Social gaming is a term that, until recently, has been frequently misinterpreted by the industry. Social networks like Facebook or massively distributed games on smartphones try to link simple, arbitrary game design with online notifications and call it “social gaming.” Sure, you can chat with friends, but simply having a conversation or having them do something for you in the game for a brief while is not a true social game. It’s artificially social. But social gaming is not some impossible idea. In fact, it’s already happened. We’ve seen a true realization of the concept of social gaming, of breaking the barrier between gamers and finally achieving a profound sense of community.
Social gaming is one of gaming’s most evolutionary progressions of all time and we owe that progress to one website: Twitch.tv.
Surprisingly, Twitch’s history is actually quite brief. Beginning as a simple gaming spinoff for online streaming site Justin.tv in 2007, the website didn’t get its own name and identity until 2011. Since then, the website has earned millions of visitors within a single month, and even earned a Webby Award in 2012 for outstanding games-related content. Twitch’s impact has even convinced video sharing sites like Youtube and Dailymotion to offer similar services for live streaming video, but when it comes to gaming, Twitch is the go-to place to do it. In this extremely short period of time, Twitch has become one of the most successful gaming websites ever made and one of the most recognizable sources of live streaming content.
Twitch could be easily accessed by anyone with capture software like Fraps or XSplit. PC streaming became a fresh new approach for gaming, allowing chat to display input from viewers and even broadcasts to other devices like tablets and smartphones. Though capturing and publishing game footage was expensive back in the day, the low cost of both software and capture devices made Twitch all the more accessible to the masses. It became easier than ever to get involved in this new social network dedicated entirely to gamers. Similarly, the growing appeal of gaming content on Youtube pushed Twitch’s advantageous immediacy further. While Youtube was more an outlet for fully produced videos, Twitch was a broadcasting service, where you could not only watch games as they’re being played, but could even interact with the player by offering hints or simply being a troll. It was this revelation that connected gamers beyond simple competitive multiplayer. For the first time ever, gamers had a true social network suited for them.
Twitch’s first big boom appeared with the field of eSports. Twitch was a frequent broadcaster of eSport gaming events, where players would competitively duke it out in famed games like Starcraft II and League of Legends. Tournaments would be aired, with some of the greatest players in the entire world appearing on monitors everywhere. Like the Olympics were to basic TV, eSports was a demonstration of proficiency in the gaming world; it became one of Twitch’s most popular features. Also, streaming became a perfect outlet for charity events, where players would speedrun or 100% run classic games to raise money for charities. The live streaming element became an evolution of the classic “telethon” of yesteryear, with better communication between audience and broadcaster, along with content that could be provided instantly without time limitations. Twitch burst with content from these two ideas alone, but there was one more moment that truly showed that Twitch was something truly revolutionary for games.
That moment was Twitch Plays Pokemon. The Twitch Plays Pokemon social experiment became one of the paramount examples of Twitch’s influence on the gaming community. With a bizarre vision of having Twitch viewers control a single avatar in Pokemon Red, the series became a viral hit, earning millions of views during the short two weeks the series began. Netting an unstoppable army of meme-centric viewers and a premise so insane that it could easily hook an audience out of sheer stupidity, Twitch Plays Pokemon was a demonstration of viral appeal’s rapidly growing power. But despite that, the series also solidified Twitch’s place in gaming culture. The Twitch mantra has always been about being able to watch and interact with gamers, even from opposite sides of the world, and Twitch Plays Pokemon was the pivotal realization of that ideology: getting a ton of viewership and having them input what happens to the player, or in its own case, the game itself. Though the series has appeared to have ended its reign in the sun, its influence on offering a fresh new approach to “social gaming” is everlasting, a middle finger to the quote-on-quote “social gaming” of networks like Facebook.
And Twitch is still growing. More and more devices are offering video streaming through Twitch, such as smartphones and tablets with their own Twitch application. Even more impressive is the fact that Twitch live streaming services are now being built into devices. The Playstation 4 and Xbox One have sharing features in their gaming architecture, allowing new games to bypass the PC streaming middle man, being streamed from the consoles themselves. Games can be streamed within hours of release. PC games are being optimized for live streaming with improved interface and sharing features in the software themselves. Gaming companies are realizing that live streaming is not some fad, actually tuning their hardware for the service itself. That’s a big deal.
But what Twitch really accomplished was finally using digital means to bridge the gap between gamers. Sure, competitive multiplayer was already established, but it was never a really social experience. You couldn’t just watch a friend play a game from miles away. You couldn’t talk it up and help them out if they get stuck. Gaming was either ruthlessly combative or constantly asynchronous. Twitch fixed that, removing the ferocity of competition and making the time gaps between gamer and audience nearly non-existent. It’s the closest that gaming has come to digitally emulating the feeling of hanging out at a friend’s place and just gaming with them. We’ve seen the impact of watching and interacting with gamers in real-time, even when miles away. The popularity of eSports, the influence of live gaming charities, and the creativity of Twitch Plays Pokemon all demonstrated Twitch’s strength as a service and its power as a communication network. Gamers have always been held back by the publishing latency of YouTube or the animosity of competitive multiplayer, but when it comes to addressing games on a purely social level, Twitch was that pivotal moment of evolution that set the stage for what our current generation of gaming is.
Today’s gaming environment would be much different if live streaming hadn’t caught on. We owe that hook, that appealing progression, to Twitch.