Pirate Radio, YouTubers And Video Games

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column about all things video game for TechCrunch. He is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

PewDiePie, TotalBiscuit, Vegetta Gaymer, TheDiamondMineCar, VanossGaming. These and many more represent the new frontier of gaming media. They are “YouTubers”, channels on YouTube that record lengthy (known as “Let’s Play”) gameplay videos and use them as footage for episodic, usually comedic, shows.

YouTubing (and similar through services like Twitch) has been gaining momentum for a while, but this year it seems to have broken through into the wider consciousness. Some channels have attained enormous followings and are starting to exert huge influence. Many indie developers report, for example, that YouTubing is far more successful in driving sales than the traditional PR/press machine. Many attribute the initial flocking of users of Flappy Bird to YouTubers. Lots of folks have heard that PewDiePie is monetizing his 28m viewers to the tune of $4m a year.

Often the videos that YouTubers broadcast are less about journaling and more about community. TotalBiscuit plays it relatively straight for instance, providing deadpan lengthy previews, reviews and commentary about games. On the other hand, Sky Does Minecraft is more play-for-laughs in nature, and it’s these latter kinds of channel that attract the largest viewership. Viewers like to really see what’s under the hood of a game, but they also like to laugh along with

The range of channels is also impressive. Many are made just for fun with no expectation of revenue of any kind. Some are more passion-projects devoted to certain aspects of games. For example, journalist Leigh Alexander produces a series called Lo-Fi Let’s Play, wherein she plays obscure emulated Apple II games lost to time. YouTubing is very hip, very community-Internet, but it raises some difficult questions.

The New New Games Journalism…

In an article on Gamasutra earlier this week, Mike Rose asked would YouTubing kill the games press, and while the general consensus seems to be “no”, the sentiment that it has become a key part of the landscape is undeniable.

The games press and the industry it covers have long had a complex relationship. Like all media reporting there’s a persistent tension between serving the audience versus the paymasters, and those waters are often muddy. Access is valuable, thus the need to preserve it. Top games draw major traffic and big publishers pay for advertising on those same sites. Yet readers expect sincerity, and those forces are often at odds.

So YouTubing could be characterized as the citizen journalism of gaming. Many YouTuber videos feel very raw compared to the canned essays that more official organizations create, and this sort of quasi-legitimate voice connects with millions of viewers because it acts and sounds like they do. This makes a variety of game makers pretty unhappy.

The perception of many developers is that YouTubing is not really journalism, but rather pirate radio. In this vein the game is seen as content, and thus the idea that someone out there is re-broadcasting that content for laughs, and making lots of money from doing that, is wrong.  Support for this position (or something approaching it) is pretty broad in the industry.

One reason why is the sense that too much honesty is bad for business. For example many developers feel like they shouldn’t release demos for their games. The data tends to indicate that free levels or content cut potential sales in half because once players have seen the first few minutes of the game and scratched that itch, there’s no reason to buy. On the other hand games that feature sexy trailers but no demo sell very well: to scratch the itch the customer buys.

So the relationship that games have had with video has long been about being showy without, if you’ll pardon the pun, giving the game away. From small indies through to major publishers, everyone tacitly understands that stoking the desire of sales is often best done by keeping the audience at one remove from the product, and the more cynically minded tend to think that everything that happens post-purchase is the buyer’s problem. Therefore they fear overexposure.

Whose Game Is It?

Another reason is the perception of content ownership. Well-known indie developer Phil Fish tweeted that he believed YouTubers should be paying him for using his content. Nintendo went several steps further, first with legal injunctions and then the establishment of an affiliate program. Of course this perception is not universal, but it is curious how many game makers (and some fans) have this “broadcast” view of their work. They see it much as Metallica saw Napster et al in the 90s, and especially so the more successful they become. They essentially say “I made the content you’re using to make your show. Pay me.”

When I asked on Twitter for some views on the issue, a game designer named Jeff Atom replied:

if you assume that a game is made up of 3 components. Artwork, story, and interactivity, let’s plays have taken 2/3 of the game.

