Let’s Play: Whose Content Is It Anyway?

Concrete Block. What?

A Question of Ownership…


My gut reaction to the idea that Nintendo are to take the advertising revenue of Let’s Play videos on YouTube is, “You silly boys!”

I mean, part of me doesn’t see the harm in fans and dedicated gamers poring themselves over Nintendo’s latest titles, and the passion and warmth behind them is often remarkable. These are people whom have been ambassadors for the Nintendo brand for many years, often defending and celebrating the joy of what the company offers in the face of otherwise widespread criticism. Taking on your own fan base in such a manner seems utterly bizarre, and quite mean-spirited. Many YouTube ‘celebrities’ have condemned the move as wholly unnecessary and one which will see Nintendo pay in far more than mere advertising revenue.

But there are at least two sides to every story.

I was given a link to a piece on Something Awful (not linking there, I do have some standards!), from Ry Soderberg, the creator of Elevator: Source. Now, some people – such as the creator of Thomas Was Alone, Mike Bithell – reckon that they see sales increase through the free advertising that Let’s Play runs bring into them. The claim is that they see sales at least multiply by a factor of five when big-names such as TotalBiscuit feature them on their channels, and that’s awesome. But, Ry Soderberg had a different take on it;

“It kind of bothers me that people are justifying doing a let’s play as strictly a way to get money. That’s kind of the natural progression of something once it gets popular enough but it’s still disturbing all the same.

I am, as a game developer, kind of pissed off that someone out there can make more money by recording themselves playing my game than I actually get from making it in the first place. I know some popular youtube channel did a playthrough of Elevator: Source and generated roughly $500 in revenue from their video. I have gotten $0 from making the game. I don’t care how much time, care, or effort you put into your videos, devs put in exponentially more generating it. I can count the number of years i’ve shortened my life doing inhumane shit to myself just so I can create some dumb little game and share it with everyone I know, and yet someone out there sees it as a means to get his bills paid because lp is a way to make a living now apparently.

I feel like doing a let’s play is better served as a hobby that can sometimes lead to an unexpected amount of money. It should not be a way to make money.”

And part of me does see his point. I don’t believe Let’s Play videos are an inherent problem. What seems to be the problem is this allegedly grey area where people are now able to make good money from this, where the developers often see little to no reward for it.

If you think Nintendo’s position is somewhat harsh, then you should be aware that Microsoft already do this; Halo is already subject to similar terms and conditions, so Nintendo are hardly the first company to seek reparations from the businesses making money off the backs of their work. Sony, Sega, UbiSoft and EA take harsher lines, as did the former THQ, seeing content that infringed their copyrights removed completely from YouTube. Nintendo are seeking to profit from something whilst allowing it to live – but only it seems because others are profiting from it anyway. YouTube has in recent years allowed people to make money from this sort of thing, and no doubt this has prompted a lot more spates of companies seeking their work taken off through copyright infringement.

You see, there’s a fine line between free advertising and profiteering. And it’s a line that YouTube has often got a real problem with, as people can generate income and have advertisements on their channels. Viewers don’t seem to care, and find themselves staring at Nintendo and seeing it as a big evil corporation, but ultimately the people complaining are doing so because a free ride is likely about to come to an end, as many who have been trying to share TV Shows over the last couple of years will testify to. There’s no problem or even question that free advertising is fantastic, but many of these shows were not free advertising – they were the shows, in their entirety, without ads, and taking donations for their work via PayPal.

Let’s Play videos may indeed feature commentary and wit and warmth, but they do also feature uninterrupted footage of games, and in a lot of cases, the whole game too. A person can watch the whole video and get an idea of the game, see the plot twists and ending/s and never need to buy the game directly from the company. Much like the TV Channels, such as Channel 4 and UKTV, there’s a fine line between the idea of freely promoting a game and showing the WHOLE game. And that’s largely the main issue at the heart of it all. Whose content is it anyway?

I mean, we all play games differently so you’re not likely to find many running the game things in the same way. And of course, a persons wit and commentary over the top, as well as their kit and set-up, often require some investment. That’s an obviousness that needs no explanation. However, there are set plot moments, the storied segments and endings which are the same – moments which, for some titles, are spoileriffic, baby! You’re taking the best parts of the game and showing them to people without them playing the games, and that’s… well, it’s kind of dodgy.

That said, Nintendo are big boys and have benefited greatly from their loyal consumer base, who have clung on through thick and thin. The question they need to ask is whether they are helping or hindering the course of things, and right now they too must see Nintendo as an enemy of freedom and expression. But we always do, when the reality is that Nintendo is fully within its rights to bolt an ad onto the end of a video about their product, or seek the ad revenue from a channel exploiting its content. Nintendo is within its rights to do this, legally, because they are the copyright and trademark holders. And if you are making money from derivative works of their products, why should Nintendo sit back and let it happen? Precious few do, as we now know.

