Last week, two news stories caught my attention. First, Tiny Build Games announced that Punch Club has been pirated approximately 1.6 million time–it’s sold only 330,000 copies by comparison. I think that’s unfortunate but not unexpected news. Shortly after, Ryan Green claimed that Let’s Plays are to blame for the lack of sales of his deeply personal game, That Dragon, Cancer . Given the timing of the news stories, I could help but compare Green’s statements about Let’s Plays with Tiny Build’s statements about piracy, which I think is unfair.
First, I want to state my stance on Let’s Plays, because I couldn’t help but draw parallels between them and piracy. I’m fine with Let’s Plays, because as long as their creators operate under the laws of fair use, then they are creating their own content. Sure, the videos risk spoiling the entire game for the audience, but chances are they weren’t completely sold on the premise to begin with. Some indie developers dream of popular YouTubers like PewDiePie playing their game because they could use the attention. Unless you’re the guy who developed Bear Simulator – in which case, well, sorry PewDiePie didn’t like your game.
I don’t believe piracy can be justified like Let’s Plays can. While piracy is not technically the same as stealing, it is a means of distributing a copy of the game to lots of gamers who are unwilling to pay. One of the most empirically solid methods for curbing piracy is to ensure purchasing a game is more convenient than pirating it, which sounds terrible for the developers, but it does lead to one-click stores like Steam or Amazon. Developers acknowledge that piracy is unstoppable, but they know that it can also bring their game more exposure, and possibly convert some of the pirates to customers. So while piracy and Let’s Plays are totally different, they also provide similar benefits. Or they can just bring your game exposure, as Ryan was unfortunate enough to discover.
I bring up the comparison because I think Ryan’s statements bring up a good point. I would feel disheartened too if I spent years on a game only to find out everyone just wanted to watch someone else playing it, hearing their thoughts without actually getting a feel for the product. But without Let’s Plays, I’m not sure consumers would have been interested in purchasing That Dragon, Cancer to begin with.
First, let’s talk a little bit about the game itself. That Dragon, Cancer is about Ryan’s son’s struggle with cancer, and how he and the rest of his family dealt with it. It was originally designed to be about his son beating the short time the doctor had given him, but eventually the son passed away. Regardless, with the help of his family, Ryan continued to pour his heart and soul into the game. I respect him for it. Not many game developers—AAA or indie—are willing to create a quality product on such a difficult subject matter.
But I also don’t blame the games industry for shying away from games about cancer, because I don’t think most consumers are willing to purchase a game like That Dragon, Cancer . When it came out, I asked a coworker if he had heard of it. To my surprise, he told me he had, but didn’t think he had the stomach to play it, let alone complete it. Keep in mind the game is only two hours–that’s how risky the subject of cancer is. Speaking of two hours, the game has its fair share of problems. It received middling scores by critics, most of whom cited the aforementioned short length as well as some problematic mini games. But Ryan’s story generated enough buzz. People knew about it, but given what they could learn about it through reviews, I understand why they would turn to video first.
I don’t want to upset Ryan because I admire his dedication to his game and his family. I really do. I was one of the few who even purchased That Dragon, Cancer , and I encourage anyone reading this – regardless if you’ve watched the Let’s Plays – to consider purchasing it if you think the concept is remotely interesting. However, Let’s Players and Streamers are going to broadcast games that they’re audience might be interested in. Your game has to be able to stand on its own legs on video, because otherwise it’s just going to be exposed.