Do Let's Plays and Streams Keep You From Buying Single-Player Games?

Hand-wringing over streaming culture sounds a lot like the hand-wringing over piracy.

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Jun 21 2018, 3:00pm

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I pirated games all the time as a kid. It took careful planning to download Hexen over a 14.4kbps modem that got disconnected anytime someone else in the house picked up the phone, but eventually, the games were mine. Without the resources to spend on new games—the monthly demos from PC Gamer only got me so far—I turned to the next logical option. It sure didn’t feel like stealing at the time. What choice did I have??

For years, the conventional wisdom—and by conventional, I mean the line pushed by game publishers who have every incentive to make people believe this is true—suggested piracy was killing them. On paper, this makes sense, and it’s easy to buy an argument built around the idea where pirating a game means a lost sale. But after reporting on piracy for years, I’ve come away with a far muddier picture of its impact.

CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077, almost certainly one of the biggest releases of the next few years, will be DRM free on platforms like GOG. If piracy was a doomsayer, why take that risk? Maybe, as developers have told me over the years, just because you can’t use an Excel spreadsheet to point out the positive (or neutral) ways piracy impacts a game, doesn’t they don’t exist. My gut tells me streaming is awfully similar to piracy.

IGN writer and producer Alanah Pearce recently published a piece called “Developers Say Twitch Is Hurting Single-Player Games,” which pulls from discussions with game developers about the way streaming culture may be trickling into creative decisions:

The fear of a decrease of single-player games isn't too irrational, and many developers - from indies to Triple As - told me Twitch is having a really significant impact on what games studios are choosing to make. One person I spoke to is Rami Ismail from Vlambeer, who said, “One of the most under-discussed effects of Twitch, YouTube, Let's Play - the whole content creator ecosystem - on the games industry is how the marketing impact of those platforms has affected what kind of games developers make. Why would any major studio outside of a first party trying to sell consoles, or a studio with a reputation for single-player games, bother with an immersive, single-player campaign?”

The notion that single-player games are dying has felt like a myth, given 2017 was a year where Super Mario Odyssey, Horizon Zero Dawn, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, Breath of the Wild, Prey, Nier: Automata, Resident Evil 7, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Pyre, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War showed up. And those are just off the top of my head.

It’s certainly true, as Pearce points out, a huge number of single-player games come from hardware manufacturers like Sony and Nintendo, who are incentivized to create the kinds of narrative-driven, big budget games to drive platform sales. (Microsoft seems to finally get this, based on the acquisitions it announced at E3.) But that list also includes a number of third-party releases, and Bethesda just announced two new big ones.

I started thinking about this after an interesting tweet by game critic Julie Muncy, who’s written for Waypoint before.

A few years back, I investigated the reasons various people chose to pirate The Witness, after the game’s designer, Jonathan Blow, was complaining about the impact of piracy.

My takeaways were, as I mentioned before, pretty muddy: some people think of piracy as a demo, some people think games are too expensive, some people think paying for a puzzle game is ridiculous, some people just don’t want to pay for a video game. The Witness went on to sell very well.

You could probably swap the word “piracy” with “streaming” in the last paragraph, no?

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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