Phil Fish loves video games, and anybody who tries to claim otherwise is out of their skulls. At the same time, he’s always come off as somebody who has a serious contempt for the industry, his peers, and basically anybody who doesn’t acknowledge the unparalleled brilliance of Phil Fish. This is a guy who has made a habit of painting himself as the innocent victim, persecuted by an industry that fails to give him the proper respect for his work while being completely oblivious to the fact that he has invited much of the backlash against him by saying shit like “I hate this fucking industry,” “gamers are the worst fucking people,” and telling a Japanese game developer that “your games just suck.” “Your,” in this instance, being “Japan’s.”
This is a guy who told Marcus Beer to kill himself in response to a pissing match the two had on Twitter*, an event which snowballed to become the catalyst for Fish announcing the outright cancelation of Fez II and swear off Twitter forever.
Now he’s emerged from his self-imposed social media exile to proclaim that people who post gameplay footage of his games on Twitter owe him money.
Yes, Phil Fish says he’s deserving of royalties for any video of Fez on YouTube that’s monetized.
Understandably, the majority of YouTube content creators have been fairly united in their opinion that Fish’s statements are pants-on-head stupid. Who can blame them? YouTube is a tricky minefield to navigate, with content constantly being unjustly removed because it used three seconds of footage from an Ubisoft game, or because you can hear a song from an artist under contract with Warner Music Group playing in the background. These takedowns can have a substantial impact on content creators, costing them views and potentially having an account banned altogether if flagged often enough. So when somebody like Phil Fish, whose game has “about 139,000” videos on YouTube (I searched “Fez game”), says that he’s owed a cut of the money earned, the push back from content creators is wholly understood.
And completely justified.
YouTube, Lets Play videos, livestreaming, etc., are some of the most wonderful tools that video game marketers could have ever asked for; it’s ultra-targeted advertising that is guaranteed to reach a segment of the audience that most views traditional marketing with the cynical scorn that pollutes so much of the webbernets: “hardcore gamers.” Not only is this kind of publicity completely free for the developer or publisher, but it’s the YouTuber in question who does all the work of playing, filming, editing, and publishing the finished product to their audience. Quite literally, all you have to do to reap the benefits of Lets Play exposure as a developer or publisher is to leave well enough alone. And most companies get this, if not outright encourage it.
But, as is the case with most things in life, a few sore sports want to cock the whole thing up for everybody. Nintendo has some comically backwards policies on YouTube content that gives them a chunk of ad revenue generated by user content published to YouTube. As a result, you’re seeing YouTubers with substantial audiences (TotalBiscuit and boogie2988 come immediately to mind) vowing to not talk about publish videos of them playing Nintendo games, or even discuss them in detail on their channels.
You know who wins that fight?
The content creators aren’t able to provide opinion and insight about games that, in many cases, they want to play (Mario Kart 8, anyone?), and Nintendo comes off looking like a colossally out-of-touch web-illiterate money leech. Is Nintendo a colossally out-of-touch web-illiterate money leech? I highly doubt it. But in this day and age, perception is 11/10ths of the law.
Even if Nintendo, Phil Fish, etc., got what they wanted and YouTubers were forced to essentially pay for the rights to air footage of their games, they’re still not going to be able to control it in the way they want. Some will finds other avenues to generate traffic and revenue via YouTube and move their Lets Play stuff over to livestreaming, while others will simply drop Lets Play videos entirely. The big players in this game (no pun intended) – the ones who could see their livelihood threatened by such practices – may simply decide to take their content off of YouTube and self-host. Their videos would be largely unchanged, and they’d be able to tell their sizable audiences that they were forced off of YouTube by the overreaching practices of an industry trying to strong-arm them into playing by their rules.
This makes everybody look bad – even the companies that are all for YouTubers using their stuff.
“But James,” you shout at your monitor, earning the concerned glances of your friends and colleagues. “If we don’t police what goes on YouTube, how can we control the messaging?!”
To be completely blunt: you can’t, and much like that scab from when you scraped your knee on the playground because your gym teacher had the brilliant idea to play kickball on asphalt, it’s only going to get worse the more you pick at it. That being said, you can certainly influence how content creators treat you and your games by simply enacting Wheaton’s Law. If you work with content creators, rather than try to laud over them as if you’re somehow doing them a favor by having the audacity to release and sell a game to the masses, you can better control the perception people have of you.
This is something that a lot of MMORPG developers (and some other studios, to be fair) figured out a long time ago with their various fan sites. By embracing the community that’s springing up around your game, you not only build a sense of trust and create a reputation of being a fan-friendly player-first organization (bonus points if you actually are a fan-friendly player-first organization – a lot of developers are), but you’ve also established something of an echo chamber of your own which can be counted on to amplify whatever news, information, or other media you want to let out to the Internet. Of course you’re also centralizing your most ardent fans and giving them direct access to fire laser-guided missiles at every nuanced detail of your game to let you know every damn thing they don’t like, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. I’m sure I’ll talk about that one day.
The relationship between game publisher and content creator is a symbiotic one. On one hand, content creators are using these games to build their audiences, drive traffic to their channels, and generate ad revenue. On the other hand, content creators are also serving as some of the biggest cheerleaders for the games industry, exciting their audiences about games by actually seeing them in action. Hell, more often than not those Lets Players (is that what we’re calling them? I hope not…) use the money from those videos to go right out and buy more games to make more Lets Play videos.
And if even one person went out and bought a game because they saw a Lets Play video and said “hey, that looks cool,” then everybody wins.
*I was actually on Fish’s side with the initial slight, but… damn, man.