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An Itch For Twitch - Welcome To The Brave New World of Producing

Posted By Chris Thomes, Monday, May 6, 2019

Consumers have shifted their viewing to interactive devices (iPad/iPhone, Xbox, PS4, PC), and now creators are free of many of the limitations of broadcast television. But few traditional producers have taken advantage of this fact. Those who have are typically native to these new platforms, and they operate in a world that is as much about participation as it is about watching.

Acronyms, pixelated faces and cryptic icons fly past, almost faster than you can read. Symbolic “emotes” flood the screen as viewers react to a big moment—from excited to shocked, heartbroken to overjoyed. It’s a live chat, flowing like a river of alien symbols. A conversation like this is the backbone of one of the most popular live streamingvideoplatforms on earth. Its focus is primarily onvideo gamelive streaming, but it also includes broadcasts ofesportscompetitions, music, “in real life” streams, and most recently, scripted “TV” programming.

This is Twitch.

Its scale is extraordinary. As early as February 2014, it was already considered the fourth-largest source of peak internet traffic in the United States. By May 2018, it had 2.2 million broadcasters monthly and 15 million daily active users, with around a million average concurrent users on 27,000 Twitch partner channels.

The core draw for viewers is an insatiable desire to watch others with similar interests play games, engage in unique interplay with other viewers and users, boo or cheer the gamers and … simply hang out to chat. Twitch viewers post more than300 messages per second,and while a lot of it may appear rather meaningless and trivial under all those layers of almost indecipherable noise and emotes, there is definitely meaning.

While this “meaning” may not be immediately understood by the average person, it’s not difficult to recognize that it is simply about connection. A community is thriving on Twitch. Players have something in common and a place that enables them to celebrate it. That’s the beauty of the platform—large-scale enablement of participatory entertainment. It embraces interactivity and innovation on formats that television simply cannot accommodate, and it acknowledges the viewer, and engages them real time.

It also helps that streamers are encouraged to create content by being monetarily compensated in various ways. The breakdown goes like this:

- If streamers manage to get 50 followers, they get a percentage of the pre-roll ads that Twitch runs in the live stream.

- Viewers can also choose to subscribe to their favorite Twitch streamers. This supports streamers financially, but also gives the subscriber perks like special chat emojis and badges for use in chat rooms, as well as the ability to watch the stream without any Twitch advertisements. Subscriptions have typically cost between $5 and $25 a month depending on how many features the viewer can access. That money is split between the streamer and Twitch. 

Viewers can also spend money on bits, which are basically animated cheering points they can lavish on the streamer. Bits serve as currency as well. When viewers cheer with their purchased bits, the streamer gets a cut of what viewers spent on them.

- Viewers can also simply donate directly to the streamer, which eliminates having to give Twitch a cut.

- Lastly, streamers can get a cut of affiliate sales by posting links to online retailers and encouraging viewers to buy.


Having a popular channel and maintaining enough of an audience to make money is not easy, though. Although Twitch is a unique platform and format, the tenets of content creation and distribution are strikingly similar to those of traditional television. They require that one have a strong, understandable brand and voice, be engaging, maintain quality, have a consistent schedule and use marketing to reach new viewers.

Because these are all the table-stake rules of engagement for the traditional TV business, one would expect studios to be knocking down Twitch’s door. But they just aren’t—yet. While the Netflix-savvy production world is embracing new streaming platform distribution approaches, the show formats are almost exactly the same as traditional TV. Each episode is the same length, and each season has the same episode order. Because they maintain this consistency in user experience and often rely on foreign sales to traditional TV outlets, the major online distributors are not positioned to embrace new expressions of video storytelling that don’t look and feel exactly like TV.

Bernie Su is Twitch's first exclusive scripted content producer.
His show, Artificial, lets viewers interact directly with characters
.

One producer who has jumped into and embraced the multiformat Twitch-verse is Bernie Su. He is no stranger to radical formats. In fact, two of his previous shows, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, won Emmys for excellence in interactive media. His latest effort, Artificial, is a scripted sci-fi series that is the first-ever Twitch show where the viewing audience can interact directly with characters while the show is on. Episodes of the show air live, with actors in front of the camera in real time, acting and reacting to audience input via questions and polls. Viewers literally change the story by voting.

While Twitch did not finance Artificial, it did get behind it promotionally, hoping that would signal a new kind of programming and bridge the divide between Hollywood and gamers. With more than half of Twitch users spending over 20 hours a week streaming content on the platform, there is very little time for them to watch traditional TV. Su rose to the challenge, though, and decided to tackle this niche audience head-on.

