Monday, February 24, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokemon, Self-loathing, and Never Being Able To Predict Anything.

None of us is as insane as all of us.
If you are in any way hooked into the bleeding edge of this weird thing we call Internet Culture, someone might recently have talked your ear off about Twitch Plays Pokemon.

I'm going to talk about it now. So, if you were bored about it by your [child/weird friend/acquaintance you always secretly suspected has Asperger's], you can now do what you wish you could do then: tell me to shut up by closing this browser window with extreme prejudice.


OK. You are still here. You want to learn what Twitch Plays Pokemon is, so that, for once, you can know about the hip internet thing before it ends and becomes as tired and old as those captioned cat photos your parents send to your aunts and uncles.

My explanation of what is happening will take the form of a Socratic dialogue between me and the voices of self-loathing in my head. Take it away, voices!


Hey, pace yourself there, sparky. We have a lot of ground to cover. Many miles to go before we sleep, and all that.

Sorry, nerd. "Twitch Plays Pokemon"? How is that even a phrase in English? Why should I ever care enough to continue?

Well, I don't know how "interesting" or "significant" it is. I'm sure some kids in some PhD mill somewhere will write a thesis on it or whatever.

But the main reason I think it's interesting is because it is so weird. I mean, thinkers like Isaac Asimov and William Gibson and Neal Stephenson always try to predict the future. Then, when the future actually shows up, we find their predictions to be just sort of weirdly sterile and unimaginative and just kind of off.

What actual humans do when given any sort of resources is always really weird and chaotic. (Except for porn. There's always porn. Now in HD.) Those above world class thinkers never imagined anything close to tens of millions of people trying to play a 20 year old videogame together as a maddened hivemind because why not.

That's because they were people who had it together and could get dates in high school.

I got dates!

They hated you more than I do.

Well played, brain. But you're stuck here with me, so let's describe Twitch Plays Pokemon.

Sometimes, I get into things just for the fan art.
Fine. What is Twitch Plays Pokemon?

Well, it's a channel on As of this writing (Monday, Feb. 24), over 63000 people are watching/participating and over 27 million have dropped by to watch.

And what on God's Green Earth is

It's a video game streaming web site. Basically, when you're playing a game, you can also enable other people to watch you play it.


Beats me, man. Look. The Internet is now as big as human experience. Which means that 95% of it will be stuff you can't comprehend the value of, forever and always. So you'll just have to take the value of on faith.

So people go there to watch cool games like League of Legends and Call of Duty.

Sure. It's a dream come true. Though, lately, the most popular channel by a margin has been to watch people play Pokemon Red, a Gameboy game from 1996.

The confused fellow to the lower left is you. 
What is Pokemon?

Oh, give me a break. You're reading a game blog. You must have heard of Pokemon. At the very least, it's 10% of the cultural DNA of anyone in their 20s. Basically, you catch monsters and they're your pets and you use them to duel other monsters.

Part of the cultural DNA of boys, you mean.

My daughters would vigorously disagree.

But back to the channel. In it, they're not watching the game. The multitudes passing through are also playing it.

So I assumed. How does your little nerd-conclave work?

People type the controls they want to press (up, down, left, right, A, B, start) into the chat window, and the game processes them. This results in a very slow, very chaotic game.

So 50000 people are typing in commands and they're all processed?

No, it's more complicated than that. There are two modes for how the commands are taken: Anarchy and Democracy, and people vote on which control scheme is in place at any one ...


Sorry. You're right. It's boring. I'll sum it up. In Anarchy mode, a few commands are selected at random from what people enter, resulting in slightly directed chaos with lots of weird, interesting things happening. (Assuming you are capable of finding any of this interesting, which I do, but I'm weird.)

In Democracy mode, people vote on what the next move is and a move is taken every 20 seconds. It's more directed, but painfully slow and boring.

It has arguments about politics AND religion? Sign me up!
And how long has this travesty been going?

As of this writing, 10 days and 20 hours, 24-7. It's a global project. When one continent goes to bed, another picks up the slack.

OK. Fine. They're playing an old game in a stupid way. 

It's even worse than that.

How is that even possible?

You see, there is a 10-20 second lag between what happens in the game and what you see on the screen. So when you enter a command, you're not saying what happens now, but what happens in 20 seconds. This means that even if everyone involved was united and smart, some chaos would be unavoidable.

One happy side effect of this is that it's very difficult for trolls to sabotage the project, because having any sort of directed input by anyone is very difficult.

This all sounds stupid.

Oh, it totally is. But stupid things can be interesting and fun.

