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Twitch Plays Pokémon was one of the biggest gaming events in the history of live streaming. Pokémon Red went from one of the most famous single-player games ever made to the biggest multiplayer game of the moment in the space of just a few days. An anonymous programmer had created a system to bring the simple controls of left, right, up, down, B, A, and start to an audience of hundreds of thousands of viewers at any one time - and the internet loved it.
We sat down with Twitch's head of community productions, Marcus 'djWHEAT' Graham, who has been with Twitch for 10 years, to talk about the history of this game-changing event, and how innovations like it help to alter and evolve the platform. Twitch thrives on groundbreaking activities like Twitch Plays Pokémon, and understanding an event that broke records like this is the key to the platform's future tech and ideas.
You can watch an edited version of our conversation with djWHEAT here...
GAMINGbible: Hey Marcus. In a nutshell, what was Twitch Plays Pokémon, from how you saw it?
Marcus 'djWHEAT' Graham: Hi! Twitch Plays Pokémon was an event in 2014 that saw an anonymous streamer put together a system to allow chat to provide inputs into a game - and in this case, the game was Pokémon. What ensued for the next 16 days was hundreds of thousands of people coming in on a daily basis to contribute to the progress of trying to make it through Twitch Plays Pokémon - to beat the Elite Four, take down all the gym trainers, capture all their favourite Pokémon, and ultimately just celebrate a defining moment on Twitch.
GAMINGbible: In the end, how many people participated in Twitch Plays Pokémon?
Graham: I believe it was 1.1 million people. That in itself is pretty incredible, because when we think about the games that we play today, we see all these games with lobbies of 64 or 100, and the idea of getting more players in to enhance a gaming experience is great.
But Twitch Plays Pokémon, especially on Twitch as a service, was the first time that we really saw the technology used in a way to facilitate that number of people playing at any given time. I think if we both walked into a game publisher or a developer and said, "We're going figure out a way to get a million people to play a game," they'd look at us and say: "You're out of your mind - that can't be done." When in reality, the platform of the video and the chat almost served as the perfect 'console' for a method in which millions of people could play.
GAMINGbible: Do you know where the inspiration for TPP came from originally?
Graham: I think prior to Twitch Plays Pokémon there were some really interesting attempts and sort of innovations that came around taking chat, or other inputs, to showcase a game. And it's actually been stated by the original streamer that their inspiration was something called Salty Bets - this unique channel based on an AI that presented two fighters from fighting games. It mashed up every single fighting game that you could possibly imagine. So you could see Ryu from Street Fighter taking on Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. The interaction that took place was that the viewers would actually bet on which fighter they thought would win. And so that was sort of the inspiration for the original Twitch Plays Pokémon streamer to say, "There is something really cool here about getting your audience involved and playing... I want to see if I can take this one step further."
So they developed a system that allowed inputs to come in from chat, be parsed, and then put into a game. And obviously, Twitch Plays Pokémon was kind of the milestone moment in which someone put together this technology and it worked flawlessly, and it scaled to hundreds of thousands and millions of people to play.
GAMINGbible: Was there a moment of surprise that came with the success of Twitch Plays Pokémon? Or was there an expectation that something set up like this would just work and gain an audience?
Graham: There were probably stages of surprise as Twitch Plays Pokémon was happening. That first surprise was, "This is genius, why hasn't someone done this before," and, "Why didn't we think of this, it makes so much sense." And then came, "Oh my gosh, so many people are playing, are getting involved, are really enjoying this". Then finally, "Wow, the viewers actually beat the game."
I think when we look back at it, it's actually surprising and it's so impressive in what was done. But I do think it was also a real natural evolution for using the technology that Twitch has put out there.
I think, to me, that's one of the special things about Twitch. At a base level it's pretty simple: you have this video stream, and you have chat. But what we've seen is an infinite well of ideas, of creativity, that has allowed people to create new types of content, and interact with their audience in unique ways. Extensions (interfaces that often integrate with games, built directly into a creator's stream) offered another kind of layer of the ability to bring the audience into the game. So for Twitch Plays Pokémon, it made a lot of sense that someone did this, and it makes a lot of sense that we'll see more content based on the concept.
I look at Twitch Plays Pokémon as another one of those moments where, of course not everyone is adding some sort of a Twitch Plays Pokémon to their content, but it created a new sort of lever that any creator could pull that says the boundaries of what you can do as a stream, as a creator, has expanded. And that's something that's always been really exciting to me.
GAMINGbible: Would you say that events like Twitch Plays Pokemon change Twitch as a site? Does the Twitch team take inspiration from these new ideas?
Graham: I think, I would say yes - it opens doors to new possibilities. We understand how people might be able to use the chat in a unique way. I think it became a point of inspiration but not just internally at Twitch, as I think it also became a point of inspiration for creators, for Pokémon fans, and for coders who have created new technologies for Twitch. It had that big of a splash that the ripples continue to have an impact - channel points are a great example, and so are extensions.
For us internally at Twitch, what Twitch Plays Pokémon also represented was a key milestone moment for technology where we got to experience what that type of heavy load on the chat system would do, and what we need to do to improve that so when there is an event with millions of people the chat system will be able to keep up with that demand and that load. So, on the technology side, it was a big win because we rarely have those moments where we get to experience, like, oh this is what happens when millions of people spam commands all at the same time. Now we can improve on those areas.
GAMINGbible: What is the content that you enjoy seeing on Twitch?
Graham: For me, the most exciting days on Twitch are when I discover something completely new, you know? I guess in Twitch-years I'm definitely an old man, as I've been here for ten years, and [Twitch predecessor] Justin.tv before that, so I feel like I've seen this evolution of content that never stops evolving before my eyes. So when we see things like Twitch Plays Pokémon, when we see things like the Trading Card Game pack opening streams, when we see things like, "I've created this game show that I'm now doing with other streamers in the community" - it's really those types of content that, to me, are the most fascinating. I personally love to think about, "Wow this is such a great idea, who is this going to inspire and what sort of content are they going to make as a result?"
It's hard to sit here and say, "What do you think content is going to look like in five years?" We could do that all day; we could spend eight hours brainstorming and we could be so wrong. But that's one of the things that I love about the content that we're seeing on Twitch. There is never a week that goes by where I'm not surprised by something that I'm seeing, or just completely flabbergasted by the creative or the genius behind the ideas and the content that creators are bringing to the platform.
You can find djWHEAT's personal Twitch channel here.
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