The Skill of Release

A lot of talk within the inner circles of gaming news this week has been focused on creators of video content that relies on footage from games. There has been an unexpected deluge of requests from people claiming copyright infringement to have these videos taken down and their revenue diverted. It’s been a whirlwind twenty-four hours or so in the YouTuber community, with a lot of knee-jerk finger-pointing in both directions, made all the worse because it appears that in many cases it isn’t even the rights holder — i.e., the oft-villainized publishers — who are actually filing many of the requests.

The flurry of events and any associated or threatened consequences doesn’t so much reveal yet again that YouTube’s system for identifying, handling and acting on these issues is flawed. Rather, it reminds us in general that copyright law in the digital age is categorically broken.

The conversation that has followed the infringement claims — a conversation around what represents fair use and whether these videos represent distinct creations or are so dependent on the source material as to be infringing on that material — is not a conversation I care to engage in on the large. The reason I don’t want to is because I feel like there are some inevitabilities around that discussion that make it a heartbreaking cul-de-sac of platitudes, oversimplifications and general ignorance. It goes like this:

  • I comment on complicated and largely inaccurate assumptions about copyright law and its application to a specific case about which I have only about 10% of the facts.
  • Spiraling argument
  • PIRACY!
  • NAZIS!

Instead, I want to look at the actual work these YouTube content makers are doing, and think about what the future is for the medium. As streaming and hosting gain greater momentum and legitimacy, it may be worth noting that being both successful and good at the work is a true skill. It’s also pretty rare.

Making videos about games for YouTube is super easy. Just put on a game and then be incredibly entertaining, funny, and insightful for the eight hours while you play it. Also, have a good radio voice, the ability to talk coherently while playing, strong video-editing skills ,and be pretty damn good at video games to boot. Just mix those things, and then put up content day-in and day-out, week after week, without getting burned out or running out of ideas.

Simple.

We’ve dabbled in Let’s Plays here at GWJ. Drawing on the experience of nearly 400 episodes of the podcast and about a decade of writing about video games, it was still challenging to translate that background into building a coherence between the visual activity of the game and the audio content of things you’re talking about. Having personally spent time semi-casually making videos, I’m all the more impressed at people who deliver day after day.

I look at a personality like Total Biscuit, and though I don’t necessarily subscribe to his opinions (or his channel for that matter), I stand in absolute awe of his ability to deliver so consistently. The guy has gotten the attention and success he has through unending hussle, savvy and skill. He’s earned his hundreds of thousands and even millions of views. From the outside looking in, it’s very “Money for Nothing and Chicks for Free,” but the guy, like many of the most successful YouTubers, got there through an almost inhuman work ethic.

The thing I know we learned very early on about creating content of any kind online is a simple one: be consistent. There’s a reason there’s a GWJ Conference Call every single week, even if there are no new games around or it’s pretty close to a holiday or we have two or three regulars who are just out. It’s because the number one thing in growing and keeping an audience is consistency. If it’s Wednesday, and you’re on your way to work and there’s no GWJCC, there are thousands of other podcasts you can listen to. Every missed cycle is just an invitation for people to stop watching.

On YouTube or Twitch, the game is even more aggressive. The biggest success stories of the medium are the guys who are there with something new everyday. In many cases it’s not just one video, but maybe two or three as part of long-running and consistent series. I write this article every (read: most) Thursdays, and just coming up with one topic a week feels like a stressful, almost impossible task. The idea of coming up with something to say every day is disgustingly impressive to me.

And, somewhat ironically, I think that’s also the problem with YouTube.

When the game is to get out the most content in the least amount of time, what you end up with isn’t necessarily the best. While the guys are incredibly consistent on a time schedule, the consistency from a quality perspective is a different game entirely. The problem is that the mechanics of developing viewership on YouTube isn’t generally such that you have the luxury of spending more time developing a smaller number of higher quality videos.

The internet is a machine designed to churn out items en masse, to literally overwhelm viewers into having to make specific, dedicated choices. And, once you’ve become a viewer’s choice, that same problem applies where missing a day means that subscriber is literally a button click away from having millions of other choices.

