Pretentious Opinionist: Are Let’s Players Pirates?

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

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Let's Players - Phil Fish | oprainfall

Phil Fish is back and ranting about Let’s Players. Just by hearing that name, you already know. You might now know what he said, but you do know that even if you agree with his opinions, he probably said it in the most offensive way possible. That’s why he’s so great. He’s like our own Frank Miller. Every time he opens his mouth, we get a controversy to cover. It’s too bad he quit the industry after he got too much negative feedback.

Phil Fish about Let's Players | oprainfall

Thanks, GameInformer

Even though he’s quit, it looks like he still decided to open his mouth. Fish took to Twitter to demand that YouTubers pay compensation for the ad revenue received playing Fez. In his exact words,

  • “YouTubers should have to pay out a huge portion of their revenue to the developers from which they steal all their content”
  • “[Ad] revenue should be shared with developers. This should be built into YouTube. Anything else is basically piracy.”
  • “If you generate money from putting my content on your channel, you owe me money. Simple as that.”
  • “If you buy a movie, are you then allowed to stream the entirety of it publicly for people to watch for free? No, because that’s illegal.”
  • “Systems are in place to prevent that. But buy Fez, put ALL of it on YouTube, turn on ads, make money from it and that’s TOTALLY FINE.”
  • “And the developer should in NO WAY be compensated for their work being freely distributed to the world. Right. Makes sense.” (Thanks to Gamespot for the quotes)

Fish has since deleted the posts, and his Twitter account. So, no more Phil Fish. Too bad.

Let's Players - FEZ | oprainfall

Still, though, let’s look at the argument from both sides. As an aspiring game designer myself, I can at least see Fish’s issue. Whether you loved it or hated it, Fez hasn’t made the kind of waves in the indie scene that Braid and Cave Story did. Since it hasn’t made waves, we could assume that Fez wasn’t as financially successful as Fish wanted it to be. And Fez was in development a LONG time, having started in 2007. Putting five years of your life into a project, and seeing people mostly ignore it has got to hurt the ego. I get that.

A game I made was not as good or interesting as it could have been. But since I loved the process of making it, I released it (for free) thinking it could help me start a career. It took other people’s opinions to make me acknowledge that it wasn’t what I imagined it to be (no, I won’t tell you what it is; conflict of interest, plus you know: it kinda sucks). But I also didn’t pour years of my life into it either, and that probably helps. When you’re in the thick of a project, it’s impossible to take an objective step back to look at what you’ve done. I’m sure that Fez holds a special place of pride in the heart of Phil Fish.

Let's Players - PewDiePie | oprainfall

Then comes a report that PewDiePie, the current top subscribed YouTuber and a Let’s Player, makes $4 million a year from ad revenue. You also are aware that people like PewDiePie covered your game. Realizing (or at least thinking) that someone else made more money off of your project than you ever would has got to be the worst feeling in the world. And that’s where these tweets come from. Let’s assume that 3 to 4 million people would have watched a PewDiePie Let’s Play of Fez. Let’s also assume that those 3 to 4 million are more people than actually bought the game. Let’s also assume that in Fish’s mind, each person that watched the Let’s Play and didn’t buy the game is a lost sale. Of course Fish would think that he’s entitled to some compensation.

But hold on, I didn’t say I agree with Fish’s choice of words, or even his opinion. I’m just saying I understand his frustration. There’s a way in which you can view Let’s Players as thieves. Not that they steal games, but they enable people who might be on the fence to essentially experience the game without paying for it. You know, kind of like piracy. So yeah, it’s a stretch, but you could view Let’s Players similar to the guys who create torrents. Maybe not pirates themselves, but they do allow others to pirate content. And since many Let’s Players are collecting ad revenue, they can be seen as actively stealing revenue, in a certain light.

Fish Logic - Let's Players | oprainfall

Of course there are flaws with this line of reasoning. What if viewers are more interested in the Let’s Player than in the game itself? For instance, PewDiePie recently Googled his own name for five minutes and got almost 6 million views at time of writing. Creators, I know it’s a hard thing to swallow, but not every person is looking at a Let’s Play to see what the game is like. It’s strong personalities like PewDiePie that drive viewership, not specific games. If PewDiePie had ever played Fez, in the potentially million views that PewDiePie would have gotten from a Fez Let’s Play, I’d wager that at least 90% of them would be there to watch him, not watch Fez.

Marketing Arm - Let's Players | oprainfall

Plus, I actually think that Let’s Players are a powerful potential marketing arm of an otherwise small developer. While maybe not everyone who watched a Let’s Play bought Fez, but I’m willing to bet that there were more than a few who hadn’t heard about before, or had lost track of it during the five year development. Big names in the Let’s Play space can help raise awareness about a project that can’t afford a $10 billion marketing budget. But marketing arms need money, and I’m willing to say that for the service of providing marketing, YouTube Let’s Players are welcome to the ad revenue on their videos. It’s a way I can thank them for their support, without having to shell out a dime of my own.

Plus, for me personally, I’m mainly focused on making art that actually says something. Maybe people won’t want to spend money on my games because they don’t like my message. I would rather them be able to watch a Let’s Play to at least see what I’m saying, rather than have them miss out on it completely. Perhaps that’s not an issue for Fez (I don’t know; I haven’t played it yet). Still, as an artist, I’d rather my work be available to be enjoyed in some context, rather than not at all.

So, yeah, all things considered, I don’t agree with Fish at all, though I can at least understand his view. Again, it’s a shame that Fish is leaving, if only because I’ll have one less reason to write 1000 word editorials.

About Guy Rainey

I’m Guy Rainey. I’m a hardcore Nintendo fan, a PC enthusiast, and a Sony sympathizer. Also an amateur/aspiring game creator. I love any game that puts story as the main focus of the game, so that means JRPGs are my favorite genre almost by default.