A Whole New World – How Twitch Plays Pokémon Created A Brand New Genre

Every time a new game is announced the developer and publisher want to push the same words onto us to make us foam at our mouths at the idea of playing whatever they’re pushing out. Terms like innovation, ground-breaking, unique or simply an all new experience as phrases we’ve heard so often they’ve become punchlines to a sad and desperate joke more so than actually representing where a game is heading.

As of writing this, 15 days and 8 hours has passed since a game of Pokémon: Red Version was opened up to be played by thousands of people at once. Yes, this is an article about Twitch Plays Pokémon. A completely innovative, ground-breaking and unique way to play a videogame. And absolutely an all new experience.

Just what exactly is Twitch Plays Pokémon? As I stated, it’s a game of Pokémon: Red Version, released in 1996 on the original Game Boy. But what makes it different is that there’s not one person in control of the player character RED. Instead, every button command is decided upon by the people watching the live-stream, typing in the chat. People can type simply commands like up, down, left, right, b, a and start to guide RED on his path of becoming a pokémon master.

TPP2But that’s not all, there have since then been two different modes introduced to the game in the form of Anarchy Mode versus Democracy Mode. Anarchy Mode being the original mode that existed when the game started up over two weeks ago, where every single input counts as a button press, causing chaotic behaviour in the most glorious of ways such as releasing pokémon at the PC, constantly using the wrong attacks in battles, looking at quest items rather than doing what you’re supposed to and jumping ledges that set the player back on their quest.

Democracy Mode on the other hand, only allows one input decision every twenty seconds and have the chat voting on what that input will be. This mode also allows more advance inputs like right2up3a which would mean walking right two steps, up three steps and then pressing the a button. It’s more controlled, but it’s slower and with the thirty-somewhat second delay that happens in Twitch.TV streams, it can also cause quite the chaos.

Anarchy Mode and Democracy Mode reign depending on where the votes on the modes land. Players can type anarchy or democracy to move the bar on top of the stream, controlling the current mode. It’s easier for players to activate Anarchy Mode through votes (ironic, isn’t it?) as its lack of control when compared to Democracy Mode somewhat evens out the time spend in Democracy Mode trying to set things right at a slower pace. It all causes a very interesting power struggle that’s even more compelling than most team based multiplayer games I’ve been a part of.

TPP1By nature, Pokémon: Red Version is a singleplayer game. The only multiplayer is confined to side-modes like battling and trading Pokémon, the actual campaign of the 1996 JRPG is played solo. But with Twitch Plays Pokémon, not only have a brand new game been created out of this old gem, a brand new genre has also been created.

I’m not trying to coin phrases here, but to make it easier to follow, I’ll be referring to this genre as Multi-User Controller Singleplayer, or MUCS for short. The moment I realized that MUCS was worthy of being its own genre was when I had spent hours actively trying to control the inputs and voting for anarchy like a fool in a game that I had already finished multiple times in the past, and yet I had so much fun replaying it in a way that I’d never imagined possible. It was like discovering fire for the first time.

And the fact that during these 15 days we’ve had hundreds of thousands of people who don’t know each other work together or against each other to attempt to beat an old game they known by heart shows that there’s more people than just me who find this fascinating. It’s gotten to the point where the community has basically crafted their own narrative about the events going on, and it’s gotten very religious. People in the community have basically already assumed that it’ll be continuing on into the second generation of Pokémon games as well and everyone seem to be on board to do all of this yet again.

There have been other people making MUCS games as well, we’ve seen channels putting up Twitch Plays The Legend of Zelda and Twitch Plays FINAL FANTASY VI already, not with the same mainstream appeal, but it’s slowly growing into something larger than I bet the people who started Twitch Plays Pokémon ever thought it would be.

A common problem with multiplayer in games is that developers seem snowed in on what multiplayer means. Every MMO that comes out tries to emulate the same old games like World of Warcraft or EverQuest to get even a glimmer of success, with mixed result. Every team-based shooter these days tries to be Team Fortress 2 or Battlefield, every other FPS wants to be Call of Duty and the closest we’ve had to a brand new fighting game is Divekick and Samurai Gunn.

Intentionally or not, probably the latter, MUCS has managed to offer something entirely new in the field of multiplayer gameplay. It’s a co-op title with only one player character, but it’s also competitive in terms of who gets to be control. There’s one single goal, but a million ways and thousands of wills to get there. And thanks to all of this, the work all those thousands of players put in together or against one another, the feeling of success when you manage to help do something amazing is beyond belief.

Where were you when we caught Zapdos?
Where were you when we awoke Lord Helix?
Where were you were we entered the 8th gym the first time?

