Rival Peak isn’t an established IP, it’s a new, experimental interactive TV format, and yet it clocked up over 30m minutes of engagement on Facebook alone in its first six weeks (and that’s even without iPhone support). Those are the kind of numbers that turn heads, and they are, with at least one triple-A publisher looking to create something similar “around one of the biggest IPs in gaming.”
Those are the words of Jacob Navok, Rival Peak’s showrunner and CEO of Genvid, the company whose technology powers the show. And he’s no games industry newcomer, having run Square Enix’s Shinra Technologies – a cloud gaming initiative – whose team went on to form the core of Genvid.
So then, I’m sure you’re wondering: just what is Rival Peak?
Well to sum it up, Rival Peak is a digital reality TV show, a blend of Big Brother and Survivor with a healthy dose of Lost thrown in too. And of course, as a digital reality TV show, it has big advantages at present, after all none of Navok’s contestants have to socially distance.
And social is a key word here, with the show being run exclusively through Facebook. So you might be thinking, what’s this got to do with games exactly? Well the show is an interactive event, with viewers able to affect the character’s choices and actions as they watch them live. It’s interactive, just not as intensively interactive as say Call of Duty.
“We’ve been together now for ten plus years, working on cloud and streaming experiences,” says Navok. “And we had a very strong philosophy that games that were built for the cloud would result in new experiences.
“But we started to change what we thought a cloud game was going to be around six years ago, when we first saw Twitch Plays Pokémon,” he recalls. As the stream phenomenon saw a world record-setting number of people ‘collaborate’ via Twitch to play a single game of Pokemon Red from beginning to end.
“There were a million people interacting with a stream. And it was a new form of entertainment. But it wasn’t about people playing, it was a community getting together to create an experience.
“And so we wanted to build a suite of tools, a suite of software, to help enable what we called massive interactive live events, millions of people changing content together, that became the basis of this company, Genvid.”
“And we started working on a series of different technologies, encoding, streaming, game engine integrations, that allowed for many people to interact with data at the same time. As we were working on this, we began working with external developers, so now we’re kind of like a Unity for interactivity. We work on Twitch and Facebook and YouTube. And developers are our customers to help them enable those experiences.”
Genvid’s technology has powered many titles, but Rival Peak’s virtual reality show has surpassed them all. With its shipwrecked contestants, relying on the help of viewers to survive, proving an irresistible combination.
“We went to pitch a TV show version of this to a lot of different platforms. And in the end, it was Facebook who showed the most interest. And as we began to think about what a full production version of Rival Peak would look like, you started to see elements of what you get in Rival Peak today.”
And what you get is quite something. It’s a 12-week show running 24/7 around the globe. With millions of fans watching the contestants live and guiding their actions via taps on their phones. With a weekly TV summary show, Rival Speak, hosted by commander-in-geek Wil Wheaton. Plus an array of streamers supporting the show though their own output.
By watching and voting, the viewers are totting up points for that particular character. The least popular character, in classic reality-TV format, is removed from the show at the end of every week. In addition, player input affects the relationships between the characters.
Genvid isn’t alone in creating Rival Peak though, with Navok noting a couple of key partners: Pipeworks and DJ2.
“About two years ago Pipeworks developed the idea for a living, 12-week experimental concept that built off of the work we were doing around emergent AI and social broadcasting. They coupled this with our interactive streaming tech and DJ2 Entertainment’s storytelling to create Rival Peak. The guts of this, including Pipeworks’ FORNAPS AI framework, were born from another prototype they’d been developing (and still want to keep building) and the architectural needs (12 sync’d cloud-based simulations passing viewer data back and forth to an unbound number of interactive clients).
“They had never made a live show before and were lucky – after a hunt – to find DJ2e so well aligned with the creative we collectively wanted to drive the story. What Pipeworks found most challenging was balancing their emergent simulation with the Rival Speak live show’s story set against a viewer-determined branching narrative that drove a do-or-die 12-week live experience on an all-new platform, with all-new technology, and multiple development teams around the country, with just over half a year of development time – and that year was 2020.”
