Finding your next (not so) hidden gem

Every once in a while I get the question “Where do you find all these cool games?” so I thought it would be good write about it. It just so happens that a Kickstarter for such a game is happening right now, so if you do nothing else, please check out Nighthawks.

I should admit that I don’t know of any special technique that ejects cool but relatively undiscovered games. Answering the question means describing a fun way I’ve been engaging with games that has also resulted in me finding some interesting stuff. The question about finding “those games” is an acknowledgement that there are more and better games to play than ever before, with the side effect that it is harder to find an individual title by browsing. We’re not so much looking for new information as we are looking to effectively sort through what we already have.

One obvious place to look is where you’ve found good games in the past. If you played Transistor or Pyre, there’s a good chance it’s because you enjoyed Bastion. But follow ups to popular products take time, and sometimes you’re looking for something brand new. When I reflect on how I’ve found some of my uncommon choices, it’s not very different from following developers who have made things I’ve liked. The only difference is a greater emphasis on people over products. Studios are active on social media, but so are the people behind those studios. Taking an interest in those people, and following the ones you find interesting lets you peek backstage.

There are reasons why following developers who are active on social media is an effective way to find new games in the early stages, but we should focus on why this is worth doing on its own. Following these kinds of accounts is fun. Beyond the sneak peeks, you get to see the personalities behind the games. This can enhance your enjoyment of games as every once in a while that personality slips through and you recognize it. Social media does not always produce positive encounters, so being a source of positive interactions (even just a simple ‘like’) is mutually beneficial and so worthwhile in its own right. It will also expose you to different perspectives.

The inclusion of different perspectives is what gives you access to new games. This makes sense because we are looking for information about a game that someone else has. We don’t know when it will happen, which is why this isn’t a fast track to ‘scoops’, but this should be good news since we enhance our enjoyment of our existing games, as well as find out about new ones.

Following individuals gives you a direct view of what people are playing. Better still, sites like Twitter also display interactions such as likes and retweets of other developers, allowing you to find other people with interesting perspectives. Individuals talk about what they’re working on, keeping you informed up front. As a bonus, they talk about what friends are working on, which means there will be links to demos and crowdfunding. These mechanisms complement each other, since it is remarkably easy to overlook Yet another Early Access/Kickstarter/Itch Demo. Repetition from multiple sources does a nice job of finally getting you to act.

I am always looking for new and interesting games because I like games and there is a benefit to me as a small streamer to find cool and underplayed games. I have every incentive to be on the lookout and yet I fail much more than I succeed. I love the Shadowrun games but needed HBS to e-mail the slacker backer campaign for Battletech before I was aware of it. A friend let me know about a voice audition for Unavowed (which I  chickened out on, partially because I thought it looked really neat and so no place for amateurs), and yet it took everyone Tweeting about it for me to finally check out the Steam page. It required three people tweeting about In Other Waters before I finally Kickstarted it and that one turned out to be a project mentored by Weather Factory (which is a heavy recommendation for me since I enjoyed Cultist Simulator so much). I had a chance to get a Shadowhand key which I didn’t take because I didn’t think I could make time for it, though I have since bought, played, and enjoyed it. All these games clearly have value to me through either my backing decision or my enjoyment on release, and yet I’ve come to them kicking and screaming, not Kickstarting and streaming.

Repetition from multiple accounts is a powerful way to get you to pay attention, which is why the benefits from following developers extends beyond their own products and out to the accounts they follow and engage with. And if you follow interesting people, you get to learn things. Yes, I see things that annoy me or that I consider unfair, but I do my best not to treat Twitter as a complaint box. Since the exercise is about finding information I don’t have, listening is better than talking.

Social media is a convenient tool, but it’s not the only one. I have flogged Cultist Simulator and Nowhere Prophet at a local gaming bar to anyone who will pay attention. In return I found out about Slay the Spire. I also visit a local gaming collective to see what what is being made in my own backyard. I also did this before I moved to where I am now.

None of what I’ve written here is new. It’s an exposition on a perspective and why it has been effective at refining a search for new games. Even if we were indifferent to the people making the games (and shame on you if you are), they talk to and support each other when they have something new coming up. Tapping into that network doesn’t just inform us of what is going on, but gives us a beacon to guide us out of our suspicion of untried products.

Of course, no article like this would be complete if I didn’t talk about some of the things I’m interested  in right now. I’ve seen Richard Cobbett as a punny commenter on a lot of Alexis Kennedy’s tweets, along with hints from the latter that something cool was coming up. There’s a Kickstarter for his game Nighthawks going on right now which very much fits the “You’ll probably like this when it comes out, so why not make it a reality” mold, and came to my attention exactly through the channels outlined in this article. Eric Billingsly let me try out a game he was working on called Hexagon Falls which was really enjoyable and had a funny tweet. Sean LeBlanc always seems to have something to show at each meetup, and I will never forget how he had the entire room in the palm of his hand with his MMO. Sophia Niergarth showed off a prototype of her game Full Feather, which looked really interesting, and she was remarkably thoughtful and articulate when we spoke on Twitter. Jesse Ringrose has been showing off these interesting little clips of a game that I now know is called Spek.

All of these games are in various stages of development, and if I even know anything about the people behind them at all, there are no common threads in terms of personalities or interests. Each of these games and their creators had something that caught my attention. It is too easy to walk by cool stuff like this and never think of it again, which is why I like following as soon as I can. Even if these projects don’t turn out, or become the thing that originally interested me, these are people who have made something I found interesting at some point. I am much more likely to find something interesting from them, than I am a Steam or Kickstarter sorting algorithm.

 


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. For this article, Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil.

Your EA Takes Suck

EA is an awesome company that makes good games and you sound like a moron when you bash it. EA bashing is the gaming version of clapter. If you’ve ever watched Real Time With Bill Maher, you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about. Clapter sounds a little something like this: “Hey, how about [politician] right? What a moron!” waits for applause. There’s no real joke there, but that doesn’t stop people from clapping. Here’s some EA clapter:

img_1856

There’s no point. It’s just taken for granted that EA is so terrible and out of touch that a premium subscription service that costs less than Netflix or a WoW subscription is beneath comment. My new favourite hobby when I’m in a gamer bar is to mention EA and watch total strangers come up and unload on the company. And this is the mild stuff. YouTube is full of shouty men whose only purpose in life is to heap scorn on the publisher. This week we hit a new low in blaming EA for the recent shooting in Jacksonville.

None of this makes any sense. You may not blame EA for the shooting, but there are still way too many people using that company as a shorthand for the worst in gaming. If I play the odds, most readers will have liked some EA clapter in their social media feeds, or have issued one of their own. I am here to tell you your takes on EA suck. I will bring evidence for this fact. I’ve brought enough evidence to deal with as many goalpost shifts as I can stand and I still know the response is going to be “Yeah but…” So let’s get this over with.

If you hate EA so much, why do you keep buying their games?

We can now add the response to Cowen’s report on Battlefield V’s pre-sales to the long list of times idiots have crowed about EA’s imminent demise. This genre is pretty old now and has its origins in finding out that watching YouTube and dumping on the hobby is easier than having an original thought. But you want finances? I’ve got finances.

