This morning our first Ars Unite 2015 feature took a look at how the rise of Twitch and other gaming live streaming sites has changed the way games are developed. This afternoon, culture editor Sam Machkovech joined me for a livestreamed YouTube chat that explored more about how Twitch and its ilk are impacting gaming culture.
This cultural change has extended to the developers themselves, as Sam noted when discussing his visits to many game studios in the Seattle area. “I can’t tell you how many times I go into one of these offices and see a third monitor on the desk of a developer dedicated to Twitch,” he said. “I’ve seen that with Valve, I’ve seen that in Turn 10, I’ve seen that with 343 Industries. Game developers have just moved to having Twitch streams on their favorite games… They’re slowly becoming just as fluid as their fans [in Twitch].”
For Sam, much of Twitch’s appeal is a return to the kind of social situation he experienced in the arcades of his childhood, where kids gathered around one of the few street fighter machines to see and discuss the best players battling it out. Live streaming virtualizes this experience by allowing spectators to chat with other spectators about gameplay that may be well above their level.
“People gathered and they could really hear each other… the experience of street fighter was that you would put down your quarter and wait your turn [to play], or you were small and… terrified of this. There is a social clique. I don’t fit in,’ said Sam.
That socializing can affect actual gameplay in titles like Party hard, where chat commands can affect what happens to the game being played by the streamer. This can lead to an “us versus them” mentality that makes even mean in-game trolls more bearable.
“If there was an algorithm that sent 12 more men at you [in Party Hard], you’d say ‘Oh, that’s so unfair. Why are you doing that, computer algorithm,” I said in the chat. guys right when he’s about to win, you’re going to say, ‘Oh, you guys are just playing with me.’ When there’s a real person behind it, it changes the way you react to these things.”
This may sound strange to people who grew up in a different era of gaming. “Sorry, but I don’t see how — if someone loads a video game they want to play and then lets 500 other idiots take control — how that’s considered fun,” commenter fryhole said in response. But as fellow reader Fgumper pointed out in response, “The point for most streamers isn’t just to get an audience to passively watch as they play a game without interruption. Watching a good streamer show that they’re actually having a conversation with their viewers ( in the same way that if you had friends over to play games, they told you where to go in a level, or participated in some other way, the audience does the same here. For titles where the chat directly affects can be on the streamer, it’s like a multiplayer game for them right now. A friendly us against them.”
“Watching gameplay and streaming is almost as universal for kids 14 and under as Saturday morning cartoons are for those who grew up in the ’80s,” continued Fgumper. “This is their watercooler talk at school. We’re excited about the latest news Walking dead and Break bad episodes, and they talk about the latest game their favorite ‘YouTuber’ is playing. Minecraft is a ‘thing’ precisely because of this trend.”
A comment asking if watching Twitch could actually make viewers better at games prompted commentator jihadjoe to agree. “It’s always enlightening when you see a creative solution to a puzzle,” Jihadjoe said. “It changes the way you think, and future levels or even other games that have something similar will go from downright difficult to strange yet familiar. Even if you put puzzles aside and just focus on the mechanics side, it’s still always instructive to see someone do something that you could do.” I thought it was impossible to watch that infamous TAS run from SMB3, where the speedrunner danced around and pwned all the bombs and cannonballs in World 8 completely changed the way I play the game, and levels I thought were ‘very difficult’, before I now find quite easy.”
Legal discussion and the heart of speedrunning
In our livestream, I got a chance to give some more personal reactions to the “Twitch Plays pokemon(TPP) phenomenon, which was the real precursor to this new trend of viewer-controlled gameplay. While the TPP stream felt overly random to me at first, I became interested in the order the viewers began to place on this randomness.
“Whole almost religious sects sprang up [through this]… some people are legitimately trying to troll everything and stop progress, and others are trying to get together and make something out of it,” I said. ‘It’s really that coming together that makes it interesting; it is not interesting in itself; it’s interesting because of the people who came and added all sorts of fan art and mythos to the random things that happen.”
Our discussion also covered the laws surrounding live streaming of games, which give publishers almost complete veto power over streamers. “If Nintendo wanted to say no one can legally stream any of our games, they could, and major services like Twitch would have no choice but to [take them down]”The thing is, that would be an incredibly stupid move, and I think almost every developer and publisher realizes that at this point. There’s no way Twitch is a substitute for buying a game. On the contrary, I think it’s more like free advertising. These games that get big on Twitch, people want to buy them. They want to emulate the YouTubers and Twitchers they see online.”
Sam noted that there are a few instances where a live stream can ruin a game, such as “with really bad story-driven games, where it’s all about the story and the interactivity is really weak…or there are puzzle spoiler elements.” However, this isn’t exactly new to Twitch. “The internet has always made this possible,” he noted.
However, in the case of esports, Twitch gives a kind of direct access to the biggest stars, where viewers can watch hours of practice sessions and listen to strategies straight from their mouths. “People might say, ‘Oh, e-sports stars aren’t that big of a deal,’ but you can talk to them and interact with them and interact with them more than any other sport, and I think that adds up. to their incredible appeal to the people who step into them,” he said.
Watching live streams is also a unique way to view things like world record attempts. You never know which run, over weeks and months of attempts, is going to become that magical moment that sets a new record. Sam remembered watching a recent record run Super Mario Bros.including a heart rate monitor connected to the runner that showed his current stress level.
“I remember he was super chill until he got to 8-4, until he messed up this one part and he noticed he wasn’t swimming just right,” said Sam. “I would never have realized that [without the livestream].”