But isn't it gross to care about something like this, when, say, people in the Ukraine are dying protesting their government?

Haven't you been reading? It's a global thing. I bet a bunch of kids in the Ukraine are playing the game to distract themselves from the terror and uncertainty.

Anyway, that is a dumb standard. Our ancestors fought and died in part so we could occasionally relax and do something frivolous.

Fine. An old game, in a stupid way, and it barely even works. Why on EARTH would so many people care?

Three reasons.

Oh, Lord.

First, it's a big experiment in the fascinating field of collective intelligence. It's the idea that a lot of people giving tiny inputs is smarter than any one person. A lot of research into this idea has taken place, and it is genuinely cool.

Because the most surprising thing about Twitch Plays Pokemon is that it's working. It's slow, but this confused random input is beating bosses, solving side quests, agreeing on what path to take among many possible choices, and generally getting it done. Sometimes the Hivemind even plays WELL.

That is pretty cool.


We are, after all, dealing with Gamers here.
No. Psych! Loser. What's the second thing?

The second interesting thing is the constant debate between democracy and anarchy. In other words, between slow, methodical success or fast, inefficient chaos. Anarchy is winning. In other words, people as a mass would rather do the thing in the chaotic, slower, harder way simply because it's more cool. That, if nothing else, should give you some faith in humanity.

And the third reason? If it involves fan art, I'm so out of here.

Third, the fan art.

[Sound of running away.]

Sorry, brain. You're stuck in here with me.

Ahhh. It burns us.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has evolved its own weird, funny, sometimes tiresome backstory and mythology. It is in human nature to anthropomorphize things. Elaborate stories about the insanity of Red (the main character) and the relentless voices in his head that drive him on have been crafted. It's actually kind of cool and poignant.

It helps that the chaotic interface results in a lot of painfully self-destructive behavior. Red constantly destroys his own best pokemon, throws away valuable items, and flings himself off of ledges. Twitch Plays Pokemon is truly unpredictable. Tell me, how many things in your life are like that?

Fortunately, there's not cosplay yet, but give it time.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has the XKCD Seal of Nerd Legitimacy.
What is this Helix Fossil everyone goes on about?

It's an item in Red's inventory that gets used accidentally like ten times a minute. Lots of jokes have arisen around this. It's the Cake Is a Lie/Arrow To the Knee of 2014.

Hasn't that joke been run into the ground?

To everyone who has been paying attention, yes, but new folks are hearing about the stream all the time, and it's funny to them. Also, um, how should I put this delicately? The Twitch Plays Pokemon diehards might not be the most socially-aware folks on the planet.

But the whole cobbled-together Twitch Plays Pokemon backstory does include a pretty amusing, made-up parody religion. I suspect that appeals to the demographic of the player base.

And who is doing all this? Shut-in boys, right?

Ummmm ...


The only survey I could find of players is here, and, yeah. Guys. Which is, itself, interesting. I don't know if this sort of activity has inherently higher value to men, and, if so, why. Maybe if Anita Sarkeesian reads this, she can tweet something.

So how will it end?

Nobody knows! It is completely unclear if the hive mind can finish this stupid thing, which adds a pleasing sense of suspense to the whole thing.

But if you want to help find out ...

I don't. Oh lord, I don't.

Humor me.

Internet culture moves fast and is unpredictable.
Fine. What would I do if I cared?

Well, if you want to read the history of the thing and see a lot of surprisingly funny and elaborate fan art, go here.

If you want a live update of what is happening, go here.

The freshest fan art is here.

My personal favorite pieces for fan art are here and here, though you need to know the culture a little to get it.

I still don't see why anyone should care.

Because, try as I might, I can't think of any analogue to this in human history. The duration, the planetary scale, the chaos, the joyous frivolity of it.

Unprecedented? Really? What about Second Life? SETI@home? WIKIPEDIA?

OK, you're right. I got a little overexcited there. How about this? Twitch Plays Pokemon is a reminder that we have not even begun to scratch the possibilities of what the hordes on the Internet can do when something piques their interest. And, sometimes, like with Wikipedia, those things Anonymous spits out can be genuinely valuable.

God. You're even more pathetic now than when you were telling everyone who'd listen about Doctor Who back in the 1980s.

And now everyone watches Doctor Who.

And that's why everyone who reads this should go to Twitch Plays Pokemon and enter just one command. I don't know if this is a harbinger of bigger things or not, but, if it is, don't you want to think you were on the ground floor?

OK. Fine. I went and voted for 'Democracy.' Happy?

Filthy casual. Anarchy or riot!

Everyone who reads this will laugh at you.

