In recent years video gaming and YouTube have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. YouTube channels get access to a game – often prior to release – and are allowed to play them and farm the views from their excited audience. Conversely, game developers are allowed almost free advertisement to a broad, yet targeted audience. This is not without dubious legal and moral quandaries to wade through, so I thought we might just do that.
The meteoric rise of gaming into ascendancy within the YouTube hierarchy is largely the by-product of YouTube’s attempt to stop the prevalence of clickbait. In 2012 YouTube made changes to their algorithm, changing the promotion of videos based on their views to promotion based on minutes watched. Videos looking for a cheap click by using a picture of cleavage were now gaining very little if the general viewer closed the tab after a second or two.
Because of this change not every view was considered equal, and channels capable of putting up plenty of content with minimal fuss, all while maintaining their audience’s attention, benefitted heavily. Now, a 30 minute ‘let’s play’ watched all the way through by 2000 people was better for a channel than a clickbait video watched for one second by 500,000. YouTube Gamers grew, grew large, and grew powerful. The most subscribed YouTube personality is PewDiePie, a 26 year-old Swede with over 43 million subscribers, 11 Billion views, and over 2700 videos in his five and a half year career. Mind-boggling numbers, but more important is how he did it. PewDiePie averages roughly 1.3 videos uploaded a day, and many are well over 30 minutes long. With so many available minutes of his videos for fans to watch, it is little wonder YouTube’s algorithms catapulted him to the top. However, it is important to note that the PewDiePie example is indicative of a wider trend. There are a number of similarly large YouTubers known for playing games, as well as a slew who specialise in a particular brand or genre – most notably Minecraft, COD and FIFA. Gaming is a massive piece of YouTube now, and developers, publishers and PR companies have definitely taken notice.
The attention has not always been positive.
The concerns that developers may have had are obvious – if someone can experience your product for free, why will they pay for it? The case of video games is different from film and music, however, because the allure of a video game is in playing it yourself. Despite that caveat, developers and publishers were reticent to open their arms to YouTube gamers.
There was an instance in 2013 when many of the major YouTube gaming channels faced a slew of copyright claims all within a short period of time. These actually were from sound recognition software finding copyrighted songs within their videos and automatically flagging them, stopping the YouTubers from making money. This was not random, however, and although it is not clear what the objective behind the sweep was, this is simply not the sort of thing we see happening very often now, because publishers have wised up to the (basically) free advertising YouTube can offer.
Gamasutra mapped the correlation between large YouTube channels covering the video game Papers, Please and its Google search popularity. Distinct peaks in online searching appeared immediately after each Channel posted their videos. Similarly, smaller developers have claimed to see huge spikes in sales if a large YouTube channel has covered their game. In a detailed piece about the effect YouTube might have on the general gaming press Gamasutra interviewed numerous developers to discover how YouTube ‘let’s play’ videos had helped their sales.
Race to the Sun creator, Aaron San Filippo said, “For sure, the biggest Youtubers have had a much bigger impact on our traffic and sales compared to the biggest sites we’ve been covered on.”
A clear example of this is 17-BIT’s game Skulls of the Shogun, which had significant coverage by Russian YouTube channels, and as a result Russia became their second biggest consumer by units sold.
Borut Pfeifer of 17-BIT is quoted as saying, “Most indie game success stories on PC in the last year or two have had predominant YouTube coverage.” This is indicative of the power YouTube has to propel small games into the spotlight, and the tangible effect that has on their popularity and sales. For the YouTube channels it is often just another video and another few hundred thousand views, but for the developers this can mean a huge spike in sales for next to nothing.
Imagine you were a developer and for no cost other than a free review code you got your video played by PewDiePie. No other YouTuber. Just him. If only half of his subscribers watch his video, you have reached an audience the size of Australia – except every single one of them is interested in video games, else they wouldn’t be subscribed. This is unrivalled, targeted advertisement, and it is little wonder that developers and publishers are focusing more and more on it.
Despite the upsides, there have been some examples of the ‘let’s play’ model of advertisement hurting sales.
In March 2016 Ryan Green, of the studio Numinous Games, wrote a blog post about how ‘let’s play’ had damaged the sales of his game That Dragon, Cancer. He claims his team have not seen a dollar of personal revenue, and their relatively meager sales are dwarfed by the millions of views they have received on YouTube, many of those including people playing through the whole game with minimal commentary.
So why, when the let’s play model has proven to be effective marketing, has That Dragon, Cancer struggled.