And that’s where DJ2 Entertainment comes in, Navok explains: “The TV, movie & transmedia producers of DJ2 Entertainment joined both the Rival Peak and Rival Speak branches of the project in multiple capacities. DJ2 proved instrumental in the creation, direction and expansion of the integrated RP/RS narrative, as well as scripting and showrunning a weekly live-action program. Stephan Bugaj, the creative head at DJ2, oversaw scripting, and his experience as lead writer on some of the most popular Tell Tale games (Wolf Among Us, GoT, Walking Dead) was key to giving viewers AI contestants with distinct personalities as well as weaving a sprawling, audience-driven storyline that was truly enthralling.
…SO WHAT IS IT?
So how does it all actually work?
Well the virtual element of the show runs on a single server, known as The Authority. “That’s the main system that controls the show. And that lives on an AWS super node with multiple GPUs on it. It controls the simulation and the character AI, but it doesn’t do rendering.”
So then there’s 13 rendering nodes, one for the home screen and one for each character in Rival Peak. That means viewers can switch to any character of their choosing at any time. And those video streams are then sent out via a typical Facebook video stream, but with an HTML5 overlay in order to allow viewers to switch streams and to let them interact with the characters, by helping choose what they do next.
The format could be more game-like, but Genvid has tailored it very much for Facebook.
“We were trying to build for the audience and the platform’s requests. So the Rival Peak that we built for Facebook is a bit different than the one that we would have done for Twitch. Which is to say, we were asked to do something that is very simple and very mobile-oriented.
“It’s a very, very VOD television focus. But that’s not a question of the technology or the process, which could be very much more gamelike if we wanted. There was an explicit request, ‘don’t make this into a game please, make it into interactive television.’ The resulting product that you see is a response to the directions that we were given.”
A DIFFERENT CLOUD
So this is cloud gaming in a form, but it’s a very, very different approach from those who are trying to shift the games console into server farms. This is a far less intensive implementation, less interactive but still highly engaging it appears. And capable of reaching numbers that xCloud and Stadia can only dream about.
“The key thing to understand here is that Facebook is 99 per cent mobile at this point,” states Navok. “We started with Android, and we launched iPhone recently too. What’s really interesting is that while our number one user base right now is the United States, our number two user base is India, our number three is Mexico.
“Which is why you see the numbers that you’re seeing.” Half-way through its run Rival Peak posted figures of “810,000 registered users… 55m views of Rival Speak… 50m minutes watched on the series.
“[That’s] happening because we’re not doing one-to-one cloud streaming with ultra low latency. We’re using [Facebook’s] standard video streaming system to get it done. And so as a result, you have a much, much bigger opportunity. We have users in Palestine, we have users in Bangladesh, we have users in Argentina. Anywhere that a Facebook Live stream works, it works… You’re not getting that with something like Stadia, and you’re not getting that with xCloud.”
Of course running a 24/7 interactive livestream around the globe brings its own challenges.
“The way that we set up the live process live operations process, we did it based off of my experiences with MMOs at Square Enix, which was the follow the Sun 8-8-8 process, meaning eight hours North America, eight hours Europe, eight hours Asia.
“And so the streams will restart every eight hours, we’re on Day 53. Day 53 will take place for eight hours, and we’ll restart every eight so that each region gets an opportunity to experience [and interact with it] it in their real time.”
The show is a blend of user-directed action alongside a scripted arc of mysteries. So how does that play out for the production team every week? As at the start of the week, they don’t know who’s going out.
Once that’s decided by the players, the team has to adjust dialogue for the characters, work that into the Rival Speak show script with Wil and create animation to support the event.
“It looks like a very well polished TV show. And it is, the episodes are really nicely done to watch. But it is really done on the fly in the days before because we don’t know what the users have done.
“We know some things that are going to happen because there are events that we’ve pre-packaged into it. We know that there’s going to be a cutscene but we don’t know which characters are going to be in it. We don’t know which ones the users have selected. So it’s a very intense process.”
The narrative team has impressive experience, though. “There are a lot of branching narratives. The writing team is ex-Telltale, the group that did The Wolf Among Us, so they’re very used to these branching narrative products, which is one of the reasons we brought them on.”
Although Rival Peak isn’t quite like a Telltale game. “It’s a branching narrative where the rest of the users will never see those branches. It’s not like an adventure game where you can go and press the reset button. And so we build that branch based off the user’s interactions, we have some of it pre-locked and loaded – and we have some of it that simply isn’t. Therefore it’s a very, very intense, daily process.