When you’re working in that space, and you know you have something that’s ok enough to put up or that you could spend a couple of days with and get something really impressive, what would you choose?

In the end, it’s the skill of delivering consistent content that positions someone to succeed in one of the most competitive creative environments on the planet. While I genuinely appreciate the skill involved in just showing up day after day, to me it’s those who can do some and still have something clever to say in the process that are not only the people to whom I will subscribe but of whom I am in constant awe. I just find myself wishing they had even more time, because I would like to see what these creators could generate if the great push to upload as fast as possible weren’t there.

Comments

"Welcome, perverts!"

Interesting take. I, too, marvel at the ability of these streamers. Whether they're creating anything worthwhile is a topic for another day, but their talent and dedication is certainly laudable.

I'd compare the phenomenon to print journalism. You have your long form and monthly contributors creating content that will undoubtedly be of a higher quality. Pieces that surface in the New Yorker may find an analog in say, Felicia Day's web work. But there will always be room for the daily, short form news article, the one off time crunch piece that, while perhaps not of the same quality as the longer form work, is available in the relevant moment.

Very good read. I've been trying to grow a YouTube channel (largely as a side thing, I have no desire to make a career out of it) for several months not with little success but as a result, I've also been following this copyright nonsense closely. I made a huge post in P&C about that but needless to say, there's a lot of factors at play here and most of them are not good. There's a lot of scumbags in that space right now.

The only point I would disagree with in some respects is the need to put things out every day or even on a consistent schedule. Now, if you want to be as popular/famous/wealthy as TotalBiscuit or PewDiePie (though I don't understand why anyone even watches that guy, forget aspiring to be like him), maybe that's the case but if you want to be a smaller channel that's either purely fun or that just makes you a bit of side money, daily stuff is absolutely not required. I was putting out two Retro Flashback shows a week plus an hour-long All Together Now every week at one point, getting nowhere and burning out on it quickly. Then I stopped for a while to recover and when I came back, took up a "whenever I can find the time" schedule. My average view count hasn't changed at all. Granted, most of my shows get around 20 views an episode so maybe I'm not a great barometer but still. Same thing with the ASMR channels I follow to help with my depression. Some of these people won't put out a video for weeks or months, yet most of their stuff has similar view counts.

The main reason for this is simple: Anyone who likes your stuff and wants to see it will subscribe and subscribers are notified whenever you put up new content. If they go without checking for a while and you put up several new videos, they'll know you put up several new videos. Granted, YouTube sub notification system has been pretty broken for a while now but it still works in a basic sense. Making consistently good content is important. Making consistently regular content isn't necessarily.

I'm still not convinced the quality of my content is as good as it could be (and I'm not sure I have a voice for this honestly) but I'm still trying and learning a ton along the way. I'd like for my channel get bigger (10K views or so per video would make me extraordinarily happy and there are similar channels doing that and far better) but I'd never want it to feel like work. And honestly, unless you were there for the initial gold rush, aiming to make a career out of YouTube is pretty much a fool's errand now unless you have a lot of money to support yourself while you wait for it to (hopefully) work out.

Now, we can talk for a while on how YouTube's only promoting what's already popular and making it impossible for smaller people to get discovered but that's kind of a different subject.

I used to value consistency of updates, but since I've gone to using an RSS reader, I don't care how often things update, I can just work through a backlog of videos and news articles whenever I feel like it.

And yes, making a stream while talking over it is a difficult learned skill, and one that I'm not very good at, as I learned from doing streams during Extra Life 2012 and 2013.

Yep. It took me a while to get as good at it as I am and I'm not very good at it yet. Every time someone beats up on people like the Giant Bomb guys, saying "These guys suck at games!", I immediately come back with "Trying playing a game, talking over it and making what you say remotely interesting." It's bloody tough.

kazriko wrote:
I used to value consistency of updates, but since I've gone to using an RSS reader, I don't care how often things update, I can just work through a backlog of videos and news articles whenever I feel like it.

I wanted that to be an "arrow to the knee" joke. I ... I'm sorry.

