“A 20 minute video changed my life,” said Mike Bithell in an interview with GamesTM. “That's the reality.” And he's right. Thomas Was Alone is a minimalistic, esoteric little gem which seemed likely to come and go without turning many heads. And without videos like the one posted by TotalBiscuit, which now has over 300,000 views, it almost certainly would not have made it to PlayStation platforms.
Bithell, once an indie part-timer, even got the opportunity to come out on stage at Sony's recent Gamescom presentation, showing off his upcoming PlayStation 4 game, Volume. It's mind boggling to think that all of that success stemmed from a 20 minute video.
But this is undeniably “the reality”, as Bithell so neatly puts it – just a remarkably modern one. And one which many developers are still acclimatising to. We live in a world where a certain Swedish gamer – more on him later – is one of the most popular YouTubers in the world. A playthrough from him has the power to make your game an overnight success. This is the reality, and many studios are desperate to adapt.
After all, why wouldn't you? When YouTubers and Twitch streamers have such a major influence on sales, then why wouldn't companies try their best to court them? There is a noticeable formula to games which do well on YouTube, and many indies have begun to pick up on this. Jokingly referred to as 'PewDiePie bait', these games tend to tick a few boxes. Jump-scare horror? Tick. Surreal sense of humour? Yep. Ridiculous glitches? You bet. These are all the sorts of games which get good traffic on YouTube and Twitch. So naturally, we see plenty of them being developed.
It's a gold rush, essentially. Every indie developer – and even some big studios – dreams of making the next Slender, or Octodad, or Goat Simulator; a game which makes it big on YouTube, and thus drives sales. But there are, of course, quite a few questions raised here: for starters, are developers sacrificing their artistic integrity for the sake of YouTube views? And, if a game is developed with streaming in mind, does that then have a positive or a negative influence?
Videos have the power to change people's lives for the better – but we shouldn't let them change games for the worse
The answer, like in most cases, is fairly balanced. It has its downsides, sure, but there are also plenty of positives. Look at the recent P.T. demo, for instance. As you probably already know, it's a skin-crawlingly tense slice of first-person horror, which turned out to be a playable teaser for Silent Hills on the PS4. And we reckon that it's ace.
The convoluted nature of its ending frustrated many who tried to find it – in fact, there's a fairly strong argument to suggest that, as a game, it isn't all that great – but, as a talking point and a teaser for Silent Hills, it's truly a masterstroke. It's an incredibly telling sign of the way that things are going, too. Silent Hills is the latest entry in one of gaming's best-loved franchises, headed up by one of gaming's biggest names, and it was essentially revealed on Twitch, rather than on stage. Leaving an announcement so monumental in the hands of a streamer shows that it's not only indies who are noting the potential of gaming broadcast platforms – big names also want a slice of the action.
But while P.T. was made to be streamed, Silent Hills won't be – and we'd argue that it'll be a better game as a result. You see, everything that makes P.T. brilliantly watchable as a piece of viral marketing – its ambiguity, its repetition, all of the mad theories about how to activate its ending – is what makes it fundamentally quite unenjoyable to play. And the same goes for many YouTube favourites.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch has the same problem. It's great to watch other people wrestling with the controls in a doomed attempt to contain Octodad's true nature, but you're unlikely to have the same laughs when you're doing it yourself. It's tough and it's fiddly, and instead of chuckling away at somebody else's frustration, now it's you who's experiencing it firsthand.
Essentially, there's a huge difference between a game which is fun to watch and a game which is fun to actually play. And, as the influence of Twitch and YouTube becomes stronger, it's not unreasonable to fear that savvy developers might prioritise the former.
But then, perhaps we're being too cynical. Game developers put a hell of a lot of work into their games, and why shouldn't they get to see them succeed? Gamers on YouTube and Twitch have the power to shine a light on titles which would otherwise stand little chance of success, and they entertain millions of people every day. Videos have the power to change people's lives for the better – but we shouldn't let them change games for the worse.
Are you surprised by the surge in popularity of YouTube and Twitch personalities? Do you think that there’s a danger of developers going in search of streaming success – and forgetting what makes a game great in the process? Broadcast your opinion in the comments section below.