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Watch This (And Play Along): Interactive Streaming Puts the Power in Viewers' Hands

"Streaming is not a tool anymore, it’s a part of our business."

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“Interactive game streaming” is a boring name for a fascinating concept.

It’s something videogames can do that other media can’t, turning normally passive viewers into active participants. As one person plays through a game and broadcasts live video of that gameplay online, his or her audience, sometimes thousands strong, is able to change the game in near-real time.

By contast, normal second-screen experiences are merely reactive, as viewers can share opinions but can’t have a measurable effect on the things they’re watching.

Interactive streaming rose to prominence in February of this year when more than a million viewers collaborated to beat Twitch Plays Pokemon, an experiment that gave total control of the classic Game Boy game to a disorganized group of Internet commenters. The viral excitement around the experiment briefly made Pokemon Red/Blue the most popular title on game-streaming site Twitch, unseating perennial winner League of Legends.

That’s the sort of free advertising most game companies would kill for. So it should come as no surprise that many of them are, before resorting to murder, trying to make their own streaming-focused games.

I’ve written previously about independent games like Choice Chamber and Project Cyber that fit that mold, and Twitch itself saw fit to fund Choice Chamber when it seemed poised to miss its Kickstarter goal. The company’s CRO, Jonathan Simpson-Bint, said in an interview that it’s a facet of Twitch’s bid to be a place where “cultural creation” happens; indeed, the memes that arose from the anarchy of Twitch Plays Pokemon were surprisingly complex.

An Israeli startup called Overwolf, which provides tools and add-ons for people who livestream games, is working with Twitch to formalize a sort of interactivity in games. Within the next two months, CEO Uri Marchand said the company hopes to update Overwolf with a live poll that takes in votes from commenters and shows everyone the live results.

“We were inspired by Twitch Plays Pokemon, which was a brilliant idea,” Marchand said. “We’re eager to embed more and more of those types of things.”

Other companies are getting in on the action, too. At the Game Marketing Summit in San Francisco last month, Sony Online Entertainment President John Smedley said his team (which makes online games for PCs as well as PlayStation consoles) was “working on interactivity pretty heavily.”

“Streaming is not a tool anymore, it’s a part of our business,” Smedley said in an interview at the summit with Re/code.

New games like the upcoming zombie survival game H1Z1, he noted, will let viewers affect the game live. And the recently re-released Dead Nation (which is, um, also a zombie game, for those of you keeping score) added a new mode called Broadcast+ that let livestream viewers vote to help or punish the player.

“It’s the Internet, so I think, predominantly, people start off quite mean,” said Claire Blackshaw, technical designer at Climax Studios, which developed the re-release for the PlayStation 4 and Vita. “The larger the community, the more likely it is to swing negative.”

The biggest hindrance to interactive streaming right now is technological, with sometimes 30 seconds or more of latency between when an audience member does something and when that action is reflected in the game. Admittedly, the time it takes for video to react to commands coming from around the world may be one of those “everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy” problems.

However, many games depend on precise timing. Blackshaw noted that one of her team’s original plans for Dead Nation — letting livestream viewers control individual zombies — was scrapped because the latency was too high.

But if the current interest in game streaming doesn’t fade away, it seems likely we’ll be seeing more experiments with the technology — and attempts to close that latency gap.

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