Leaving the brand that you helped build is a tricky decision for anyone, but when you’re content creators on YouTube, striking out on a small budget, and leaving millions of subscribers behind with your former employer, you need to be very confident your core fanbase is going to come along with you.
RKG’s three co-founders, Daniel Krupa, Gav Murphy and Rory Powers, were confident though, and with good reason, as Patreon donations have quickly amassed to an impressive $26,935 (£20,321) a month since the channel’s early January launch.
PREPARE TO DIE
RKG, and its headline show Retry, was born out of a show the trio came up with while working for IGN: Prepare to Try. Krupa explains the initial concept:
“It started with a very simple conceit: could someone who has never played Dark Souls before finish it before Dark Souls 3 came out? It was a challenge, filmed under pressure. We were putting out four episodes a week for three weeks. We were like Coronation Street. But in retrospect we also realised we’d made a show about our friendship, about how it can get you through terrible frustration and disappointment. That seemed to create a deeper connection with people.
“Originally it was intended to be a one-off project,” Krupa continues. “But the response was something else. I’d never experienced anything like it in my time at IGN.” And so the trio continued making the show for a further three years.
“This incredible community of viewers built itself up around the show and we felt like we weren’t serving that community as well as we should have been because of all the different responsibilities we had at IGN,” Murphy recalls. Krupa adds: “So, knowing the audience was there, we decided to make it our full-time jobs. We didn’t really see it as a risk. I didn’t. I saw it as an opportunity to build something exciting together.”
Murphy continues: “I saw leaving IGN as more of a ‘calculated leap’ rather than a risk. It became one of the most popular shows that’s ever been on IGN and although we’ll always be massively grateful to IGN for giving us that platform, people tuned in to see us mucking about and having a laugh together, so our hope was that they’d still do that, regardless of whether we were on IGN or our own channel.”
It’s a sentiment that other ‘in-house’ creators – be they employed at publisher, platform or publishing houses – have shared with us. While grateful to the brands that gave them exposure, they wonder if they can strike out alone and how much of their audience will follow. Where then does the power lie between the brand and the creator?
Powers replies: “It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the creator. More and more these days we’re seeing individual online personalities outperform major companies and I think a large part of that comes down to personality and authenticity… And that’s where some of these bigger companies fall flat.
“I don’t doubt that creators and companies can definitely benefit from working together, but it’s also important for those companies to develop their own internal talent. Without a strong voice or identity, all you’ve got is a million followers with nothing to say to them,” Powers continues.
Krupa agrees that such companies need to have their own voice which persists: “Something which remains and is passed on when people leave.” He adds some advice for them: “I’ve read sites and watched channels for years, regardless of staffing changes, because I like the underlying style or approach of the site. Sites with strong identities seek the qualities out in new hires, and cultivate them.
“I think publishers should think about what they want their sites to be, what they’ve been traditionally recognised for, and what they can do that independent creators or influencers can’t. I’m aware of the commercial pressures for established brands to play the influencer game but I think they should have more confidence in what they can offer that’s different,” Krupa advises.
And of course, there are scenarios when those big media companies can really shine, he adds: “We were part of huge E3 productions at IGN, which are phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it. You can create something with incredible production value and beam it to something like 20 platforms. The advantages of working somewhere like that is you’ve got a big team of talented people who can pull off something like that. You can also attract big sponsors who want to align with that sort of thing.”
But despite the huge gulf in resources between publishers and some influencers, it’s incredible that they are still competing for the same audiences, and a lot of time it’s the lone influencers that are winning.
“This is why the internet is the greatest medium in the world, because the girl streaming games in her bedroom on a £40 webcam can outperform a company streaming from a massive studio,” exclaims Powers.
“YouTube was built by everyday people creating videos from scratch and I think that’s why a lot of viewers connect with the look and feel of a low production video,” he continues. “To people who grew up on the internet, sometimes a super polished, high-tech video can actually come across as cheap or tacky. It feels like TV trying to do internet. Like your Dad trying to floss.”
Murphy believes that it was the contrast of relatively high production values, and the off-the-cuff warmth of its hosts, that made Prepare to Try stand out to begin with.
“The show did look a bit nice and sparkly and like a professional-ish IGN show but then when you got into it, it was just three idiot friends taking the piss out of each other and trying to make each other laugh. The feedback we got from people was that while IGN was producing this high-end entertainment coverage, there was a genuineness to us that they weren’t finding in a lot of other places on the site.”
Powers adds: “We took the piss out of each other, we let our shields down and shared embarrassing stories – too many sometimes – and we really poured our heart and soul into every episode. I think the audience really connected with that.”
And it’s that “genuineness,” that authenticity, that has allowed the trio to successfully strike out on their own.
“Our audience has definitely come with us,” Krupa tells us. “The first episode of Retry has 89,000 views and growing, our first livestream had 2,300 concurrents. That’s all pretty consistent with what we saw at IGN. So there’s definitely loyalty there, and we were able to bring them with us, but I don’t necessarily think that means those people stopped watching IGN.”
Of course there is a downside: “What we’ve lost in IGN is the infrastructure of a massive company behind us,” Murphy notes.
