The Carter Crater: In Defense of the Status Quo of YouTubers and Streamers

A debate on YouTubers, let’s play videos, and how they affect developers has been raised by one of the developers of That Dragon, Cancer, and while I think there’s cogent arguments for developers negatively affected by the current status quo, I don’t think they’re strong enough to change the current, albeit chaotic system.

This all started after some YouTubers received content ID strikes on That Dragon, Cancer‘s soundtrack on their videos, who then contacted developer Numinous Games, which led their Ryan Green to respond, removing the content ID strikes but remarking about how the game wasn’t selling well, and suspected that perhaps Let’s Play videos of the game, especially ones that featured minimal or no commentary, were affecting the game’s sales because the game could be experienced primarily through just passive watching. That, and it seems unfair that a developer can have their game uploaded to YouTube with no recompense to the developer.

Mr. Green makes some fair points, and I can’t fault him at all for his response. This project is very near and dear to him since it’s inspired by the circumstances he went through with his son dying from cancer. Making a game based on it is a healthier reaction than the events of Breaking Bad. And I think this game is a tough sell – talk to someone outside the core gamer community about the concept of this game and you’ll see why it might not be a mass market hit, especially after the game was a Kickstarter project. It’s not an unfair question to ask whether video creators should be kicking anything back to developers. And even Green says that “We’ve watched the playthrough videos and we see the value that this community is adding to our work through sharing themselves. Let’s Play culture is vibrant and creative and really cool." And we should ask how the status quo involving games and videos based on them affects all parties.

The thing is this – even if the worst-case commentary-free videos of That Dragon, Cancer are affecting the game’s sales, I’m not sold on the idea that the drawbacks that the let’s play culture has on some games is enough for us to shake up the status quo.

There’s an element of truth in the idea that some games suffer greater negative effects from the video-sharing generation we’re in. Games that are story-driven, linear, and feature limited interactivity are likely to suffer from being on video. Yet, there’s certainly something being lost even in narrative games and so-called ‘walking simulators’ when the player isn’t in control. The interactivity matters, and not having that is still a layer of abstraction between the video-watcher and the game that affects their experience. That layer of abstraction exists with all games and videos, but it’s a thinner layer with something like That Dragon, Cancer than say, Wayward Souls ($7.99) where a video is a document of one particular experience out of countless variations. So, if I was a creator of a game that had few possible variations, I probably wouldn’t be a huge fan of the let’s play culture on how it was affecting me. Again, I fully empathize with Ryan Green here, and just distilling his argument, and similar ones, down to “they’re hurting our sales" does a disservice to the topic and everyone involved. Regardless, it’s not a convincing enough argument to change the status quo.

First is that the circumstances of open digital distribution and the democratization of creation technology across all forms of media are the ones that allow That Dragon, Cancer and other narrative-focused/"walking simulator" games to exist. Gatekeepers play little to no role any more, and that means that a studio can not only make and sell a game like That Dragon, Cancer, they can raise funds to do so. That opportunity doesn’t exist a decade ago – heck, even five years ago it’d be tough. These same circumstances allow for people to make video content that they can share with ease, too. And sometimes that video content is just simple low or no commentary let’s play content. I think the two phenomena go part and parcel with each other. And in these changing circumstances, some receive more benefit from the exposure and attention of video content than others. That’s just the reality of any changing system.

Also, the idea that game developers deserve a cut of seemingly low-effort video creators discounts the work that goes into let’s play videos. Video capture has a tendency to have glitches and bugs. YouTube uploads take a lot of time and bandwidth to make. And there’s a risk in making a video for a game early on, when it might not be worth the time and effort for a professional video content creator. There’s even a certain value to the editorial selection that a video creator has in choosing what to make videos about. In fact, that’s part of why I’m kind of uncomfortable still with them so willingly taking money for sponsored videos. Do some video creators put in a greater effort than others? There is no denying that.

Perhaps it’s better to have commentary, but I think there’s value in no-commentary let’s play videos. They help to document and provide a historical record for games, even showing how some people choose to play a game. And I don’t necessarily believe that the developers whose games are being featured necessarily deserve a cut in the same way that they don’t deserve a cut of TouchArcade‘s revenue when we write about their games. The layer of abstraction between the content creator and the game developer can be thin at times, but it’s a key one that I would rather not see broken if possible.

And there’s also a societal benefit to video content creation, even seemingly low-effort ones. Not everyone has the disposable income or physical ability to play games. The great thing about the internet is that it has democratized access to art and culture. This isn’t beneficial to everyone who creates art and culture, but it does mean that the public doesn’t have to have money to experience and take part in culture. This is an amazing thing for society, even if it has detriments for some artists. Culture is no longer restricted to the wealthy. People are getting to experience the story and message of That Dragon, Cancer and games in similar vein to it that they never would have had access to even a few short years ago.

And if you say that game developers deserve a cut of videos based on games, is that a Pandora’s Box worth opening? Existing content ID systems and their enforcers are not exactly known for their subtlety or understanding of what is fair use and what isn’t. There’s not a lot of people happy about Nintendo’s policies on video content. There are occasionally issues with trailers that get uploaded – outlets run into issues occasionally with copyright claims on trailers that a publisher gave them to publish. Also consider that it may behoove some developers to allow for free sharing of content about their games. If you’re a video content creator picking from the large mass of games to create videos for, you’re going to be biased toward the ones that will give you a greater return on investment for your time, and won’t be a risk to run afoul of content ID systems. Developers could easily find their demands for their fair share finding that there’s less to share with them, and the secondhand benefits of exposure and the sales driven from it less than it was before. The risk of backfire is there.

The current system is admittedly chaotic and perhaps a net detriment to some content creators, sure. But videos of games, with their interactive component, being posted on YouTube is a fundamentally different beast than posting unaltered music, movies, etc. I think that allowing video creators to make content unfettered is the superior reality to one where flawed Big Brother content identification systems are watching and striking for whatever issues may arise. Developers of games that don’t lose much of the experience through passive viewing might just need to accept that if they’re not taking advantage of games’ interactivity, the status quo of video sharing may have a detriment to them. And I’m willing to have that be the case instead of one where video content creators are impeded from creating content.