There are five game publishers traded on US markets: Activision Blizzard (ATVI), Electronic Arts (EA), Microsoft (MSFT), Take Two Interactive (TTWO), and Zynga (ZGNA). I’ve removed Zynga since it’s a mobile focused publisher, and had to do the same with Microsoft since the information will be tangled up with a majority of non-gaming activity. Since these companies trade on US markets, they must file with the SEC and these filings are available in the EDGAR database. If you would like to follow along while finding out why your EA takes suck, I will be using form 10-K, the annual report.

This is also the point where I expect a bunch of whining “Biased analysis” objections since publishers like Ubisoft, Paradox, Capcom, or SquareEnix aren’t included. These companies don’t file with the SEC since they are not on US exchanges. If you think an analysis of the publishers of Battlefield, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Civilization, XCOM, Need For Speed, Diablo, Bioshock, World of Warcraft, and Dragon Age is not representative, give me a good explanation why and then I’ll consider addressing the inevitable objections based on obscure European accounting differences that will follow when I add the other publishers.

Since everybody’s talking about how EA’s going to fail because of their business decisions, let’s talk about profitability. Here are five years of financial returns (note: the year is the period ending, so 2018 = 2017’s games etc.).

profits

EA wins three out of five years, usually with a healthy margin. Overall EA brought in $191 million more than its closest competitor, Activision Blizzard. Case closed.

But this isn’t convincing and it’s not because EA won. When EA stumbles there will be no shortage of commentary about why financial success is the only true measure, but since I am not a half-wit I must hold myself to a higher standard. If EA spent $1 trillion to achieve the results in that chart, while Activision Blizzard only spent $20 (coffee and muffins for the design team), then Activision Blizzard would be the better publisher. To normalize these results let’s see how many dollars in revenue (not profit, but total goods and services sold) each dollar spent generates:

efficiency

Here EA beats the competition in all years but 2014 and is the only publisher with a clear upward trend. For every $1 EA spent last year, it generated $4.03, while Activision Blizzard generated $2.76. Why do gamers care about this number? Unless EA is robbing banks or putting a gun to your head, it makes its money like its competitors: making and selling games. This measure says EA has a really good idea of where to spend its money, because when they spend a $1 making a game, the result is something we are willing to spend $4 to play.

“Aha! This proves that EA is screwing us!” I hear you, a moron, say. For this to be true it would have to mean that despite a ‘guaranteed fun’ refund policy, streaming, and Metacritic, EA (and EA only) has been fooling gamers for five years and not only has nobody caught on, but they have only become more credulous. Or we can say that EA’s pretty good at finding out the value of their games is and making you pay up for it. But let’s leave aside your obvious appetite for EA games and look at what goes into the costs we are talking about.

Everyone knows that EA is a greedy corporation that doesn’t care about games and is only concerned about making fat, cigar chomping businessmen money. Hell, we just need to look at Kotaku’s piece on Mass Effect: Andromeda to see this inefficient bureaucracy in action. I bet they only sell so much because they spend so much money marketing their games. For our next chart, we will assume that all administrative and marketing costs are the same as putting the money in a big pile on the floor and setting it on fire. This chart shows how much of each dollar has been burnt upon the alter as an offering made by fire for a sweet savour (lower is better):

markAdmin

While not the lowest, EA consistently spends less on marketing and administration for each dollar of expenses than Activision Blizzard, and by a wider margin than the difference between itself and Take Two. The worst you can say about EA is that it does no worse than its peers in this regard, which is a quite the concession given how pathological the hatred of the company is.

(As an aside, I would like to take a minute and say how unfair and totally detached from reality this measure is. To see why the premise of “Marketing and admin doesn’t count as gaming” is nonsense, you only need to spend 10 seconds reading marketers like Haley Uryus of Failbetter. Watching a trailer for a game like Stellaris will also help you appreciate how marketing can play a role in helping to create the fantasy that is played out in the finished product. Anyway, back to your terrible EA takes.)

If you invert this measure and ask what proportion of expenses go towards the elements of the game you see on screen (higher is better), EA is at the top in all periods but 2014.

inverted

This is because the assumption that all expenses other than marketing and administration go into the games is not a good one for Take Two Interactive. That’s right, EA isn’t even the worst company when I bias the measures against them. The SEC filings show us that EA is a company that makes a product people want to buy, and puts more of its costs directly into that product than its peers. People buy EA games because they’re great games made by talented people.

But what about the quality!?

Let me guess, now financial reports don’t capture the true essence of gaming. How do I know that talented people are making games there? This is EA we’re talking about, the publisher that kills anticipated games and eviscerates beloved studios. I know because the people who work at these companies told me. Here are the Glassdoor rankings for the three publishers:

  Rating # Reviews Recommend to a Friend Recommend CEO
ATVI 3.8 130 82% 87%
EA 3.8 1900 79% 89%
TTWO 4 56 84% 98%

Identical between EA and Activision Blizzard, with Take Two pulling ahead by 0.2. EA’s finding comes from 1900 results, over 10 times more than the other two publishers. EA only lags in recommendations for a friend to work there. But this is just the corporate side of these companies right? I’m sure if we started looking at ‘real game development’ we’d see how bad EA is. Once again I’m sandbagging EA on this one, because if I drilled down to individual divisions I would be presenting EA Montreal’s 4.8 to Blizzard’s 4.5 and you’d accuse me of biased measures.

What about the games themselves? Everyone knows EA makes terrible games that everyone hates! Here’s Metacritic:

2018 2017 2016 2015 2014
ATVI 75.7 71.0 72.0 67.1 62.5
EA 73.2 79.7 71.9 74.5 74.7
TTWO 72.8 77.2 77.7 75.7 78.0

EA achieved the highest score over the five year period and is in the middle of the pack for the five year average (74.8). EA is last in only one period by 0.1 point. Activision Blizzard’s five year average doesn’t even break 70. Which of these publishers has the most franchises that have sold at least 100 million copies? EA. Too high of a bar? What would you prefer? 50 million copies? 20 million? 10 million? 5 million? EA, EA, EA, EA. And that’s after I included Barbie for Activision Blizzard.

Your complaints are stale

Hate loot boxes? What publisher removed lootboxes due to player complaints rather than regulatory change? EA. What company completely removed them and expansion DLC from the latest iteration of a major franchise? EA. And then you complained about women being on the cover. Because it’s never really been about the games has it?

The only reason you hate EA is because some guy on YouTube said EA was bad and he was angry enough, or British enough, or maybe angry and British enough. Either way, you were definitely stupid enough to believe him. The funny thing is, there was even a time you could rightly criticize the direction that EA was going, and it changed right around the time people developed these unshakeable priors that the company could do nothing right. Commentators who had no idea what they were talking about unloaded on EA for every last perceived slight in gaming as a whole. Remember when day one DLC was beyond the pale? How dedicated servers were non-negotiable? Commentators changed their minds on the individual business practices, but EA retained its Goldstein status. Influencers’ private gripes with a publisher were uploaded into an internet hive mind that will believe anything it is told. There will be people who die hating EA who have never once experienced any of the things the internet complains about.

