Keys for Streaming

Streamers getting keys for the games they play seems like a topic that should be well covered, but I notice more anecdotes on Twitter (usually frustration with the current system) than exposition. In setting out to fill this gap, I now realize there are a few reasons why this is the case. I am acutely conscious of the fact I am setting out to write on a topic that is basically a career for others, that I am not that big of a streamer, and that access to keys (especially early ones) is a gatekeeping mechanism for established streamers in a competitive space. With these limitations in mind, I’m going to focus on what I think people are trying to accomplish on both sides of the exchange, and offer some of my own experiences in asking for keys. I’ve split the article into two main sections, the demand side (streamers), and the supply side (devs/publishers), but it is intended to be read as a whole, as things work best when each side is conscious about the needs of the other.

The Demand Side

Where do streamers get keys from? They buy them. Not all the time, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. One of my favourite streamers, Johnny Big Time, buys the majority of games he plays on his stream, because they are big releases he likes. Most people start this way because most people start streaming with a game they already know well. Even if you’re an established streamer press keys may not be available to you. Two noteworthy examples from my own stream would be Cultist Simulator and In Other Waters. Both of these games produced the coveted “How do you find such awesome games?” feedback and Cultist Simulator in particular has been a big source of growth. While I am reluctant to speak for the people handling key distribution, I think I’d have a shot at a press key for both of these games. So why not wait and save the cost of backing the games? This brings us to an important point that should be discussed before asking for keys.

There’s an unhelpful assumption among some viewers and streamers that free keys are a perk of the job. Yes, you can play the game on your free time, and yes, you tend to accumulate a bit of a library over time, but if you are broadcasting just for the ‘free stuff’ you are almost certainly working for much less than minimum wage. There are lots of reasons to stream and it is important to understand why since it is the core of your broadcast. In my own case I like streaming games because I get to share both the games that I like and the ideas that I think are behind them. This tends to mean covering quite a few games and those costs can add up, even when accounting for donations. This provides a motivation (cost) as well as a reason why I am suitable to cover the game (I will cover it in depth, and specifically discuss the themes and how they relate to me). If you want to do this for a living, then the motivation is likely the same (minimize costs for your business) but the value proposition is likely different (you’ll likely be able to present the game to more people than me). The point here is not to rank more or less noble reasons to broadcast, but instead get the knowledge will help us when approaching people we want keys from.

The most effective method I’ve found for getting keys from developers is to simply ask. If you’re like me there is likely some apprehension about approaching people for a key, usually in the form of “I’m too small to get a key.” Maybe, but why make the decision for them? If you’re just swinging by to hoover up as many keys as you can, then you really are wasting everyone’s time, but chances are if you’ve read this far you’re not doing that. It doesn’t hurt to think about what information the recipient would like to know. I usually write too much in my e-mails but I write who I am, why I am interested in the title, and what my plans for streaming it are (I usually get a ‘It’s your stream, cast it how you want’ to this). Much like a cover letter, this shows you’ve done your homework and gives whoever is deciding who gets keys what they need to make an informed decision rather than having to guess based on publicly available information (i.e. your follow count and how many times you’ve streamed in the last two weeks).

Once you’ve submitted the request it’s out of your hands and you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Of course, we’re human so there’s probably some anxiety with regards to responses as well. No is not the worst thing you can hear. No means that someone took the time to review what you wrote and made a business decision, even if it wasn’t the outcome you wanted. My least favourite, and sadly a rather common, response is to hear nothing at all. The worst part about no response is that there’s no real feedback, and there’s no definitive point of “This ain’t happening” to plan around. The best I can say is to keep busy and try to plan around your estimates and don’t make your schedule dependent on things you aren’t sure you can get. If the answer is yes, congratulations! Make sure you deliver on what you said you would. This is how you build a reputation. To date I have only failed to cover one game (though another is a bit delayed) and this was ultimately because I really did not like it at all, and I thought nobody would be served by me dedicating a stream to something I clearly didn’t enjoy.

If you find that you’re not getting a lot of traction, it wouldn’t hurt to reflect on who you are approaching and what you are bringing to the table. I might have the purest of intentions and be the perfect fit for a new Dragon Age game, but I’m not going to reach an audience in a way that kind of title needs to do well, and so it’s simply more sensible for me to get in line like everyone else and buy it. This shouldn’t need saying, but it is very important you do not throw a tantrum if you don’t get a key, public or otherwise. People talk. If someone as low on the totem pole as me can know which streamers who didn’t make the cut for a very high profile release proceeded to beg, threaten, and generally disgrace themselves, then you can be sure that people who actually matter have heard it as well. Remember why you are doing this, listen to any feedback you receive, and carry on with your plan.

The Supply Side

As a streamer, I can’t claim any special insights as to the situation faced by developers, so it’s probably best I state my basic understanding of their problem at the start. Discoverability is a problem and so streaming is one tool that people who sell games can use to increase awareness of their game and ultimately sell more copies.

I’m not really equipped for talking about big streamers because I don’t have this perspective, but I imagine there’s an equivalent discoverability problem for attracting big names to cover a game. Paying a streamer does not mean they will like the title, and a given game may not be appealing enough to them for a given reason to ensure coverage. I suspect the exposure granted by a large channel makes this pursuit worth it, but I think there is a lot of value that can be extracted in some overlooked parts of Twitch, and especially for games that are starting from a position of “how do I get anyone to cover my game?” it’s a fine place to start.