Or even when something truly bad happens to set us back, the feeling of loss and failure is greater than feelings I’ve had when losing tournaments at big LAN party events. We’re talking feelings comparable to when you lose a save-file which you’ve put hundreds of hours into here.

Where were you when we lost DUX?
Where were you when we lost Jay Leno?
Where were you when we were sent back to Cinnabar Island from Victory Road?

Twitch Plays Pokémon is a game that hundreds of thousands of people have put over 360 hours into over the course of over 15 days, and we’re still not done with the game. It’s an experience like no other.

TPP3But here comes the hard question. Are Twitch Plays Pokémon and other MUCS good games?

I’m not sure I can say it’s a good from a quality perspective. If I were to try and review it as any other product I don’t know what I would be able to say about it. It’s a brand new way to play a game and it’s a brand new way to look at gameplay. But good? It’s chaotic, hard to control, unpredictable, infuriating, slow, complex and comes with a whiplash of mixed plans and methods of reaching the goals that are set. At the same time, it is absolutely glorious fun and it’s practically endless.

It’s a brand new experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world, and I’ll happily go back to tossing inputs at the game after writing this. I’m excepting to have fun doing so and it’s the most enjoyable and interesting game I’ve played all week.

But is it a good game? I honestly can’t tell you. I would suggest you consult Lord Helix.

“It’s a whole new world we live in, It’s a whole new way to see.
It’s a whole new place, with a brand new attitude.”

“Whole New World”, third theme song for the English dub of the Pokémon anime.

1 Comment for “A Whole New World – How Twitch Plays Pokémon Created A Brand New Genre”



Hm. Twitch Plays Pokemon is undoubtedly something new, but I’m not sure it’s as totally unprecedented as you suggest. In particular, Transformice comes to mind as having a lot of similarities. I’ll admit I’m not actually too familiar with Transformice, having not actually played it, so the analogy may not work as well as I think, but consider — both cooperative games, with the following properties:

1. Real time — anyone can act at any time; even if the game doesn’t impose a time limit on discussion, other players do, because they’re not necessarily going to wait for you.
2. Low communication — You don’t necessarily have any effective way of communicating with the other players outside of your own actions within the game.
3. Lack of social restraint — the players can’t see each other, they don’t know each other, and so they’re less likely to trust each other to get the job done… and that’s when they’re well-intentioned in the first place.

(This list is probably slightly redundant; you can probably find two of these that imply the third.)

And, of course, knowing what to do is the easy part, it’s coordinating to do it that’s the hard part. And the conditions listed imply that “coordinating” is largely an exercise in accounting for or mitigating the chaos that is other people’s uncoordinated actions. It’s possible other examples can be found as well, though Transformice is the only one that comes to mind.

Hell, “multiple people playing a single player game” — well, it’s not something that comes up much in video games, but in board games that’s an old problem that co-op games fall into. (Ways of avoiding this include having a “traitor” mechanic and having a real-time component, though it seems many just don’t bother? Well, this is why I mostly don’t play co-op board games.) Of course, TPP took this and turned it from a *problem* into something great!

BTW, there was an interesting example of spontaneous order during the democracy period of Victory Road. (People generally said that democracy was no fun, but I have to disagree — democracy certainly was fun, but in a different way. After all, it’s not like democracy was smooth sailing — there were still plenty of failures to coordinate and plan ahead properly.) Anyway — if you watched the voting patterns, you’d notice that long sequences of moves would have to spend a few turns failing to win the vote before they could win the vote. I think it was a process of “a few people come up with the right sequence, other people have to see it written down and realize what it does before voting for it”. There was a lot interesting going on with the voting there actually, especially because of the plurality voting system and the resulting vote-splitting effect. For instance, bdownrighta2 is clearly better than bdownrighta for escaping battles with wild Pokemon, yet (at least while I was participating in Victory Roard) people always went with the latter. (Though bdownrighta2 started getting some support right before the switch back to anarchy.) Why? Because it was established, and going bdownrighta2 would split the vote! Of course, this naturally led to some overshoots. Similarly, no matter how many times the people in the Reddit live commentary said not to use 9 all the time, to use smaller numbers, people kept using 9 because it was a Schelling point; they knew other people would use it. (Really there were 3 Schelling points that seemed to come up; single moves only, 9, and doing things exactly. That last one’s a bit tricky though. Overkilling it is safer at times.) And it was fascinating to see how when something went *really* wrong all trust in complex sequences would break down and people would revert to single moves only!

…I think I’m rambling now. I guess my point is, TPP is awesome, it’s definitely something new, but it’s also worth comparing it against older games of coordination. (Democracy mode sometimes had a tiny bit of a Space Alert feel, but only really superficially. TPP is not actually anything like Space Alert.) I’ll shut up now.

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