This is why your EA takes suck. The EA you’re attacking doesn’t exist and never did. All that this baying signals is that you’re someone who believes any nonsense they hear on the internet and will repeat it ad nauseam. Think $100 a year is too much to pay to access EA’s premium titles? Don’t buy it. I only got the Basic level myself because I’m scared if I go for Access Premier I’ll never stream anything else. But reducing it to a response of “HAHAHAHA” only tells me you’re going to pay that much to play one game instead of an entire library of them, and that you don’t really know that much about gaming other than what people on the internet tell you. This is true of all EA clapter. It’s unfair, it’s old, and it makes all of us dumber.

Fortunately, it’s never been cheaper to tune you out. For $5 a month, I can try out some EA financed indies like Unravel or Fe and not think about people being angry on the internet. You know, like a real gamer does.

Subscription Conniption

A new generation of consoles is released and PC gaming dies again. Google makes us stupid. YouTube serves up algorithmically chosen banality over quality shows. Television replaced the golden age of cinema with tawdry soap operas. Radio distracted children from their studies and turned their brains to mush. The printing press made our thoughts sloppy and cheapened scholarly work. Writing itself made us forgetful and replaced instruction with the illusion of wisdom. In short, everything you love is being replaced with the worst kind of nonsense.

I have a quiet admiration for people who warn of the dangers of technological progress, because they know their track record and will always be terminally uncool. Most of these takes weren’t even wrong, just incomplete. We can point out the problems, but the long term benefits are hard to spot. So what do we make of the present interest in streamed and subscription gaming? Is it a threat to developers as gamesindustry.biz (GI.biz) would have it?

History

To answer this question we need only look to the recent past. US movie production in 2000 produced 2,000 titles and approached 7,000 by the year 2012. This is despite the introduction of subscription streaming services by Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. The share of box office revenue from non-MPAA member studios increased from 20% to 50% over the same period. These movies also take the largest share of ‘top movies’ for their year measured by Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and user scores. TV production more than doubled from 100 new series to about 250 over the same period. Digitization drove this growth and a significant part of that change was in distribution. The worst we can say is that subscription streaming did not hinder the growth in movies from 2000 to 2012. The same can be said for music and book publishing.

Netflix began to produce its own shows in 2012 and it is instructive to know why they did this. Licensing costs were increasing as rights holders realized the value of their content. Netflix’s choice to create content was as much a bargaining chip in these negotiations as it was an effort to gain and retain users. Disney is expected to make its own streaming service, and HBO is already streaming.

This anticipated landscape resembles a likely future for gaming. Humble, the last non-publishing subscription service, started in 2017. Netflix established itself because studios did not realize the value of their libraries. This experiment can only be run once, and so incumbents are the ones driving this model for gaming.

The Threat

At its core the GI.biz article is more concerned with subscriptions. Streaming may be a catalyst for subscriptions, but the threats come from subscriptions. The distinction matters since subscription services exist now and do not require the same kind of investment streaming does. If a subscription model is a threat to developers, then that threat is here now and does not go away if streaming fails.

This means I am less interested in concerns based on streaming such as the availability of mods. This is a problem consoles have been living with for a while (and for which there is a solution). It is better to focus on how developers get paid and how they navigate the marketplace in the future.

The article identifies discoverability as a threat to developers. Specifically, it worries that a platform’s games will have priority over third party ones. It also fears a drop in financing, though I think this begs the question. A concern about access to sales information stems from a real problem with Netflix.

In essence, the article is worried that developers will receive less money for their work. The most convincing objections present specific mechanisms that make this happen. The subscription model is consumer friendly, but at a cost to developers. We should not be indifferent about developers or view the relationship as adversarial. Intellectual property protection is not consumer friendly, but we value new works enough to make it law. Adverse effects on the supply side will find their way back to the consumer.

Are these threats serious?

One comparison we can make with GI.biz’s list of threats is to the status quo. Here discoverability and market information are less convincing. How many copies did Cultist Simulator sell on Steam in two weeks? Only Steam and Weather Factory know. Weather Factory practices open production and is transparent about their sales. However, Steam  does not permit developers to publish sales information for their platform. Valve has a notoriously testy relationship with SteamSpy, mirroring the Neilsen/Netflix spat. Title specific information will likely depend on whether the rights are bought outright or on a per-play basis. Not having access to sales data is still a loss, but we are already reliant on 3rd parties for market information.

Discoverability is another problem we already deal with, but could it become worse? A platform prioritizing its own games over third parties sounds like it would. Would a platform have any reason to do this? A glance at Origin Access shows EA titles in the top 10. But then, a purchase of Origin Access implies an intention to play EA games. Extending the list to games I can see on my screen, I find Orwell: Ignorance is Strength, Mad Max, and Cities: Skylines above Titanfall and Battlefield 1. Scrolling down there are a number of excellent indie games listed above cherished titles in the EA back catalogue like Mass Effect or Dragon Age. The costs of making these games are sunk, and so the goal of any platform is to maximize the number of subscriptions. Mediocre games boosted by tweaks to the algorithm carry the risk of the platform being percieved as low value. The only case where such a tweak might make sense is a per-play license that exceeds the cost of maintaining an internal title. But we need to ask: Just what kinds of independent developers are we talking about there? Have I missed an entire genre of independent games that are lower cost and direct competitors to Madden, Need for Speed, Assassin’s Creed, and Battlefield? Platforms should be trying to buy these developers if they exist, not license from them.

Financing is the final concern, but I’d like to reframe it into more than an assumption that revenues drop. If an individual title’s influence on a subscription choice is low, licensing terms will be unfavourable to developers. Reduced revenues mean future projects of similar scope are less profitable, making investment less attractive. Alternatively, since projects are largely self-financed budgets necessarily shrink. But project scope is not fixed. Profit margins can be restored by making smaller games or reusing existing tools and assets. If the resulting games are too small, platforms will need to pay up. This is a different environment for developers, but not necessarily a hostile one.

These concerns aren’t baseless, but are they a threat to developers beyond normal shifts in the industry? Does the fear that developers will face lower revenues outweigh the concern that Fortnite is successful at the expense of other games? Is the potential for algorithmic tweaks a greater threat to discoverability than the shift to Steam Direct? Perhaps we are better served in viewing subscription services as a shift in gaming that carries opportunities along with threats.

Differences under subscriptions

Here is a good article on Eurogamer about game endings. It charts the progress of, well, progress (like the title says), guided by commercial context and technological constraints. Every one of these changes could have a “threat to developers” article written about them, and in a sense they would be right. Arcade machines are not what they once were. Saving permits players to ruin the experience for themselves. MMO’s really do require investments unavailable to independent developers. Steam Direct has meant it is harder to get your game noticed than before. And yet gaming has never been better and more people are making them.

The printing press did not usher in an age of peace and quiet contemplation, but we do not consider that a vindication of its critics. Recognizing the difficulty at appreciating the benefits of a given innovation, how might we think about changes that might come from a broad adoption of a subscription model?