Anyway, yes. If I didn't have a backlog of things to watch—if I didn't fluctuate between 180 and 200 things in my "watch later" queue on YouTube—then I might care how regularly content came out. As it is, I watch 3 games of the AFC Wimbly Womblies or Brain Scoop episodes at a stretch and don't feel like I've missed anything.

My streaming enterprises, as it were, are on twitch. I tried to use leverage that into a YouYube channel once upon a time, but bailed on the concept because it really is a pain in the ass unless you're already established.

There has been an issue with people marking videos for copyright infringement since YouTube's inception, and that's what I think this is. I don't fault YouTube for this because they automated the system specifically to cover their ass. Sean nails it when he mentions that this is more of an issue of copyright law being broken and trolls abusing the system than anything else.

I do blame YouTube for trolls abusing the system and for the exploitative MCN system that they setup and then let run rampant and unchecked. It's their system, it's their responsibility to make that either impossible to do or barring that, have a staff of more than two people in a broom closet monitoring it for abuse and it needs to punish the abusers. If you're putting copyright claims in against Metro: Last Light footage and your name isn't Deep Silver (this happened the other day), then that claim needs to not be enforced until proper background is done and if it was a fraudulent claim, either the person who made it needs to be banned from future ones or the channel owner should be compensated by YouTube for their mistake. Given that YouTube continues to take their cut of the ad money even after a video is redirected, this is the very least they can do. I don't care what the law is, there is zero excuse for not requiring someone making a claim to submit proof that in fact, they own that which they're claiming as theirs.

Everything is a Remix, including games.

As someone who spends a significant amount of time watching game-related video on Youtube (and Twitch, but this is about Youtube), I am very interested in this topic. For anyone who's unfamiliar with the situation, here are some videos to get you caught up.

Very NSFW due to profanity:

Xeknos wrote:
I don't fault YouTube for this because they automated the system specifically to cover their ass.

Youtube is very much at fault in this situation. Because of this automated system, content creators are considered guilty until proven innocent. Obviously copyright law(s) is broken and needs to be changed, but specific to this new situation that has blown up this week, Youtube needs to significantly change their policy or content ID algorithm, or both.

But, I do understand where YouTube is coming from too. Their exposure should they not be seen to be aggressively protecting the outdated copyright law is measured in the billions of dollars. There are plenty of companies out there just salivating at the thought of being able to reasonably sue YouTube for allowing their copyrights to be violated. As a high profile provider of content that has a colossal war chest, they have to hold people guilty until proven innocent. Not doing so could cost them unbelievably.

I get what you're saying but I also don't think the current system is required. I think there is a better way and if anyone should be able to figure it out, it's the legions of smart people working at YouTube. The only reason YouTube makes any money (and from what I've heard, it's questionable if it's ever been profitable yet) is because of their partners. The partner program was invented our of desperation for YouTube to make money. The fact is, they do have a massive war chest, their content creators do not and without those partners, YouTube is done. There has to be a medium between enforcing archaic copyright laws as they must and also standing up for the content creators who actually generate revenue for the service. Right now, all YouTube and the MCNs are doing is spitting in their partner's faces and that's a stupid, short-sighted, "public company thinking" move that's going to screw them eventually.

Elysium wrote:
But, I do understand where YouTube is coming from too. Their exposure should they not be seen to be aggressively protecting the outdated copyright law is measured in the billions of dollars. There are plenty of companies out there just salivating at the thought of being able to reasonably sue YouTube for allowing their copyrights to be violated. As a high profile provider of content that has a colossal war chest, they have to hold people guilty until proven innocent. Not doing so could cost them unbelievably.

This. It is, unfortunately, the nature of the copyright beast.

I'm divided on this issue. I've yet to receive any copyright claims on my videos (aside from initial claims when I uploaded my Aliens video and one on the RE6 Leon's Campaign video), but I'm tempted to pack up and move elsewhere anyway. Hell, a smaller website with a smaller userbase might actually mean I'd be easier to find that way.