People may see this as unfair, but that said, Copyright Law has been a funny thing in recent years and the relationship between the community and the industry has rarely been smooth at the best of times. What we have is Nintendo, and Microsoft it must be said, seemingly wanting to allow the content to continue but take something back from it as well. If a fan is doing it, then they obviously are – or very much should be – aware that they are infringing a whole host of patents, trademarks and copyrights in many cases. And if you are making money from it – $50 to $500 a video – then damn right you should be called to task on it. It’s not immoral for Nintendo to seek a slice of this action; if videos are this profitable for people, then arguably they should be seeking the same licensing arrangements that bigger gaming websites like IGN and Eurogamer enjoy.

Note that these companies also do comparisons and Let’s Play variations. Some YouTube entities are even under the umbrella of another company as well who often take much of the licensing sting as well. For the most successful, the most well-known, the most famous of these individuals, there is unlikely to be much of a change, really. The legalities of their work are already taken care of, so when some of them reel in horror at this news, it seems a little… well, disconcerting. They are going to be minimally affected by such a change because it’s an area that’s already covered. Others, who are successful and don’t already have the legal coverage of more professional outfits, will have to come to operate in a similar fashion. Cover the legalities and license it all, or be prepared to lose a portion of your revenue to the company whose work you are freely showing to millions of people across the world.

I don’t think Nintendo should take ALL the revenue though – as much as I agree with the principle, taking everything is too harsh. Because there are overheads from these videos, and there are costs and they do sell themselves really, in the sort of nicest… possible… way… yeah, that might have sounded more like people are whoring their personalities out. But it’s not an unkind comparison and fairly accurate. Their time, their work, their set should all generate some income. I see nothing wrong with that, but I do think that if they aren’t paying their share towards the company – or companies – who work to make the products that they themselves then use for hits and traffic and money, then they should be. And if the company can go over their heads and get it more directly from YouTube by slipping an ad in at the end, or taking a small slice of the pie, then that’s a perfectly sensible and rational thing to do.

But taking all of it? I’m not sure that’s a great idea, because then you kill it off. You may as well be blocking the content to all intents and purposes because no-one will go your way for that sort of thing. Equally, assimilating it all does tend to mean you pick up the baggage from the negative reviews and videos, which is unfortunately only going to appear to be an official endorsement of it, meaning that mythical “Nintendo Seal of Quality” will not be quite as shiny as it once was.

Nintendo and Microsoft may seem to be profiteering themselves from this (and Sony are likely to attach conditions to it’s upcoming Share Button that will be similar), but the same argument works in the other direction. The problem with Let’s Play videos is once upon a time they were walkthroughs and fan-made wonderments. Now, they are business. They are a thing. They are commercialised, and they are profitable. The minute something that uses someone elses work becomes a profitable enterprise, then you’ve got to be damned sure that all the legal backends are tied up as tightly as can be. In so many cases, this has not been a true reflection of the back-end of the market. They have operated as amateurs, but taken the commercial and professional accolades and financial rewards that have come with it. And as YouTube and the Games Industry moves forward, there will come a point where they will ask themselves if blocking content – especially for a new release – is wise to avoid spoilers and potential commercial damages, or whether it’s wiser to simply find a way to co-exist with it and help make it better – make money from it too, sure, but also allow for a spoiler splash screen at the start of a video that contains spoilers.

Whilst it may be easy to rip Nintendo a new one on this front, they are at least attempting to tackle an issue that isn’t unique to themselves. And at the very least, they are trying to find a methodology that doesn’t involve taking down the content. It’s not a good way of doing it, but that’s something Nintendo needs to learn on its own accord. Every company is finding this a challenge, not least because of the potential for profit that lays within it now. Like so many things, what began as something done by fans for the amusement of others is becoming slowly more industrialised, and for all those grateful for the coverage, there is still an awful lot of money involved in the Let’s Play market, it would appear, to actually also be harming smaller developers. The free advertising thing is being cheapened and at times even grossly undermined by the money being taken on the side.

But at the heart lies a question that has troubled YouTube for years. “Whose Content Is It Anyway?” Straddling the line has seen it falter and largely share the platform with VEVO, who license pretty much everything now to do with music, because it itself couldn’t quite answer the question. I believe Hulu do the same for TV shows. Sooner or later, a company is likely to swoop in and orchestrate the two sides of this argument and tie them together, linking them via itself in the middle, making it a much nicer alternative for everyone involved.

The question is whether YouTube can do this itself, or once more find itself subjected to the humiliation of its bandwidth being used by another company, which fixed a problem that it should have been capable of resolving itself. I don’t really know the answer to this one. It’s a rhetorical question anyway. But it’s one that lies at the core of YouTube’s greatest problems. If it can’t answer the “Whose Content Is It Anyway?” question, and needs outside interference to get it to have an answer, then perhaps it’s not really the right place to be doing this sort of thing, hmm? YouTube has indeed created a freedom for many to be very successful marketing themselves. But it’s been often very bad at distinguishing the copyrights and trademarks of others when they’ve been at their most exploited, arguably because… well, they get ad revenue from it too!

The real problem is, at the root of all sides of the argument, is money. Everyone wants to protect their investment and income in the face of change.