If games are bought outright or licensed for a term (as opposed to a per-play like on music services), this seems to bring a degree of certainty to developers. Developing around expected revenues from a license is a less uncertain prospect than trying to triangulate tastes, price, and attention into a successful release. Furthermore, just as streaming has not replaced Blu-Rays (or even DVDs), we’re more likely to see a hybrid future. Licenses can provide a cushion for a less successful release, or even give a game a new lease on life as is already happening with Humble and Twitch Prime.

The consumption behaviour of players in a subscription service will change. Marginal costs for new games on a subscription service are zero. Players will no longer need to ask “Is this game worth X?” before playing. Not too long ago we were talking about the death of the single player game. Removing the implied price/time ratio puts single player back on a level playing field. What matters is if the game is attractive enough to play and if the time spent is worth it.

Even the GI.biz threats carry their silver linings. Tyranny, Orwell, The Witness, and This War of Mine, are nowhere to be found on the Steam Top 100 but are on Origin Access (Top 70 no less). Even if platforms were to prioritize their own games, third party games can be compared across platforms. This doesn’t just provide an estimate of how well a given game is doing, it identifies niches for particular platforms. Instead of betting everything on ‘charting’ on Steam, a game can leverage success on one platform into launches on others.

There are also clear negatives. Subscription services will likely reintroduce gatekeepers. This benefits incumbent developers, but means we miss out on unexpected successes. These games are good candidates for an ownership model or a niche platform. Signing with a subscription service may just as easily become an aspiration for developers instead of a necessary evil.

One way to gain perspective is to ask if we were to invent the games industry again, would we choose the status quo we seem so attached to? We’ve switched to digital distribution, but in some ways we’ve just replaced walking with clicking. We still buy the product, and the expansion packs are now smaller and cheaper. MMOs and Free to Play are notable and successful exceptions, but the majority of games still follow the old model. Is there any reason to see this as any more natural than an arcade?

One major shift in perspective a subscription model will inspire is a view of games as complements instead of substitutes. It’s hard to see the purchase of a game that’s not yours as beneficial on a storefront. Games in a subscription model will benefit from players being able to switch between games without cost. This is an environment that rewards faster, innovative work.

The benefits and detriments of a subscription model are far from certain, but we should resist the temptation to see it as a threat over a technological shift. Developers who can work on a budget and produce unique experiences are well positioned for a future where players can experiment without cost.


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. For this article, Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil.

L’Affaire le Laissez-Faire

A little over a month ago Valve issued warnings to the makers of adult visual novels and others which became publicized resulting in controversy and uncertainty regarding the status of games with sexual content on Steam. A few weeks later Valve reversed this implied decision and announced that they would open the store to anything that they “…decide [is] illegal, or straight up trolling.” A lot of commentary seemed to react to, or at least occupy the same space as, Leaf Corcoran’s (of Itch.io) response that the new hands off approach was “ridiculous” and to keep “malicious, derogatory, discriminatory, bullying, harassing, demeaning content” off of Itch. Gamasutra summarized a number of reasonably high profile comments here.

Given that this news is already a month old, the best I can offer here is a room temperature take, but I’m struck by how the focus has been on free expression when I don’t think this is really what is at stake here. For all the effort to form two poles between the Itch and Steam approaches, the main differences are technological. Before weighing in on any of the commentary, I’d like to begin by examining possible reasons for Valve’s actions.

The economics of keeping games on Steam

Valve’s announced laissez-faire approach to Steam should be viewed in light of the original news that there was a coming crackdown on sexual content in games, which invites us to ask why Valve might want to take a game off of its platform. Valve has a pretty good deal going with the Steam where games pay $100 to be listed (recoupable after $1,000 in revenues), and they take 30% of revenues, meaning their variable costs are matched by increases in revenues and their slotting fee ensures the developer is on the hook for at least some of the on boarding/vetting costs of a game that does not sell.

Since the on boarding costs are sunk, why would Valve ever want to stop selling a game? There are likely two sets of explanations: Costs directly relating to the title itself, and knock on effects from a certain class of product. Direct costs are fairly intuitive to understand. For instance, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) seems to be a perennial favourite when it comes to identifying entertainment products bringing about the decline of civilization and so carrying that title also means assuming the liability of angry people complaining that you are carrying a product that brings about the decline of civilization. In physical stores these encounters are diffused among different locations and staff. For a digital storefront they are taking on the sum of complaints which will be directed to their staff who could be tending to other requests from other games, and are doing so on the internet which tends to alter the character of the interaction. Nobody would seriously consider removing GTA from Steam, but dealing with the associated complaints do represent a real cost for carrying that particular game over a less controversial title.

Indirect costs are a bit easier to understand when considering a class of games. A common complaint about Steam now is the discoverability problem: Getting a game in front of its audience when more and more titles are being released. Some genres take less time to create games for and so it is to be expected that there will be a proliferation of low-cost titles entering the market on a daily basis. The indirect costs can be summarized as follows: Valve may take 30% of sales, but if the problem is severe enough that customers are shown games that do not result in sales over games that would have, everyone loses. These costs can be compounded by discouraging developers to release on steam or even create the game in the first place, though it’s doubtful we’ve reached this point (this will be covered later). Forgone sales are one of the more quantifiable indirect costs, but the main point in considering both costs is to show that some titles will be more costly for Valve to carry than others and that it is likely there is a class of product that can be identified as such.

In light of these added costs we can now consider Visual Novels. Visual Novels are relatively low-cost products with a straightforward production model. So long as the game can sell more than the costs of obtaining art, words, and someone to glue it altogether, it makes lots of sense to put it on Steam, and the tools built to create the first game (say a script that links certain phrases with displayed character emotions or a set of templates to produce characters faster) can be reused, lowering the costs of future games. None of this is to make a quality judgement, as there are clearly people who  enjoy these games, and some of them (Dream Daddy, Hatoful Boyfriend, Doki Doki Literature Club) seem to have appealed to players who do not normally engage with this genre, but this is a recipe for overproduction and the potential crowding out of other titles.

A noticeable number of Visual Novels also follow in the fine tradition of independent and European films trying to sell into the US market. Hollywood has an edge on production value and spectacle, and so rival offerings need to offer something to entice audiences away. While I’m sure there are defensible aesthetic reasons for doing so, it is not a coincidence that these films have a fairly high incidence of the leading lady, sometimes the leading man, and sometimes everyone else taking their clothes off. Sex doesn’t just sell, it’s high margin. As with film there are plenty of Visual Novels that do not fit this description, but there are many that do and by their very nature are the most attention getting. Whether this is because the Visual Novel field is crowded or it is just one of the conventions of the genre, a product in this space is more likely to contain sexual content than a product in another genre.

