun to play vs. fun to watch

Front of mind for most game designers is making games fun to play.  But there’s another side to games, too.  Especially with Twitch and online streaming, it’s more and more important that games are also fun to watch.

But making games fun to watch is far from a new concept.  This can be seen in gaming venues like arcades that existed long before streaming platforms and home consoles were commonplace.  Go even further back and you get the midways of state fairs and carnivals.

Toy Story Midway Mania is a ride at Disneyland (and at Walt Disney World) that takes the midway and modernises it with technology.  But while on the surface it’s similar to carnival games, its focus is different.  Namely:

  • Carnival games are designed to be fun to watch
  • Toy Story Midway Mania is designed to be fun to play

Today’s blog post discusses these game design differences that set carnival games and Toy Story Midway Mania apart.

Carnival Games — Designing Games to be Fun to Watch

I’m drawn to carnival games – from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to Circus Circus in Reno, I almost always make a beeline to the midway where there’s a row of vendors trying to get people to throw darts to burst balloons, or toss rings around bottles, all for the low, low price of… well, you get it.

And then the weird thing is, I stand around and watch.  Actually, I don’t think carnival games are all that fun to play.

You’ve got a bunch of guys trying to impress whomever they’re on a date with.  A gaggle of kids and usually just one frazzled set of parents watching them.  Some teenagers being obnoxiously loud.  And that’s pretty much it.

For starters, I’m not actually good at any of the games.  And I don’t exactly find throwing three baseballs for the cost of $5 very appealing.  I know my chances of winning a prize, and I don’t like ’em.  Even when a couple of my friends have been convinced to shell out the money to try and knock down milk bottles (surely they’re weighted down, surely), I enjoy cheering them on, but I don’t often want a go.

I’m more fascinated by all the human drama going on.  The near misses, the trading up of smaller toys, the kid whose dad is cheating by stealing the ball from the empty slot next to them to try and get his plastic horse first in the race… I find these moments so entertaining to watch.

Why are Carnival Games Fun to Watch?

  1. It’s all about the interpersonal drama, not the actual gameplay
    1. Games are typically very simple and repetitive to watch
    2. I’m all about watching people’s interactions around the games
  2. Really big, colourful, showy sets and prizes
    1. Games with highly-decorated physical elements are easy on the eyes
  3. Slim chance of winning heightens anticipation
    1. You always wonder if the next guy could be “the one” to finally do it
  4. They’re putting on a show
    1. It’s a race, or an extraordinary feat, or a spectator-friendly sport like shooting
    2. If you have a good commentator, they make it funny and exciting


Toy Story Midway Mania — Designing Rides to be Fun to Play

I was thinking about this concept on a visit to Disneyland, after visiting one of my favourite attractions, Toy Story Midway Mania.  It’s best described by the audio-animatronic Mr. Potato Head (who was very well made, by the way) right outside:

It’s a game that’s a ride, and a ride that’s a game!

— Mr. Potato Head, about Toy Story Midway Mania

Midway Mania is basically an arcade of midway games.  You sit in a ride vehicle next to a pal and are flung around from screen to screen, pulling on a string trigger to shoot at targets.  It’s in 3-D.  There’s a points system.  It has all the markings of a well-designed game.

That’s because it is.  Toy Story Midway Mania takes carnival games and makes them fun to play, rather than watch.  While I don’t like carnival games, I find Midway Mania extraordinarily fun.  It’s so much fun to play that there’s typically an hour-or-more-wait line for the attraction.

“Toy Story Midway Mania by Castles, Capes & Clones” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Loren Javier

Why is Toy Story Midway Mania Fun to Play?

  1. Unlimited shots, as fast as you can, no reloading necessary
    1. Freedom compared to the limited playability of carnival games
    2. I particularly like the moment at the end when there’s one huge target and you give that string pulley system all you’ve got
  2. Cooperative and/or competitive multiplayer, depending on how you see it
    1. Improves on single player mode of traditional carnival games because you’re playing with and against a friend
  3. Substantial game length
    1. Not just a drive-by for $3 at the dart/balloon booth
    2. You feel like you get a worthwhile game session
  4. No skill barriers
    1. You can be terrible, and that’s ok (no prize or money or reputation at stake)
    2. You can be awesome, and you’ll feel awesome afterwards (all the points)
“Toy Story Midway Mania by Castles, Capes & Clones” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Loren Javier

Comparing the Design of Carnival Games and Toy Story Midway Mania

There are costs to focusing on fun-to-play versus fun-to-watch, but I think carnival games and Toy Story Midway Mania focus on the correct things for each format.

In carnival games, attracting new players is important.  They are often a spectacle, with vendors announcing the next game and giving commentary on who’s winning.  Thus, a focus on fun-to-watch brings in a crowd and generates interest.

Carnival games are also about high throughput.  Thus, they have short games loops to cycle through many players and more buy-ins.  It’s not feasible to support a longer game like Midway Mania when there’s a willing crowd of customers watching.


On the flip side, Toy Story Midway Mania excels at being fun-to-play because it’s a longer game.  It’s a ride, meant to be experienced first-hand, and watching someone play it would be far more boring.  There are also game design elements that make Midway Mania entertaining for players, that could not be supported in the shorter games on a carnival midway.

Points, co-op elements, competition with your partner, and a progression through multiple mini-games make it a far more substantial experience.

Examples of Games that Balance Fun-to-Play and Fun-to-Watch Design Techniques

As a game designer, it’s important to consider whether the focus of a game is to be fun-to-play or fun-to-watch.  Of course, games can be both, but having a clear understanding of where the balance lies allows designers to make better decisions during game development.

Here are some other examples of games that balance fun-to-play and fun-to-watch elements.

GameWhy fun-to-playWhy fun-to-watch
1. MarioKartCompetitive multiplayer with low skill barrier, substantial game lengthLots of neon and flashing lights makes an exciting visual, friends competing
2. TowerfallCompetitive multiplayer with low skill barrierFast-paced action, friends competing
3. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (or any horror video game)First-person, immersive, can easily trade off controlsAlso immersive for the audience, atmospheric visuals, jump scares
4. Lego video gamesCooperative multiplayer with low skill barrier, unlimited shots, low penalty for dyingSuper quirky art and story style that is fun to look at
5. CharadesNo skill barriers, cooperative and competitive multiplayer, can easily jump inIt’s a performance, also can be about relationships between players

Understanding and learning from all sorts of interactive media can help designers find new techniques to craft their experiences to make them just the right amount of fun to play versus fun to watch.