The idea underlying Twitch extension Crowd Control is not wholly new. Since the dawn of time, people have messed with each others’ games for laughs. In the beginning, there was Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.
These days, there are games like Choice Chamber, where users in Twitch chat can vote to change the rules on the fly. Crowd Control aims to bring the latter experience to a wide range of games, from Pokémon to Dark Souls.
This can manifest in a number of ways, both in emulated versions of games and, in the case of the SNES, physical ones thanks to a special flash cart called the SD2SNES. For example, in Super Mario Bros 3, viewers can spend a small number of “bits” (a Twitch currency you can buy with real money, 80 per cent of which goes to the streamer) to spawn in items and enemies.
So basically, the audience becomes an unlikely ally or the cackling orchestrator of the streamer’s certain doom. Crowd Control snaps with puzzle-piece-like efficacy into “randomiser” runs of older games like Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past - that is, modded versions of the game that scramble the order in which players encounter items crucial to things like puzzle-solving. Speedrunners are drawn to randomised runs because they keep things interesting even after hundreds of soul-draining do-overs, and Crowd Control adds another element of randomness that viewers get to participate in.
For instance, here’s a race between two speedrunners in which viewers constantly added new wrinkles by giving both players rupees and, er, deactivating their flutes:
Currently, Crowd Control supports 12 games: Dark Souls, Mega Man 2, Mega Man 3, Mega Man 4, Mega Man 8, Mega Man X, Pokémon Red and Blue, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario 64, Super Mario World, Super Metroid, and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Randomizer.
Most of those, you’ll notice, originally came out on retro platforms. Matthew Jakubowski, head of Warp Door, the company that created Crowd Control, told Kotaku in an email that newer systems are harder to crack open “due to extra security controls that tend to exist.” Jakubowski and company’s goal is to eventually support “EVERY game (except Donkey Kong 64),” but that’s still a long way off.
Modern multiplayer games present another hurdle. Much as Jakubowski would like to turn the likes of Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Overwatch into playgrounds for viewers’ demented desires, external programs that wrench the steering wheel out of players’ hands are generally considered cheating.
“Our software allows games to do things the originally programmers didn’t want happening,” said Jakubowski. “In competitive games like Fortnite, that could give the streamer a competitive advantage. To anyone watching, it would look like the streamer is cheating ... So we started working on other ways to control the streamer. Right now, some of the things we’re working on are inverting mouse controls, and letting viewers send keypresses or change scenes in [broadcasting program] OBS. Overall that will open up support for any game and have a bigger reach than just some games being supported.”
The team behind Crowd Control is also working with some developers of smaller multiplayer games to directly implement their program.
“We think working with smaller developers now will help us get recognised, which will help us get more notice by the larger developers,” said Jakubowski. “We really hope to see a ‘Crowd Control Supported’ option on the back of a game box someday!”