Returning to our evaluation of costs, it’s pretty clear to see how both the direct and indirect costs can be higher in the case of Visual Novels, specifically adult ones. If discoverability is a problem, the economics of Visual Novels are such that we’d expect them to be a larger contributor. More importantly, the higher incidence of sexual content means that Valve will need to spend more time vetting entries to ensure compliance, and likely committing to additional costs as patches will likely command greater scrutiny than a game like Opus Magnum. Finally, it is likely there will be a higher incidence of reporting/complaints with this kind of game, either due to hostility at the lack of quality or with regards to content. Whether any of this seems fair or not, it is understandable for a company like Valve to turn around and say that these games are more trouble than they are worth and to reevaluate their place on Steam. The focus on games with sexual content suggests that Valve was aiming to curtail simple games whose primary draw was titillation, regardless of their profitability. The subsequent focus on the content of these games (as opposed to their volume) is unavoidable, as it seems to have been the only condition for reevaluation, but the motivation here is not personal dislike on the part of decision makers at Valve but the fact that this content was associated with other costs that Valve no longer wanted to bear. This distinction is important as it explains why The Witcher 3 or GTA V did not face the same scrutiny.

The economics of opening up Steam

Just as games have indirect costs, so do policy decisions. A vocal subset of gamers were upset, but this doesn’t carry very much information nowadays. Likely more concerning to Valve were the expressions of uncertainty on the part of game developers. As Amazon, Netflix, and Google will tell you, content is king, and so Valve has a vested interest in being the first place developers think of when it comes to distributing their game. There are strong network effects at play with Steam, and while they can be difficult to unravel, they can do so swiftly. If the speculation in the preceding section was at least somewhat correct, then the uncertainty of the developers who have already been chosen for removal is no big loss, and it’s debatable if this can be read as “First they came for the adult Visual Novels and I said nothing…”, but the publicity resulting from the reevaluations serve as a reminder for something that has always been true: A ban (de facto or de jure) from Valve can destroy your company. A large number of developers are not just big unhedged bets on the PC gaming market, they are bets on Steam itself. If your business model is built around releasing lots of small, low-cost DLC, Valve is one submission pricing decision away from making it unaffordable, and the announcement can come right in the middle of production. If you made small games that can be completed in under two hours, guess what the refund policy did to your revenues. I’m not sure if Valve has ever done anything quite so heavy handed as what was implied by the reevaluations for sexual content, but introducing this level of uncertainty will leave firms wondering if their next title should maybe be a mobile game instead.

The uncertainty created by Valve’s decisions is something of their own making given that they are so tight lipped, but it also made the announcement of the new plans all the more noteworthy. A statement from Valve is also a useful point for a summary since everything above has only been speculation on news about Valve. We know firms were contacted regarding the reevaluation of their games for content and that this became a fairly prominent news story. From Valve we know they were responding to that public discussion, that they are changing course, they now prefer the laissez-faire approach and will collect their 30% while only intervening in the case of illegality and trolling. We’re left asking if this is a good decision and what the consequences will be. Following our reasoning above, this essentially means that the uncertainty felt by developers after the news about reevaluation was more costly than the decision to leave things on the platform. This seems plausible seeing as developer uncertainty can be an existential threat to Steam in a way discoverability is not, as well as the fact that Valve privately contacted the developers for reevaluation but publically posted when responding to the media coverage of that decision. Valve’s post does also spend a lot of time talking about discoverability which inclines me to think that this has always been the focus.

Had the story not been public then eliminating the biggest problem spots (cheap titillating content) was seemingly the lowest cost way of clearing the channels and helping discoverability. The uncertainty created through the subsequent publicity was more costly than the gains from improved discoverability and so the decision was reversed. However, reversing the decision doesn’t solve the original problem and so the second best option is to invest in technology to help mitigate the discoverability problem. The opening of the platform adds another dimension to the problem, but I suspect in part it lessens the burden on the people handing reports and curation as the only real decision rule will be the Valve defined category of “Trolling” which may not reduce the volume of content complaints but can reduce responses to boilerplate “Valve does not curate…” messages.  The case for Valve’s reversal being caused by developer uncertainty is also strengthened by the fact that Valve merely announced the new policy with later implementation, while their usual pattern has been to implement then announce (even if it’s meant letting a negative story fester for longer than we’re accustomed to from other companies).

What does it mean to have an open Steam? The economist Joel Waldfogel has a good and readable summary on the effects of digitization on music, movies, books and television. At the risk of oversimplifying, Waldfogel’s conclusion is that digitization has created a golden age for these media and this is due to projects that otherwise would not have been realized but for the fact that digitization has lowered costs. Conclusions like this normally inspire a dismissive “Well that’s obvious” (if it helps, you’re very smart and I’ll be sure to ask you next time), but analysis like this is valuable because it helps us understand the mechanisms that brought about the outcome. I’ll take a point from Waldfogel and present it as a puzzle: Should the effect of lowered costs of production translate into marginal gains in niche areas, or will it produce unexpected hits that produce substantial gains? Most readers are likely going to know of some indie successes and so say that it will produce hits, but this does not harmonize with the ‘obvious’ conclusion that digitization produces a golden age. To see why consider that under the old model there would be gatekeepers who evaluate a given project and if the returns exceed the cost of production then they would approve it. Lowering costs allows more projects to get made, but these are projects with returns lower than the previous threshold, meaning we should see a proliferation of niche projects, not hits (which would have been produced under the old system). Where do the hits come from? The hits come from the fact that gatekeepers aren’t that good at predicting future outcomes for present day production and so lowered costs are allowing more hits to be realized outside of traditional channels. This is observed in the data through the growing share of self-published/independent/non-traditional projects in revenues or best seller lists. Since the quality or success of a given product is something of a random draw, the gains from allowing more products on Steam have an outsized return even when some of the ex-ante losers turn out to be ex-post losers.

If we think Waldfogel’s analysis has applications to gaming as well, then distribution platforms need to be better at predicting final quality, or the platform should be open as possible to projects that previously would not have passed gatekeepers such as Greenlight or a large publisher. But Steam already seems to have achieved this through the Steam Direct program. Morgan Jaffit’s (Defiant Studios head, makers of Hand of Fate 2) analysis indicating more winners and more losers seems to be exactly in line with the experience of other creative industries as reported in the Waldfogel article (though the an increased share of ex-ante losers in revenues is something of a matter of speculation given the notorious difficulty of estimating sales on Steam). This is why it is important to recognize the mechanisms through which the gains in other media were made, since these gains rest on the unpredictability of outcomes and the failure of traditional gatekeepers to manage it. The most relevant question stemming from the new lassiez-faire approach is whether or not quality guidelines are analogous to gatekeepers in terms of evaluating the value of products. If you feel that they are an impediment to high value products being realized, then Valve’s decision is a good one, will likely be profitable, and we’ll all benefit. If you feel they are largely irrelevant (possibly even orthogonal) to a project’s value, then the best case scenario from this decision would only be the incremental gains that will come from incorporating niche products.

Another way of examining this question is whether or not there is such a thing as a pornographic masterpiece. That is, is there a work of pornography (realized or unrealized) of genuine artistic merit that we have suppressed through these guidelines that would achieve a level of appeal beyond its traditional audience? Most definitions of pornography deny any aesthetic value, but if this is the only argument then we are simply begging the question. The same might be asked of hate speech (is there a work of bigotry of such sublime beauty that failing to publish it would impoverish our culture?), though this would certainly be illegal in some jurisdictions and so still banned. While there have been independent successes outside of Steam (Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress for instance), none of them seem to be products that would have failed to pass the Steam Direct system. These exceptional cases are always dangerous ground to tread on, and so it is possible that the unavailability of traditional commercial channels really has prevented a pornographic masterpiece from being realized in gaming, but it doesn’t seem like a product has emerged that has achieved universal acclaim within its own niche, let alone as a contender for mainstream success.

