Twitch’s “Stream First” initiative integrates chat with a new wave of games

Streamline: The multiplayer game in which chat makes your life harder. BibleThump.

Streamline: The multiplayer game in which chat makes your life harder. BibleThump.

Whether you think Twitch chat is a bold new frontier in terms of how the young folk communicate, or just a den of villainy and dank memes, there’s no doubt it’s an increasingly core part of the gaming landscape. Now Twitch is seeking to cement that position with a new initiative called Stream First. The idea is to build on the success of the “Twitch Plays…” format, which sees people in the chat channel controlling what’s happening in-game by spamming simple commands. Fairly incredibly, that limited form of interaction hasn’t stopped the hivemind from crushing Dark Souls bosses or completing Punch Club in two days.

The new games that are part of the Stream First programme are being built from the ground up with Twitch chat in mind, which means they’re able to feature more complex commands. Three were showcased at Twitch HQ in San Francisco earlier today, starting with Superfight. Based on the physical card game, it’s an absurd argument played out for comedic effect between characters created from combinations of cards. So you might have a “college A cappela group”, “armed with dynamite”, who “can’t stop sobbing” up against a “sasquatch”, that “can turn invisible while singing showtunes”, and “armed with a crowbar”.

In terms of the humour, you get the picture. It’s very much gentler than its obvious inspiration, Cards Against Humanity, but the potential for it to be watchable comes from how funny the streamers involved are. In this instance chat plays the role of Caesar, casting votes to decide which player’s argument is most convincing.

A more innovative integration can be found in Streamline, an elimination-style third-person multiplayer game in which chat participants are able to make life tougher for the players by voting for rule changes. They might demand the floor is turned into lava, invoke a sudden sandstorm, or insist that all 15 runners have to shuffle crablike. (Though knowing Twitch chat what they’ll actually demand is that plays Brotherman Bill on loop.) Viewers are also able to bet on which of the games “runners” they think will win, and truthfully it’s probably this interaction which has the most long-term application when you consider Twitch’s viewership is dominated by League of Legends, Dota 2, CS:GO and Hearthstone. Ker-ching, and all that.

The last game we were shown, which Evan and I also played, was a kind of fantasy chequers thing called Wastelanders. This had the most complex chat-based controls, with players on each team able to choose where their pieces moved, attacked, healed, guarded and so on. We were told it was very early in development and honestly it seemed that way, with a fair amount of confusion as to exactly what we were trying to do beyond typing BabyRage once our strat started to fall apart.

From what we saw today I’d be surprised if any of these games were Twitch’s next happy little accident. But the idea of making chat an integral part of certain games is an intriguing one, and with publishers and developers already desperate to talk to the audience that Twitch traditionally plays host to, plus broadcasters looking for new ways to innovate, there’s plenty of potential here, especially with the gambling stuff. Lines I will no doubt rue typing when I've lost my mortgage on a Hearthstone bet five years from now.

Tim Clark

With over two decades covering videogames, Tim has been there from the beginning. In his case, that meant playing Elite in 'co-op' on a BBC Micro (one player uses the movement keys, the other shoots) until his parents finally caved and bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. These days, when not steering the good ship PC Gamer, Tim spends his time complaining that all Priest mains in Hearthstone are degenerates and raiding in Destiny 2. He's almost certainly doing one of these right now.