As a part of the media that trades primarily in words, I’m told that my role will be redundant soon. Reading is still a popular means of acquiring information, but gaming is a visual medium, and improving broadband speeds are making video a much more viable option. This can be evidenced all over the Internet, where broadcasters such as PewDiePie are able to reach the kind of audience that I can only dream of. Despite the numbers sitting right in front of me, though, I’ve never really worried too much about the emerging Let’s Play culture, quite simply because it didn’t really appeal to me. However, as I’ve started to use the PlayStation 4’s underappreciated ‘Live from PlayStation’ application a little more, I’m gradually beginning to understand the draw.
My disinterest in commentated gameplay videos is a bit odd, as I’m comfortable recognising Jeff Gerstmann and the late Ryan Davis as my inspirations in this space. While my writing style has been influenced by anything from Official PlayStation Magazine to defunct 80s music rag Smash Hits, it was always the abovementioned duo that fuelled my hunger for online gaming coverage. After their unceremonious departure from GameSpot, I followed their every move, which eventually culminated in the creation of Giant Bomb. Curiously, it’s this site – to the best of my knowledge – that pioneered the very concept of the Let’s Play format as it exists today, with the now ubiquitous Quick Look and Endurance Run content types.
Despite being my favourite gaming website by a country mile, though, I don’t think I’ve ever watched one of the publication’s original videos right the way through. I think the problem stems from the fact that I’m not a good passive gamer; I’m the type of person that’s prone to snatching the controller out of your hands when you’re stuck, rather than patiently explaining what you’re supposed to do. As such, sitting through a 30 minute video of someone bleating on about a specific piece of software while they play didn't ever appeal to me – I’d much rather try the title for myself. In the past, however, I’ve always had to make a conscious decision to watch this content while on the computer, and I think that’s why the ‘Live from PlayStation’ app has started to change my mind.
For those of you that don’t have a PS4 – or haven’t used it much yet – this rather unceremonious addition sits on the dashboard among the muddle of your installed games. Selecting it brings up a list of streams currently being broadcast across the entire console ecosystem, with information on the title being played and the size of the channel’s viewership. Selecting one of these windows allows you to watch the host play live, as well as observe a picture-in-picture video feed of the person wielding the DualShock 4 if they’ve got a PlayStation Camera attached. So popular has this feature become, that it’s currently almost impossible to track down Sony’s optical accessory in stores, despite only a handful of actual games supporting it.
At first, I was impressed with the application, but it didn’t really do much to change my opinion of Let’s Play culture. Why would I watch someone play the Manchester derby in FIFA 14, when I could be in control of it myself? However, it’s only since the console’s Japanese launch that I’ve started to see the benefits. As a big Yakuza fan, I’ve been pretty eager to play the latest entry in the property since it was announced last year. Unfortunately, the import edition sits just outside of my price range, so I’ve been using the ‘Live from PlayStation’ app to get a taste for the title instead. It’s this that has finally unlocked my understanding of the format, and helped me to at least appreciate why streaming is so popular around the web.
In truth, the broadcasts that I’ve been watching haven’t always offered the most riveting viewing: I watched someone attempt (and fail) a specific combat scenario in Yakuza Ishin at least six times. However, despite that person not having a connected camera or microphone, I ended up building a profound relationship with them; I wanted them to advance to the next area as much as they probably did. So I offered some words of encouragement via the title’s built-in chat box, and, incredibly, they succeeded on their seventh attempt. Did my support help them? Unlikely, as they’d been getting closer to progressing with each try, but suddenly I felt invested in that person’s game, and consequentially, I started to understand the appeal of Let’s Play.
This epiphany will probably prompt a shrug of the shoulders from those of you that are fans of various YouTube channels and shows, but I think that having the feature at the heart of the PS4 makes a difference. Once upon a time, only those with the requisite equipment had the opportunity to hit it big online, but Sony’s next-gen super system comes equipped with the features to make anyone an Internet superstar. That levels the playing field a little, and while it will result in more noise than ever before, I’ve managed to uncover some great stuff. For example, I recently watched Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida playing a few minutes of Outlast, which is one of my streaming highlights so far.
I think the thing that excites me most, though, is the promise of bringing viewers into the game. Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition hints at this untapped potential, allowing an onlooking audience to vote on various instances occurring inside the adventure, changing the experience on the fly. Imagine if instead of merely sharing words with my abovementioned Yakuza friend, I could have gifted him with a health pack. That’s the kind of functionality that Housemarque’s re-released shooter hints at. And it’s clearly going to become a trend, with collaborative experiments such as Twitch Plays Pokémon underlining the possibilities. The upcoming survival horror Daylight is also planning to incorporate community driven secrets, adding trigger words to the chat section that threaten to unsettle players once typed.
And it’s with that kind of functionality in mind that I find myself completely sold on the concept of Let's Play. I don’t know whether there’s a future where people would rather watch games being played as opposed to reading about them, but I personally think that these are two complimentary delivery mechanisms. A good review, in my opinion, should communicate to the reader from an informed perspective exactly what their overall experience with a given title will be. Outside of spoiling the best moments, I’m not sure that that information comes through when you’re a passive observer; it’s the difference between a hands-on and a hands-off preview in my eyes. However, I can appreciate the profound sense of camaraderie that comes from watching someone trying to succeed at a particularly challenging sequence, and I think that the future of gameplay streaming will promote the idea of this being a collaborative pastime rather than a one-way street. With the ‘Live from PlayStation’ app, Sony seems to be ahead of the curve.
Are you a fan of watching Let’s Play videos, or do you prefer to play your own games? Would you be more likely to stream your gameplay if onlookers could support your cause, or do you prefer your gaming to be more of a solitary experience? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.