The Secret Reason Your Favourite Streamer Hates You: Backseating

Introduction

This article is the first in an intended series on ‘viewers behaving badly.’ I say intended because I am familiar with the frustration that comes from an author proposing a series only to leave it unfinished and so take David Kreps’ approach in his Microeconomics Foundations I: Choice and Competitive Markets: advertise the proposed series (a trilogy), fail to produce another (so far), but leave an escape route disclaimer of saying the series may never be finished (it’s also a very good and inexpensive micro textbook, though the math would probably turn off most readers here. Perhaps try a campus library if you live near a university). The reason I propose it as a series is because I would prefer these posts to aspire to more than simply ranting about behaviours I specifically get annoyed by, and instead address common threads that can be found among streams and address the reasons why certain rules exist. My ambitions for the series aside, any claims to objectivity will be undermined by the ability of long time viewers will no doubt be able to identify the catalyst for a particular article. In short: I hope to do more than just complain about my audience, but I don’t think it’s at all useful to detach myself from things I personally find irritating on stream.

Origins of the Term

While I’m not familiar with any history of the term, backseating seems to have its origins in the phrase backseat driver, a pejorative for unsolicited advice while driving. Unsolicited advice seems like the most basic foundation for the phrase as one needs no more than an understanding of the words, while the phrase backseat driving seems to create a little narrative to be filled in by the audience. Imagine teaching english to someone and having to define backseat driving, let alone backseating. The negative connotation is directly present in the term unsolicited advice, but potentially is amplified through the drama of the phrase backseat driving. Both cases are annoying, but backseat driving adds to it the active contribution of a distraction from an activity that should command the recipient’s (i.e. the driver’s) full attention.

Taken literally the term backseating makes no sense. There are few, if any, back seats to a stream and while one may rely on prior experience when explaining backseat driving, the term backseating requires familiarity with the term backseat driving to make any sense. I also think this term has grown to encompass more than its origins, and so I would like to mention some sister concepts that I think have been rolled into what we refer to in backseating. The term armchair quarterback is probably the most familiar, referring to a football spectator who mistakes their fandom for expertise and pontificates on what teams ‘should’ have done. A related term, armchair general, I thought had emerged from wargaming, but apparently goes back further (and at least according to Wikipedia goes back to Clausewitz, though doesn’t have a citation). Armchair revolutionary (indeed the whole set of ‘armchair ‘) and keyboard warrior express similar sentiments for amateurs who are fast to criticize without any skin in the game, though personally I hope that we might reinvigorate the granddaddy of all of these phrases and go back to calling them dilettantes.

Despite its older origins, I see backseating as a new coinage with its own specific meaning for what is a decidedly modern phenomena. It combines the unsolicited advice and distraction of backseat driving, the presentation of knowledge without substance of a dilettante, and the criticism divorced from the context of actual involvement present in armchair general.

Backseating on Streams

Each streamer will have their own policies for dealing with backseating, though a casual glance at a random draw of streams is likely to show that the activity is pervasive enough to be mentioned in the rules and that it is viewed as negative enough to be forbidden. I know of one streamer who has gone from a strict no backseating policy to being a little more open ended, a handful who have gone from being somewhat placid about backseating to being annoyed to outright banning it, and the majority I know forbid it outright. I do not have an explicit set of rules for the stream, though, for my part, consider backseating to be self-evidently unwelcome, the same way I would consider racism or harassment of other chatters to not require explicit rules (in my experience both as a mod and a streamer, a list of rules only invites attempts to litigate everything down to the simplest purge).

Despite my exceptional distaste for backseating, I don’t actually consider its motivation to be entirely negative in all cases. Furthermore, there is something interesting in the fact that backseating requires special mention in a list of rules, rather than having its own unspoken but self-evident social penalties like public flatulence. In the next few sections we’ll consider not just the positive and negative motivations for backseating and their effects on a stream, but also why this kind of activity has become pervasive enough to require special rules to be set up in streams.

