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An Interview With The Mind Behind Twitch Plays Pokémon

by Kyle Hilliard on Mar 14, 2014 at 08:59 AM

In February, a stream appeared on Twitch where viewers and commenters had total control of a playthrough of Pokémon Red. By typing words like up, down, left, right, a, b, and start in the chat room, commenters submitted more than 122,000,000 commands to finally beat the game over the course of 16 days. According to Twitch, the stream garnered 36 million views, and inspired a huge collection of Internet memes, an impressive narrative, and even a fictional religion. It’s safe to say that Twitch Plays Pokémon was – and continues to be with its Crystal playthrough – an Internet phenomenon.

Despite all the attention the stream received, its creator has received very little – and that’s by choice. The stream’s creator has chosen to stay out of the spotlight and remain anonymous in an effort to avoid unwanted attention. We still don’t know exactly who they are, but they’ve answered some of our questions about the experience of managing the playthrough of Pokémon Red, their original expectations, and whether or not they have gained or lost faith in humanity as a result.

Where did the idea for Twitch Plays Pokémon come from?

While creating Twitch Plays Pokémon I was primarily inspired by another stream on Twitch called SaltyBet. It allowed viewers to bet fake money on the outcome of computer vs. computer fighting game matches.

An automated stream with a focus on audience interaction was something that was very appealing to me, and I wanted to create one myself. I eventually decided on Pokémon being a good game to test a very simple design to see if interacting with a game via Twitch would have any appeal at all.

I was also previously exposed to "Curiosity – What's Inside the Cube?" and a gamejam game that I've forgotten the name of where random members of the audience controlled individual tentacles of an octopus-like creature on screen.

Did you think the game would actually be beaten?

Not in its original implementation with so many players; certain parts of Pokémon Red need precise movements, which was going to be impossible with so many people.

Were there any moments where you were particularly surprised by the actions taken by the players?

There's been plenty of surprising moments throughout the playthrough; it's difficult to name any in particular.

Did you watch the stream in its entirety? Or just check in every now and then?

I have it open on a second monitor throughout the day. I keep an eye on it, but most of my attention is elsewhere most of the time.

Were there any lines of NPC dialogue, like when Giovanni said, "Took you long enough to get here," that stood out as being particularly funny or strange in the context of playing the game this way?

Playing a game in a particular way can bring light to parts of the game that wouldn't have otherwise been seen and put a new light on things seen before. The Pokémon community is known for self-imposed challenges such as the Nuzlocke Challenge.

Did you feel more attached to the Pokémon of the Twitch playthrough than other times you've played the game?

I haven't participated so no, not really.

Did this new perspective (a crowd-played Pokémon) overwrite nostalgia for the game and make it meaningful again in a new way?

I don't think it overwrites it – I think it serves as a companion. The Pokémon community is known to impose challenges on themselves while playing Pokémon in order to re-contextualize the gameplay and content.

I understand you wish to remain anonymous, but what is your technical background? Are you a programmer or just a huge Pokémon fan?

I'm a programmer and a videogame enthusiast. I grew up with the first generation of Pokémon, so it appeals to me a lot.

Were re-loads or any cheats necessary? What are some of the modifications that were implemented to make it all function?

At one point a soft reset was performed by pressing start, select, a, and b simultaneously. Luckily, I was there to see it happen and I loaded a very recent save state and disabled the select button.

I had planned to modify Pokémon Red to allow all 151 Pokémon to be catchable, but I didn't patch the game properly. I was also planning on using a code to disable the Safari Zone step limit but, after the addition of democracy mode it wasn't necessary.

Head to page two to find out why the creator has chosen to remain anonymous, what’s in store for the future, and where Twitch Plays Pokémon has become a profitable venture.

Did you ever think it would become such a phenomenon? Has it made it difficult to remain anonymous?

Aside from not giving out my name, I haven't made much of an effort to stay anonymous – I'm mildly surprised it didn't leak. It's not like I'm hiding some big secret or anything. I just don't want a lot of attention, and don't really care for recognition.

Is this a team effort? Or did you conceive and create this entirely on your own?

I created it and run it entirely by myself.

Do you plan on streaming more games? Any hints about what the new adventure will be? Or is it going to be a surprise?

I'm considering other games and I've also been considering making my own. I'm still mostly focused on the existing Pokémon stream because it still needs a lot of attention, but once that settles down a bit I'd like to try out some new ideas.

Has Twitch Plays Pokémon become a profitable venture? Has it turned into your day job?

It didn't take very much to be profitable, as outside of my time there's not a lot of costs involved. The dedicated server-rental fee can be paid for by the Dogecoin donations alone.

I'm mostly self-employed, so reallocating much of my time to TPP hasn't been that big of a change for me. I'm used to managing computers that are running software 24/7. Dealing with such a large community and media attention is new to me, though.

Have you heard anything from Nintendo or The Pokémon Company in support, or asking you to take it down?

No, I haven't heard anything from Nintendo. The only people ordering me to take the stream down are disgruntled Twitch users annoyed by instability issues caused by TPP's popularity.

What's your favorite meme that has resulted from the whole experience?

I really can't say, there's so many of them and they come and go so quickly.

Do you have more or less faith in humanity after all this?

My amount of faith in humanity remains about the same; at least it's good to know that Pokémon still has a lot of appeal.

To watch the continuing stream on Twitch, head here.