Games On Stream: SpyParty, Clairvoyance And The Livestreaming Phenomenon

Spy Party

As time moves on, with or without us, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the whizzing world of technology and its constant updates and advancements. Just go and talk to the old media cronies who are still in denial about the rise of YouTube and its multiple personalities who often prove to be more influential and far-reaching than they could ever wish to be nowadays. Video and the internet are currently undergoing an avid marriage and the combination is sprouting offspring like rabbits during spring. Of course, not all of the batch survive and only a few of these babies are worth nurturing, but when that’s the case, they sometimes mature into something far bigger than could ever be expected.

YouTube has long been the king of Internet video, mostly because of its communities and accessibility, meaning that you’ll find content and like-minded individuals that will suit you on there somewhere (if you can avoid the smut). As far as gaming is concerned, well, YouTube is huge for gaming videos – either from developers uploading trailers, gameplay and development diaries, or players showcasing their skills, sharing tutorials, Let’s Plays, criticism and so much more. But it’s all getting a bit old now, isn’t it? To an extent that’s true, as YouTube is no longer the big wonder of the Internet it once was, though it is still going very strong. Something else has taken its place as the fresh thing on the web, and it is rising in popularity at a ridiculous rate. Livestreaming is the latest emerging internet video phenomenon. But how is it being used by players – what’s the appeal? And how can game developers utilize livestreaming to their advantage – as a promotional tool and a means to conjure up a community?

“…they’ve been actively seeking out indie game developers to encourage them to tap into the potential of livestreaming and incorporate it as an essential part of their social media.”

Planetside 2The answer to those questions are still being learned by everyone, including TwitchTV, who are currently leading the way in gaming-specific livestream hosting and events. The company is a subsidiary of JustinTV and was designed to be the ESPN of gaming due to its focus on livestreaming eSports events for interested viewers and aspiring players to watch the professionals playing in real-time. Since its initiation in June 2011, TwitchTV has grown organically five times to over 23 million unique users watching over 5.5 billion minutes of gaming video a month. That’s…a lot. And the damn thing is growing at a fast rate still, as you might expect.

Livestreaming isn’t exclusive to eSports, though, and it’s fast spreading into all aspects of gaming. The recent Awesome Games Done Quick charity marathon, hosted by Speed Demos Archive, is one such example. Some of the big budget games actually have livestreaming fully integrated so that players can share their gameplay with an audience they can interact with and at an incredible ease – Planetside 2 is one such example. But our focus is indie games, and so has TwitchTV’s been as of late as they’ve taken to actively seeking out indie game developers to encourage them to tap into the potential of livestreaming and incorporate it as an essential part of their social media.

Since Tim Schafer blew up Kickstarter and proved to the majority crowd that being open towards in-game development is a fantastic thing most of the time, there’s been a call to engage with players in a similar way. Livestreaming allows this as you can press a few buttons and begin making your game to an audience, as has been done with a few game jams in the past. Others prefer to host Q&A sessions while playing their game or simply sitting on camera so viewers can see a face during the livestream. There’s a lot of potential here and, speaking as a player and viewer myself, it’s a great way to draw people in and make them care about the work you’re doing and get feedback on your game. And all of this doesn’t cost a penny, providing you have the requirements needed to livestream, which are becoming less demanding by the week, as is always the case with technology.

Spying On The Stream

Spy Party

While livestreaming is might be a new consideration for many indie game developers out there, that’s not to say that there aren’t already communities and games that utilize livestreaming to impressive results. The most obvious example to anyone who is in the know is SpyParty, which developer Chris Hecker has managed to build up a small dedicated livestreaming community around, despite the limited entry to the game’s current beta.

For those unaware, SpyParty is an online multiplayer game in which the Sniper attempts to seek out the Spy (human player/s) among a crowd of party goers full of other AI-controlled characters. It’s a game of patience and nuances that can take time to become confident in. The Spy moves among the AI crowds attempting to perform a number of tasks without being noticed – each of them have their ‘tells’, whether audio or visual related. It is these that snipers look out for and take their one shot when they feel they’ve worked out which is the Spy (the human), but often it comes down to panicked guesses as the timer runs down to zero.

We managed to steal Chris away from fine tuning SpyParty, as he often is, to answer some questions. Well, in fact, that’s not strictly true as he says that when we got in contact he was actually writing about livestreaming, so we just diverted his thoughts towards us. He talks about how livestreaming was something unexpected that emerged among SpyParty players, and how he has since worked with it and is continuing to learn more about its potential with SpyParty and similar games.

