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Imagine yelling at live television and the characters actually hear you and respond in real time. Imagine watching a live streamer and affecting the content of the game they're playing — while they're playing — just by clicking or tapping the stream itself. Imagine online worlds you can explore with other real people simply through an interactive video stream, no downloads of any kind required.
Totally new forms of entertainment don't come along too often. Yet the path toward those innovative scenarios may become real on Wednesday as Facebook and Genvid Technologies release a genre-defying online experience called Rival Peak.
Trying to succinctly describe Rival Peak in traditional terms quickly descends into buzzword purgatory. It is an interactive live reality show. It is also a massively multiplayer, AI-powered cloud streaming game.
Whatever you call it, Rival Peak feels like a window into one future of interactive entertainment. It is also the public debut for Genvid and Jacob Navok, the 38-year-old New Yorker and former Square Enix executive who, as Genvid's CEO, has emerged as a leader of a fresh approach to cloud gaming, one based on new forms of engagement rather than just porting existing games to server farms.
For example, here's how Rival Peak works: Rival Peak is a Facebook Originals animated reality show running over a 12-week season. The dozen contestants are digital characters from around the world who have been dropped in a forest in the Pacific Northwest at the base of mysterious Mount Pneuma. They are competing for the opportunity to have one of their deepest wishes fulfilled. Of course, every week one of the contestants will be eliminated and the real narrative emerges from the "unscripted" drama that erupts among them. In Hollywood parlance, think "Lost" meets "Fantasy Island" meets "Survivor."
The difference from traditional television is that every single one of the millions of people who "watch" the show anywhere on Facebook will be able to direct the characters in real time and so shape the eventual narrative that emerges truly unscripted. Any time 24/7, anyone can tune in to a separate stream for each of the characters on the show and help decide what that character will do next, whether search for a secret treasure or socialize with another contestant. Each virtual character is run by advanced AI algorithms that incorporate the collective input and choices of the human audience.
And then everything is wrapped up each week with a live action video episode hosted by actor and author Wil Wheaton.
Matthew Henick, Facebook's vice president of content planning and strategy, said he greenlit Rival Peak because it fundamentally erodes the barrier between viewer and participant.
"When you think about the spectrum between passive video and gaming, there's always been this belief that they're going to merge somehow into some sort of new format, but so much of the innovation that's happened in the entertainment space has really been about business models more than anything," Henick said. "We haven't really seen a partner or an industry take the technological advances we've made in terms of the social internet and cloud, and use that to build an experience that actually puts people at the center. So when Jacob and Genvid threw out this project, light bulbs started going off for me in terms of this was an experiment we wanted to get on board with."
While the adventurers are exploring the forest, the level of human engagement with each character determines which contestant gets eliminated each week. So as a viewer you are also a player (tapping the fishbowl) or you can just watch the fish. As you engage with your favorite characters, you are recognized for your level of contribution to those characters' fate.
It all combines to break down the traditional barrier between static, noninteractive media (where you are merely watching or consuming something created somewhere else by someone else, be it a book, a film, a website or a painting) and interactive entertainment (generally called a game) where you make active decisions that affect the narrative. And whether you play or just watch, Rival Peak is delivered through what appears to be a normal Facebook video stream without any special software.
People who "watch" the show anywhere on Facebook will be able to direct the characters in real time and so shape the eventual narrative that emerges truly unscripted.Image: Facebook
But of course this new kind of experience requires a tremendous amount of special software behind the scenes. Most of the magic behind Rival Peak that enables real-time interactive streaming comes from Genvid. The company has raised $53 million from investors including March Capital Partners, Makers Fund and entities controlled by Tencent, NTT DoCoMo, Samsung and Li Ka-shing, the legendary Hong Kong magnate. Rival Peak is the first of several innovative interactive experiences Genvid is creating for large multinational technology and media companies. (For Rival Peak, Genvid enlisted Pipeworks Studios and dj2 Entertainment for help with game and content development.)
Rival Peak is built in Unity, a popular game engine, but Genvid's technology also supports Epic's Unreal Engine. Genvid has developed software to timecode gameplay and video streams and then synchronize them. Genvid also developed a web interface and a full cloud gaming backend supported by Amazon Web Services instances. It all allows video streams to become truly interactive (click the stream and things happen within the underlying content, be it a video game or a sports statistic.).