And that’s why the whole debate just seems a little… off, for me. Because when the discussion turns to money, I have to ask myself “Whose content is it anyway?”. And for a lot of these videos, the content in the video belongs to the companies which made the game, no? The commentary and narration outside can belong to the creator of that, but do a Let’s Play of a game from start to finish, you are showing the whole content of a video game, in the same way people showed TV shows without the ad breaks for so long.

We admit now that that defeat was arguably right. So why is this not right as well?

Why must Nintendo be the bad guy here? Why must Microsoft be the bad guy here? Why is it Us v. Them, and why is it that some are allowed to profit from their work, but they are not allowed to profit from the same works? Some things are a grey area. This isn’t a grey area. The law is on the big companies side on this one. We should know that. Why is it that a games company, that makes games, cannot defend or take control of its content as it is played out in its entirety to an audience that is often paying someone a very healthy living wage for the privilege?

We often talk about big business as though it is evil. But you must admit, that they may have a salient point on this front. Buying unofficial merchandise is often seen as sticking it to the man, but ultimately you’re still paying another man a very good wage and ultimately damaging the very thing you seek or hope to be assisting in the long run. People talk about helping the industry, free advertising, freedom of expression and information and it’s all largely bollocks. Nintendo may want to make money from it – but the people making the arguments are already making money from it, from something which arguably may not be theirs in a legal sense. They are “unofficial merchandise”, and therefore are not paying back into the very system from which they are exploitatively making money from.

So no, no side in this argument comes out clean. Nintendo and Microsoft look like bullies, YouTube looks incompetent – well, more than usual, anyway – and the Let’s Play video creators who aren’t already paying their way look like right Del Boy’s, seeking profit no matter the cost. All we can do is take sides.

And I fear that’s not going to help the issue either…

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5 Responses to “Let’s Play: Whose Content Is It Anyway?”

  1. dap005 says:

    Really it is a complicated issue. Whilst I see why some creators are angry about its fans making more money then them, I do believe that LPers deserve some money for their hard work and promoting gaming culture in the same sense that bloggers and gaming critics/writers do.

    I wouldn't go and say that I should get paid for someone's let's play (regardless of effort put in) when I demand to be paid for my own hard work (game made in this case). Since that would be hypocritical- this may or may not be an indirect jab at Soderberg's statement ;P. However I do think the original creators should get something out of it, especially if the whole game (spoilers etc) is shown- but that brings around the argument that there are video reviews which spoil games and still get paid. That doesn't mean we should oppose LPers because they help add to the discussion and culture of games (gamecenterGX is a show in Japan that makes money off a comedian playing retro games and has gotten praise from Iwata himself for expanding the interest and knowledge of games), just like someone who writes and commentate on games.

    I do think that original works should be exploited but as for whether or not LPs are making money off the original IP alone and not through their work put into commentating and editing is another matter. I personally don't mind so long as LPers are doing a good job in diversifying the way we enjoy and look at games. But alas legal issues exist and there will always be blurring lines.

    Taking all the revenues though is a bad bad idea. That would be like taking all the revenue from a Nintendo based magazine because it feature Nintendo IPs prominently. People have to put time and effort in and sometimes they need the money in order to continue making these videos so how on earth do we expect higher quality or even continuation of LPs if no one has enough funds to do so? Can't Nintendo give some rewards for the better LPs? The LP scene's only getting bigger after all (maybe getting bigger than the gaming magazine industry even) and people will need funding somewhere if projects are getting bigger.

    • KamiOnGames says:

      It's true, if you take all the money then you effectively kill the whole thing. But as I said, Microsoft have been doing this for months so I find it somewhat funny that it's not OK for Nintendo to step in.

      It's also the nature of a scene getting bigger, and people making money. Once you could sort of justify it as a not-for-profit hobbyist venture, but now people can – and clearly are – making money from it, without the proper licencing arrangements and agreements that would normally be required for this sort of thing. Which is why some are seeing it as a profitable enterprise, most likely. Without the very real legal underpinning, the money is good. But equally, the money is also always perilously at risk. Eventually, you gotta pay up. Don't pay your bills for a year, you will be taken to court and you will most likely have to pay it all back with costs on top.

      But as I said, I don't think killing the scene is going to help either. Even if the law is with Nintendo, the image that they project can be every bit as costly. But it's so complicated, and I suspect that in a few months, like Microsoft, people will have largely forgotten. Some talks will happen and everyone will agree and most people won't be too adversely affected.

      We just have to stop thinking Nintendo is the only bogeyman out there on this front. Because they're just not…

      • dap005 says:

        Nintendo is definitely not the only boogeyman. I just wished they could have took it a step further and established some sort of system that their have for other mediums. Nothing to do but wait and see I suppose. In the meantime I'm glad that they're not taking any LPs off.

        • KamiOnGames says:

          Indeed, I doubt we'll see much of a change and where the change happens, it will be just making it legally correct for all involved. Better to embrace and negotiate in the change than fight a losing battle.

          Good to see you around by the way.

          • dap005 says:

            Always a pleasure to discuss the world of video games with you, Kami. Balancing my hobby with life and school though is something I need to work on :P.

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