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If you play video games, there’s no doubt you’ve watched at least part of a live stream. Even for 20-somethings, the concept of the live gaming stream is somewhat foreign. Having grown up on single-player or co-op multiplayer games, I remember hooking up my original Xbox to the internet for the first time. The excitement of hearing people from other countries playing the same game was incredible.
But that was then. Now, live streaming is practically a 24/7 business in itself. In fact, some owe their livelihoods to this gaming facet. Sites like Twitch, an online tool to live stream anything from cooking shows to video games, have gone from online novelties to serious indicators of market success.
PC gamers have, for a long time, lavished in free online play and wide-spanning gaming libraries. These two features have led to the largest swell in live stream gaming ever. However, this popularity has leaked into the console market as well. Does this hurt, or help, the gaming community as a whole?
Twitch: The Live Stream Kingpin
First, some backstory on a couple of live streaming services. If you’re a gamer, you know about Twitch. You may not frequent it, and you may not live stream yourself. Nevertheless, you’ve certainly heard of it. Twitch, formerly Justin.tv, was acquired by Amazon back in August 2014 for $970 million.
Slowly but surely, Twitch created a following. Since its acquisition, Twitch has grown to become a significant part of gaming culture. Mirroring YouTube’s cataclysmic rise, Twitch’s success is directly related to its creator base.
Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP)
Twitch’s first big campaign took place during a collaborative effort. The endeavor was simple enough: players would, through specific chat commands, perform actions in the vintage and widely-beloved Pokemon Red. Even moving around in-game required the cooperation of participants.
What started as a simple experiment turned into a viral smash. TPP started on February 12, 2014, and by March 1 the stream had hit 55 million views. Twitch was even awarded a Guinness World Record for “most participants on a single-player online videogame.”
More interesting than the accolade, however, was a comment by Twitch’s VP of marketing Matthew DiPietro. It reads:
“This is one more example of how video games have become a platform for entertainment and creativity that extends WAY beyond the original intent of the game creator. By merging a video game, live video and a participatory experience, the broadcaster has created an entertainment hybrid custom-made for the Twitch community. This is a wonderful proof on concept [sic] that we hope to see more of in the future.”
This quote speaks volumes, and seems to imply two things. First, video games can be platforms, rather than complete bodies of work themselves. Second, a hybrid form of entertainment applied to games can supersede the popularity of game itself. Gamers don’t need to be quiet fanatics. They can become broadcasters in their own right, and the potential for hordes of gamers showing hours upon hours of gameplay, largely for free, has the potential to become an entirely new form of entertainment.
Consider also the words of the previous head of Twitch Integration Ethan Evans. When asked in an interview why Amazon would seek a share of the gaming market when it dominates so much of the e-commerce market back in 2014, he said:
“Games are the most engaging and in-demand, by percentage of time used, among any digital content categories, both on our devices and others. When we look at games, we see an industry where blockbuster games out-earn blockbuster movies. The total sales in games, I believe, are bigger than all online movie sales and online music. True, it’s not the size of our global retail business today, but we see that potential and that reach.”
From these quotes, the direction of Twitch seemed clear. Not only is the earning potential of the gaming market already present, its entertainment potential had yet to be fully realized.
The “Twitch Streamer” Personality
This simple, innovative thinking of a live and collaborative gaming experience led to a boom in self-proclaimed Twitch streamers. Gamers who reach high acclaim via esports — particularly in such competitive games as Overwatch, Dota 2, and League of Legends — often receive high levels of traffic to their streams. This not only incentivizes professional gamers to stream, it also encourages fans to stream as well. Given the overt digitization of the gaming market thanks to sites like Steam, it’s as easy as buying and playing the game.
While there are plenty of streamers who take the competitive aspect of gaming seriously, Twitch is largely notable for the entertainment aspects of streaming as well. From playing Overwatch with bananas to playing Street Fighter with fish, creative live stream concepts have a high chance of becoming viral successes.
This type of innovative gaming reflects Twitch’s first claim to fame — TPP — so well. The question, though, is whether the draw of Twitch concerns the games and their difficulty or the novelty of quirky gameplay.
The Circle of Twitch
While Twitch provides an excellent service to avid gamers — allowing them to display their skill — Twitch is ultimately a business. That means it’s as susceptible to gaming the system of gaming as any other corporate entity is.
Twitch is owned by Amazon, one of the leading online game distribution platforms. This is particularly true during sale seasons, which occur throughout the year.
That means Twitch has a certain incentive to use every tool at its disposal to advertise both gaming and Amazon’s distribution platform. Twitch Prime, wherein Amazon Prime users can get faster access to games and in-game loot, is one such example. While this may seem typical, imagine if Steam also owned an online video platform. Wouldn’t you think Steam would favor some games over others in order to squeeze a bit more revenue from its users?
There is a circle of traffic pertaining to Twitch which benefits the platform significantly as well, and it has to do with YouTube. Google’s merger with Twitch was canceled due to legal issues pertaining to the prevention of trusts and monopolies. But both Google’s YouTube (along with YouTube Gaming) and Amazon’s Twitch work in tandem with one another.
