In two Tweets on October 22, Alex Hutchinson, a Creative Director for a company recently acquired by Stadia, expressed his opinions on streamers and their relationship to video game studios.
This was met with nearly instant backlash from many popular streaming personalities, including Sean McLoughlin (Jacksepticeye), Imane Anys (Pokimane), and Philip Burnell (dspgaming), other game creators such as Notch (the creator of Minecraft), and from fans.
I personally find Hutchinson’s remarks to be wildly hypocritical given that he stole his Twitter banner art from a fan artist's piece done in celebration of Jacksepticeye’s stream of Journey to the Savage Planet. That, however, is not the point of this article.
I would rather argue that Hutchinson is misguided in terms of his definition of what streamers do when they are playing games in front of an audience. What Hutchinson seems to think that streamers are doing is reposting another’s work without giving due credit or compensation (as I said, hypocritical). What streamers are actually doing is a form of independent, and sometimes even endorsed, review.
The huge difference between the two is that while reposting is considered theft of intellectual property, as it detracts from the original artist’s ability to benefit from the piece and discourages consumers from interacting with it further, reviewing, when done effectively, drives product sales, increases an artist’s popularity, and exposes the product to a wider base of people while encouraging them to interact with it further.
Let’s break that down a little bit.
Defining Streaming as a Review
Merriam-Webster defines a review in this context as “ a critical evaluation” of a piece of media, such as a book or a play. This means that the reviewer is consuming the piece with an eye out for both its high points and its problems instead of as passive entertainment. They then use this information to create and share an informed assessment of the piece’s objective and subjective quality.
Reviews have been a vital tactic for media marketing since practically its invention. Books, movies, and plays rely on critical evaluation as a way of driving preorder sales before launch to cover marketing costs. Publishers will pay top dollar in special preview and launch events, free review material, and promotional kits to try and drive attention and buzz about their product.
When it comes to customer and informal reviews, the dawn of the internet became a major advantage for the average consumer. People have easier access to widely varied opinions in huge numbers, which, according to a survey by Trust Pilot, means that consumers are now able to sum up the individual, realistic experiences of others, compare them, and make an informed decision based on hard fact rather than propaganda.
This is where independent streamers come in. With the rise in popularity of video game streaming and the streamers themselves, many companies have seen this as an opportunity to advertise at a significantly reduced cost to them. Instead of having to hope for a review from a major outlet, as you traditionally would with a book or movie, gaming studios have easy access to reviews that are widely viewed and can influence massive amounts of consumers. Given that some of these creators have audiences in the millions tuning in to every stream, they definitely have the kind of reach that can make or break sales and success for a smaller game.
Why Reposting is Theft
For an example here, let’s talk about digital art theft.
Let’s say a small artist a piece of work, which they post for free on their own social media and make no direct profit from. Rather than getting money, the artist benefits when people see this work, then click through to see more work, or enjoy the style enough to ask for a paid commission. This piece is used to grow the artist’s platform and general reach.
Let’s say then that someone sees the piece, and, rather than simply sharing it via the in-built sharing features on the site or, even better, paying the artist for the rights to use it, they instead download the piece and illegally post it as the public image for their own social media. To make it worse, let’s say that this original creator crops out the signature of the artist when they reupload the image.
This severs the link between the artist and the work, meaning that, even if someone who sees the reuploaded image likes it, they have no direct way of knowing where the reposter got the image, or even that it was a repost at all. They may, understandably, assume that a work posted without outside credit belongs to the person that posted it, and, if they are interested in purchasing a similar piece, may contact the reposter only to be disappointed to either learn that this person did not create the art or that whatever they deliver is in a completely different style (thereby creating another scam). Someone who could have been a paying customer or loyal fan will likely never reach the artist at all, and the artist’s reach is damaged.
A review by definition cannot completely cover the content of a given piece, meaning that there will always be something more for the audience to interact with if they consume it directly from the content creator themselves. A repost takes the entire work and delivers it via a third party, meaning that there is no reason for the audience to interact further with the work and therefore there is no engagement generated for the original creator, and in fact there is engagement taken away from them, hurting their odds of benefitting from the original piece.
Why Streaming Isn’t Reposting
We’ve established that the point of a review is to garner interest in support for the original product. Well, if a streamer plays the game for his audience, doesn’t that mean they have no reason to play it themselves?
Not quite. Let’s look at some examples.
Undertale was a small indie project created in 2015. It originally drew in audiences with its simple style and cute humor, and, given that it was fairly cheap to buy, streamers picked it up to play on their channels. This was when they discovered, in front of their audiences, that the game was much more complicated than it looked on the surface, and changed with subsequent playthroughs. They would come to the end of their particular journey and have other options teased for them. But because getting a different ending require replaying massive portions of the game (and occasionally hours of enemy grinding), most streamers opted not to play again, and instead encouraged their audience to play the game for themselves. Millions of fans took that to heart, and bought the game, launching its popularity through the roof and earning it award after award and the honor of becoming a household name in the gaming world that’s still recognized today.
The games don’t have to have multiple, independent routes to be appealing to a live stream audience, though. Among Us from Inner Sloth is a very simple sci-fi murder mystery game reminiscent of The Thing, all about catching imposters and not being killed while you perform maintenance tasks on a space ship. It was released in 2018 but became suddenly popular again recently when streamers took up the game again as a way of connecting with their friends during the quarantine. Seeing the silly antics of their favorite creator groups in this game, thousands of people downloaded the game for themselves, to connect with their friends, and occasionally have the chance to play with these streamers directly.
Most games played by streamers have one of these two qualities; either, they are best experienced personally or they offer the opportunity to connect with a community, which you can’t do simply by watching. This is where the main difference comes in between reposting and reviewing.
Understanding Why Streamers Stream
Streaming, at its most basic level, is about entertainment. A streamer is playing a game because they want to entertain themselves and their audiences. Therefore, they’ll usually only pick games that they are genuinely interested in, as it’s difficult to make sincere content about an uninteresting game. Streamers pick based on convenience, yes, but also on passion and genuine love for a game and its creative team, meaning they are more than willing to support them in any way possible.
Yes, they may get a copy of the game for free, but they’ll use that free copy (now fully and mandatorily transparent, after some issues with paid content disclosure on YouTube) to encourage others to purchase copies of their own and to build not only a buyer base but a community willing to support future projects as well, which is invaluable to a growing company. On top of that, not all games streamers play are free; they more often than not have paid for the games they play, on top of playing for the equipment they’re using to play and the equipment and services they use to stream.
If you add another paywall for streamers between them and their games, you’re driving away a major advertising source for your company. A small fee for one person to play may not look like much. It may look like an excellent source of revenue, or you may see it as reclaiming the “lost” sales a streamer “takes.” But inevitably, there will be a company that decides against this option, and that will be the one that streamers flock to, meaning that you might cost your gaming studio tremendous sales numbers inspired by the single streamer’s review.