How 120,000 players managed to play one epic game of Pokemon


A screenshot of "Twitch Plays Pokemon," a crowd-sourced game that's drawn thousands of players, who've managed to play a pretty decent game of the Pokemon franchise's earliest iteration. Screengrab by Hayley Tsukayama

It's said that too many cooks spoil the broth, but somehow thousands of players have been able to stumble their way through a game of Pokemon Red/Blue together. Twitch is a Web site that lets people broadcast video games to the world. Ordinarily, watching a Twitch stream is a passive experience. But for over a week, members of the game-streaming service Twitch have been mesmerized by a new channel, "TwitchPlaysPokemon," that's controlled purely by viewers via Twitch's chat feature.

The idea is that any player can type "up" -- and the Pokemon trainer in the streaming game will move accordingly. With up to 120,000 players at any given time, however, there's a little more lag and a quite a bit more dithering. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the protagonist would never end up more than three steps from the starting point.

But, against all odds, it's working. Somehow a group the size of the population of Santa Clara, Calif., has made it a little over halfway through the first-generation Pokemon game, Pokemon Red/Blue.

So far, Twitch estimates that at least 738,000 individuals have participated in the chat-controlled game -- and have been remarkably successful. The person running the stream, an anonymous user, has only had to make a few tweaks to weed out trolls who, for example, were spamming the menu button.

Now, the stream is also tallying up the option to let players work in "democracy" or "anarchy" mode  -- basically to decide whether to tally up suggestions before taking the next step or just let the thing run wild. (So far, democracy is winning. This is a productive group of gamers.) Watching a battle or an attempt to catch a wild Pokemon can be agony for some type-A gamers to watch -- just throw the darn ball already! -- but it's also a fascinating glimpse into a new, organic gaming community.

For Twitch, which was recently named by the Wall Street Journal -- ahead of Hulu and Facebook -- as the fourth-largest source of streaming traffic in the country, it's been a demonstration of the strength of its community. And the network didn't have to lift a finger to do it.

The service first noticed the stream gaining steam on its first day and thought it was a good idea, said Twitch's vice president of marketing and communication, Matt DiPietro. But it never predicted that it would sustain thousands of users for several days, gaining this one stream the kind of traffic the service normally sees for major events such as streams from the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

"I think it's fantastic that we had nothing to do with this whatsoever, said DiPietro. "It really is a bookmark moment for us."

Overall, DiPietro said, this shows that social video and gaming has really started to come into its own in a major way. He said he's seen articles about the Twitch Plays Pokemon stream in major newspapers across the world and thinks it shows that video games are popular enough not only to be a spectator sport in their own right, but to become a full platform for creativity in the way that films or other entertainment media have.

Players have added a layer of creativity on to the existing game, even beyond the collective gameplay itself.  Fans of the stream have spawned fan videos, a subreddit and an original art and music composition by Twitch user Darren Geers and Society Burning.

DiPietro also said that the idea exposes some room for new, innovative kinds of games.

"It's a proof of concept, and the potential is really, really interesting," DiPietro said. "Think about if a smart, innovative developer wants to build a game from the ground up with chat as a central input for community gaming. It could be a whole new genre."

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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