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Friday, March 21, 2014

Guest Editorial: Understanding 'Twitch Plays Pokemon'

By: Gonzalo Lemme
The Twitch Plays Pokémon phenomenon, more easily recognized as TPP, has finally reached its end - or at least the first game did. The project moved more than 2 million daily visits to it's channel creator, but this success has left, what many consider, a substantial amount of collateral damage that seems to be permanent.

We won't deny that at first the experiment sounded brilliant. It's hard to understand why it's creator (which we don't know who he or she is, except that s/he is based in Australia) decided not to monetize this project. If it was intended as social experiment, which it certainly ended up being, it becomes easy to see why said decision was taken. The lack of ads, or even giving benefits to subscriber users, made each player as special as the next one. Yes, there's is a subscription option (5 USD Dollars per month), but in this case it should be understood as a donation to the programmer. The fact that each player is as important, or to be honest, as unimportant as the next one gave birth to the need of association in this utopia of anarchism.
But for those who are not aware of what TPP is, this project makes use of a conventional gaming streaming service (Twitch) and uses it's chat system as an input device for the game. The way that this works is actually pretty simple. With a script the programmer picks up the chat system and transform text into an input in the emulator program which ran Pokémon Red
In the beginning, when TPP wasn't as popular as it was by the end of its first playthrough, giving orders to Red (the game's protagonist) was really simple. Even singling out evildoers was easy enough, despite the flush of messages in the chat system. But, when the numbers began to rise into the hundred thousands, things got really interested. Why? Easy - the channel creator, once again, decided not to enforce it's power. 
Yes, this was the second (of three) times when s/he took action in the fate of the stream. The decision was that s/he wouldn't take action on evildoers and as soon as players that opted on going against the popular will, hell broke lose. Not only we started seeing organized players trying to get things done, but group of players started doing the same but for nefarious reasons, and the game saw some catastrophic events as a result. 

The channel creator was quoted on saying that, no matter how bad you are at this game, some progress was bound to be made, and boy was s/he right. I can't say if the creator ditched the faith in the community or simply forgot about the Safari Mode that s/he acted for the third and last time. 
The Safari Puzzle for those who are not aware is an in-game event where the player is required to reach a part of the game within a certain amount of steps. It seemed like less than twenty years ago, a programmer in Japan implemented this specifically to "ruin" this experiment. But this challenge brought the latest update in the way the game was meant to be played: users would be able to vote on an Anarchy or Democracy Mode. The Democracy vote slowed the game significantly but players had the chance to chain movements and vote on said chain of movements, rendering the game to a utopic democracy. The most interesting aspect of the game is that no matter the issue, people always opted for anarchy unless perfect coordination was needed, then the trend (75% of the votes were needed to switch modes) changed drastically. 
Its weird to report on this experiment. But it's really easy to make a point on any political view you have using this stream as an example. If you are all up for minimal guidance of your government, TPP proves that people can get things done and will associate to solve the lack of organization that a government brings. Users can argue that only because of a true and pure governmental action the game was given. 
But to me, TPP is about the birth and growth of communities. In the beginning you had people striving for a common goal. Due to the growth of said community groups were formed in order to achieve goals easier, and on the other hand fringe groups rose up in order to prevent said efforts. Later on, when the experiment was a success, the birth of a culture, the raison d'etre of a community flourished. Music, Art and Videos were spread among the users and rapidly became "acclaimed" within the community. Hell, we can argue that people were logging the whole journey, acting up as historians. And here we are, the media outlets covering this new group of players as if it was a foreign nation that caught the world's attention. 
And with this last group is the first of my issues. 
In my outlet you can search news pieces by term and if you search Twitch, you'll find two pieces of news, none related to TPP. We can argue if I wanted to attract the TPP crowd but truth is I decided not to. Assigning a news editor on a subject often requires a follow-up and the click-bait tentation was too big, so we opted out. Don't get me wrong, its an absolutely interesting experiment, but media outlets are all in for the clicks, for the ads, and a couple of sites only work on editorial quality, so to speak, which is far less appealing on the click business. 
Nevertheless I would agree that a few articles (2-5 max) is understandable, but beyond that, even covering daily it's just baiting users, even if it's passion driven instead of, lets call it greed driven. Feeding off a community is as despicable as it gets, if your outlet is interested as it seems on covering the event, specialists - aka the "historians" - should be invited to tell the story, not just blatantly feed of the results, but again, this is a really personal perspective. This should be seen, again from my perspective, as a current state of the industry where an 18 year old game, with an admittedly good experiment attached to it, took reign of the headlines of major outlets for two weeks in a row, without counting a couple where Titanfall was king. 
And let me be clear, while my outlet has a laissez-faire editorial way of doing things, most outlets don't. This wasn't an editorial decision, this wasn't because nothing of bigger importance happened in those weeks. It's because it was easier.
Because it was cheaper. 
The stream relaunched with a second generation game, and of course, almost four days in, the novelty wore off and 10 percent of the biggest user base is still active in the stream. 
The experiment rapidly showed Twitch's deficiency on some parts of the service and their team rapidly worked on a solution. Far from being perfect, thousands upon thousands of users were affected with chat and streaming issues, Twitch worked hard and long to find a solution and we can establish that it worked. My biggest concern is that some games are going to be affected by this experiment, without a doubt. 
We already saw Dead Nation on the PS4 getting some kind of stream interaction and Atlus' upcoming game will do the same. It is very possible that these features were built into the game - and actually it's most likely that they were - but this won't prevent companies whose plan didn't involve streaming options to start actively pursuing these efforts. The issue is that single-player and even multiplayer games adding stream features will enhance the experience but only for a handful of players, even if optional, the complete experience is locked behind a wall: on single player you will need either an internet connection and a crowd so you can enjoy the definitive game experience. Additionally, extra player interaction which is beyond of the creator's control detriments the curated experience that games inside a console should bring. 
There's no reason why my experience should be enhanced or destroyed by influence which neither creator and user can't control. 
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