The developer of That Dragon, Cancer says Let’s Play videos have damaged sales

"All we are asking... is that you honour our work"

Ryan Green, a developer behind indie game That Dragon, Cancer, which told the story of his child’s battle with cancer, has recently posted on the game’s website that he feels Let’s Play videos have partially damaged the game’s sales. Green said that his studio Numinous Games “has not seen a single dollar from sales” and said that although the team have found the positive response to the game to be “pretty incredible” there is a problem in that they “underestimated how many people would be satisfied with only watching the game instead of playing it themselves.”

Green doesn’t disparage Let’s Plays, in fact he talks about how they can add value to the medium, but he points out that “for a short, relatively linear experience like ours, for millions of viewers, Let’s Play recordings of our content satisfy their interest and they never go on to interact with the game in the personal way that we intended for it to be experienced.”

Green’s main issue is with Let’s Players who upload That Dragon, Cancer gameplay to YouTube without any useful commentary: “We have seen many people post our entire game on YouTube with little to no commentary. We’ve seen people decompile our game and post our soundtrack on YouTube. We’ve also seen many, many Let’s Players post entire playthroughs of our game, posting links to all of their own social channels and all of their own merchandising and leaving out a link to our site.”

The post was written in response to complaints that the studio had received from video creators who had been hit with copyright claims after Content ID’s had been added to Jon Hillman’s music for the game. These have since been removed and Green explains that “we did not intend to make copyright claims or to force anyone to take down their videos, we simply intended for Jon to be able to draw some income from the original soundtrack to our game that he poured his heart into.”

Rather than wish to stop the Let’s Play community from using his game, Green asks that video creators “don’t just rebroadcast the entirety of our content with minimal commentary, but instead use portions of our content as a context to share your own stories and start conversations with your viewers. We would encourage you to link to our site and directly encourage viewers to support our work financially through buying the game, or donating a dollar or two to our studio if they believe that what we did has value. This small act will allow us to continue to work.”

Green has raised a very interesting and reasonably put point and largely it comes down to content creators having respect for other content creators. Broadcasting content created by another person with no useful analysis or commentary on it, without linking to their work at all purely with the goal of gaining views, popularity and possibly money does appear problematic.

I saw arguments against Green claiming his £11 charge had been too great, or that it’s his fault for creating a linear game that could just be watched to be experienced. This is unfair. A linear narrative game shouldn’t be punished for being a linear narrative game; we should enjoy the fact that games are finding ways to tell stories in a variety of ways that showcase the medium’s capacity for narrative diversity rather than telling developers that their efforts were worth watching and enjoying but not worth paying for simply because they weren’t multi-choice open-ended open-world affairs that go on for hours.

One commenter said “if interest in a game can be satisfied by watching it rather than playing it, you’ve chosen the wrong medium to tell the story.” I disagree. Fallout: New Vegas is an excellent game and I imagine its mechanics would satisfy this commenter enough for them to deem it a game, but I watched my brother play it rather than play it myself and I was perfectly satisfied. I’ve never felt the need to play it myself. Not everyone is using Let’s Plays to decide whether or not a game is worth buying because not everyone is tempted to buy a game based on its mechanics and gameplay.

Let’s not get into the semantics of what a game is or isn’t – you consumed media created by someone else who charges for it for free without their permission. There’s something not right about that, particularly when the creator isn’t even linked in the video. It wouldn’t be allowed with a film, and That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t cost any more than a DVD or cinema ticket. It’s a really odd sense of entitlement that can be seen often in gaming culture.

It’s possible there’s a bias in favour of Let’s Players largely because they’re seen to be there for the general consumer and don’t charge them to view their content, but it could also have something to do with a lack of insight into just how much work these small teams have to put in to develop their game. The thing is, Let’s Plays which have commentary value can be a real boon for games, they can garner attention for a game that might not have otherwise been discovered by a player and boost sales but some consideration has to be shown. Time, hard work, and money went into That Dragon, Cancer from a team of 8 people, and just because they want to earn money from the thing they put their time into doesn’t mean they’re trying to rip you off, they’re simply trying to make a living. A labour borne out of love is not necessarily a labour of love.

Let’s Plays are a relatively new medium and it’s not entirely clear just yet what kind of effects they could have on the gaming industry; whilst they may benefit some games they could harm others and it’s worth thinking about how content ought to be presented to make sure this doesn’t happen. At the very least developers shouldn’t be attacked for deciding Let’s Plays might not benefit their game and stopping them from happening or asking that video creators limit the content they use. A tipping system integrated into Let’s Plays is not a bad idea; if you watched a game and enjoyed the experience of watching it, the option to throw a pound or two towards the developer in appreciation of their work rather than purchasing the full game is at least better than nothing.

Let’s Plays and issues of creative ownership around games is an interesting discussion that really ought to be had, even if only to help indie developers and YouTube creators know where they stand and work without damaging each other’s efforts.

That Dragon, Cancer is available to purchase through Steam for £10.99

Image via Steam