When Twitch Played Pokémon - MCV speaks to its creator

Christopher Dring
When Twitch Played Pokémon - MCV speaks to its creator

Last month an online game launched which took the gaming world by storm.

Over 16 days, the title was played by over 1.16m gamers and watched by almost 10m people. At its peak, 121,000 people were watching it simultaneously.

The game? It was the 1996 Game Boy classic, Pokémon Red.

If you’ve missed out on Twitch Plays Pokémon, let me explain. The game was playable over live-streaming video website, Twitch. Gamers could type a button press in the chat stream, and the in-game character would make that move. So if 1,000 people typed up, then the character would move up 1,000 times.

It sounds ridiculous, frustrating even, but what followed was nothing short of a phenomenon. Blogs and websites cropped up dedicated to the game, gaming forums were awash with fans discussing tactics, Twitter accounts liveblogging the game were set-up and that’s not to mention other YouTube channels and Twitch streams.

And the game received significant attention not just from the specialist press, but even the likes of The Guardian and the BBC.

“I’m very happy to have created something that managed to grab the attention of so many people. I had no idea this was going to happen when I started the stream,” said the game’s anonymous creator in an interview with MCV.

“Its popularity has a lot to do with nostalgia and the appeal of Pokémon, as well as the novelty of collaborating with thousands of strangers playing a game 24/7.” Twitch’s VP of marketing Matthew DiPietro adds: “It has made us all think deeply about the creative social experiments that can be done on Twitch. This is one of the most interesting things we’ve seen since we launched, and we hope to see more experiments like it.

“I’m very happy to have created something
that managed to grab the attention of so
many people. I had no idea this was going
to happen when I started the stream."

Twitch Plays Pokemon creator


“This is unique in the history of Twitch. We love it because it’s an organic creation by an individual member of the community. He conceived the idea and executed on it, and it has been a treat to watch it attract so much attention and participation. When you consider how developers might capitalise on features and functionality like this, the sky is the limit.”

Twitch Plays Pokémon has already inspired a series of copy-cat games, with Twitch users playing everything from Super Mario to Sonic.

But even Twitch Plays Pokémon wasn’t a completely original idea.

“I was inspired by SaltyBet, another Twitch stream that’s automated and has a heavy focus on user interaction,” says the creator. “I wanted to create a similar sort of stream and eventually decided on Pokémon as a good game to see if there’s any interest.”

SaltyBet was a game where viewers received a pot of money and were invited to watch a game of the free-to-play fighter, M.U.G.E.N. These viewers then had to bet their virtual money on which player they believed would win the match.

But Twitch Plays Pokémon is a very different concept to that, not least for the stories it inspired.

My personal favourite battle was when the Pokémon Pidgeot (or Bird Jesus, as nicknamed by the community) defeated the gym leader Sabrina almost single-handedly. Another one of the more iconic moments was when the players accidentally released 10 Pokémon, in an incident that has gone down as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

“My moment was when the under-leveled Venomoth managed to defeat Lance’s Dragonite,” recalls the creator.

There were hundreds of these historically single-player moments that were now being enjoyed by millions of gamers simultaneously, and then discussed and dissected in forums across the web. And whereas getting stuck in a dungeon for an entire day may sound frustrating, to these fans it was a source of mirth and a reason to throw together countless memes and animated gifs.

Of course, with so many people playing – not to mention a few trying to sabotage the adventure – Twitch Plays Pokémon did encounter a few hurdles.

So the game’s creator introduced two new modes to try and ensure the game could be completed. Anarchy mode is the classic option, where every input typed in the chat stream was replicated on screen. But Democracy mode allows gamers to work together, where only the most popular input during a 30 second voting window was used.

“As soon as it got big enough to where precise movements became impossible I knew I’d have to do something in order for the game to be beatable. Since the implementation of Democracy I have been reasonably confident that the game would eventually be beaten,” says the creator.

And beat it they did. After 16 days, seven hours, 45 minutes, 30 seconds and 122m chat messages, Pokémon Red was completed by over 1m players.

It was not just a win for the gamers, of course. Twitch – a live streaming platform that appears to grow in prominence with every passing week – has just witnessed the biggest advert for its services yet.

“I was inspired by SaltyBet, another Twitch stream
that’s automated and has a heavy focus on user
interaction. I wanted to create a similar sort of
stream and eventually decided on Pokémon as a
good game to see if there’s any interest.”

Twitch Plays Pokemon creator


“The fact that it has created a news cycle still going strong after 17 days is unheard of when there’s not a scandal involved,” said Twitch’s PR director Chase, who goes by just one name.

“Instead, it is all surrounding the compelling nature of this phenomenon in a positive light. Most notably is that it has been picked up by some of the broadest mainstream outlets, such as NPR, Entertainment Weekly, The Economist, USA Today, The Guardian and the BBC.”

Twitch Plays Pokémon is perhaps the clearest example yet of how gamers have wrestled back control of the games industry. It was created by a fan and then promoted, discussed, and written about by other fans. It succeeded without the help of a big marketing budget, a publisher or the specialist media. Much like DayZ and Minecraft, it’s a case of gamers doing it for themselves.

“To me it was more about getting the context to ask more questions then it was to find answers for existing questions,” concludes the creator.

“When I started the stream all I wanted to know was if that sort of format had any appeal whatsoever, I expected it to remain online for only a couple of weeks.”

And it’s still online. Once Red was completed, a day’s break was had before the creator launched a second game: the 2001 Game Boy Color hit Pokémon Crystal. And, remarkably, gamers have stuck with it, it’s still being played by thousands. Those Twitter accounts are still tweeting, new stories are being created and those forums are still active.

The adventure continues.

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Tags: pokemon , interview , creator , Twitch , Twitch Plays Pokemon

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