Statik: How did you become aware of livestreaming and what about it interested you?

Chris Hecker: It was actually SpyParty beta testers who showed me how big and influential streaming was becoming. Some of the hardcore players were also viewers of Starcraft 2, League of Legends, and the other big competitive games. We’d be hanging out in the SpyParty lobby between games and they’d mention they were watching some game or other on, and I started realizing there was this whole new way communities of fans were assembling themselves around games out there. I was pretty slow on the uptake, to be sure, but by last summer I realized it was getting pretty huge and important, and I started tweeting about streams pretty regularly. The growth of both streaming and YouTube channels as ways for people to learn about new games and talk about them is just astounding.

It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest. There are already so many different avenues for building awareness you have to be on top of as an indie, like the good old game development blog, Twitter, Facebook, forums, Reddit and, of course, the games press, that to have two more added to the list means even more plates to keep spinning. That said, both streams and YouTube channels are really great to watch and feel very different from each other and from the existing avenues I listed, so you can see why they’re so popular.

“Stream viewing is basically Sniper practice, so even people who haven’t been invited into the closed beta yet can get a real honest taste of the game. The viewers can discuss their guesses in the stream chat, and even place bets!”

Spy Party

Statik: What makes SpyParty such an ideal game to livestream?

Chris Hecker: Well, I don’t know if it’s “ideal”, but there are a few reasons it makes for a good stream. First, since it’s about perception on the Sniper side, viewers can actually play along and take guesses about which character is the Spy. Stream viewing is basically Sniper practice, so even people who haven’t been invited into the closed beta yet can get a real honest taste of the game. The viewers can discuss their guesses in the stream chat, and even place bets! The beta testers are convinced the quality of the newbies that come in has gone way up since streaming became popular, which is great. It takes some of the pressure off for me implementing spectation and replays, two important features on my list for after I get the beta open.

Second, SpyParty is much slower paced than most games, because it’s about subtle behavior, so I’m hoping that translates into an accessible stream viewing experience. There are no explosions and numbers and effects flying all over the screen, so you can just sit back and get deeply into the game. The counter-argument to this point is that the game is about subtlety, so it’s hard for a new player to understand why a Spy got shot without knowing a lot of the tells in the game. It’ll be interesting as it grows to see how this shakes out. I think casters/commentators will help a lot with this, so I plan to encourage that as well once the spectation client is working.

Statik: How do you encourage those playing SpyParty to participate in livestreaming, either hosting it themselves or becoming a viewer?

Chris Hecker: On the streaming side, one of the SpyParty beta testers, Anthony Fenili (tytalus in game), wrote up a great tutorial in the private beta forums about how to stream to Twitch, and that really helped other players get streams working.

On the viewing side, I started by tweeting out links to streams as they’d go up, but after a couple months of that, I started worrying I was annoying people who were following @spyparty for game news, so I decided to take some time and set up the SpyParty Streams Notifier. The Notifier is a small set of scripts that run on my server that look for people streaming SpyParty, and then send out email to an announcement list, tweet it out on a special Twitter account (@SpyPartyStreams), and update a table of streams on the webpage. This is really cool because it’ll find SpyParty streams even if you’re not following the streamer, which is a weakness with, so it both helps viewers discover streams, but also helps streamers get viewers.

“…streaming has a pretty significant CPU and bandwidth load, so it’s not the kind of thing you can just turn on without the user tweaking it and being knowledgeable. That’ll change, I’m sure, as computers get faster.”

It also allows people who are interested to subscribe to the mailing list or Twitter account, and I can just occasionally tweet out special events on the main Twitter account. It’s a win-win. It wouldn’t work for a game like League of Legends where there are a zillion streams starting up all the time, but for a small indie game with a few streams a night, it seems to work perfectly. I’ve shared the hacky server code with one other indie already, and once I get it cleaned up and stabilized, I’ll post it all so other indies can use it.

Statik: Can you see livestreaming becoming a part of other gaming experiences in the future and do you think there’s a chance it might become more integrated to gameplay?

Chris Hecker: Yeah, although streaming has a pretty significant CPU and bandwidth load, so it’s not the kind of thing you can just turn on without the user tweaking it and being knowledgeable. That’ll change, I’m sure, as computers get faster.

However, spectation and replays are something I’m going to turn on all the time, once I get them working. Replays are what Clairvoyance is doing; it’s not video streaming; it’s actually playing back all the robot commands into a viewer. The performance requirements for this are way less than compressing video, so you actually can archive every game played and make a big online database of them, where people can add commentation and notes. It’s great that Erik is doing this, because streams and replays are a great way for people to get better at competitive games.