“If you look at where we are here, on Day 53, the look and feel of the area and locations and the stuff they’re doing. These are all very, very different from where we began the show. They have different animations and different features and different functionalities than where we began the show. This area here, this campground is quite a different location than where we started in those initial camps. And it’s going to get more and more strange as they begin to go up the mountain and discover different mysteries.”
While it’s based on a familiar format, Rival Peak still had some teething troubles when it came to explaining itself to its newfound audience, Navok tells us:
“We had two problems that came from the concept being fundamentally unique. The TV audience didn’t understand that they could interact and didn’t understand that what they did affected things. While the video game audience thought that they would control the characters.”
“We’ve had to educate them significantly,” Navok continues. “And we did that by constantly iterating on the tutorial, though I’m not sure that we’ve still gotten to a place where the thing makes sense to everyone. But we do now have Wil introducing it in the tutorial and explaining it to you.
“We’ve got a tutorial that takes you through every interaction and functionality and what it means. But it’s a constant tweaking process. I think we’ve redone this tutorial six times, since we started, once every week, based off of where we see that we’re failing to explain things to users.”
Of course, endless iteration of the tutorial is not at all unusual for say a mobile game, but Rival Peak, as a 12-week live season, doesn’t really have the option to soft launch in Malaysia for three months so that they can fine tune everything. Therefore, another way that the show is helping to explain itself to audiences is via what Navok calls “concierge streamers.”
“A lot of people use streamers to market their titles, I don’t really need to market the title because I’m on the world’s largest marketing platform. But I need to explain what the hell it is. So we have these streamers whose job it is to explain the game. So instead of you looking at the AI or trying to make sense of the tutorial, you can talk to the streamer and the streamer is going to explain to you what it is that you’re seeing. Future iterations of this will probably integrate that even more deeply into this process.
“But it is pretty exhausting for the streamers because they’re constantly engaging and explaining and explaining and explaining. And so sometimes what they do is instead of explaining everything, they’ve got regulars in the audience. And they just chat with them about conspiracy theories in the show. So then what we’ve done is we’ve taken some of the things that they’ve chatted about in their talks, and we’ve put it into the [Rival Speak] show.”
THE NEXT ISLAND IS A CONTINENT
Genvid is undoubtedly someone you should be talking to if you’re looking to build interactivity with streamers into your title. But the opportunities are far broader than that. After all, the format is able to allow gaming IP holders to create something that engages users, without it being an enormous time-sink.
“What’s interesting about it, from a game developer and a publisher perspective, is that it’s not at odds with the work that you do for players. Instead it expands your opportunity as a game developer to go and eat away at media time.
“And here’s what I mean. The average American watches about four and a half hours to five hours of television a day. Of which one hour is immersive, Game of Thrones, I’m paying attention. And the rest of it is, I’m cooking, I’m cleaning, I’m doing whatever and it’s on in the background. And that’s your reality TV cooking programme.
“But games are fundamentally immersive, right? They demand your attention, I’m not going to move forward in Call of Duty unless I push the button. I can’t even crush candy in Candy Crush unless I tap on the screen. And so what is the equivalent of the remaining four hours of television for video games?
“And that’s what I think is really interesting about Rival Peak. You don’t need to be immersed in it, you don’t need to be focused on it, it will happen. And if you want to engage with it, or if you just want to leave in the background, you can go ahead and do so.
Navok is dismissive of cloud gaming’s ability to bring the industry those other 5bn gamers. Instead he tells us that “audience expansion is not necessarily an expansion of people. It’s an expansion of access and time with content that’s appropriate for that time.
“And so what I want to do is have bits of engagement at a very high level of quality, and make it so that my experience matters. And that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to create that access. And I think that expands the market opportunity for game developers and publishers… as now you can capture those remaining four hours, which means you can monetize a much bigger audience.
“Is it the same whale level monetization that you’re dealing with in video games? Probably not. But you know, you’re accessing way more people, because you’re not just focused on immersion.”
It’s certainly a compelling argument. In Rival Peak, Genvid and its partners have created a relatively simplistic world, one aimed at the widest possible audience.
It would be intriguing to see what possibilities there are for the video stream and overlay to interact with a more complex existing world, with more powerful AI characters, or with streamers navigating that world [in or out of character] with their actions guided by an audience that, when it finds the time, can also join them in playing ‘fully’ via console or PC.
Among Us has shown that streamer-centric, and video-centric interactive experiences are a big part of the future of gaming, and Genvid’s technology adds huge potential to that future.