We saw it with the movie industry when pirated VHS tapes exploded onto the scene. We saw it with the music industry in Metallica took on Napster, crunching down on illegal mp3 sharing. Then we made it legal.
It seems now then, that the video game industry is going the way of the music industry in terms of online sharing. Though here we’re concerned not with actually owning the game, but just experiencing it, for free. Twitch and YouTube have millions of hours worth of gameplay footage ready to be viewed by anyone interested in any game. For independent developers however, that spells disaster.
That Dragon, Cancer is a touching story of a family’s struggle with childhood cancer. It’s a narrative that aims to tug on the heart strings and allow the player an insight into this experience through interaction and active participation. However it’s precisely the type of game that will be viewed millions of times in Let’s Play videos. Video game stories have matured, especially among the independent market. We explore darker themes and stories that force the player to interact with very real and disturbing elements of our world to gain an understanding of them, or even be comforted in their own similar situations. With these deeper stories however, comes a less active gameplay – it’s not about high scores or manoeuvres, it’s about a tale. And so people are far more content to watch the situation unfold (rather than play it through) than they would otherwise.
In fact, That Dragon, Cancer’s devs, a studio called Numinous Games, “has not yet seen a single dollar from sales”, and they say these let’s play videos are the cause. Choosing to pay off existing debts with the revenue they do have, none of the 8 man team have seen a penny for their three years of work. Citing SteamSpy data, lead developer Ryan Green stated that the title has only sold 14,500 copies on Steam, and yet playthrough videos have millions of hits.
“We have seen many people post our entire game on YouTube with little to no commentary… We’ve seen people decompile our game and post our soundtrack on YouTube. 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”
Green is quick, however, to celebrate the Let’s Play community – it is after all one of the single biggest factors in the success of the indie market. He just suggests that $1 tip from each viewer would have seen a very different outcome for the studio that produced the game. It’s frustrating to see it happen, and particularly difficult to stomach when you hear of Green’s own reasoning behind making the game, but it is inevitable. Streaming and Let’s Plays are just too big a part of the industry for them not to have an effect on sales – that being said, the story itself is all the bigger for the attention they spark.
Green calls for donations to the studios, shorter selections of game footage used for context to commentary, and more respect for the name of the studio that produced the experience going forward. I think in the beginning this was fine. When the notion of independent developers was a new and humble prospect, YouTube was a breeding ground of fertile free advertising and market growth. Now, however, with more and more devs devoting more and more of their time and energies into making indie games more and more sophisticated, they need something more in return. It’s not about the free marketing anymore, it’s about respect and recognition.