The technologies can help make traditional streams more interactive, but can also enable fundamentally new sorts of interactive experience that exist only within a stream and are optimized for allowing many people to engage simultaneously. In that sense, Genvid's approach — now embraced by Facebook — is a prod and challenge to the cloud gaming strategies adopted by tech powerhouses including Google (Stadia), Microsoft (xCloud), Amazon (Luna) and Nvidia (GeForce Now).
Though there are differences among them, each of those four companies' cloud gaming strategies focuses for now on using cloud as a delivery mechanism for games originally created for other platforms. It's about delivering existing PC and console games without the PC or console.
In fairness, that is more than challenging enough. The fact that each of those Big Tech gaming services delivers adequate responsiveness and gameplay at all is impressive. But Navok's question is: Can't cloud and interactive streaming be harnessed to deliver brand-new sorts of entertainment?
"The opportunity for cloud gaming has been framed wrong," Navok said in an interview last week. "It's been framed from the perspective of finding a new audience by not having to buy consoles anymore. But I think that new audiences will come not from a focus on playing games but from a focus on interacting with content in new ways. And that is what's different about Rival Peak."
Count Matthew Ball among the believers. Navok first met the much-followed media investor and analyst in 2018, and within months Ball signed up as a Genvid adviser and dealmaker.
"There is a very long history of new technology creating entirely new genres and formats," Ball said. "Our perspective is that there is an emergent opportunity to bring together the best of broadcast, Hollywood, traditional long-form storytelling with the richly interactive experiences associated with video games and that mixing them through technology can produce a new category of entertainment."
"The idea with Genvid and Rival Peak is we can tap into the tribalism of sports fans, the audience engagement of 'American Idol,' the sense of agency of 'Bandersnatch' and new types of community-based storytelling like Twitch Plays Pokemon," Ball said.
Last year, Ball pitched Genvid's vision and a Rival Peak prototype to Henick, who joined Facebook from BuzzFeed in 2018. Henick saw that the true innovation in Genvid's approach is in reducing user barriers to interactivity, and even perhaps in liberating interactivity from the notion of "gaming" altogether.
"It's funny; my first instinct was to be protective of it," Henick said. "I don't want this to become just a gaming product. Even just calling it a game will turn people off potentially because they think it requires a controller or some kind of learning curve or there's a heavy download for it. And so I wanted to make sure that the top of the funnel is as big as possible and as many people could bump up against it. And you can imagine that there's other partners where it would become more of an endemic gaming product than some kind of new entertainment experience."
Genvid now has around 80 employees. Navok's interest in cloud entertainment dates back a decade, when he was working in Tokyo on strategic planning directly for Yoichi Wada, then-CEO of Square Enix, the famed Japanese video game company. At the time, Square Enix was being pitched by cloud gaming pioneers OnLive and Gaikai. Wada directed Navok to figure out the cloud gaming puzzle.
Navok's investigation became a Square Enix cloud subsidiary called Shinra Technologies (named after the fictional Shinra corporation in the company's Final Fantasy series). While Navok was helping run Shinra, Twitch emerged as perhaps the important new force in gaming in years.
"Wada-san and I watched Twitch Plays Pokemon, and I remember saying to him: 'Here is a million people, playing a stream, together. This is effectively a cloud game, but one we hadn't thought of,'" Navok recalled.
Navok and Wada left Square Enix on the same day in 2016, shortly after Shinra closed. Shortly afterward, Navok co-founded Genvid with Square Enix and Shinra alumni and Wada as an adviser.
"Jacob is the perfect founder for this, from his technology expertise, his temperament with the team and his ability to shepherd a vision," Ball said. "These new and diverse sorts of entertainment experiences you're starting to see with Rival Peak are a result of a decade-long journey for him."
Even as Genvid delivers its first mass product in Rival Peak, a big question facing the company is how much to focus on building core technology tools to license to other developers versus concentrating on making its own games and products for distributors like Facebook and others. With powerful Asian conglomerates behind it, Genvid is swimming among potential partners and rivals from YouTube and Stadia to Twitch, Unity and Epic, not to mention Microsoft.
"We're working on future projects that use our technology to go even deeper than Rival Peak," Navok said. "Rival Peak is very simple and easy to use. But for other platforms it could look very different. For example, we're working on a horror prototype now where viewers solve simple puzzles like Among Us. We're working on live sports projects and other projects we can't talk about yet. We're just excited to keep delivering new kinds of experiences."
Seth Schiesel ( @SethSchiesel) is a contributing editor for Protocol focused on the business of video games and adjacent industries. He is a former editorial writer for The Boston Globe, entrepreneur and business reporter, technology writer and video game critic for The New York Times.