If you’re reading a blog like this, chances are you know what Let’s Plays are. If not, watch the video companion for a quick rundown on the idea or look it up, it’s pretty straight forward. I’ll be honest, even as someone who has attempted a bit of co-op Let’s Play content in the past, I don’t really get the idea of watching someone else play a video game front to back. Try as they often might, video games are not movies or television, they’re not built to be watched, they’re built to be played and when you take away that crucial element, I don’t think you have the same experience any more. A lot of people criticise games for having bad stories and while that’s often true, I also think many of the best game stories are ones that take advantage of the interactive context in which they’re presenting themselves. When you take away the interactivity, suddenly what may have been a good story to play becomes a poor story to watch.
Nonetheless, Let’s Plays are incredibly popular. I know several hardcore gamer friends who consume hours of them a week and most of those people say they actually buy fewer games because the ones they aren’t super into they can just watch someone play online. An entire cottage industry has sprung up on YouTube and Twitch around this concept and many people are making a good living from the ad revenue generated by it. Indeed, some of the biggest YouTube channels are based around Let’s Play content. It’s not a fad, it’s something that’s here to stay. What I find fascinating however, is how the video game industry doesn’t seem to care all that much right now and indeed, seems to be embracing the idea with both hands by allowing the next generation machines that are almost upon us to have built-in Twitch and YouTube support at the OS level.
If you follow the business side of most creative industries (games, film, television, music etc.), you’ll notice that these industries always seem to have a current “boogeyman” when times are tough. That is, some factor or concept that they can blame their woes on instead of looking inward and realising their own failings and challenges. Piracy was a big one for many years, movie and game rentals were big problems at one point and most recently, used games were that industry’s biggest enemy. People were trading in games quickly, those copies were getting resold and the publishers weren’t seeing any revenue from that. Essentially, they believed they were losing new sales to used ones and that was hurting the industry. To say that used games have no negative impact is naive and denying reality but so is the idea of saying that the industry would be booming if they didn’t exist. As a new generation of machines approaches that will be focused much more around digital distribution, the industry has largely relented on this front. Yes, there was the hubbub around Xbox One’s DRM but that didn’t last long. I firmly believe that the next generation of machines won’t support physical games at all and that we’ll see cheaper versions of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in a few years that also will have no disc drives. Essentially, the industry will eliminate the problem of used games simply by cutting the physical market out of the loop altogether.
Let’s Plays are a wholly different beast though and at least for now, publishers seem to be approaching them in a very different way. Both consoles are going to actively support and encourage streaming and recording of games, making it as easy to do as pushing a button and adding no extra cost to it. Essentially, they are making Let’s Plays a core component of next-gen console gaming. Anyone who buys an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 essentially has a no resistance path to becoming the next Let’s Play sensation. The thing is, Let’s Plays have a lot of parallels with used games and could represent the next incarnation of the threat the industry has just kind of figured out how to overcome. Not everyone who watches a Let’s Play represents a lost sale, just like not everyone who buys a used game or steals it represents a lost sale. Nonetheless, I know just from my small circle of friends that some sales are most certainly being lost due to the existence of this video content. There is also an argument to be made that since Let’s Play authors are usually making ad revenue profit off their videos, the industry has a right to be upset since it’s their content that’s being used to generate that profit without them getting a cut of it. TotalBiscuit has made the argument that while he doesn’t mind the basic idea of Let’s Plays, he finds it incredibly lazy and exploitive that someone can just play a game, minimally talk over it and make money off someone else’s work, unless they are putting in some real effort to add their own flare to the coverage. I tend to agree with him on that.
There are a lot of big corporations in the game industry and big corporations do move slowly but it’s ridiculous to assume that they just aren’t aware of the potential threat Let’s Plays represent. Unlike movies, music or television, the games industry is essentially a high tech industry, especially AAA. The people in charge of these companies are smart, educated and savvy and even if they aren’t, the people advising them are. They absolutely know Let’s Plays exist and what they represent. Yet, they’re letting both new console platforms embrace the idea, seemingly without resistance, despite the easy conclusions one can draw about how it can threaten their revenues. This despite the fact that unlike with used games, the publishers have the law on their side and have all the power. If they choose to go after a YouTube or Twitch channel for using their content without permission, they can get the videos taken down and the author punished by default. The USA’s broken copyright system requires content hosts to shoot first and ask questions later, no matter the size of the channel they are going after. With a few button presses, a Let’s Play can be stopped dead. But it rarely happens.
The question is, why does the industry not seem to mind? I highly doubt that Microsoft and Sony forced these video features in against their wishes, we’d be hearing too much sabre rattling if that were the case. It has been rumoured that publishers will have control over what parts of their games can be streamed or captured by the new consoles but that’s a moot point anyway as external capture devices are cheap and plentiful anyway. They can encrypt HDMI signal with HDCP encryption but it’s been stated they won’t do that and even that’s easily defeated with a bit of money and know how. This isn’t like used games where you can ultimately just eliminate the problem by not pressing discs any more. You can’t stop people who want to make digital derivative works from games. You can’t stop the signal.
In my mind, there’s two potential scenarios here. Either the industry really is just so thick and ignorant that they don’t see the challenges Let’s Plays can represent and will one day be blindsided (which I still can’t believe is true) or perhaps they are making a longer play here. Maybe they have finally woken up and realised that even with all the power they have, they can never truly stop Let’s Plays. Rather than take the all out warfare approach where they just try to carpet bomb the concept out of existence, thereby alienating their fans and customers, maybe they see a partnership model as a better idea. Indeed, this is how sites like YouTube and Twitch work with their biggest creators, they monetise the content and split the money. Maybe rather than try to kill off Let’s Play, the industry will go “Hey guys, we don’t care if you do this but we want a little piece of the ad revenue to make up for our potential lost sales.” It’s a smart move because in that scenario, everybody wins. YouTube and Twitch make their money, the video creator gets his money and the publishers get some money for providing the content the author made his video with. It probably won’t make up for all the sales they lost (or perceive to have lost) to Let’s Plays but like they tried and ultimately failed to do with online passes, it gives them some money and some is better than none. When you’re a public company trying to appease short-sighted investors, some is always better than none.
Ultimately, we won’t know what the industry’s strategy is until the new machines have been out in the wild for a while. I do really hope publishers have collectively woken up and realised that finding new business models within potential threats to your old one is a smarter play than just trying to eradicate anything that challenges the status quo. I still don’t get Let’s Plays but they’ve firmly entrenched themselves in gamer culture now. They can either let them happen and try to profit from it where they can or you can let it become the next boogeyman and spend more time and money trying to fight it in vain that focusing on their real problems which are what’s really killing them. It’s going to be a very interesting next couple of years.