I love you, brain.



Like all the cool nerd kids, I'm on Twitter.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Why Indie Developers Go Insane

We all have our little mantras we use to get through the day.
After I started writing games in 1994 and went full-time in 1995, I soon came to a conclusion about the people who do what I do for a living: "These people are all crazy."

Then, as I got older, I realized that I am crazy too.

Then, as I got even older, I switched to a better truth: Everyone is crazy. Every human has his or her damage. Nobody gets out of this world alive.

It's just that indie developers tend to have high visibility, high stress, and small support groups. These factors mean that, when these devs break, you see it, and it's spectacular. Twitter has only helped to make self-immolation faster, easier, and more public.

A lot of people love indie games because they can so clearly be the product of real people. They aren't focus-grouped, penny-pinching, soulless chum. At their best, they have character. You might not like my games, but you can tell I CARE. They're works of love, recognizably the product of passionate brains.

And, since we care about the product of these brains so much, it's sometimes worthy to look at the brains themselves. Brains that spend half their time receiving more accolades than they deserve and half their time being the target of laserlike hate. These crazy, crazy brains.

I wanted to write a bit about the brain of the indie developer under stress. I don't want pity. I just think someone might find it interesting to read what it can be like to be in this particular box.

Simple. Free. Ad-supported. Indie. Popular. Addictive. BURN IT!
What Brought This On?

For years now, the iTunes (and lately Google Play) app store has been this gigantic, rushing torrent of infinite money, and everyone has scrambled to grab their piece.

It's the most soulless, joyless, metric-obsessed market/ethics-free-zone imaginable. There is nothing that can't and won't have all fun and creativity sucked out of it to earn an extra penny from the "whales" (i.e. compulsives) who will happily shell out a hundred bucks a month to get Candy Crush Saga to let them play Bejeweled. (Hot tip: Uninstall Candy Crush Saga and play all the Bejeweled you want forever ad-free for three bucks.)

So for the last couple weeks, people, when they weren't raging about EA's pillaging all of their happy memories of Dungeon Keeper, were noting the runaway success of a tiny, free, ad-supported game called Flappy Bird.

Let's be clear. It's not a great game. It was written in three days by a young Vietnamese man named Dong Nguyen. It's really simple, crushingly difficult, pretty derivative, weirdly addictive, and marketed purely by word of mouth. And it became a huge hit, sucking the attention away from a million equally derivative money-sinks.

According to the author, Flappy Bird was averaging $50K a day. So here come the haters ...

Shut up,
If You Think There Is Something Bad About Flappy Bird, Here Is Why You Are Wrong

The Internet exists to crap all over everything. And Flappy Bird is simple, silly, derivative, and casual-friendly, so it was sure to bring the self-styled Defenders of Gaming out of the woodwork.

And why do people object to it?

One. The gameplay is similar to many earlier games. Well, of course. Flappy Bird is very similar to a host of press-the-button-to-make-the-helicopter-or-bird-stay-in-the-air games going back years. So what? Here's a news flash. If you write any sort of simple game, there is a %99.999 chance somebody already did it.

You can't copyright gameplay for a reason. If you could, small developers (including me) would never stand a chance.

(Many have claimed that Flappy Bird is a ripoff of a game called Piou Piou, which is laughable if you bother to actually try the games. They play entirely differently.)

Two. The art style is super-similar to early Nintendo games. Yes, Flappy Bird's art is reeeeeally close to some Nintendo games that came out in the last century. I've never seen proof that assets were lifted. It's just similar.

So what? Again, you can't copyright an art style, for a reason. If your art style could never be similar to someone else's, small developers (including me) would never stand a chance.

Three. The game is pretty rough. So what? If people choose to play it, nobody voted you the Queen of Gaming. It is so, SO not your business. I think players of Candy Crush Saga or mobile Dungeon Keeper are getting rooked and could get a lot more similar fun elsewhere for way less money, but I'm not running up and down the subway slapping the iPhones out of their hands.

Want to see people hate on Flappy Birds for no good reason? Look at this gross bit of anti-journalism from Kotaku. As of my writing this, the article begins with an update that basically says, "We changed the title of this article as it was pure slander." (Kotaku has since apologized for this piece, so thanks for that, I guess.)

Or look at this vicious example. Or this straight-out slander from the famed game critics of, um, (At least Kotaku apologized.) Or, on in the best pretentious grad student style, this hilariously bizarre article in The Atlantic.

Or read the petty, jealous comments of any article on it. I promise you the author has. Every single one. Which is why this happened ...