Let’s take two key examples: Syndicate and Imaqtpie. Both are well-known in the gaming world: Syndicate started as a YouTube personality, and Imaqtpie was an esports dynamo. Both enjoy a massive online following via Twitch and YouTube, maximizing their potential viewership.
That’s all without mentioning the countless social media shares that point towards the Twitch website. Video exposure is massively important to modern gaming — including gaming reviews, live streams, comedic videos, and the like. To have both the largest video repository and the largest live video platform working together creates a necessity for video games to be both visually stunning and, most importantly, constantly entertaining.
Microsoft Mixer: A New Challenger Approaches
The aim of Mixer — previously Beam — is in the name. They want their creator base to act like mixers, which is to say, socially immersive personalities. Mixer’s goal, in fact, is to “bring people together” under the umbrella of gaming. Sound familiar?
If it doesn’t, the first-ever interactive live-streamed fireworks show should. Mixer also reportedly solves one of the biggest issues in live streaming: high-latency speeds. That’s interactive streaming, a faster connection, and a new co-streaming feature wherein up to 4 streamers can combine streams into a single experience — all in one package, which is big.
Windows (Still) Reigns Supreme
As big as that may seem at first glance, consider also the fact that Windows 10 is the most popular OS for games, period. As it stands, 96.24 percent of users using Steam play games on Windows computers. For an OS developer to create a live streaming service for a market it completely dominates is a fantastic strategy.
Assuming Mixer will suddenly dominate the live streaming market is somewhat absurd, considering the hydra that is Twitch. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting move on behalf of Microsoft. Remember, we’re not just talking Windows. This includes the Xbox One too, one of the highest-selling consoles to date.
Microsoft has many hands in the cookie jar, and with the latest advents available in the Windows 10 Creators Update, you can rest assured they’re making moves to grow the live stream market.
The Perils of Native Advertising
That said, we have to take the good with the bad. Microsoft isn’t exactly pure when it comes to native advertising — meaning sponsored content doesn’t explicitly state its advertising intent. Windows 10 updates were one such example, proverbially tapping on your monitor screen at every opportunity.
This habit extends to gaming as well. In 2015, Machinima — a YouTube collective familiar to gamers that reviews and showcases games — was clamped down on by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) for not disclosing payments by Microsoft to advertise the Xbox One. While the wrong was righted, it’s difficult to assume these same tactics wouldn’t seep into Microsoft’s live streaming platform as well.
The amount this affects the enjoyment of live streams depends only on the user’s interests. Marketing plays a role in every game release: even the indie gaming market must rely heavily on live streaming and sponsored content in order to function. The possible peril here, however, is creating hours upon hours of streamed content as a method to advertise a company’s own creations through nine-hour commercial broadcasts.
Live Streaming’s Effect on Game Development’s Future
The days of game developers coding by candlelight are over, and the line between innovative indie and blockbuster studio development is continually blurred. Yet one would think that all developers want to make a game that is genuinely fun for users. The meaning of the term fun, however, is up for debate.
Live streaming is arguably the largest platform to expose a game to the gaming community. Think about the greater implications of an entertaining live streamer enjoying a game. In the same vein as classic gaming ads, it makes the user think “I want to have fun like they’re having fun!” Unlike the periodic advertisements of yesteryear, though, we’re talking a 24/7/365 outlet for exposure.
Ultimately, streaming carries with it too many parameters to assume it only works towards the benefit the audience. Streamers, live streaming clients, and gaming distribution clients are seeking their own benefit as well.
Insistence on Consistency and Community
What exactly are streaming outlets looking for in their streams? Consistency. Consistent entertainment, consistent exposure, consistent fan growth, and consistent revenue. As it is, Twitch streamers are expected to “always be streaming” in order to set, grow, and expand their base. This hunger to stream, combined with the live stream fanbase, creates a juggernaut that gaming developers simply cannot ignore.
Take the following interview for example, wherein Culture Editor for Ars Technica, Sam Machkovech, discusses how much Twitch streaming affects the actual work of game developing.
The method by which live streaming functions is simple: stream consistently, and you’ll develop a fan base. This method is anything but basic, however. If you have enough content creators working on developing their own broadcasting style and persona, you create more than fan bases. As Sam Machkovech discusses:
“Watching gameplay and streaming are nearly as universal for kids 14 and under as Saturday morning cartoons were for those that grew up in the ’80s . . . This is their water cooler talk at school. We rave about the latest Walking Dead and Breaking Bad episodes, and they talk about the latest game their favorite ‘YouTuber’ is playing. Minecraft is a ‘thing’ specifically because of this trend.”
You develop whole communities — people devoted to your personality rather than the games you play.
Less Downtime, More “Fun”
Because of the insistence for streamers to stream, downtime in gaming can be lethal. Consider a real-world example, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUB). If you game, there’s no doubt you’ve heard of PUB.