The reason we care about whether or not the gains from removing content barriers are incremental (i.e. niches) or the realization of mainstream hits is that it is what we should measure against the cost of lowering these barriers. For this we return to the discoverability problem and see just how far apart Itch and Steam really are.

The costs of discoverability problem

If we believe Waldfogel’s analysis applies to Steam then Steam Direct has produced gains above and beyond the incremental benefits stemming from lower costs for games. However, we started with the speculating that the impetus for reevaluating adult visual novels and similar games was the discoverability problem brought about by implementing the more open system. Waldfogel briefly addresses this in the “more research is needed” section at the end, though the idea of information cascades (the Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer, and Welch 1998 reference) does seem to be in line with the “big open” strategy employed by recent successful releases. Waldfogel’s summary does suggest that the cost of search (which we’ve termed the discoverability problem) may not increase, but I am operating on the assumption that this is not the case for games given that developers (who are better informed than I am) describe it and Valve has dedicated resources into mitigating it (and they see almost the entire market).

All of this may seem a bit abstract, so here’s an illustration of what this means. Suppose everyone had an app like Tinder which contained true information about potential romantic matches, but was optional to use and had some search preferences. Let’s say the search preferences start with the default setting of people who are very similar demographically to you and if the love of your life is present in this group, you will find them within two or three swipes. The next setting will put you in a pool of likely matches which, if it contains the love of your life, will find them in 7 to 12 swipes. Finally you can include literally everyone but you will not find the love of your life until 400 to 328,922 swipes. The growing number of swipes represents the increasing search cost as we grow the pool in search of that special m’lady or m’sir. Our choice of search setting is going to depend a lot on our expectations of how likely it is we’ll find our match in each of the groups. The cost difference between the default and second option is more than double, but is broad enough to be pretty appealing to risk averse people who want to maximize their chances. The literally everyone option is so costly that even if we turn the chance into a certainty, we may prefer to reserve it as a last ditch option (or abandon the app entirely).

Switching to Steam Direct seems a bit like switching to the second option in the example above. It does increase the cost of search, but the reward is worth it, especially if we’re looking to expand beyond what’s familiar. But we are unlikely to want the pool to increase indefinitely since the search costs don’t merit the increased chances of finding the love of our lives (game or person). If the benefits of removing content restrictions are analogous to the ones obtained through the reduced costs of games, then we should be willing to entertain higher search costs, but if the benefits are limited to the incremental gains of niche products then we may not willing to accept any additional inconvenience.

A key difference for Steam is that at the moment we are collectively setting one search preference for everyone, and so we’re deciding if we want to go from the expanded category to the literally everything one. It’s true that some people are not able to find the love of their life from the current choice (maybe this explains the desire for pornography), but the inconvenience to this group is considered the lesser evil compared to the universal inconvenience faced by the entire platform and its attendant frustration and likely abandonment by some users. To return to games specifically we can characterize search costs on Steam as the time it takes a customer to find a game they like, the forgone opportunity of Steam to make a sale by serving up the wrong recommendation, and the equivalent lost sale to the developer.

Valve’s new approach involves investing in technology to help lower search costs, including allowing them to restrict the pool of potential games they are exposed to. I don’t think anyone really knows how successful they will be at it. If Valve succeeds, then we will all benefit through faster matches to games we enjoy the most. If the system doesn’t work as well as they plan, then I suspect we’ll see a few more applications of the “trolling” criterion to keep users from encountering offensive content they wouldn’t buy in the first place. When looking at the Steam Direct guidelines, it becomes apparent that Valve hasn’t really given up a lot since half of the rules are already legal matters, and the remaining can credibly fall under a the trolling criterion. In fact, Valve offered some clarity on the condition and used a banned school shooting game as an example of what would not be permitted.

This brings us to Itch. Itch’s submission guidelines are extremely permissive, a fact that tends to be lost when you see people who have never used the site complaining about censorship in response to its founder’s Tweet. Itch also does not have the resources that Valve does in terms of being able to automate the curation of a given user’s pages and so they are less likely to propose a technological solution to the problem. Itch faces the same issues of discoverability and desire to maximize revenues as Valve but needs to employ solutions that reflect its capabilities. It is difficult to find a more direct solution than saying ‘don’t put this kind of stuff on our site and if you do we’ll ban you.’ If anything this is likely more a timely reminder of Itch’s existing policy rather than any kind of policy shift (so far as I can tell, the rules have not changed substantially since Corcoran issued his tweet or, indeed, years before he did). In fact, based on the clarification Valve offered to the definition of trolling, there seems to be very little difference between Itch and Valve in terms of what they consider (or will consider) unacceptable on their platform.

If it turns out there are substantive differences between Itch and the future Steam, it will be an interesting experiment in terms of whether or not these content guidelines actually do prevent the realization of good games. At the moment Steam is not my go-to source for interesting and unknown games but Itch is. The free speech warriors reacting to Corcoran’s tweet seem not to have been interested in the relative freedom of Itch’s platform to Steam Direct and Greenlight, and Itch has done fine without them. Gaming as we know it has also not collapsed under Valve’s relatively more restrictive policies, and Itch’s ban buttons are not likely to steer the industry into some kind of Hays Code. In truth, most if not all of the percieved difference is likely explained by Corcoran’s directness and Valve’s vagueness.

It’s fun to wrap oneself up in the illusion of a principled stand on free speech or against intolerance, but there really isn’t a lot for either side beyond rhetorical posturing. People who want to see the Valve decision an unmitigated win for free speech need to reconcile that with Valve’s follow up comments which seem to be banning exactly the kind of titles we’d expect a reasonable set of content guidelines to ban. Likewise, Itch’s permissive submission policies do not seem to have reduced the storefront into the dumpster fire predicted for Steam, nor has it seemed to produce the controversial hit that has demonstrated the outsized welfare gains from removing content restrictions. This is why I think the difference is merely technological and if anything Steam is shifting closer to Itch. The small scale experiment of Itch also suggests that the gains from loosening content guidelines are incremental for their respective niches rather than an opportunity for previously censored hits to finally be realized.

Seeing the realization of Valve’s promises will make all the difference, but my own expectation is that this decision will result in much needed curation tools being made available to users and developers, pornographic content will be made available (though the most egregious examples will likely still be banned) but will need to be opted in, and there may be some improvements made to the recommendation engine. Because the new policy will likely mean the entry of niche products, a ‘first do no harm’ approach would mean that most of the changes should be imperceptible to users, since these are products they have no interest in buying in the first place. So long as Valve is able to ensure these niche entries aren’t a nuisance to the rest of us, it’s hard to see this move as a bad one, but it hinges on both the new entries not being as bad as the worst that people assume (the hate speech case) and Valve being able to segment the user base in a way that doesn’t cause games we would have otherwise enjoyed becoming invisible to us. Of course, if Valve finds this problem is much more difficult than they anticipated, they have left the details open enough to make the changes modest and we may find the store isn’t all that different from the way it is now.