“We’ve built a rinky-dink studio in my spare room and it looks and sounds exactly like that and although that’s doing my head in from a producer’s point of view, our audience loves it because it shows that we’re starting this from scratch and while we might not be able to afford a nice studio or the best mics, hopefully people see that we’re exactly the same show that they loved at IGN.”
PLAY IT AGAIN SAM
The Let’s Play genre is among the most dominant on YouTube. The term covers a myriad of different styles of course, with Prepare to Try, and even Retry, sitting at the top end in terms of production.
“Most Let’s Plays get filmed and chucked up on YouTube with minimal post-production but that’s never been the case with us,” Murphy explains. “We meticulously plan out everything in each episode with the hope that each one has a nice rhythm from the build up of exploring an area to the huge celebration of beating a boss – it’s not a case of syncing the gameplay to the camera footage of us and boshing it out.
“We also add in extra vlog-style footage from our lives so if we refer to something like: ‘We absolutely should not have got that drunk last night’ we’ll cut to footage of us hammered on a dancefloor at 3am the night before. It might not sound like much but it really helps set it apart from other Let’s Play style shows and the audience feels like they’re part of the show with us,” Murphy continues.
Krupa adds: “I think some Let’s Plays can feel quite disposable. But we put a lot of time and planning into ours. We approach them as if we were making a series. We talk about episodes and think in terms of seasons, and we know that’s how a lot of people watch it, too. The numbers on Prepare To Try continue to grow, because people rewatch seasons as if they were on Netflix. They have their favourite episodes and characters, which we’ve created.”
And that fanbase definitely values the content that the trio is creating. In retrospect Patreon was certainly the right choice for the channel, and its creators were always dead set on that approach, with no plans to take on the kind of paid-for marketing work that supports so many creators and influencers.
“We were very fortunate that the few sponsored Prepare To Try shows that we did at IGN were done with absolutely no interference from publishers… But if doing sponsored content was our sole revenue stream, you might find yourself making something that you’re not really into and I can’t really see us ever being in that position at RKG,” says Murphy.
“For me those are two very different paths,” agrees Krupa. “We chose Patreon to maintain our independence. Having the direct support of our audience gives us the freedom to make exactly what we want. We now also have a budget to realise some of the ideas we’re developing. We might still work with clients to host their events when it’s a game that we particularly love, but Patreon means we can always say no if it’s not quite right.”
Murphy elaborates on why Patreon is such a good fit for the team: “Part of the reason we wanted to do any of this RKG stuff in the first place was because we saw this amazing audience that loved our thing, that were just shouting out to support us, so Patreon seemed like a way of making our audience feel like they were really coming on this journey with us.”
But who are the channel’s backers compared to its viewers?
“From YouTube analytics I can break this down into gender and location, but more anecdotally, from the events we’ve put on over the years, it’s a diverse group of people from all walks of life,” Krupa explains. “Different ages, different countries. There’s students and teachers, kids, and there’s a lot of couples who watch our show together. Our backers are a passionate subset of that overall group, who have the means to financially support us.”
And Murphy is keen to add: “It was really important to us that even if you couldn’t chip into the Patreon, that nothing would change – you’d get the main show on Saturdays as if we were still at IGN.”
And Murphy loves the audience that they’re bringing with them: “One of the best things about our audience is the overall positivity that exists because of the nature of the show. While I’m loathed to use YouTube comments as an example of this, nothing on IGN gets the kind of love in the comments that Prepare To Try got and that has carried over to Retry,” he proudly tells us. “There’s a sense of welcoming and friendliness to our audience that you don’t find in a lot of places online and we’ve always been immensely proud of that and always do our best to cultivate a community with as few arseholes as possible.”
PREPARE TO SUCCEED
Keeping the arsehole count down is a worthy ambition, but it’s not the team’s only one, as they each explain.
“For me personally it’s all about growth,” Powers tells us when we ask about the channels goals. “We’re incredibly lucky to be in a position where we can focus solely on creating amazing videos for our community, and while we’ll always keep producing our signature long-form Let’s Play shows, I’m really excited to try new things and fully embrace this opportunity we have to make whatever type of content we’re passionate about.”
And Krupa certainly isn’t obsessing over the metrics: “There’s no number assigned. The ambition for me is pretty simple: make things we’re proud of and that our audience would like. We were in the numbers game for a long time, and obviously I want our videos to be watched and enjoyed by as many people possible. But having the direct support of our audience through Patreon, removes the need to chase numbers.”
And if there is growth, it has to be the right sort of growth Krupa adds: “I’d love to see the community grow, welcome in new members, but not at the expense of it losing its identity. For me, the most important thing is satisfying those people who already support us. If we do that, we’ll continue to grow at the right pace.”
Murphy concludes: “I’m hoping that once the channel is properly ticking along we can start putting time into making the bigger projects we never had the time or money to make at IGN. I think there’s something about our chemistry together that is really special and I’d love to see what happens when you stick a bit of production budget behind us and let us take this dynamic that we’ve developed over a period of years and take it to a mad level.
“That’s down the line though and for now our focus is making sure that the 2,000+ people who support us on Patreon feel like they’re getting their money’s worth to the point where they stick around for a good long while.”