But here’s thing with that: Hasbro may sell you a copy of Monopoly and own the rights to it, but do they own the rights to you filming a session of Monopoly played with your friends? That’s a stretch. We don’t see board game makers claiming that Will Wheaton’s Tabletop show pay them for featuring their games, even though those shows can be very long and spoilerific. A 2.5 hour recorded session of Lords of Waterdeep isn’t “stealing it” to “make money from our work” through YouTube advertising. It’s covering, and therefore promoting, it.

Paraphrasing what the Supreme Court said the other day in relation to patents, just because it’s on computer doesn’t mean that video games are different. A digital game is just as much a set of play pieces and rules as a board game or tabletop roleplaying game is. A play session of Phil Fish’s Fez is not Fez much as a play session of Magic: The Gathering is not Magic: The Gathering. This is where the analogy of pirate radio breaks down.

Mojang may own Minecraft, for example, but it would be hard pressed to claim that it owns all of the expressions of work made in Minecraft. Rockstar may own Grand Theft Auto 5, but it’s harder to claim with a straight face that it owns VanossGaming’s GTA 5 Funny Moments series. That would be like Microsoft claiming ownership of all Word documents. The fact that you’re viewing someone’s play of the game is not necessarily derivative. It could be construed as satire, for example, which enjoys special protection in most countries. It could even be construed as wholly creative work in some cases.

Yes Play, No Play

It could be a function of unfamiliarity with YouTubers that leads publishers to fear the new and the strange, and in some cases it could be short-sighted greediness that makes a developer think he’s owed money from having his game covered, but it feels like more than that. Perhaps it’s about respect.

The same game makers who feel a bit weird about YouTubers are generally very happy when gaming site Giant Bomb posts a “quick look” of their game. What’s a quick look? A 20/30 minute length preview of the game complete with humorous commentary and side-conversations, just as is seen with many YouTubers. The difference is that the tone of the coverage is usually more favorable, less about poking fun.

Developers like Fish are at least half-right. While it’s a bit of a stretch to try to tap as a source of revenue, it is true that much of YouTubing’s success is based on a liberal reading of intellectual property ownership combined with lax enforcement. At the very least devs should have some way to choose to opt-out of being YouTubed and not having their game spoiled. From a legal perspective the middle path seems to have much to do with sensible licensing.

Jas Purewal, a well-known video game lawyer and blogger, says this:

As it happens, I wrote a guide to Let’s Play and the law here. It’s drafted mainly for Let’s Players and only tangentially addresses the question of game developers’ stance on monetisation. It’s quite simple: if you want to support Let’s Play videos, use some simple (but legal) wording on your site. If you don’t want to have Let’s Play videos of your games, then have wording that says that instead. If you want to prohibit Let’s Plays temporarily (e.g. while a game is in closed beta) or if you want to have Let’s Plays only if the Let’s Player contacts you first to discuss terms, that’s OK too.

Clearly though there might be questions about what those different kinds of words should say, so in the next couple of months I’ll prepare and release under Creative Commons some simple wording that devs can use for each kind of situation. I hope that will help.

Mayhap. It certainly seems as though a boilerplate license, one that’s quickly referable by YouTubers and easily implemented by developers, would help. That way if the Phil Fish’s of this world didn’t want their game covered then they can say so easily. Combined with technologies like YouTube’s Content ID, hopefully a good middle course can be struck between the needs of the YouTuber audience to see the whole game and that of the developer to craft a package, leaving almost everyone happy.

Beyond The Fun

In looking at Let’s Play I’m moved to wonder whether we’ll soon see Let’s Learn, Let’s Tech, Let’s Read, Let’s Write and numerous other styles of community shows emerge. I also wonder whether we’ll start to see existing media, or even publishers, attempt to get in on the action by creating their own YouTuber channels. Whatever your take, there’s no denying that the YouTubers have opened the door to something very big. Right now they may be operating by the seat of their collective pants but they’re sitting on top of a massive asset. The prospects for what it might do are grand indeed.