By Alex Hemsley
Last Thursday was the start of an amazing crowdsourcing experiment. A user on Twitch.tv, the video game streaming website, set up an emulated game of Pokémon Red whilst also creating a script to allow the entire game to be controlled by the channels chat feature. Viewers could type any of the normal Gameboy inputs (A, B, Start, Select, Up, Down, Left, Right) right into the chat box and they would be inputted to the game directly, all without being curated. Twitch Plays Pokémon was born.
Twitch.tv allows users to set up streams of their games, giving people the power to log on and watch an online personality play a video game. Almost all of the viewers are gamers themselves, which made Pokémon the perfect choice for this social exercise. Its popularity and deep game design makes the series popular amongst both causal and intense players, which kept the barrier to entry low.
In the beginning, the viewer count was low as the first day was dominated by only a small group of user, grinding through the Pidgeys and Rattatas as they began their quest to becoming a Pokémon master, or at least a part of one. This small group of heroes managed to catch some Pokémon, notably nicknaming their new Rattata in the process as the now retired king of late night, JLVWNNOOOOOO (Jay Leno).
This group of heroes managed to beat Brock, the first gym leader, in the process hoping that the most difficult part of their journey, learning how to work together, was behind them. They were wrong.
A few tweets here, a forum post there, suddenly what started out as thirty odd players trying not to fight each other as they moved between grassy areas, quickly ballooned to thousands. The viewer count past 5,000 by Friday afternoon, by midnight it was over 10,000. Saturday saw their viewership double again, jumping well past 20,000 and by mid-day Sunday 50,000 viewers were typing in inputs as fast as twitch would let them.
Basic things that normal players wouldn't struggle with, like walking, entering and exiting building, navigating menus, became the most difficult aspect of the game. On Sunday it took nearly 6 hours for the twitch users to get into the right position to move past a bush that was blocking their way, using trickery and the in game geometry to do so.
On the opposite end, trainer battles, when they happened, became a joke. The chat spends so much time fight each other to get from town to town most of their Pokémon are stronger than they should be, making a lot of the fighting a joke. Well, as soon as they are able to select an attack and get out of the Helix fossil item menu.
An example of the fun struggles of playing a game with 50,000 other people was on display as they tried to navigate towards the fourth gym. A tree was in the way and they needed to use "cut" to get through it. What should've been a simple task ended up taking eight hours, as just lining up the in game character with the plant proved extremely difficult. In that same time period the chat managed to save the game over 43 times (even though they were barely moving) and look at various Pokémon in the Pokédex (an encyclopedia of all the Pokémon in the game) for a close to thirty combined minutes. A favorite of theirs seems to be Warturtle.
What makes Twitch Plays Pokémon part fun and part frustrating is fighting against the built in Twitch.tv lag. There it is about a minute delay between what is going on in game and what is happening on the viewers' screen. People are entering in their commands with a different set of information than what is actually going on, creating confusing when people are yelling to go left, but the avatar is moving to the right, because everyone typed that in a minute earlier. This in system issue had made for so truly entertaining moments, best of which was how often they character accidentally jumped down ledges because of delayed commands and causing the user to have to run in circles over and over.
That doesn't stop people from having an entertaining experience. Overnight a whole community of players has formed, with their own inside jokes and jargon.
Twitch Plays Pokémon is a beautiful, slowly unfolding, car crash. It's a surprisingly great metaphor for the failures pure democracy, when everyone's voice is equal nothing gets done, and people spend four hours stuck in behind a treeline needing to cut their way out and unable to do so. The question isn't if Twitch can do it, they will beat Pokémon, it's only a matter of time, the better question is would a monkey be able to write Shakespeare before the Elite 4 are taken down?
Alex Hemsley believes the only correct direction is down and knows this is a chimp, not a monkey. You can follow him on twitter @AlexHemsley