When Twitch reported their estimates of the effectiveness of streaming at selling games, mid-tier (33-3333 average concurrent viewers) streams were the most effective at turning views into sales. I only occasionally fall into this tier but my best assumption for this conclusion (if we take the study for granted) would be that the channel is small enough to allow for a more personal touch (the replication of the couch experience mentioned at the top of the Twitch article). Variety channels and ones that cover lesser known or unusual games also tend to have fewer viewers but are better positioned to connect viewers with games they’ll enjoy in their specialty and recommend them. Paying attention to this class of streamer not only connects you with the people who are the most effective at driving sales, but you will be reaching out to streamers who are less likely to be inundated with key requests, making your pitch stand out.

Even as a smaller caster, I have reached a point where I have to decline certain key offers due to a full schedule, and so I’d like to talk about why some games have been covered but not others. I do sometimes get e-mails from specialists (covered below), and of the unsolicited requests these are a little more likely to be taken up. In some of these cases I have developed a bit of a relationship with the manager and so I’ll cover something they’ve had trouble getting people to take up, or they have a good idea of what I’m good at (there is also an inverse of this relationship where I’m more likely to skip e-mails from certain sources, usually because of a lack of professionalism or because the process is too inconvenient). Very few developers have reached out individually, but I never replied to the ones that presented an offer to apply (i.e. it wasn’t an offer for a key, it was an offer to be considered). The only ones I didn’t accept out of the rest were ones that were very obviously generated by a bot (I have yet to receive a MOBA e-mail that has not acknowledged the ‘streaming similar games’ was me streaming Dota 2 as a commentator). A decent template for contacting a streamer isn’t too different the kind of information you’d like if that streamer was contacting you: What is the game? Why is it a good fit? Obviously there are time constraints, but the more a developer conveys they have done their homework, the more inclined I am to accept the offer.

When evaluating key requests there are some basic checks that can be done, but there is a trade off between time and quality in these evaluations. The most common criteria is follower count, but this is a highly overrated measure. Follower count should be used to established that they are a genuine caster and are likely to have some active viewership. VODs are helpful in establishing the broadcaster’s activity in the past two weeks, and can give you an indication of how good they are at sticking to a schedule. Since Twitch VODs now include chat activity, VODs are also more effective at gauging audience engagement in the form of chat participation. VODs will also indicate what the streamer has been playing recently, while highlights will indicate some games they have played in the past. Twitch’s recent rollout of clips also provides insight into how that streamer’s audience perceives the stream (and allowed me to make this video of Johnny Big Time. That’s two mentions in one article. He’d probably be great at selling your game by the way). These are not especially time consuming, but they will give you a high level view as to the consistency of a streamer and provide a snapshot of their cast. If there is time to spare, it is advisable to watch a bit of a VOD or two to gain some insight as to how a cast goes, especially with regards to conduct and style. An investment here can be turned into a list that will grow over time and make this kind of outreach easier in the future.

One final opportunity that appears to missed by developers is reaching out to the existing community. I was a Kickstarter backer for a reasonably big recent release and was separately offered a press key through a service I’m connected to. I reached out to the developer asking if it was possibly to get my key in advance so I could cover the game and not take away one of the limited promotional keys. While I credit them with getting back to me promptly, there was no plan in place to deal with this eventuality. This is a fairly narrow problem, but it does illustrate an important point. Kickstarter backers are likely to be among some of the most enthusiastic ambassadors for a game, and some subset of backers will have streams. Whether you want to avoid situations like the one I described above, or simply want to ensure the number of concurrent viewers is higher when press keys are finally released, looking in your own back yard is an obvious yet often overlooked source of casters.

In summary, reaching out to smaller casters likely to result in coverage that is more effective in translating into sales, and is likely to carry a certain degree of goodwill due to the lack of attention these streamers receive from developers. Instead of focusing on follower counts, VODs, highlights, and clips can provide better insights as to the quality of the cast and the engagement of the viewers.

Specialists

There are key mailing services and managers of influencers and content creators (or some variation on this title) that will take care of streamer outreach for a fee. In principle I think these services are a very good idea as such a service should be able to build a large, high quality portfolio of streamers and be able to segment them by the type of game they’re best equipped for. The reality is much more mixed. My own personal experience ranges from exceptional firms that have nudged me from indifference to active coverage of a game, to ones who have used the job as a vehicle to raise their personal profile through distributing keys to their stream team and little else. Regrettably, the exceptions aside, most specialists I’ve dealt with tend to no more than any developer can: send out a mass mail and sort by follower count, and so all that is being paid for is a mailing list. This is not to recommend against the use of a specialist, as time is a valuable resource, but if I were responsible for hiring, I would ask searching questions about the criteria for inclusion and who the target audience is.

Possibly as a consequence of the mixed result of specialists, some websites have emerged offering to connect developers with streamers through their platform. This is likely to be a less costly means of reaching out to casters, and if the criteria is simply follower count or some easy to access top level information then this may be effective, but this approach misses out on the personal touch that improves outreach to streamers and underlies their connection to their audience. But so far as getting just a list is concerned, this is probably the most cost effective approach.

Closing Remarks

Discoverability is a problem shared by streamers and games, and so hopefully can create a degree of empathy on both sides which can form the basis of more effective communication. Games that a streamer connects with are the lifeblood of any broadcast, and these broadcasts can help these games stand out to their potential audience. The aim here has been to overcome the lack of attention due to a smaller follower count or crowded marketplace through a tighter focus on the factors that lead to converting follows into purchases.

It should be said that this overview will necessarily be limited by my experience as a smaller caster who actively seeks out unusual or under-covered games. I do have an interest in a more data driven approach to identifying streamers for a game, but have only been able to work with hypotheses. I am looking for an applied case to run this on, and so if you’d like to discuss this, feel free to drop me a line at systemchalk@gmail.com.


Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general.