Green offers plenty of caveats, and appreciation for let’s play, but answers the aforementioned question:
“Despite infringing on developers’ copyrights, [let’s play] can especially benefit those who make competitive or sandbox games. However, for a short, relatively linear experience like ours, for millions of viewers, Let’s Play recordings of our content satisfy their interest and they never go on to interact with the game in the personal way that we intended for it to be experienced… We have seen many people post our entire game on YouTube with little to no commentary… We’ve also seen many, many Let’s Players post entire playthroughs of our game, posting links to all of their own social channels and all of their own merchandising and leaving out a link to our site.”
When a game is about the story and customers may be satisfied by simply watching, that is clear revenue lost. So while YouTube can work to create a buzz, depending on the sort of game being made it can also sate your potential customers.
The real kick in the teeth, apparently prompting the writing of the blog, is that the YouTubers make money from showing their content, yet they do not receive a cent of it. There were a few copyright issues surrounding Jon Hillman’s score for the YouTube videos, but Green claims to have removed the Content ID that had been flagging videos, while asking if people could donate instead.
Really, this is an almost expected quagmire, and the reason there are such strict copyright issues surrounding film, television and music. For all the value of let’s play, it does not always fit every circumstance.
“Sucks having someone making revenue off my videos,” one YouTube channel told Green.
It would be annoying having someone make money off your content, wouldn’t it?
This is why many of the developers are starting to be smarter about they way they approach YouTube. Rather than having a strict copyright policy and flagging videos left and right, and rather than just freely distributing their work prior to release, developers are using more deliberate and targeted strategies.
We will take two examples of franchises that I both love to love and love to hate: FIFA and Total War. Notably, neither is particularly linear, therefore an experience watched will be different from one played. In theory this is good for sales, however these two franchises are using YouTube for two distinct (yet not strictly stated) purposed. Total War to drum up interest in a brand that has been floundering for a few years, and FIFA to kill off a worse revenue killer than ‘let’s play’: coin sellers.
Total War: Warhammer is due in under two months, however fans have already had access to plenty of content through their official YouTube channel. Not only are they showing their gameplay in highly controlled situations, and responding directly to fan comments, they have also given many of the dedicated Total War YouTube channels access to the game, and the ability to comment on its strengths and flaws. Many aired some grievances, but in general even this small scale ‘let’s play’ helped drum up excitement and is helping to rekindle trust from within the fan base. Even if there are some problems, many appreciate transparency.
FIFA is an interesting case. For the past few iterations it’s main selling point has been the Ultimate Team game mode, where players from all over the world earn coins and buy player cards in order to build teams. It has become wildly popular, partially because of the suedo-gambling option of buying packs of random players in the hope that you will get something incredible. Mostly you don’t, but the allure is there because it is almost impossible to get good players without doing so.
Oh, and you can spend real money to get these packs. Micro-transactions are everywhere folks.
A real thorn in the side of EA were sites that offered in game coins for real money, often at a much better rate than through FIFA’s micro-transaction system. This was lost revenue for the company despite many attempts to stop them, so they turned one of their biggest detractors into an asset.
You see, the large, multimillion subscribed FIFA YouTubers all promoted these coin-selling sites, and often received free coins for doing so. This allowed them to do outlandish videos and inspire their viewers to do the same, all while constantly reminding them that buying coins was a viable option. FIFA blackballed all of these coin-selling YouTubers but endorsed those who did not. The YouTubers who had not promoted coin sellers, often spending thousands on FIFA points, were rewarded with exclusive access to the next upcoming game, and sometimes even minor appearances within the game itself. The guy talking over the tutorial in FIFA 16 – that’s a YouTuber named Spencer. This led to a rapid rise in those channels, because they were the only ones with access to the anticipated new game, and led many of the channels promoting coin sellers to stop, else they get left in the dust. These channels also were given free FIFA points to create series based around opening packs and spending FIFA points, making the legitimate micro-transaction a more attractive option for fans.
For all EA are criticised, they are clearly wonderful at marketing, and their use of the prevalence of YouTube gaming proved highly effective.
So what’s next? Copyright claims of gaming videos are already mostly a thing of the past, and developers are becoming much smarter in the way they use video and streaming. A big YouTube presence can turn a small game into a superstar, and maximise sales if done right, while hurting them if used wrong. Developers and Publishers have taken note, so we will likely see plenty more games that look visually appealing, and perhaps prioritise the immediate excitement and ‘wow factor’ over actual depth and gameplay. However, that might just be my cynicism coming through.