Negative Motives for Backseating

We will begin with the obvious motives stemming from the original phrase backseat driver. The backseater wishes to assert control over the stream due to their discomfort with what is presently being done on the cast, their lack of faith in the caster, or their wish to be in control. There is little mystery as to why backseating is largely perceived as a negative in these cases because they involve taking control from a streamer, and an unfavourable assessment of the streamer’s ability to conduct their cast. While likely not a conscious motive, the backseater wants the attention of the audience and creative control over the stream without actually taking the effort to build it themselves. This attention seeking behaviour might also be motivated by the impression that they have a secret that nobody else knows (since the rest of the chat is presumably not backseating), and an overwhelming desire to prove that they know what these ignoramuses can’t seem to fathom.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that while driving can at least be justified through a fear of safety when the driver behaves contrary to the backseater’s wishes, no such fear of safety exists in the context of a stream. Furthermore, streaming almost always takes place on a service with a plethora of options, and so not only has the backseater opted into the particular stream they are interrupting, but they have any number of options available if they are dissatisfied with the stream they are viewing. Here, not only is backseating not just disrespectful to the streamer, but disrespectful to the audience through insisting that the content they are enjoying should conform to the backseater’s wishes, rather than the backseater seeking out entertainment more in line with their expectations.

The primary (or at least the apparent) motives for backseating then appear to be the negative ones: A desire to be in control or the centre of attention, a disrespect for others’ abilities or priorities, and a sense of entitlement that demands their whims be catered to.

Positive Motives for Backseating

Backseating does not always come with a nagging whine from the back of the chat to “play better.” It may also come in the form of seemingly helpful advice. Streamers are more or less expected to communicate throughout the cast and so  will likely discuss their frustrations or confusion at certain parts. This can be misconstrued as a request for help, much the same way that a greeting of “How ya doin’?” can be taken as a request for information. Even if a streamer does not verbalize their thought process, the mere fact that the game is not in a state of constant progress (or the player is on a losing streak or what have you) may be perceived as an invitation for ‘advice’.

My own feelings on backseating are manifestly apparent by now, and so it will not come as a surprise to know that I doubt the sincerity of most of these cases, though even I cannot deny that there are some legitimate misunderstandings. However, I have also been present for casts where a viewer claiming to have never have played a given game was displaying a tremendous insight into many solutions to puzzles they ‘just noticed’ after a few minutes of the streamer going through the level. Even in the case of a genuine effort to advance the game, I can’t help but think that the dominant driver in these cases is to display knowledge about the game, rather than a benevolent wish that streamers get through their content as efficiently as possible.

Another potential positive motive for backseating is an viewer’s desire to participate in the stream. Streaming is an interactive medium, and a large part of its strength stems from its interactivity. That said, these are the very kind of good intentions a famous road is paved with, and the destination is the same. Rather than sharing in the stream, backseating wrestles control away from the broadcaster. Interactivity is a desirable feature because it is a shared experience, and backseating violates this principle through attempting to take control.

The Impact of Backseating on a Stream

Having considered some of the motives behind backseating, we will turn our attention to the much more important matter of how it affects the streamer and the stream. The first and main consequence of backseating is distraction. The streamer is no longer focused on the game or the entertainment but instead must now deal with this interruption to the natural flow of thought. While it probably does not require elaboration, an analogy may be in order. Everyone has a way of getting ‘in the zone’ whether it’s absorbing oneself into a good book, delivering a speech, getting absorbed in music, trying to solve a tough problem, or getting into an exercise routine. It’s a unique feeling, not really appreciated in the moment (the lack of distraction or absence of self-awareness is key to me), but certainly recognized after its passed. Backseating is an imposition of the outside world on a blissful mental state that is difficult to achieve. The streamer’s mind is no longer juggling the game, the channel, and their presentation in harmony, but has had one of these elements disrupted, breaking the focus. More experienced streamers may find it easier to regain this state, or find it more difficult to be shaken by outside disruptions, but it remains an unwelcome intervention from the outside world into a state I feel is conducive to the best and most enjoyable casting.

