Anarchy or democracy? Viewers or participants? Charmander, Bulbasaur, or Squirtle?
On February 12, 2014, an anonymous Australian programmer answered those questions through the Twitch Plays Pokemon social experiment.
The basic premise was (and continues to be) that the “hivemind” of viewers would be responsible for all actions taken during a playthrough of Pokemon Red.
The game was bot-hacked, which allowed it to accept Gameboy commands in the chat: up, down, left, right, B, A, and Start.
At first, Twitch audiences didn’t give the whole thing much attention. Things ran smoothly as a small ipso facto oligarchy of like-minded folks who just wanted to beat the Elite 4 and claim Victory Road in the name of ABBBBBBK( the starting Charmander that the group chose (and eventually referred to as Abby). But, like all good things, that soon came to an end as more and more viewers/participants poured in, reaching peak numbers at 100,000 simultaneous watchers.
While the original intention was to see if a crowd could work together for a common goal, factions quickly arose, each with their own moral compass and view of a “successful” run. What was once a peaceful adventure about a 10-year old kid and his magic animal friends soon devolved into a nightmarish hellscape of conflicting demands and confusing actions. What would typically take a single-player just a few moments would require hours as viewers gave competing commands.
It was sheer madness that continued non-stop for 16 days, 17 hours, 45 minutes, and 30 seconds, when Blue was finally defeated handily with Zapdos, who the community dubbed Battery Jesus, Archangel of Justice.
Other notable Pokemon on the journey included a Lapras named AIIIIIIRRR/Air Jordan, a Venomoth named AATTVVV, who later became known as ATV, or All-Terrain Venomoth, and a Farfetch’d dubbed DUX, Slayer of Trees.
The audience developed lore, built entire websites dedicated to play-by-plays, and continue to reference the OG stream, even as they make their way through three generations of games with no signs of slowing down seven years later.
Twitch Studios director Marcus Graham tweeted about the iconic experiment on February 12, 2019, to commemorate its 5th birthday:
“TPP not only inspired an entire generation of Pokemon fans, but it directly inspired Twitch… TPP proved that the medium of Twitch was (and still is) ripe for innovation and that there are new and exciting ways to create interactive content that has never been done before.”
Lessons to Be Learned from TPP
While Twitch Plays Pokemon may seem like an anomaly or something to be shrugged at if you’re not in the gaming industry, it teaches us a lot about marketing and the power of participation.
Let’s break down three of the major takeaways that you can incorporate into your marketing strategy:
There is Power in Releasing Power
Sometimes, you just have to let the plane drive itself.
It’s scary to do because historically, self-flying planes have become self-falling planes pretty quickly, but no one knows how they want to be marketed to better than the people who you’re selling to.
While we are not suggesting that you give your Twitter password out to the public, we are suggesting that you give your audience the power to speak out about your brand and that you actively implement changes based on your community’s reasonable wants and needs.
People Can Form Creative and Meaningful Connections with Just About Anything
My boyfriend’s mom has a clay duck in her garden that I saw the first time I went over to his parent’s house that I immediately named “Clayton” and actively greet every time I pull into the driveway. Why? I don’t know. But I love that duck more than I have ever loved anything and am already plotting how to snatch it in the dead of night.
People can connect with anything if it touches their hearts. Maybe I am obsessed with that duck because it comforted me during a stressful situation. Perhaps it’s because he reminds me that somewhere, in the real world, fat ducks are waddling around just waiting for me to love them.
Either way, it’s just one of the nearly infinite examples of the human tendency to bond with just about anything. With TPP, the Pokemon were developed into full-rounded, dynamic characters despite mostly just being able to shout their own names and pass out during critical moments in battle. Yet, they are still drawing fan art, engaging with the stream, and contributing to the lore seven years later.
If you can create an authentic bond with your audience through your branding, your staff, or even your office pet, you are setting yourself up to build a loyal following that has an emotional connection with you. That’s a potent tool for both marketing and customer relationship strategies.
Novelty and Innovation are More Important Than Following “Rules”
Rules, guidelines, best practices… They’re helpful, and they matter. But, to quote an age-old cliche, rules were made to be broken. Innovation is always going to be more exciting than formulaic, and novelty (when done well) is always going to draw a crowd.
Investing just as much into your brand’s creativity as you do into following best practices is the key to covering all your marketing bases. As the consumer pool is increasingly dominated by Gen X, who are used to a certain level of tongue-in-cheek, reference-heavy, audience-driven entertainment, brands must be willing to flex to meet that expectation.
Neglecting to do so could mean death for a brand.
With your heart sturdied for battle and your Moon Stones in hand, go forth to Victory Road!