Was Twitch Plays Pokémon an anomaly or the way of the future?

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

By all accounts, Twitch Plays Pokémon was a massive event: an estimated 658,000 players and 36 million views for a gameplay stream that ran 24/7 for 16 days. According to a Twitch representative, the creator of Twitch Plays Pokémon could have scored a cool $100K in that timeframe, had they set up their channel to support regular ad spots. It got everyone talking not just about interactive viewing experiences, but a notion of crowdplay, where the audience can become the player. So, here we are; Twitch Plays Pokémon was a bonafide Internet event, YouTube is now allegedly interested in acquiring Twitch for $1 billion and we’re left to wonder whether the whole thing was just lightning in a bottle or if it really did clue streamers and developers into a new way to play.

If you missed out on the phenomenon, here’s a basic rundown. An anonymous programmer began broadcasting a livestream of the original Pokémon Red for Game Boy on Twitch, the live video service dedicated exclusively to video games. However, instead of simply featuring a person playing the game, the streaming channel was configured to accept button commands from the adjacent chat window. It’s a Game Boy game, so there weren’t that many buttons to choose from, but this didn’t stop the chat entries from transforming into a deluge of commands that saw the Pokemon avatar literally taking one step forward and two back…and then pausing and unpausing the game for minutes on end while blindly dumping items from the inventory. Yet somehow, miraculously, after just over two weeks, the crowd achieved victory in the game’s final battle. It wasn’t a room of monkeys on typewriters penning Shakespeare, but it kinda felt like it.

Mere days after the conclusion of Twitch Plays Pokémon, developer Housemarque released a PS4 update of their zombie survival game, Dead Nation, including Twitch integration that allowed stream viewers to help or hinder the player by voting via chat for “good” or “bad” consequences. Likewise Zombie Studios’ first-person horror adventure Daylight, which launched a couple months later, gave Twitch chatters the opportunity to trigger impromptu scares by typing specific words into the command field. Both of these examples recognized the popularity of not only watching players struggle through gaming challenges, but also granting them the ability to actively make those challenges more difficult, and, in theory, more entertaining. However, Dead Nation and Daylight also stepped back from the direct crowdplay model pioneered in Twitch Plays Pokémon, instead leaving viewers to be more of influencers (griefers, really) than players.

It’s still an open question as to why more developers aren’t jumping onto the crowdplay bandwagon, but in the meantime, app developer Overwolf is hoping to lower the bar for streamers looking to setup their own take on Twitch Plays Pokémon with a function they’re branding CrowdPlay. Set to launch this summer, CrowdPlay is an app that will purportedly ship with all of the tricky programming work done already, allowing streamers to run crowd-driven broadcasts of any game they want. At the outset, CrowdPlay will only support to a select list of games, likely to focus on older titles, or ones with simpler controls, but the future is wide open. If Overwolf’s creation takes hold in the community, it could normalize crowdplay as a possible choice for gameplay designers. Over time, players/chatters would become more attune to the mechanics of crowdplay (data entry, community organizing, diplomacy) and may even prefer crowdplay games to others with more traditional player/spectator relationships.

There’s the risk that the novelty of Twitch Plays Pokémon may have already had its 15 minutes. 

Yet, while videogaming as spectator sport is becoming pretty well established at this point, crowdplay is in its nascent stages and there’s also the risk that the novelty of Twitch Plays Pokémon may have already had its 15 minutes.  After all, part of what led to its success was the selection of a broadly familiar game like Pokémon, and the centralization of everyone’s attention on one Twitch channel. For a commercial game maker to release a new pure crowdplay title would mean shifting the business model from one based on copies sold to one instead based on viewers and channel subscribers. It’s an unproven approach, and even though Twitch Plays Pokémon was incredibly popular at its apex, the channel’s participation numbers dropped significantly after the initial playthrough wrapped up. It’s not that a game designed explicitly for crowdplay couldn’t find success in the wake of Twitch Plays Pokémon, but these are largely uncharted waters.

If nothing else, Twitch has a lot of cultural momentum right now, so projects that make use of the platform’s unique toolsets are in the streaming company’s interest to prominently showcase. Twitch actually pitched in funding and promotional support for Choice Chamber, a game designed specifically for crowd-influenced play via Twitch stream. While Choice Chamber doesn’t go for the unmediated-social-experiment feel of Twitch Plays Pokémon, it’s a step in a potentially more sustainable direction, which could mean, if all goes according to plan, you’ll never have to play alone again.