I remember hearing about it and thinking it was oddly familiar. Considering how similarly widespread both DayZ and H1Z1 are, it’s hard not to notice a connection. But what separates PUB from the rest? Two key facets: no resource gathering and battle royal gameplay. At first glance, it’s easy to see the similarities between a game like Rust and PUB. Both look the same and, if you take away both base building and resource gathering, they both play somewhat the same.
PUB is something of an open world, where the only rules for playing are the ones you create yourself. In fact, that’s one of its strengths. Whereas more esports oriented, competitive games like Overwatch and League of Legends demand you play certain ways, you can play PUB whatever way you’d like. As long as you win, that is.
At the same time, PUB is a synthesized, more potent form of gaming directly conducive to the Twitch stream fan. Players are flown into a battleground, search for weapons, and kill each other while the battleground shrinks and directs players to its middle. Given this Hunger Games match style, something exciting may happen at any moment.
There is no steady level-building as in League of Legends. There’s no complex play structure as in Dota 2. It uses a common format and graphics, but mixes it up with a condensed gameplay style. Thus it’s only natural this game — still in the Early Access stage of development, mind you — is the global top selling game on Steam and the second-most live streamed game on Twitch.
PUB is a result of basic, formulaic game development. And given the list above, it seems to fit perfectly within the folds of the top-selling, highest-grossing, and highly competitive games around.
Gaming Bug Turned Gaming Drug
For a game to withstand hours upon hours of streaming and captivate thousands of fans, it has to meet certain qualitative demands. This has always been the case, and to deny that fact would be to ignore the gaming community as a whole. Nevertheless, gaming is changing.
The question is whether live streaming, as both a platform for gaming and a fully-fledged profession, will create a formulaic necessity for games to be consistently entertaining to viewers and players alike. Given PUB‘s monumental success, though, it seems the question is already answered.
The Gaming Grind
What place does the grind have in gaming now? Not too long ago, the open world market dominated mainstream gaming. The grind, so to speak, came about through resource acquisition, base-building, and weapon creation. It seemed for a bit as though every game, in some sense, tried to incorporate the open-world aspects of the insanely popular Grand Theft Auto V and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Some of the greatest examples of this concept have genuinely expanded gaming as an aesthetic art form: Zelda: Breath of the Wild (our tips), The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, Astroneer, Subnautica, and Firewatch just to name a few. While that trend all but dissipated — lest we forget about No Man’s Sky — it revealed for a moment the intrinsic tie between game development and widespread gaming popularity.
Live streaming, however, doesn’t seem like a trend. In a sense, live stream audiences are becoming the gaming community. Considering just how formulaic success can be, it’s not absurd to state gaming development will lean further from a creative activity to a more refined and technical process than it already is. It will minimize the grind of gaming, and the inherent difficulty of playing games will be based on competition rather than complex platform design, strategy, and puzzle solving.
While that may intrigue and satisfy some, others won’t be so happy. Are games going to become simpler and more competitive to satisfy streaming platforms? How much will complexity, storytelling, and care to detail play in this highly potent form of game development? When gaming as a genre of entertainment becomes something to consume by many rather than something one person — the gamer — invests their time and effort in, it’s not far-fetched to consider that gaming will become an entertainment, rather than an enjoyment, effort.
The Next Generation of Gamers
When I was 14, back in 2007, the following games were released: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, Portal, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, BioShock, Team Fortress 2, The Witcher, Halo 3, and Super Mario Galaxy. As a gamer, you can almost feel the past tingle of that gaming era.
A decade later, in 2017, 14-year-olds aren’t so much given a unique selection of games as they are immediately introduced to the live streaming and competitive aspects of gaming. To a certain extent, this is caused by the sheer weight of virtual gaming culture already present online. Most, one could argue, become part of the culture for its comedic aspects — largely based on streaming and YouTube personalities — before they even start playing games.
I understand that this is something of a false comparison. Comparing any current period to a previous golden period is unfair. But it’s nevertheless interesting to note how the next generation’s gaming culture will be largely media and stream-driven.
There’s no question, though, that the advent of live streaming has achieved the exact hybrid form of entertainment it sought to create. Game developers will either follow this trend — creating games devoted entirely to a constant flow of entertainment — or branch away at the risk of market performance.
Final Thoughts on Live Streaming
Is live streaming bad for gaming as a whole? To the contrary; it’s raised gaming to the category of a serious, insanely lucrative sport.
But is live streaming bad for gaming as an art? Definitely. The inherent sense of suspense and excitement of playing and being mystified by a game simply cannot match — and is no match for — the exaggerated excitement and often professional skill of a popular streamer gallivanting about a virtual world.
It’s just easier and more entertaining — and less lonely, hence the social aspect — to observe someone playing a difficult level than it is to actually play the game, and the millions upon millions of views gathered by streaming personalities only contribute to this fact.
What do you think of live streaming? Do you love it or hate it? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credits: Syda Productions/Shutterstock