Twitch Plays Pokemon, but can Twitch beat Pokemon?

Xav de Matos
X. Matos|02.20.14

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Twitch Plays Pokemon, but can Twitch beat Pokemon?

"Even when played very poorly it is difficult to not make some progress in Pokemon," the mastermind behind Twitch Plays Pokemon told Joystiq. The Twitch community is putting that opinion to the test.

Twitch Plays Pokemon is a social project using 1998's Pokemon Red as its platform of insanity: Using computer scripts and an emulator, a live audience from the video game broadcasting service is given direct control of the action, their chat commands acting as the inputs for a single avatar.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has exploded as a phenomenon over the last week, with the number of unique visitors skyrocketing beyond 300,000 since it first launched. Behind the community-controlled project is an anonymous "self-taught programmer" who calls Australia his home. Despite repeated attempts to confirm his identity, even off the record, the programmer has steadfastly refused to speak with Joystiq over the phone, though he did confirm our pronoun use. Joystiq has also been able to confirm he is in control of the Twitch channel. The Twitch Trainer, as we'll call him, says he'd like to remain private and that the project is more important than who he is.

As for the project itself, the Trainer deems the whole process "straightforward."

"It is an IRC bot that listens for buttons being said in chat and then simulates the press of a keyboard key in the OS which in turn presses the corresponding button in the emulator," he told Joystiq. Straightforward, right? The process of feeding chat commands to an emulator via an Internet Relay Chat channel allows players from around the world to control an on-screen character with simple commands. They type "Up," the bot translates that text command to a key press into the emulator and the character moves up, so long as the character isn't already executing a command. "It's code I wrote myself that utilizes a few libraries for functions like connecting to IRC and simulating key presses," the Trainer added.

When the Twitch Plays Pokemon stream first launched it didn't catch on. "The first day and a half didn't have many viewers," the Trainer said. On day two, as word of mouth via social channels grew, viewership exploded.

"While the stream has crossed more than 75,000 concurrent spectators, the total number of unique Twitch members who have participated via chat is more than quadruple that amount," Twitch's Director of Customer Experience, Jason Maestas, wrote in a blog post.

"I didn't think it was going to be this popular, I thought it would gain only a small group of dedicated viewers and many others would check it out briefly before moving on to other things. It's overwhelming how popular it has become," the Trainer told Joystiq.

Its popularity has hit in waves from different directions. There are those frantically typing commands attempting to play and those who watch, fascinated in the project's chaos. According to stats compiled by Twitch user Sanqui, from Thursday, February 20, "A total of over 3,736,049 buttons were pressed by 453,397 unique people."

While the channel has been getting a lot of attention, major questions about the viability of actually completing Pokemon Red using this process have surfaced.

"I think the Safari Zone is likely impossible with this many participants, it requires the player get from point A to point B under a certain number of steps and it doesn't leave much margin for error, even when played by one individual player it can be challenging without a map and careful movement," the Trainer said. Over the course of six days, the Twitch chat stream has set powerful Pokemon free and fallen off ledges again and again, but has also managed to defeat gym leaders – Pokemon's boss characters. This week a new system had been put in place to help control the gameplay, with an attempt to give players a chance at completing the game.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has adopted a new system of voting for the on-screen character's next move, rather than directly controlling his progress. Reaction to the change was mixed, with some viewers attempting to impede progress by continuously pausing the action. A second voting system was added in response, allowing viewers to push a meter either towards "anarchy" or "democracy," dictating whether the control would revert to a free-for-all (anarchy) or a command vote system (democracy). The simple process used to allow a chat channel to control Pokemon could work elsewhere, the Trainer said, but Pokemon's structure is best suited for the task. "For other games the way the audience interfaces with the game needs to be re-thought for that type of game, just using the same system wouldn't have good results."

Why the Twitch Trainer believes it's difficult to play Pokemon Red poorly is based on how the title reacts to player actions. "The game always waits for the player's input and doesn't require the player to react quickly to something," anything requiring immediate response would be hellacious when coupled with a Twitch stream's broadcast lag, he added.

"I wanted to try something I wouldn't need to put a lot of effort into to see if this sort of thing would work at all," the Trainer said when asked where the idea to crowdsource Pokemon Red came from. "Pokemon is a very well-known franchise and the gameplay has been consistent throughout. I wanted to choose a game that would be appealing because I wasn't sure if anyone would be interested in such a stream in the first place and I didn't want to choose something relatively obscure that few people have enough interest in." A host of copycat streams have been born out of the success, including one stream that takes input commands from the original Pokemon stream's chat and translates them into Tetris commands.

Beyond Pokemon Red's notorious Safari Zone, there are other difficult areas to contend with. "It's entirely possible that they will be too difficult to complete in this format," the Trainer told Joystiq. "I'm conflicted because I want to interfere as little as possible but I also don't want the game to be impossible to finish." Progress has been slow, with the stream running for over 170 hours in a game that takes, on average, about 30 hours to complete.

As for when the project concludes, the Twitch Plays Pokemon Trainer said there's more Pokemon to be played. "There has been a lot of interest of me continuing on with the Pokemon series after the Elite Four are beaten. If there's still enough interest I would like to go through each generation of Pokemon."

"Many viewers have stuck with the Pokemon series for a long time, I think it would be great fun to relive that experience as a collective. Let's hope the Elite Four are beatable!"

Update (02/21/14): Against all odds, the Twitch Plays Pokemon community beat the notorious Safari Zone this morning!
[Images: Pokemon Company]
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