In a related way backseating is disruptive because of its disrespect. There is likely to be a degree of variance between streamers’ egos, and so the disruption is likely to be negatively correlated with the streamer’s sense of self. Again, personal experience is likely useful here. I’m those who have had the misfortune of meeting me in person will say I have no shortage of ego, though I am secure enough in this fact so as not to be too bent out of shape if a stranger on the internet doesn’t think I’m good at a video game (notice, after all, they’re watching me, while they have only succeeded in distinguishing themselves through disrupting my content). That said, it is hard to shake a twinge of annoyance at the assumption you not only did not know the solution, but were so hopeless you required intervention. This feeling of disrespect is amplified through the fact no consideration is made to the fact that the streamer’s concentration is divided between the chat and the game itself, as well as the fact that the most skilled choices are not the most entertaining. My Crusader Kings II casts are a good example of this: I have hundreds of hours in the game (a majority of it, in fact, on cast), and while I think there’s always something new to learn, I feel quite confident in my command of the game’s mechanics. This is also a game that derives a lot of its magic from the emergent stories, and so my understanding of the game’s mechanics is coupled with a willingness to make sub-optimal but dramatically appropriate decisions (legitimizing a bastard when you have an heir is only asking for trouble. However, the resulting story of how you sired a bastard son through your son’s wife, legitimized the bastard, only to have him grow up and assassinate the legitimate heir to inherit the kingdom is worth the potential fallout). Ultimately, the best casts are where the streamer is sharing something of themselves with the audience, and so any backseating, whether its instruction in the game, or demands for a certain style of casting, digs at this personal aspect and attempts to hijack the effort. A viewer can take or leave the content, but should not try to subvert it for their own ends. Nobody has the magic formula for streaming success, and not every stream needs to be the same. Sometimes casters need to find their voice, and they are not going to be assisted through malcontents spoiling the fun for everyone.

Fundamentally backseating also strikes at the heart of what makes gaming enjoyable. While this is something of an old example, consider the controversy surrounding the estimated playtime of The Order: 1886. While there was some dispute as to the duration of a representative playthrough of the campaign, a consensus seemed to form that the game was short in duration, and that this was a bad thing. Concerns about quality adjusted playtime notwithstanding, there is a fairly simple observation to make here: people seem to prefer more of a game than less of a game. Obviously this is with everything else being equal, and there is certainly a point where a game can be too long, but it’s a lot easier to feel cheated with too little of a game, than disappointed with too much of it. Part of the length of the game is a function of how difficult it is. Most classic adventure games are quite short (I’ve run through Day of the Tentacle twice and did not need to split it over casts), but don’t feel short because of the process of figuring out the puzzles. NES games are another great example of this as the limited space on the cartridge means that the duration of the game had to come from something other than increasing the number of levels (which is why some of these games seem arbitrarily difficult). With very few exceptions there are supposed to be points in games that present a challenge and require some thought to get through. Denying the streamer the opportunity to solve the puzzle means the experience on display is not what the developer intended, it diminishes the streamer’s enjoyment of the game, and it also diminishes the stream’s enjoyment of the game twice over given that there is less content to experience, and the stream is no longer able to experience the streamer’s thought process through a difficult part of the game.

This is possibly the most important and damaging consequence of backseating. Streamers have access to the exact same information as anyone else and if they wanted to be told how to advance in the game they would either consult a guide or directly ask chat. A viewer that attempts to backseat not only diminishes the caster’s enjoyment of the game, but ruins the fun for everyone else who is watching. Given that some population of a cast will have arrived because they are interested in the game, it is safe to assume there are multiple people in a given stream who will know the information being communicated by the backseater. The backseater’s solipsism is not an excuse for ruining everyone else’s fun.

The Spread of Backseating

Why is backseating a problem now? Or, if it’s always been a problem, why does it seem so much more prevalent? First, both the appearance and the fact of increase backseating can be attributed to technological progress: Where we originally had to be physically present to backseat drive, communications technology have expanded our capabilities to be irritating to virtually anywhere. Likewise, because streaming can be so personal (the audience is invisible, and the streamer appears to be speaking directly to you), the backseater’s disregard for others is reinforced by the environment. Finally, through various fan wikis and forums, it is possible to gain any information about a given game at a moment’s notice. While the fact that someone can do this is unremarkable, the illusion of possessing knowledge seems to be preserved through the fact that nobody can see how someone got this information.

Beyond these surface explanations, I think there’s something a bit deeper behind backseating. Overall there seems to be a diminished opinion of experts across more or less any discipline. If you don’t like the results from your doctor you can go to another one, or even consult a website to self-diagnose. Don’t know an answer to a problem? StackExchange has got you covered. Need some trivia on history? Just go to Wikipedia. None of these options are inherently bad and, in fact, are likely edited or curated by experts. What the accessibility of these sites has done though is allowed people to replace the knowledge of how to solve a problem with how to look for someone else’s solution. In many cases this is replacing actual knowledge with the mere appearance of it. An analogy may be fame. Before photography, you had to be someone very important for others to know what you looked like (your face was on a coin, or images of you were widely distributed in various buildings like churches). Now photography is cheap, and easy, and it is enough to simply be famous for being famous. Given the seemingly limitless capacity for celebrities to offer opinions on matters of importance, we don’t seem to have lost this deference we give to the people whose images we see all over the place, but the barriers for entry seem to have been significantly diminished. Likewise, it is not especially difficult to express an opinion online, and the fact that one can do so seems to have created the illusion that one voice on the internet is as good as any other’s. In addressing the phenomena of fake news Obama offered that “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”