“The younger generation (the millennials and the Z’s) are watching less and less traditional TV,” explains Su. “So I’m taking the initiative to produce and tell stories on platforms and formats where they are. These viewers have never known a world without the internet or without a smartphone. It’s how they experience their stories.”

Su says that for this finicky demographic, participatory programming is right on target. “The storyteller in me is on a mission to design story experiences where the audience is part of the story, where they are consequential. They’re on the journey with the characters and affect the narrative canon. We grew up watching Luke Skywalker defeat the Empire. Now we want to help Luke defeat the empire.”

The show aligns scripted narrative with interactivity that gamers expect, and it does so by leveraging a variety of Twitch’s unique features. In fact, when Su developed Artificial for Twitch, he made sure it was a proprietary experience. “Being live is just step one, and almost every platform does live and does it well, but they do not have the chat system, the bit/token system, the extension system, and the APIs that Twitch has and that we use for Artificial. If you moved the series to a different platform, we would have to rethink and redesign a lot of our tech and methods. Artificial in its current form could only be done on Twitch.”

The method achieves more than simply allowing gamers to influence the story. The experience of watching and participating in Artificial taps into viewer values that Twitch has forged in its core—community and connection. And that might be the key to helping Twitch diversify its content offerings. Artificial provides a very different type of content for Twitch viewers, but it still utilizes the community features that they’re used to—features that keep them coming back.

From a production standpoint, Artificial is almost like live theater, with key pivot points allowing for variations suggested by the audience. Keen to stay within budget constraints, Su avoids improvisation in the production. “One thing a lot of people misconstrue about our series is that there’s a lot of improv,” he says. “There is actually nearly no improv in our show. Every line of dialogue you hear the actors say is scripted somewhere. Now, it may be on a screen or a printed page or a vocal call, but it is definitely scripted.

"What were doing is building audience responses into our scripts. We know we have a story we want to tell. We know our narrative points. But we do have a lot of variables and branches, and its not until the audience locks us into something that we actually we commit.

That audience influence is critical to engagement on Twitch, no matter what they are watching. Even Twitch’s cofounder, Kevin Lin, has said that people tune into Twitch for a “participatory experience” and enjoy talking to each other while videos are streamed live and then discussing what happened afterward. Like the water cooler conversation after one’s favorite traditional drama series, the Twitch community savors interacting with each other as they banter, pontificate, debate and even give each other a hard time if someone is playing poorly. The difference between interactive and participatory is blurred in this hyperactive world, but as Su explains, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. “Interactive is where the user/viewer has some ability to control the narrative. Participatory is where the user is working with the character and, ideally, other audience members. I consider Artificial to be both.”

While it seems Artificial has everything it needs to satisfy even the most picky Twitch viewer, it remains to be seen whether Twitch’s users will fully embrace nongaming content. They are on Twitch to watch and talk about games. Expecting them to welcome broader programming may be more than they want or are willing to accept.

Other platforms including Facebook and Netflix are also exploring more ways audiences can interact with shows. For example, Netflix recently produced and distributed Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a new, interactive, choose-your-own-adventure movie that ties into the Black Mirror universe. While it taps into a popular intellectual property and has the weight of Netflix’s custom platform enhancements behind it, it is asking viewers to consume content in a whole new way. But Su is emboldened by that effort and says of the Bandersnatch premiere, “I was incredibly excited. I’m happy to see Bandersnatch and Netflix really push interactive into the mainstream. The choose-your-own-adventure style is familiar to a lot of viewers, just not in video. And in an instant, Netflix made that mainstream with a very well-executed piece. It’s not what we’re doing with Artificial, which is the audience as a whole influencing the direction, but anything that elevates interactive is great for all of us.”

The rest of the studios may need to get on board with Su. In a disrupted landscape where there are more TV platforms and programming than ever before, but where ratings are dropping for live viewing, platforms like Twitch could offer safe harbor for creative producers. Shows like Artificial give appointment viewing a completely unique experience. Programs like it could change the very meaning of live viewing and turn disruption into opportunity.

But with opportunity comes risk. For many producers, shifting from linear to interactive storytelling could seem like a steep hill to climb. Learning all of Twitch’s feature sets, chat system, bit/token system, and APIs could, for some, be a big barrier to entry. We could be in a world where there is no looking back, though, and Twitch may be the new anchor tenant of a participatory storytelling future. Its 15 million active users a day make that argument pretty compelling. Producers like Bernie Su can’t imagine telling stories any other way.

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