Going ...
Rough Lessons In How Humans Work

Dong Nguyen quit. A fortune coming through the door, and he walked away. As I write this, Flappy Bird has been removed from app stores.

Think about this. I mean you, personally. Think about what it would take to make you run from a gold mine like this. Really. Think about why someone would do this.

This is not about money.

If you've experienced any time as a public figure, especially one that is mainly hated on, it makes a lot of sense.

Dong Nguyen is a young guy. He wrote a game for fun, put it out there, and found himself at the target end of a massive wave of attention, much of it negative. I can't stress enough how insanely terrifying this can be, and he wasn't ready.

Hardly the first time this happened. Remember when Phil Fish, the successful author of Fez, canceled Fez 2 and quit the industry in a fit of pique? I've never been Phil Fish. I don't know exactly what was happening in his head when this happened. But it did happen, and I can totally relate.

It can be hard to understand why someone would kill a product that's making a fortune. Anyone can say, "Oh, gee. He has money. Who cares?"

Well, I promise you, there are things that money can't buy. If you are going mad, you can't buy yourself sane. Some people can take this sort of attention. Not everyone. And some people can take it, but it makes them ... weird.

... going ...
I'm Crazy Too.

I've been the target of my fair share of hate. Real example: E-mails from angry schizophrenics. People who tell me they hope I go out of business and my kids never go to college. Pictures of me Photoshopped in various unflattering ways.

And, of course, the occasional truly unhinged message that I forward to my friends and ask, "Tell me honestly. Should I be worried about my safety here?"

I've been doing this for a long time, and I have a pretty thick skin. Even then, this stuff has an effect. You can't help it. It's part of being human. One angry message has more effect than ten friendly ones. It has a real psychic weight. And, once you know it's there, turning off your computer and avoiding Twitter doesn't remove it.

When my games had their own Humble Bundle, I should have been happy. I mean, I was, in a way. It'll help send my kids to college, and who could argue with that?

Yet, I spent that week in my room quivering with terror. When my developer/writer/artist friends find themselves in similar situations, they are often the same. I've been asked, "This is going so well. Why do I feel horrible all the time?" We neither expect nor deserve sympathy, but that's what happens.

And when an indie dev becomes the hate target of the day, isn't up to it, and loses it a bit, the public responses are the same.

Suppose one day I get one insult too many, I go nuts and quit or freak out. Here's what people will say about me: What a weakling. What a wimp. What an idiot. Why does he care? Why doesn't he just turn the social media off? Why can't he be tough and awesome like me? Screw that guy.

All this, of course, from people who have never experienced being in even remotely the same position.

A Quick Aside

Everyone jokes about how supposedly soulless PR and marketing people are, but dealing with the masses is difficult, time-consuming, and an actual skill. To survive emotionally in a high-profile situation, you need a layer of protection between yourself and the raw feedback of humanity.

If Dong Nguyen got a PR flack, stayed off forums, and just wrote games, he could make a lot of money. However, as he has said himself, this isn't the sort of life he wants to live, and I can't blame him.

But if you've ever seen a public figure (politician, actor, musician, and yes, game designer) have a weird, inexplicable public flame-out, it might make a little bit more sense now.

... gone. You see? Trolling does work!
Nothing Can Be Done, Of Course.

Reality is what it is. We devs would never have our attention and success without the Internet, but you have to take the good with the bad. If you want the attention, you also have to face the Hate Machine.

Sometimes it seems (accurately or not) like every gamer on the Internet seeks out their own little rantbox. A place to direct rage at their chosen target. Young male teens on one side, social justice warriors on the other, general cranks everywhere. Everyone has their axe to grind, and shouting is fun.

People have the right to give feedback, too. If I want to call out the Dungeon Keeper app or the hacky articles I linked to above, it's something I should be allowed to do. If you make your work public, people get to respond.

Trolling is annoying. (Though one man's troll is another man's brave truth-teller.) People troll because it works. When someone writes, "[Some developer] is a moron and his games suck," and the developer reads it, it hurts. You can't prevent it. It's just how our brains work.

I don't think this can ever change. (Though less slander from reporters who should know better would be nice, of course.) It's not about a broken system. It's about understanding, empathy, and remembering that the work you are shouting about was written by another human. An actual human, with feelings and stuff. And humans can be surprisingly fragile.

Saying that won't make any difference, of course. Haters gonna' hate. Trolls gonna' troll. But it feels nice to remind people occasionally, just the same.


Anyone who wants to hear more of my ramblings can follow me on teh Twitter.

Edit: Fixed a typo and made it clear one of the pieces linked was not actually by a grad student.