Thursday, February 27, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokémon: An Overview

by Stephanie Cala, resident Pokémon Trainer for the Ace of Geeks

     Think back to a time in your childhood and imagine yourself playing your favorite handheld video game. Now, imagine that your best friend wants to play your game with you. It’s a one player game - what can you do? You can play through the story together and decide on what your next actions should be, or you can hand the game back and forth and allow each other one action each. What would you choose?

     Now imagine yourself, present day, playing that same childhood handheld video game with an average of 70,000 people around the world at any given time.

Welcome to Twitch Plays Pokémon.

     Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) is a channel on, a site primarily used for live-streaming gameplay. When you go to TPP’s page, you may find yourself hit by a massive wave of nostalgia. There, front and center, is Pokémon Red. The 1996 version that you had for your Gameboy Color back in elementary school. This game was the beginning to one of Nintendo’s largest franchises (second only to the Marios Bros), and has a special place in this bloggers heart. However, TPP is very unique in that no single player is controlling the game - the audience is.

     Twitch users that are signed in use the chatbox to type in commands. (Right, Left, Up, Down, Start, Select.) These commands are then translated into in-game commands and are applied to the character (named Red) on-screen.

     But it goes deeper than that. Remember the analogy from before with you and your best friend? Remember those options you were faced with? TPP also enables users to pick from two options of gameplay: anarchy mode or democracy mode.

     Users have spent the majority of the last two weeks playing through 
Pokémon in anarchy mode. Anarchy mode takes every valid command in the chatbox and translates them into in-game commands one at a time, and in the order in which they were received by the game. Effectively you’re taking one action, and then handing your Gameboy off to 70,000 people and hoping that everyone has similar goals to your own. Usually (and thankfully), most people have the same goal in mind. It’s just getting around the sporadic movements that could take some time getting used to. 

This is anarchy mode - note the stream of users and commands on the right side

     Democracy mode, on the other hand, is a more civilized (but slower) mode for the game that was later installed when the game came to a standstill during a difficult puzzle. While in democracy mode users type a command, and the game takes a tally of how many people have voted for any given command. After a few seconds, the action with the most votes takes place in game. The few times that democracy mode has been implemented have been for cases in which taking the exact correct number of steps have been vital to the story.

     For example, in 
Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow your character has to make its way through an area called the Safari Zone. Your character has to pay an admission fee to enter the zone, and at the end is a key item that you need in order to progress in the game. However, the player is only allowed a total of 500 steps within the Safari Zone, and it takes 230 steps to get there if you make a beeline for the end. This was impossible to accomplish in anarchy mode, so users had to defer to democracy mode.

     Users can switch between modes of gameplay by tying in either “anarchy” or “democracy” to vote for a mode. (A bit ironic for anarchists, but oh well.) A change from anarchy to democracy requires a supermajority vote (over 60%), while a change from democracy to anarchy only requires a majority vote. The mode is easily identifiable with help from an on-screen meter.

     So then a question stands: why not play the whole game in democracy mode if it’s more civilized?

     Well, there’s a really long answer to that which another Ace of Geeks 
Pokémon Trainer and I will tackle in a later article.

     The very brief answer to this question is PRAISE THE HELIX FOSSIL, DOWN WITH THE DOME.

     The less brief answer to this question is that when the game was first booted up there was no democracy mode. Users try to avoid using democracy claiming that it takes away from the social experiment and chaotic gameplay. Additionally, there are a huge number of users that have jokingly started a fake religion, wherein a key item (the Helix Fossil) has become a benevolent god figure that represents anarchy. The alternate key item (the Dome Fossil) has become an evil god figure that represents democracy. It’s a crazy story, just check back here for another article soon about TTP Lore. 

     So now, how about some stats?  How big is this thing, really?
Twitch Plays Pokémon began on February 12th, 2014. At this time while I’m writing the article, there have been over 31 MILLION viewers. The stream averages about 70,000 viewers at any given time, with approximately 10% of those users participating in the game. The peak concurrent number of viewers capped off at about 120,000 on February 19th. By then we were nearly halfway through the game, having earned four of the eight badges needed to gain access to the Elite Four - the end game bosses. After two weeks of non-stop gameplay, we have acquired all eight badges and are now training our Pokémon so we can beat the Elite Four. 

     What does Twitch have to say about this social phenomenon that is sweeping the gaming community?

     Twitch vice president of marketing Matthew DiPietro praised the stream, considering it "one more example of how video games have become a platform for entertainment and creativity that extends WAY beyond the original intent of the game creator. By merging a video game, live video and a participatory experience, the broadcaster has created an entertainment hybrid custom made for the Twitch community. This is a wonderful proof of concept that we hope to see more of in the future."

     TPP however has placed an unforeseen amount of stress on Twitch’s servers and chat system. In fact, Twitch has moved the channel off of their general chat servers onto a dedicated event chat server. (The dedicated servers are used for large gaming events that are often live-streamed, such as League of Legends Championship Series.) Twitch has taken this seemingly troublesome problem and instead perceives it as a welcome challenge. It gives them an opportunity to discover and fix new issues that only happen on a larger scale.

     In the end, will we be able to conquer the Elite Four and the League Champion?  Will Twitch's servers be able to keep up with the demands of the stream?  If we beat the game, what will happen next?!

     All in all, even if we never get around to beating the game, it has been a wonderful and fun experience that I'm glad to have been a part of.  Be sure to check out the stream on their page here, and keep an eye out for a future article going over some of the TTP Lore!

     And remember trainers - GOTTA CATCH 'EM ALL!

Stephanie Cala is a repeat blogger and podcaster for the Ace of Geeks.  When she's not nose-deep in a book or planning events, she's recently taking a liking to spamming 
༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ PRAISE HELIX ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ 
in the TPP chatbox.  Being a Pokémon trainer for over 15 years, she would LOVE to talk to you if you have any comments or questions about this article.

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