Since the advent of YouTube, there have been videos about video games, made by fans & reviewers of all types… professional, amateur and asshole. In recent years, a type of video called “Let’s Play” videos have become increasingly popular. These videos generally feature gameplay of the game, and overlapping commentary from the player. They could be intended as humourous, critical or as a walkthrough of the game. No one seemed to care very much about them for a long while… until YouTube started allowing video creators to monetize their channels and videos using ads. It’s been a while now, and all hell has started to break loose.
Recently, YouTube has pursued video game companies like Nintendo, Mojang, Microsoft, Sony (and presumably all the others out there) to get them to cash in on the advertising revenue of videos featuring their games. I haven’t exactly got my finger on the pulse of gaming news any more, but now that a company as big as Nintendo has jumped into the fray, with a seemingly heavy handed, Big Brother-esque stance on the issue, it’s gotten my attention. Nintendo has apparently claimed all rights to any advertising revenue generated by a video featuring gameplay of their games. At first glance, depending on where you stand on copyright issues, it seems either pretty shitty, or perfectly understandable. But like everything else in life, it’s never quite so black or white.
I completely understand the reasoning behind this move. Content creators–especially giant corporate ones–want to be reimbursed for their content that they created. Some of these “Let’s Play” style videos feature the entire story of a game, pieced together over multiple parts. That’s gotta be frustrating to see. The fact that someone’s undoubtedly posted the entirety of Highlander 2: The Quickening on YouTube, probably makes Russel Mulcahy pretty upset about it (because it would make it that much harder to pretend it’s not out there). I’m sure it makes Republic Pictures (assuming they still exist) even more upset. I mean, who’s going to by the cow when they can find out the milk is sour, poisonous–and smells really weird–for free? So, obviously, Nintendo should have a piece of this pie, right? It’s only fair, isn’t it?
And that’s where things get muddy, because for the cases of many of the would-be-affected videos, it’s literally not fair. As I’m sure most bloggers are aware, there’s a thing in copyright law called “Fair Use”. It’s what keeps us all from being evil law-breakers every day. Under the law, we’re allowed to use copy-written material for satirical, educational or critical reasons. Many of these “Let’s Play” videos would/should/do stand under this umbrella. The caveat being that we can’t use the entire work in our reviews. So, all of Highlander 2: The Quickening being posted would be bad. (Very bad. Awful, in fact) But snippets of Highlander 2: The Quickening, screenshots, audio, etc. would be just peachy (No, they wouldn’t. The movie is terrible).
Still seems pretty cut and dry, right? I mean, if your video consists of all 32 levels of Super Mario Bros. and all you’ve done is say “Cool Fireballs, bro,” near the beginning of Level 1-1 you’re being a dick, and Nintendo deserves your money. If you’ve generated a legitimate review, with critiques and commentary, you should be fine. Still pretty black and white.
Except for two little details. The first is that Nintendo’s acquisition of advertising revenue isn’t going to be based on quality of content… it’s going to be based on how much of a game is featured. If you have over X minutes of gameplay footage–where X is a value that is currently either unreleased, or undetermined–your money is their money. That has the potential to hurt a lot of small, legitimate reviewers that are trying to make a buck doing what they love. Obviously the Game Informers and the IGNs and whatnot will keep their revenue. But what about the little guys… the ones that generally make the most unbiased and entertaining videos. Those folks are very likely on the verge of being shafted.
The second argument some are making is that video games aren’t so simple, and that they can’t be shown in their entirety. They’re an interactive work. Some of today’s games have literally hundreds of hours of gameplay. A game like Minecraft has near-limitless permutations of user-generated content. A speed run of Super Mario Bros. takes less than 5 minutes, and features the game’s whole story, beginning and end, but not everything in between.
This second argument is the one I find most interesting, because it will unwittingly open a can of worms some aren’t foreseeing. Because when it comes to censorship–and violence–in video games, the community rallies behind the idea that it’s the same as movies, books and music. We shout out at the top of our lungs that the interactivity of the medium does no make it inherently different. Of course, we’re dealing with two different aspects of the medium. Interactivity does make the narrative experience different, and muddier in terms of Fair Use applications. It doesn’t make its violence or sexy-times any more influential (in my opinion) than movies, books or music. Personally, I’m more far more likely to be driven to an atrocious act of violence by watching Highlander 2: The Quickening than playing Mortal Kombat. But try convincing Jack Thompson, or others like him, that the two opinions aren’t contradictory.
Regardless of what side of this argument you fall on, though, one thing seems to be crystal clear. This is just an incredibly piss poor PR decision on behalf of Nintendo. For a company that already seemed disconnected from what is “cool” or “hip” or “dope” or “whatever-you-kids-are-saying-these-days”, this is a decision that can only alienate them further. Many people in the video game playing community see “Let’s Play” videos as a demo. There are several folks that won’t buy a game without watching one. I’m not that guy. I’ve never watched one. But my brother, and his group of friends, sometimes are. They’re young enough to be on their parents bandwidth capped internet, so downloadable demos get them in trouble. Any hedge-bet purchases are often made on the basis of “Let’s Play” videos.
“Let’s Play” videos basically created the buzz surrounding Minecraft. Halo has built one of the largest strongest communities on the backs of gamer-created footage. Like all reviews and free advertising, it’s a double edged sword. “Let’s Play” videos also destroyed any chance of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct and Aliens: Colonial Marines had of succeeding. It has its pros and cons. The thing is, though, if you’re making a quality product, there really are only pros to having your game play featured in popular videos.
After all that, I really don’t have an answer. I think it really needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis… and even then, that’s not really fair. For the most part, shitty videos and blogs don’t gain a large viewership… so they won’t make Nintendo any amount of money. Good videos are largely very likely to be exempt. But if you deal in case-by-case, there becomes a very real threat of biasing the content. If Nintendo uses its right to acquire all the revenues of bad reviews, and negative commentary “Let’s Play” videos… folks trying to make a living reviewing will be far less likely to release negative videos. The game-reviewing industry is already in the pocket of the major distributors… moves like this can only hurt it further.
So there you have it… a long winded not-quite rant, but I don’t know what else to categorize it. I think this is a poor choice by Nintendo, and it is very likely to be copied by the other big players, even though the Indie guys, like Mojang, are generally pretty opposed to it, so far. What effect do you think decisions like this might have on video games, sales, etc? What about how it effects other media? Do you think the major studios deserve the right to choose whether or not they get a cut of reviewers advertising revenue? What about something like Mystery Science Theatre 3000? Where does that fall in this spectrum? Will Highlander 2: The Quickening ever be topped on my scale of shittyness?