The system is definitely designed in favor of corporations, who aren't exactly bleeding money every day. I understand YouTube is trying to protect their own hide, but it's still frustrating that everyone is so sue happy and over-protective of their content that bots are used to grab anything that seems to remotely resemble piracy and block it by default. I haven't tried to partner with YouTube yet simply because I'm paranoid I'll become a bigger target.

However, I also have little sympathy for most Let's Players. Playing a game while providing commentary is not enough to warrant earning money or making a living. That's like saying any shmuck off the street is capable of being a sports commentator. There's a lot more going on there, and at the end of the day the user should have gained something from it. Watching my roommate play a video game is more beneficial than watching PewDiePie because 1) my roommate isn't an idiot, 2) my roommate isn't annoying, and 3) I can actually engage in conversation with my roommate. PewDiePie playing Dying Light during the VGX was my third exposure to him, and my reaction was the same each time: nausea.

The majority of Let's Players come off as that to me. If you want to Let's Play as a hobby, that's fine. I don't think you deserve cash out of it unless you're providing something of value. Spoiler Warning is a Let's Play that I actually enjoy (when I can follow it) because it's a group of people commentating on a game and discussing its merits and flaws in-depth. It's like listening to a Podcast, only with a game playing and a focus on what's going on with it. Spoiler Warning is a Let's Play series that I feel would be worth paying, because the game is merely a vehicle for them to express their own creativity.

Without playing the game, PewDiePie would be just another idiot talking to the camera. He'd have no value. Without playing the game, the crew of Spoiler Warning would still be able to provide interesting discussion on video games.

So I cannot cry a river for a lot of people bitching and complaining. My tears are reserved for those who actually use the game as a vehicle to be creative, rather than relying on it, and are thus suffering.

As for the Internet focusing on constant content daily: I think there's a certain audience that wants that. The sort of person that just wants something light, fluffy, and not at all challenging to occupy their time, and often only for a little while. The sort of person that skims a review and looks for the score. Otherwise, I think everyone else would rather have something substantial to occupy their time, which is not always free on a regular basis.

As far as the voice, you and me both. I got the most views when I streamed ETS2, but if I'm not streaming that then nobody cares.

Streaming was a lot easier back in 2010 before LoL and SC2 made it super popular.

Xeknos wrote:
As far as the voice, you and me both. I got the most views when I streamed ETS2, but if I'm not streaming that then nobody cares.

Streaming was a lot easier back in 2010 before LoL and SC2 made it super popular.

Well, Twitch has the same problem as YouTube in that they only give any promotion to stuff that's already so popular it doesn't need it. The biggest games, the biggest channels, everything else barely exists as far as they're concerned. Even when Extra Life was going on (something they were an "official partner" for), they told everyone to set their playing game as Extra Life 2013 and then proceeded to promote it not one iota. The way these sites are embracing the blockbusters, AAA mentality that's eating almost every creative industry from the inside right now is staggering.

ccesarano wrote:
As for the Internet focusing on constant content daily: I think there's a certain audience that wants that. The sort of person that just wants something light, fluffy, and not at all challenging to occupy their time, and often only for a little while. The sort of person that skims a review and looks for the score. Otherwise, I think everyone else would rather have something substantial to occupy their time, which is not always free on a regular basis.

This right here is why people like PewDiePie are so popular. I have a buddy (who ironically is one of the people on my co-op series) who watches a ton of Let's Plays (though he hates PewDiePie as well, I don't know anyone who actually likes him, yet somehow...) and he puts them on for background noise while he works. He doesn't often look at the actual video. I like to think the content I do (which really is Let's Play stuff but with an aim to educate people about older games and just be funny with newer stuff, not to play through story content with commentary) provides some value, though my view numbers indicate otherwise.

TotalBiscuit did make a good point during several statements he's made on the issue and it's a sad realisation I'm having. People don't come for the games, they come for the personalities. PewDiePie has played some of the most inane, awful, terrible games imaginable and his videos still do incredibly well. He could sit there faffing about with Google for an hour and would get a million views. That's because people come for him, "the games are merely the stage" is what TB said. Now, that so many come for PewDiePie as the personality is another sad statement entirely but it's got me thinking about other ways to change what I do. When I listen to myself recorded, I don't think I sound very enthusiastic or engaging. I actively try to sound more so and every time I do, it either sounds forced or when I play it back, I find I don't sound a lot different. I'm not convinced this is the only reason my channel's not doing well but it's probably part of it and I'm not sure that's something I can change. I may just not have the voice for this.