Streamlining Sharing With Clairvoyance

ClairvoyanceIt is no coincidence that Chris Hecker should point towards Clairvoyance and its efforts towards adapting the pros of livestreaming and making them more accessible, as we also spoke to Erik Svedang about the game’s replay system. Like SpyParty, Clairvoyance is an online multiplayer game – ideal for sharing matches between a community – but it’s a board game that’s played asynchronously between two players taking turns that are executed at the same time when both decisions have been made. As such, games can take place over minutes or days, depending on how active the players are being. Luckily you can play multiple games at a time too.

When matches come to an end and a winner crowned, the turns that each player made are then made available to watch via the Activity Log, which is the replay system Chris referred to earlier. It means that anyone who owns the game can watch previous matches to learn new tactics and strategies – which is what TwitchTV was initially designed for, but this system avoids the heavy bandwidth of huge video files inherent to livestreaming.

Erik explains in much better detail:

“It’s basically the normal, full game, but with only one of the views, ‘the playback’. You look through the moves in exactly the same way that you do when playing the actual game. You can pause, go back in history, and so on. Our plan is to integrate even more stuff with it so that you can comment on certain moves etc.”

“It was something we added pretty early as a feature inside the game, so that you could look at your own games afterwards,” Erik continued. “When we added a way to discuss finished matches on the webpage, it felt like a very important thing to let everyone in on the discussion, so we added the ‘Clairvoyance TV’ that lets anyone watch.”

“There is a certain pride in showing off moves that made you win the game, and sometimes really funny situations happen that are also tempting to show the rest of the world.”

ClairvoyanceSo while it requires a fair amount of work on the developer’s part, the result of having a replay system within the game is that the players have a much more efficient way of viewing other matches. This, of course, removes some of the appeal of livestreaming, such as interacting with the player as they play, but that wouldn’t work for Clairvoyance considering it’s played in turns and can drag on over an unspecified amount of time with no activity to view from either player. The system that’s in place allows for players to learn from each other still, but we were interested to compare how Erik encourages the sharing of replays to how Chris has managed it over Twitter and via the SpyParty website.

When asked, Erik told us that as the replay system is a new feature right now, so not too much has been worked out regarding sharing options, but he notes that it has become a big thing between active players and is destined to get more and more popular.

“There is a certain pride in showing off moves that made you win the game, and sometimes really funny situations happen that are also tempting to show the rest of the world. We will add easier ways for sharing the link, though (with Twitter etc), so we’re far from done. It’s very nice that we can improve things like graphics and sounds and affect all old game matches immediately. There is also a lot of possibilities in that we can add things in our web player that communicates with the server and even the actual game.

An important part of playing games is the talk afterwards, and that’s what we have focused on so far, but there is definitely more that can be done. The back-and-forth movement between the website and the game works very well in general. For example, you can look at peoples stats and rank graphs on your phone when you’re away from the game. We will just keep going with it and see what other cool things we can come up with.”

ClairvoyanceBoth Chris and Erik are diving head first into what their player base is demanding, and for these competitive online multiplayer experiences that is a way to learn from other players by watching other matches and sharing their own triumps with the community. Livestreaming is certainly a viable way of doing this, and is clearly the dominant force. Encouraging players to livestream their footage and integrating the sharing of it with social media and through the game’s website seems to be the easiest way to incite a community to gather. Signing up with TwitchTV as a developer to promote your game and the work you are doing on it is increasingly becoming a must-do, as much as being on Twitter and active in various forums with development updates is.

The exciting thing is that livestreaming is still relatively young, so as it continues to expand alongside the relationship between viewers and players, there are bound to be more exciting innovations in this area. As this happens, it seems inevitable that an increasing number of developers will integrate livestreaming or something of the same potential, like Clairvoyance’s replay system, into their games for players to make use of. For online multiplayer it may even become a necessity. For other types of game there is certainly room for expansion as well, such as showing off early gameplay and taking questions and requests from fans who are watching while you play. When we’re not playing games, it seems we’re watching others play them so as to better or entertain ourselves. Gaming is becoming a bigger part of our lives, and technology further finds ways to ensure that.

Related Posts

  • Chris P biggest fan

    Great article! Will be curious to see communities (websites/blogs big and small) adapt and adopt to this phenom in 2013.

  • Michael Panole

    You make some valid points… You making me rethink what I was confident about… good job!