I got into an interesting discussion on Twitter last night — which, frankly, I probably should have been more awake for.
The debate was about how developer Atlus have effectively told Let’s Players not to play their game (at least, not any more than the beginning of the game).
The official explanation is that it’s a story-based game and Atlus doesn’t want the story spoiled for people who haven’t had a chance to play it themselves. A cynic like myself, however, might entertain the notion that it’s also an attempt to prevent people from just sitting down and watching a playthrough on YouTube or Twitch instead of going out and actually buying their own copy.
The question then becomes: do streamers or YouTubers who play games from start-to-finish — particularly games that rely heavily on an unfolding narrative, like adventure games — hurt sales of those games?
Some would argue that, to varying degrees, it does.
Others, like my mate Richard here, argues that it increases awareness, and that Let’s Players actually do developers a favor by bringing attention to a game in a market that is, I think especially indie developers would agree, pretty crowded.
I think both are valid, really, but I find myself agreeing more with Richard’s point. For several reasons.
First of all, you cannot equate a view on a Let’s Play video to a lost sale. There is simply no way of proving that one way or the other.
That line of argument reminds me of the Back Seat Designers episode we did with Shawn Mills (Infamous Quests), where he talked about looking at how many had pirated Quest for Infamy versus actually bought a copy. “Thieving cunts owe me money,” he famously said, which was a quote that immediately went on our soundboard for use in future episodes.
I’ll agree that a pirated copy more closely equals a lost sale, but it still fails to take into account the bigger picture. Why do people pirate a game, or watch a start-to-finish Let’s Play of a game?
Easy. Because people want to know what it is they’re getting before they shell out money for it.
The whole thing is reminiscent of how the music industry is still shitting itself about digital distribution. Why would anyone pay for an album — or a game, or a movie — when they can just go online and download it for free? The presumption here is that all consumers are really just freeloading bastards with no moral compasses whatsoever. That may be true for some people, but definitely not everyone.
It took services like Netflix and Spotify to show the movie and music industries that people actually do want to pay for their content; they just want to know what it is they’re buying before they buy it. Likewise, it doesn’t take a genius to see why shareware was so popular back in the early-to-mid 90s. You got part of the game for free, and if you liked it you could buy the full version to see the rest of the game.
These days, shareware has largely been replaced by Let’s Players who show the public what the game is and how it plays. But while they may show you the entirety of the game, thus removing an incentive to experience the story for yourself, they can’t show you what it’s actually like to play the game. More on that later.
Second of all: Limiting how much Let’s Players are allowed to show of the game is not going to solve that. First of all, no one likes being told what they can and cannot do, and threatening Let’s Players with copyright notices — which could lead to the banning of their channels — is a very finger-wagging, maybe even downright Orwellian, way to go about it. It’s a bully tactic that’s, frankly, demeaning.
It also fails to take into account that watching a game being played is not the same as actually playing it yourself. You can watch someone play a game, but you can never fully get a sense of how the game feels unless you’re playing it yourself. It reduces an interactive experience to a passive experience — the very antithesis of what a computer/video game is supposed to be.
But there are valid reasons why Let’s Play channels are doing so well. Let’s Play channels are the modern equivalent of looking over someone’s shoulder while they’re playing a game.
For one thing, it’s a quick way to judge whether or not a game appeals to you beyond the usual marketing bullshit publishers used to put on the back of game boxes. Does it actually live up to what the developers say the game is? No one wants to throw money at something that fails to live up to its claims. It’s a way to incentivize developers to do a good job rather than just shoveling shit out into the world.
Another thing is, it’s a way of experiencing a game that you know you wouldn’t be able to play yourself. I would have gone through life not knowing the full story of Final Fantasy 7 if I hadn’t watched my brother play through it. I wouldn’t have known just how cool Resident Evil 7 is if I hadn’t watched JackSepticEye play through it on his YouTube channel. That’s not because I didn’t want to play the games myself; it’s because I know how absolutely shit I am at these types of games. I simply would not have been physically able to complete these games on my own.
If developers are so worried that their games are being ruined by Let’s Players showing the world what kind of games they are, maybe game developers should think more about how they are crafting their games. Maybe they should put in plot branches, or game mechanics that alter the experience depending on how the game is played.
You know, that thing that computer games can do that other forms of entertainment media can’t?
Basically, make a game that Let’s Players can’t possibly show all of.
I realize that’s more effort on part of developers. I also know that’s doubly hard on narrative driven designers — it might be easy to introduce game mechanics that vary gameplay in, say, survival games like Raft, rather than story-driven games like adventure games. I know for a fact (because I’ve worked on them) that games with a linear story can be hard enough to get done in a reasonable amount of time, let alone having to worry about diverging story paths or alternate puzzle solutions.
In that case, maybe just work on making your game that much better. I still went out and bought my own copy of Fran Bow, even after having watched an entire Let’s Play of it. Because I wanted to experience it for myself. The story was just that good. The art was just that good. The mood of that game was so good that I felt I had to own it and play it myself. Bottom line, the game was so good that, when it was over, I wanted to go back and see it all over again.
In general, it would also make for a more satisfying playing experience all around. Just this morning, I read an article about the differences between the two difficulty levels in Monkey Island 2, which unexpectedly concluded with a plea for adventure game designers to put in more variety in the gameplay.
I don’t think Let’s Players are entirely without culpability, though — a good Let’s Play on YouTube should still leave people with the desire to go play the game themselves, rather than feeling like they’ve seen all there is to see in the game. That’s harder to do when you’re streaming a game, because you can’t cut bits out.
But that’s a different discussion, and this post has already gone on long enough.