I don't have the voice for it either, but people tend to stick with it.

I'll talk to you about some of my thoughts on your series later, though. I think there's an audience for you, and not everyone wants someone that's funny. I think that's one of the bigger things, too. For some people, I assume the type that think Will Ferrel is actually a comedian which implies he can be comedic, PewDiePie is funny (whoops, just threw up on my keyboard saying that). It's easier to get an audience being funny. See: Yahtzee Croshaw's fame versus Extra Credits' fame.

But yes, it is all about the personalities, unless, I think, you are 1) able to be enlightening enough, or 2) are able to provide something like video walkthroughs. I'd rather a video walkthrough than a text walkthrough myself.

Xeknos wrote:
As far as the voice, you and me both. I got the most views when I streamed ETS2, but if I'm not streaming that then nobody cares.

Streaming was a lot easier back in 2010 before LoL and SC2 made it super popular.


You can listen to early Conference Calls and then listen to recent ones to see what a difference tone can make. In the early days I had Rob (and Cory) on nearly every show telling me to "pick it up" and sound more energetic. I had to get over the fact that I'm playing the role of being a host. I had to get over myself, basically. "I'm going to be authentic me! I'm not going to fake my way through this!"

Turns out even "authentic" me is another form of faking it anyway, so you might as well have fun with it and not worry too much about losing yourself in the process. If you want to know why personalities you dislike are popular, it's because people are desperate to listen to unique voices that don't just sound like themselves. Personally, if I'm going to watch a stream I'm not interested in listening to anyone be "normal" and drone on and on as they play. I can do that myself!

Paradox published a letter from their legal counsel regarding this, which I found interesting, as they have really reaped the benefits from Let's Play videos. Especially for CK2. I can see how they would be against ad hoc removal of any videos pertaining to their properties.

Link here

tboon wrote:
Paradox published a letter from their legal counsel regarding this, which I found interesting, as they have really reaped the benefits from Let's Play videos. Especially for CK2. I can see how they would be against ad hoc removal of any videos pertaining to their properties.

Link here

The one real major benefit of this whole disaster is it's made tons of game companies big and small come out with a stance on the matter. And most of them are squarely on the side of YouTubers. It's shining a bright light on the scumbags abusing the Content ID system and how much more effort YouTube needs to put into policing this and making sure partners don't get hit for fraudulent reasons. The more companies come out in support of this, the more will have to step up and follow suit because they don't want the PR headaches of being the odd ones out. The game industry has tons of corporate problems but make no mistake, they are miles ahead of Hollywood and the record industry in terms of progressive thinking on some issues. It's painful now but I think all these companies having to speak up will eventually make this better for everyone.

The next big revolution will come when all these channels who are stuck in now worthless MCN contracts that the greedy networks won't let them out of have their contracts come up for renewal and tell the MCNs to pound sand. That's a reckoning this scummy industry sorely needs.

For someone looking for some entertainment that isn't completely puerile, Northernlion is excellent. He still has lots of asinine humor but it's mixed liberally with intelligent and informative commentary and he actually comments on his experience rather than giving stupid nicknames to lampshades and crates and calling things gay.

I like a lot of NorthernLion's work. I've been watching Quill18 and Arumba as well lately (with my Civ V and EUIV love, it should be no surprise). They're both entertaining, while also really having an interesting take on playing the game, and providing some strategy ideas in the process.

Elysium wrote:
I like a lot of NorthernLion's work. I've been watching Quill18 and Arumba as well lately (with my Civ V and EUIV love, it should be no surprise). They're both entertaining, while also really having an interesting take on playing the game, and providing some strategy ideas in the process.

I feel over-subscribed (mostly with non-LP content), but I have a hard time not wanting to subscribe to more channels. I think I have a problem.