Making ‘Choice Chamber,’ A Game For Those Who Like To Be Watched

June 26, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Michael Molinari of Studio Bean about Choice Chamber, a game that gets broadcast online to live viewers who can influence events.

Not every game developer hawking something at E3 can afford an internet connection. The Entertainment Software Association’s Electronic Entertainment Expo is the biggest event of the year for the video game industry, and with unions running amok amid the set-up in the Los Angeles Convention Center everything comes at a premium price. A hard line into the convention’s internet service can cost $10,000 or more, depending on the speed exhibitors want—too much for most indie developers to spend on their own.

But Choice Chamber maker Michael Molinari got his hard line, and IndieCade, the organization that champions indie developers at conventions like E3 and beyond (and even hosts its own festival), picked up the check. “Usually they don’t give that to people,” Molinari told ANIMAL, “so that was very nice of them.”

Choice Chamber screenshot

Choice Chamber does not have traditional online multiplayer, but nevertheless Austin-based Molinari needed that connection to truly demonstrate what makes the game special. In Choice Chamber, one person plays the game while an unlimited number of others watch—and influence.

The game relies on Twitch, a gameplay-broadcasting service on which millions of gamers from all over the world congregate to watch their favorite “casters” play every kind of game imaginable. But whereas most Twitch viewers are simply doing just that—viewing—Choice Chamber’s audience has a say over what happens in the game.

Choice Chamber concept sketch

For the person playing, Choice Chamber is a simple, if cute, side-scrolling action game, with rudimentary jumping and attacking mechanics. But as that player moves between rooms, viewers on Twitch vote on variables ranging from the number and types of enemies the player will face to the weapons and abilities he or she will have access to. The game is currently still in a sort of post-successful-Kickstarter prototype limbo, but as development progresses viewers’ roles will expand to let them have a more direct impact on the game, including special attacks and even AI helpers that they’ll control indirectly.

“The whole point of the game is to stop people in the chat room from feeling like they’re just watching as a spectator,” Molinari said. “I want them to feel like they’re a player as well.”

Choice Chamber concept art

Choice Chamber is currently riding on the crest of a wave spawned by Twitch Plays Pokémon, an experiment that earlier this year allowed hundreds of thousands of players to collectively control the main character in the popular old Game Boy game by inputting commands in a Twitch chat room.

The similarities are obvious, and Twitch Plays Pokémon made all kinds of headlines. But Molinari thought of the idea for Choice Chamber during a dog training class (where he apparently does much of his thinking) last year and began conducting play tests months before TPP debuted. “It was pretty cool, the reaction I got from the first few play tests,” he said. “And then Twitch Plays Pokémon came out around Valentine’s Day, and completely stole my thunder.”

Choice Chamber lava code

But he eventually realized the benefits of being overshadowed (it’s telling that Molinari is not the only Game Plan subject to mention TPP as an influence). Not least among those benefits is the fact that it made his “elevator pitch” easier by providing a recognizable reference point. And the success of TPP proved that Molinari’s premise was sound, giving him the confidence to see his project through. “I had the idea first, but they gave me the confidence to push forward with it,” he said.

Choice Chamber concept sketch

Thus the $30K Kickstarter, which reached its funding goal with days still remaining after Twitch announced that it would match the game’s remaining funding if it reached $22.5K. Yes, Choice Chamber relies heavily on Twitch, so it’s no wonder they’d want to back it—but judging by all the unique and asymmetrical games shown off in all corners at E3 this year it’s clear the whole industry is eager to experiment and explore new styles of play.

This is not Molinari’s first rodeo, but it differs from his past games—and all past games—in that it was designed specifically with broadcasting at its very core. Molinari’s previous game, Soundodger, requires 100% of players’ attention, and therefore necessitates that players streaming their sessions on Twitch ignore their viewers if they want to do well. “I felt bad,” Molinari said, and Choice Chamber is a direct response to that feeling.

“I think maybe in a couple years every game is going to have something like this,” Molinari said. “It may not be that a game is designed specifically for it, like from the ground up, where it’s heavily tied in with chat interaction, but having viewers be able to interact with the game or the person playing in some fashion—it’s like a new frontier, right now, and it’s really exciting.”

Choice Chamber screenshots

There’s a lot to see and, more importantly, play at E3. But Choice Chamber was probably the only game there that put players in the spotlight as soon as they sat down with it. And when Molinari explained what was going on—that you were on camera, that your gameplay, face and voice were being broadcast live over Twitch, and that the people watching could make your experience easier or more difficult as they saw fit—you suddenly felt like the entertainment, rather than the entertainee. And that’s the point, Molinari said later.

“There’s nothing greater for a Twitch streamer specifically than to entertain your chat,” he said. What better way to keep your audience engaged than by giving them all the power? And the E3 demo was just the tip of the iceberg. There are around a half dozen people currently working on the game, and what’s been shown so far is just 5% of what Molinari hopes to include in the finished product, which should be released by the end of the year.

Choice Chamber future features

In the meantime pre-order Choice Chamber for $15 at ChoiceChamber.com to gain immediate prototype access, and watch out for imitators, because this new broadcast-based  genre is about to get huge.