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. For this article, Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil.

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.

Hot Sex Robot Takes

Ten people in Toronto lost their lives when a man drove a rental truck down a street with the intent of hitting as many people as he could. A screenshot of his Facebook post identifying himself as an incel was verified, Redditors cringed at the quality of mainstream coverage of that community, and commentators took to their keyboards for a fresh set of hot takes.

The takes are a particularly depressing reminder that being dumb and outrageous will generate more attention than a thoughtful and honest effort to engage with any given topic. I will credit one column with bringing my attention to Amia Srinivasan’s article Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?, even if I suspect the author did not read it all the way through, but have no intention of rewarding sloppy thinking with the traffic it so obviously craves. It is sufficient to say are a lot of op-eds talking about sex robots and incels right now, and not one of them has acknowledged that this is a solution that community actually wishes for.

If we are looking for some kind of ur-take, the most likely candidate is Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias : Two Types of Envy. Why include a link just after claiming I don’t want to reward a certain type of article? Mostly because I think Hanson is actually trying to make a point about our attitudes towards income redistribution. Leveraging the Toronto tragedy is tacky, and the analogy between sex and income is unconvincing, but it seems reasonably clear it is intended to provoke deeper consideration of a fairly major policy that most of us take for granted as being good. I am warmer to Srinivasan’s article than Hanson’s since the former taught me things I didn’t know, but I recognize the latter as an effort to make its readers be reflective. Furthermore, it is one of the few articles that directly acknowledges the threat of violence that comes with the incels’ self-pity.

This omission of the violence underpinning everything written in that community is combined with the curious implication that somehow multiple commentators just happened to independently arrive at sex robots as a solution in time to discuss its relative merits. There is no way to know if any of these writers did bother to read about the community, but it difficult to tell which admission is more damning: That they have carefully sanitized the group’s conclusions for their take, or that they are covering a group responsible for multiple acts of violence without bothering to do any research. One can argue the merits of the equivalence Hanson draws between income and sex (for instance, calls for income redistribution being underpinned by threats of violence seems almost axiomatic to someone with a libertarian worldview, but this is not the only motivation for this policy), but he starts with the violence in Toronto and he specifically says the threat of such acts is the tool incels think will achieve their goals.

It is appropriate to describe what is happening in the incel community as young men being radicalized by an online extremist group and carrying out acts of violence. As such it is useful to take them at their word as to their motivations. The Oklahoma City bombing did not seem to inspire think pieces about what McVeigh got right about US foreign policy, and nobody seems to be rushing to ask if IS has any good points to make about slavery, but apparently we can’t just reduce a violent subset of the sexual have-nots to its most toxic form and instead should consider what the Toronto attack means vis-à-vis getting some. In contrast, Srinivasan identifies ways in which our sexual preferences and norms lead to unequal outcomes and the loneliness that entails, all without having to ask whether or not we’re doing enough to keep misogynists happy.

Reducing the conversation to sex robots and the need for incels to have their desires satiated presents a violent group as far more reasonable than it actually is and essentially grants all their premises all in the name of another column and some retweets. Who can seriously look at those posts and say the obvious problem is the quality and availability of masturbatory aids? As it happens, columnists only needed to read the full argument with regards to the sex bots to find a mapping from an average readership to incels. Incels hope for a future with sex bots so “a woman’s only value” falls to near zero due to the availability of alternatives. It’s repellant, it’s obviously wrong, and yet the lived experience of What It’s Like to Be a Really Beautiful Woman reveals this is apparently how beautiful women are actually treated by ‘normies’. Not only does this allow for some soul-searching on the part of men, but creates a stronger link to an incel’s beliefs on which an effort to de-extremize them can be built.

Columnists looking for a particularly sharp edge need not limit their economics study to Hanson, but could instead consider a paper by Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah which found a decrease in sexual violence that coincided with the decriminalization of prostitution. Such a column would not need to resort to science fiction to consider the consequences of the introduction of alternatives for people unable or unwilling to find a traditional partner. This concreteness is exactly why such a column is unlikely to appear in the op-ed pages as it would require the columnist to be accountable for getting things wrong in a way that science fiction does not.

Among the details that have been glossed over in the attack, the reaction of the police officer on the scene is the most interesting. Despite the attacker’s efforts to provoke him to open fire, even asking him to “Kill me”, the officer did not fire his weapon and instead apprehended the suspect. There will be no martyrdom for the Toronto attacker and he will be confronted with the humanity of his victims and the consequences of what he has done. It’s easy to imagine writing that the attacker got what he deserved if the encounter with the officer had gone differently, and yet now I will have to confront his own humanity. This exceptional bit of police work now means that we have a better chance at gaining an insight into why and how these men are being radicalized, and replaces the nascent incel legend with court appearances and consequences.

This is what we are losing in the op-eds about sex robots: The humanity of the victims, the loneliness of the incels, and the uncomfortable similarity between some of our daily conduct and their ideology. The angry response on social media is not a demand that these columnists suspend their right to speech, but that they exercise their right to thought.

Games and Movies

Competency disclaimer: I have no background in game development, but I do have a background in film production. I write articles like this with some trepidation, as the world does not need another player of games telling makers of games how to do their job. However, in so far as the perspective of a former film practitioner is useful, I would love to see any conversation this may provoke in the comments.

While I have no authority to appeal to on this subject, it seems evident that games have been heavily influenced by cinema, particularly James Cameron/George Lucas style blockbusters (and many indies carry direct references to art/independent films that have influenced them). This is an intuitive step because movies convey meaning through a combination of images and sounds, and blockbusters in particular create a level of excitement and spectacle that are the standard for modern entertainment products. Furthermore, tapping into the conventions of cinema gives game developers access to a fairly sophisticated grammar that has taken us from understanding a message in 30 seconds to a mere 5 seconds or less in advertising. While borrowing from film seems like an obvious step, it may not be the most appropriate. What follows is an account of some ways I think cinematic techniques may be inappropriate for games, and some examples of alternatives that have been effective in games I’ve enjoyed.

How does a movie work?

Film theory is a big subject, and the knowledge applied on the film set may never find itself in a book, but there are some basics that find consensus among the practitioners who have written down their thoughts. One useful, idea that emerged was the theory of montage.

Just as Fascists saw the utility of the new technology of radio for propaganda purposes, the Soviet Union saw the propaganda benefits of film and dedicated considerable study to it. The theory of montage is best illustrated by an experiment done by a filmmaker named Pudovkin. Pudovkin filmed an actor with a neutral expression looking off camera and then edited this against three separate shots: a girl playing, a casket, and some bread. When viewers saw each clip they would credit the actor with a portrayal of a father’s love for his daughter, or terrible grief at his mother’s death, or unimaginable hunger. The performance gained meaning through the shot that followed it. The filmmaker Eisenstein developed the theory of montage further, but for our purposes it is sufficient to say that montage is the juxtaposition of two separate shots to create a separate meaning (if you took an undergraduate philosophy class, you might see a parallel to a common formulation of Hegelian Dialectic: Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis).