We implicitly acknowledge the value of experts through our consumption of the information they provide, but we want to receive the credit for disseminating the information. Just like it’s simple to download seemingly anything: a song, a game, a book, a movie, we are able to take just about any information and pass it off as our own discoveries. If I read a walkthrough for a game start to finish and play the game, I am going to feel like I am the one who beat the game, but I was simply the instrument through which the walkthrough operated. It is not the same accomplishment as playing from start to finish without assistance. Finally,  while good streamers make it look easy, streaming is actually fairly difficult to do (at least well). Of course, one needn’t go through the trouble of finding an audience and building a community, when any given streamer has already done this work for you. All you need to do now is demonstrate how much more you know about the game than the streamer through backseating and you can show how much better you’d be at the exercise if only you had enough time off from kicking ass at video games.

Of course, this type of expertise is an illusion, but it’s a powerful one. I can recall coworkers who genuinely felt that knowing they could find a solution to a problem was equivalent to solving a problem, and I think plenty of people online expect that their opinion should receive the same weight as a well reasoned argument simply because both parties are speaking the same language and are on the same forum. Our reward mechanisms are roughly consistent with these views: homework and reports are often graded on outcomes, not thought processes. Most online discourse is graded on how well an opinion aligns with the audience’s prior (sort Undertale’s negative reviews by most helpful for an example). The appearance of expertise is much simpler than obtaining that knowledge for oneself, and so much more effort is now expended in finding the biggest platform to display this false knowledge than obtaining the genuine article.

This problem is as old as Plato’s Ion (the bard who claims expertise on generalship due to his understanding of Homer), and yet now we seem to be taking Ion seriously. It’s never fun to admit we don’t know something, and yet it’s an important ability to have. It’s impossible to talk about this and not acknowledge the fact that not only is it possible to be elected President on the basis of being able to play a successful businessman on television, but the appeal towards a lack of experience is actually considered a positive feature to campaign for any number of populist candidates following in the wake of this outcome. Where politicians aren’t directly articulating policy that is ‘just like the average joe’s’ they are directly turning it over to the public in the form of referenda. These are representatives who, if they don’t possess expertise themselves, should at least be consulting with experts to make decisions turning that responsibility over to people who do not have access to this expertise. Even the news is reporting an opinion poll on everything, as if their job wasn’t to inform people about the facts.

In an environment where so many important issues have now been surrendered to seemingly anyone, is it any surprise that seemingly anyone feels entitled to instruct something as trivial as a stream as to how to do things ‘properly’? Backseating a stream allows the quick rush of displaying the possession of ‘secret knowledge’ in front of an audience who is clearly invested in the game you are talking about. But the ‘fame’ is as illusory as the knowledge. Nobody really thinks it’s impressive that someone in chat knew what everyone else knows is public knowledge. In truth, chat should, and likely does resent the backseater for taking away from their experience. The streamer resents the attempt to wrest control of something they’ve put considerable effort into.

Games aren’t fun as play by chat, streamers aren’t fleshy controllers to implement your instructions, and if the audience were interested in your gameplay, they’d be in your stream. This is why I feel the net result of backseating is so negative as to not even require articulation in the rules. But if I must articulate a position I’ve already primed my bot: “Support the devs, buy the game for yourself, and LEAVE THE STREAMER ALONE!”

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Streaming Other People’s IP: Are Streamers Any Good at Selling Games?

Twitch broadcasting lives in a bit of a weird space so far as intellectual property (IP) is concerned. While obviously I do not have any legal credentials to back this up, I think it’s safe to say that most gaming content that is broadcast is infringing. While this is open to debate, mostly centring around what constitutes fair use, I think we can find some common ground to say that we can establish a spectrum of gaming content from criticism (not infringing) to a standard Twitch broadcast (infringing). This is only to say that we operate at the pleasure of the owners of the IP we are working with. Fortunately, a lot of developers are reasonable about this and publicly state that they are okay with releasing content using their games, even if it is monetized, and enforcement of these IP rights is so lax that most streamers don’t even look for these disclaimers but merely assume that streaming the game is okay.

