While the quote un-quote “debate” regarding the moral and legal position of “Let's Play” videos (although I should stop calling them that, the phrase itself died out after the Sony copyright) have long since been settled in about as conclusive a way it can, it’s still a contentious subject. If you forgot, there was a time about two years ago where certain game developers either rallied against the concept of a Let’s Play, as showing unedited gameplay meant that people could just watch a game being played and then feel no obligation to buy it themselves, while others decided that they could make copyright claims on these videos to steal ad revenue or just straight-up take that stuff down. While there are still obviously some remnants of that debate in the way YouTube is run today (in that some developers will try to invoke those laws to take down unflattering videos, and Nintendo at the very least still makes it a pain in the butt to put any video up that uses some Nintendo content), most people just kind of accept that people playing games with an audience is just the way things are going these days.
And it’s not hard to see why they’d be so relaxed about it, in general. Pending some exceptions, it’s generally just better and more enjoyable to play a game yourself than watch someone else do it, unless that someone is on the couch next to you and you can wrestle the controller away. The aforementioned exceptions include gameplay that is generally distinct enough that it has no real impact on your decision to play or buy the game itself: in some ways, it may even encourage it. eSports, for example, shows high-level play consistently and usually showcases a game’s premium elements to a crowd who would be interested in buying that stuff. Speedruns, on the other hand, is more about the individual's skill, and all the creative and amazing ways a familiar game can be broken. Watching a game you’ve never played before in a speedrun can be interesting, but a game you recognize and know? It’s downright mind-blowing. And some people use games as a platform for comedy, but they generally rely on short videos with heavy use of cuts, so it hardly equates to a full gaming experience.
So the people who say that let's play and gameplay videos “rob” a game of sales? Ridiculously unfounded.
With one exception. Horror games.
I think it’s pretty well established by now that Horror Games are one of the only types of games where people would watch a let's play from beginning to end, robbing them of the need to actually buy the full game. In fact, many of YouTube's biggest stars (PewDiePie, Markiplier, and probably others) got their start and continue to grow as a forum to let people experience and/or laugh at the plethora of horror games that have suffocated the market, following the success of Amnesia: The Dark Decent.
Yeah, I bet you forgot that’s what started all this. Folks were saying Horror games were dead until that thing came out.
Now, I don’t want to make this a zero-sum accusation: there are people out there, most famously Five Nights at Freddy’s creator Scott Cawthon, who says that youtube actually helps increase sales and boost exposure for horror games. He’s even gone so far as to give copies of his games out early to YouTubers so they can get an episode or two of their playthrough out into the world before everyone else. And to be frank, he’d be far more qualified to talk about the economics of the system than I’ll ever be, but I can state from experience that while I have no interest in playing horror games, I, like others, have a morbid and grotesque fascination with them, and will happily watch someone play the game instead of seeking to experience it myself. Not even for the YouTuber itself (I used to go to Markiplier, but I got really sick of his over exaggeration and shouting) but just to witness a disturbed, dark world I would have never seen if I had just let it go.
And that’s why horror games are so much more prone to being turned into lets plays than any other genre. Sure, creative games, famously Minecraft, can generate huge YouTube following, but I would say that’s because, like eSports, it’s interesting for players to see the best of the best go about their work in a familiar field. Horror is unique. There’s no ‘competitive’ horror game, and people don’t like to see them mastered: in fact, many folks would like any YouTuber to die a few times just to see all those gruesome animations.
Which kind of spoils, if you haven’t figured out, what the crux of the “problem” is if you want to call the influx of horror lets plays on youtube a problem. The core of every horror experience is, ultimately, curiosity. It’s what pulls people into strange situations, encourages them to peer into the darkness rather than run away, it’s the lure that urges investigation and the ‘reward’ for your courage. No horror movie or game is overt with the threat in marketing, only hinting at the true face of their monsters, and in the final product, they allow it to be peeled away at a slow, agonizing pace.
But the key to a rewarding horror experience isn’t merely in reveling in the atmosphere leading up to the reveal: it’s ensuring that whatever monster you’ve been keeping hidden is actually worth the wait and the hype. It’s the gruesome trail of bodies left behind. It’s in the experience of sneaking through the dark, unsure if it’s saving your life or urging you to your death. Curiosity is key, and for players who are both curious of horror yet unwilling to suffer the terrors of trying to experience it themselves, the Let’s Player swoops in and gives them a safe vehicle for satisfying their curiosity. One of the hardest parts of a horror game, after all, is taking that next step: a YouTuber can make those steps for you, so you can just watch in awe… and use YouTube annotations to spoil when the jumpscares are coming, of course.
So say you’re a game developer, you want to make a horror game, but you don’t want people to use YouTube to spoil or satisfy themselves, what would you do? How could you deliver an effective horror experience, and excite people enough to buy your game, without giving them a reason to want to just watch someone else play it for them while they watch safely with a bowl of popcorn and a flashlight?
Of course, a lot is going to rely on your ability to execute, but the way I see it, there are two approaches to take: make horror more fun or to give horror more choice.
The first is probably the best approach, but the harder to execute of the two. The thing about horror games is that, typically, from a raw gameplay experience, they’re not a lot of fun to actually play. You look at what’s considered the most traditionally good horror games: Outlast, Five Nights at Freddy’s (shut up, I’ll defend that it’s a good game), Silent Hill 2, Amnesia, Slender… mostly, all the players are doing is running and hiding, with some very simple resource management and/or stealth-related puzzles. No one looked at the latest Alien game and was enthralled by the gameplay of sitting in a locker for 10 minutes, watching a blinking light. It’s very much a genre that relies on absorption because if you removed the horror elements, it just wouldn’t be engaging.
The problem with just making horror games more fun to play is that typically when you do that, you get your Resident Evil 6’s, your Evil Within’s, your dime-a-dozen horror-themed shooter… games that lose horror elements and, oftentimes, aren’t even much fun to begin with. Striking that balance between “fun to play” (which oftentimes requires a level of technical finesse that can distract from the horror) is a task for a smarter person, but anyone who can figure it out has a pretty great future ahead of them.
As for horror with choice, well, that’s fairly self-explanatory, and the easier one to pull off. Some games, like Until Dawn, create fun through a choice-driven narrative that means that no matter if you watch the game once, you’re still missing out on most of the content. Others, like Silent Hill Shattered Memories, promise to change depending on the player’s behavior, creating unique experiences for each player. The idea is to ensure that no one watches it once and is satisfied but is left with a desire to learn more, see more… try their own story. I imagine it works a great deal, the only problem being that no matter how you played Until Dawn, you’d still spoil a good number of major story beatss. And I’m not sure games are ready for a true “sandbox” horror game.
Regardless, nothing in current events prompted this question, but it remains a question that will linger over the horror game genre for years to come. After all, no one wants their YouTubers to go anywhere, but... if there was a way to ensure your game gets sold and watched? Publishers would have a hard time justifying any copyright strikes after that.