Montage is a useful framework for thinking about how meaning is created in film, but if we’d prefer to divest ourselves of any intellectual commitment with regards to meaning, we can at least use it to illustrate how editing is important and unique to film. I do not say essential as there are famous exceptions such as Rope and Russian Ark that attempt to be ‘one shot’ films, but, of the films that influence games, a large portion of the experience and meaning come from the juxtaposition of specific shots to provoke a particular response. Editing seems to be the one truly unique feature of cinema that sets it apart from theatre or radio. Consider how constant edits to the ticking clocks of the bottles (being opened or ready to fall) create tension in this clip from Notorious:

We can narrow our focus to the components of montage and consider the shots themselves. Even in a film like Rope, the choice of what to show the audience makes all the difference. This includes technical considerations such as the length of lens, depth of field, and exposure, but more importantly it involves the decision of what to include or exclude in the context of what the audience has seen already. This is cinematographer Bill Fraker discussing a famous shot from Rosemary’s Baby:

Divorced from the context of the film (or even away from the big screen), this shot is not likely to have the same effect as it did on the original audience, but it should serve to illustrate the point. Any camera is perfectly capable of conveying information, but when wielded by someone who understands the audience’s perspective the result is a special experience and one that is unique to motion pictures.

Shots and edits in games

Having considered the essential tools of shots and edits in film, we can consider how these might apply to games. At worst, they don’t fit at all, and at best they work in a very narrow sense for a type of game that has gone out of fashion. Cinematics are present in games, and shots and edits are used quite effectively to bring about certain emotional responses or to convey information, it is very difficult to say that this is the game so much as it is the game part being put on hold to provide context for the next interactive part. Shots and edits are out of place in games, and this makes it difficult to claim that cinema is a good reference point for games.

This is an example of a movie that almost certainly would have been better as a game:

Aside from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, which both presented the first person perspective as found footage to justify edits, there aren’t a lot of well known first person movies, and it’s easy to see why. This perspective gives up the most powerful tools for creating meaning in the filmmaker’s toolbox and really only gains a gimmick in return. Yet anyone who has played Amnesia knows that one of the biggest annoyances present in The Lady in the Lake is one of the most discussed experiences of the game. While moviegoers’ patience wore thin watching Philip Marlowe open yet another door, Amnesia’s players lost their mind fumbling with the game’s doors while monsters chased them.

Games do not directly lend themselves to edits beyond loading screens, which are motivated for technical reasons rather than narrative. This is not a failing of games, as it would be very unusual to be playing a game and suddenly have the perspective change. One case where this worked well was the prologue for Battlefield 1, where dying would move you to another soldier on the battlefield, but even this excellent choice could not be sustained for the rest of the game. Most, if not all, of the interesting choices with regards to shots are also absent from games since the player is in control of the camera. It is not possible to have a Rosemary’s Baby moment in most games because the player controls the framing.

There are exceptions, and it would be much more difficult to make this case in the past as Resident Evil, among others, used fixed camera angles that allowed for pre-rendered backgrounds (Resident Evil also readily reveals its inspiration from Stanley Kubrick and Lucio Fulci). The introduction of Chris Walker in Outlast also relies on a forced perspective and, while it is technically a non-interactive moment of the game, is fairly seamless in its use. Of course, Resident Evil has long since moved from pre-rendered backgrounds, and it may be better to say that if cinema is to be a reference point it is most effective in the horror genre, rather than for games in general.

This is not to argue that cinema is useless for gaming, or that it should not be used as a reference point at all, but rather point out the limitations of this reference. With fewer technological constraints it becomes easier to recreate our favourite movie moments in an interactive format. Yet, as in the case of Resident Evil, the more effective use of cinematic techniques were driven by technological constraints. The Mass Effect series has generated more alien worlds and species than all the Star Wars films, but it is still not clear how this moment from The Empire Strikes back could be realized in a game by anything but a cutscene:

Alternatives to movies

A movie without shots and edits seems a lot closer to a theatrical production or a radio play. As it happens, radio drama contains more parallels to how stories and experiences occur in games than movies. Like film, technology is essential to radio drama, not just for its broadcast, but for its creation (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in addition to being hilarious, was the first radio drama to use stereo and it made a huge difference for that particular story). Critically, radio is confronted with the fact that it only has sound to convey its ideas. The absence of a visual component means there is always a space for the audience to create part of the story in their head. The difference may be best illustrated with old story in advertising of a radio and TV advertiser arguing over the merits of their respective media. The radio advertiser wins the argument by proposing a commercial of a 700-foot mountain of whipped cream rolling into a Lake Michigan that has been drained and filled with hot chocolate, after which the Royal Canadian Air Force then flies overhead with a 10 ton maraschino cherry which is dropped on top of the mountain to the applause of 25,000 onlookers.

When I reflect on the stories and moments in gaming that have engaged me the most and seem to be unique to gaming they tend to be cases with enough suggestion to get my imagination going, but not enough to think for me. Sunless Sea is well known for its writing, but I am particularly fond of the decision to give enough time to reflect on and digest what happened between ports (even if this lull was a complaint among some players). While it isn’t out yet, In Other Waters restricts your perspective to an AI assisting the xenobiologist, and has a companion book to provide another glimpse of the world. The demo was visually attractive in its own right, but it also gave me enough to imagine what my in game companion was describing. Cultist Simulator goes even further than the previous two by keeping time running and trimming down the text. While the game is entirely card and token based, there has not only been enough to keep me talking about what’s going on in the world during a stream, but also to make fairly clear mappings to my own life. Finally, Paradox Grand Strategy games like Crusader Kings II are, in essence, maps, stats, and text boxes, and yet the most rewarding way to play is to role-play your ruler and go along for the ride as the events and text provide more momentum for your imagination.

While one might argue that pausing to read text is a poor man’s cinematic, the fact remains that in all of these games the player is given the interesting choices to make, and there is enough information given to keep the imagination going during the real time components. These games play to gaming’s strengths by remaining interactive, while still being able to tell a story (unlike Space Invaders or Offworld Trading Company which are pure interactivity).

What can movies teach?

Movies can be very helpful in specific technical areas. Obviously if a game contains cinematics, the team would be wise to learn the techniques. Movies by good cinematographers will teach valuable lessons in colour and lighting, though these cinematographers are often inspired by great painters (especially the Dutch masters). There is also no accounting for the sources of inspiration, and so at an individual level movies may provide the creative spark that eventually becomes a very good game.

However, cinema’s use as a reference is likely due more to its dominant position rather than its suitability for gaming. Montage allows an audience’s imagination to be engaged as in the case of radio above, but this technique is not available to gaming due to its interactivity. It is more appropriate to seek out other examples of how authors have engaged our imaginations in real time if we are looking for applications to gaming. Seeking inspiration from examples like radio drama allow us to make games that rise above ‘movies but with the essential features removed.’


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. In this case, and Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil. I have also received press keys for Offworld Trading Company and Crusader Kings II DLC.