Let’s chat about Let’s Plays

Alex Calvin
Let’s chat about Let’s Plays

Since the platform launched, YouTube has become a major force within the games industry.

Millions of people spend billions of hours watching their favourite personalities do Let's Plays – videos of them playing games. This content has become influential and the opinions of these people are held in high regard by their fans.

But do they actually help sales? If a consumer can watch the whole game on YouTube, why should they bother buying it? One developer who has voiced this concern was Ryan Green, one of the minds behind the deeply personal narrative-driven game That Dragon, Cancer, who in March said that Let's Plays have had a hugely negative impact on the game's sales.

Yet many indie developers say that they've seen the opposite happen.

Let's Plays have a massive effect. It makes a lot of sense because I'm not spending lots of money on marketing, trailers or putting out paid-for advertising,” says developer Mike Bithell, who has credited Let's Play coverage by TotalBiscuit for the success of his first solo game Thomas Was Alone.

What a Let's Player does is put my game out in front of hundreds of thousands if not millions of players. We've always seen a very high correlation between someone with millions of subscribers showing our game and talking about it and then seeing a sales impact. It raised awareness I guess is what I'm saying and we've always seen a correlation and the same pattern's happening with [Bithell's second solo game] Volume as well.”

Her Story developer Sam Barlow adds: In my case I don't think Let's Plays have cannibalised sales. It may have helped raise awareness”

But it isn't always so positive. Indie developer Dan Pearce has released both a narrative-driven project in Castles in the Sky and a more ‘gamey' title, Ten Second Ninja, and YouTube's impact varied between titles.

From my experience, Let's Plays have been a mixed bag,” he says. Let's Plays significantly helped Ten Second Ninja; I don't think they helped Castles in the Sky. That's the key to this whole discussion, which is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to video monetisation and Let's Plays.

Let's Plays and streaming can benefit hugely, but I feel like for a more linear experience like That Dragon, Cancer, where the gameplay isn't the focus and may not be the most interesting part of the game, it could be a detriment. What indie developers have to take on board is that this should be a factor in how you monetise your game. That Dragon, Cancer launched at a pretty high price point, so you have to be committed to that purchase. If that whole game can be summarised 90 per cent in a YouTube video then I feel like that should have been a factor in pricing the game.”


Debate has also raged about the legality of Let's Plays. Developers, including outspoken Fez creator Phil Fish, have argued that YouTubers should payout ‘huge portions' of their revenue to game makers featured in videos. Big corporations, such as Nintendo, have enacted measures to share revenue generated from videos of its games.

Demanding revenue from YouTubers isn't worth it,” Size Five's Dan Marshall says. If a really small YouTuber shows off my material, there's no skin off my nose from that. Their viewer count isn't necessarily going to be big enough to bring in any revenue anyway. And with massive YouTubers who have millions of followers, any kickback I see in sales from them covering my game is going to be better for me in the long run.

It is much more beneficial than me saying: ‘your ten minute video is all footage of my game, I want four per cent of everything that video brings in'. It's just not worth it.”

Pearce adds: Games are inherently a collaborative thing. It's not like a film where you create it and put it out, it's a constant conversation. Even if you are just a standard player playing a game on your own, no camera equipment or anything. These people still make decisions in the game, that's the communication and that's going on throughout the game.

If we're going to use a dancing analogy, developers demanding revenue from YouTubers is like taking all the credit for this amazing performance just because you were the lead. I don't think that's fair at all.

Developers are collaborating with YouTubers. They didn't know they were doing it, but that's what they were doing when they put the game out there. And I honestly think that's a wonderful thing.”

YouTube has become such a force within games now that it's something creators think about during development.

We are seeing games made with viewers in mind, which, as a designer, is an interesting thing to see happen” Bithell says.

If you are a developer and you are making a game right now, that's something to consider. If your title is successful, it will be streamed, it will be Let's Played, so making sure it works in that context is a savvy move.”

He continues: Things to keep in mind are how interfaces work, making a game fun to watch, how you make sure it communicates visually so viewers can tell what's going on from a small window.”

Remedy's latest title Quantum Break even features options to disable licensed music within the game, thereby making it easier for YouTubers to promote the release without fear of videos being taken down by YouTube's Content ID system (which searches for copyright infringement by examining video footage and audio).

Licensed music is an interesting one,” Bithell says.

I've found myself wanting to use a licensed track and this has come up. We'd have to do something to prevent a copyright strike because people are going to get in trouble for that”

Pearce adds: Quantum Break having the option to take out licensed music means more people are talking about the game. More people are creating content with it and it makes it easier for YouTubers. It's one of those things where Microsoft or Remedy recognised that it is a symbiotic relationship between developer and YouTuber, and that helping that along can be a really, really good thing, so long as the game suits it.”

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