Suppose this were to change. What if one day IP notices were not sent out just from firms that were angry about a negative review, but major developers who decided they would no longer accept strangers profiting from their IP without asking permission and sharing revenues. One thought you’d be certain to hear constantly is “this is a stupid move on the part of developers. They’re getting free publicity for their game. They should be paying the streamers, not the other way around!” (Ignoring that some streamers are, in fact, paid to play certain games). This is a fictional scenario, but this sentiment has already been expressed whenever the topic of IP comes up in the context of a stream. I’m mostly interested in examining whether or not we are justified in making this claim. I can’t really make much headway arguing for a particular position (clearly I benefit from IP regimes that maximize my ability to protect my content while eliminating barriers to use others’), but I’m interested in seeing if our actions match our rhetoric, and if there are some lessons we can learn to provide better content to people.

Why IP?

IP is generally unpopular among right thinking modern digital travellers. Video game piracy may not be such a big deal as it used to be, but I’d hazard a guess that most of the people I know who are watching TV shows and listening to music are not paying for that content (in fact, even among the free content, measures are taken to even block advertising, though this is different from piracy). Most of the examples people will think of in terms of IP will be takedown notices, demands for compensation and just generally stories of the ‘big corporate interests pushing down the little man variety.’ Even the imaginary scenario above fits this to an extent because it involves a request for revenue sharing. However, it’s worth mentioning that there are many other reasons why someone might seek to obtain protection for their work and why they would enforce it.

I had the benefit of listening to a doctor who owns several patents who explained that their importance was not through preserving the profits motive to ensure innovation (a common argument you’ll hear in an economic discussion about intellectual property), but that its as the only means through which he could ensure that others would not attempt to manufacture the drug at a lower quality. While competition is desirable to bring down the costs of medication, in this case we are talking about a lower quality that potentially carries side effects that are harmful to people and would effectively kill the ‘real’ medicine if it was still going through certification and trials (consider the trouble a report that is known to be fabricated has created through its claim that there is a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism). Here the enforcement of IP prevents a drug from being unjustly condemned for the unscrupulous practices of others.

A patent case may not seem very relevant to the discussion of gaming, which would fall under copyright, but this at least puts us on the path to establishing that not all IP claims are driven for purely mercenary reasons (I am, of course, making something of a concession that mercenary reasons are inherently bad in the first place. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?). Let’s see if we can find something a little closer to home. Consider that (despite the present evidence to the contrary) I have some capacity to write, but no real artistic skills to speak of. Suppose I decide to seek out some exiting art to attach my words an ideas to. For the sake of illustration, I take a Penny Arcade strip because I’m a big fan, and erase out the speech bubbles and add my own script. Now here’s the trouble: let’s say I decide to write misogynistic, racist or just generally unsavoury ideas and put them in the mouth of Tycho, the ‘smarter’ of the two, then unleashing the creation on the world. I don’t know how the Penny Arcade guys manage IP issues, but I have every reason to believe that they would not be comfortable with the position I expressed using their content. Should they be able to request the ‘remix’ being taken down? If this seems far fetched, consider that until recently, it is the IP rights held by the government of Germany that prevented unauthorized editions of Mein Kampf from being published.

Here is an example where the ‘free publicity’ (let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that my imaginary Penny Arcade remix properly credits the authors for the original strip) the comic would be getting is entirely the kind they don’t want. Furthermore, it takes advantage of the recognition of their art style and the characteristics they have established over the years that the comic has been printed, namely putting the ‘smart’ idea in the mouth of the ‘smart’ character. By the construction of the example, this work is one that brings no benefit to the original creators and likely brings some harm through the association of their work with ideas with ideas they very likely do not want to be associated with. Here we seem to be able to draw an analogy to the patent case: The authors, presumably, do not like their ideas being expressed and do not want to have their work, or brand, associated with it. Here we can see a very sensible use of IP rights to take down the work and send a strong signal that they do not want to be associated with such ideas.

While it’s hard to argue that the status quo is ideal, it at least provides us some understandable motives through which someone might want to enforce IP rights, even if we may not personally agree with them (for instance, the same laws that prevented Mein Kampf from being published by seemingly anybody are also ones that are being used to say the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is not in the public domain) their use also isn’t completely inconceivable. We’ll now turn to see some cases where this may apply to streaming.

Streaming Someone Else’s Game

First, I should admit that many of the most concerning problems in the previous passages might be dealt with in something like the Twitch Terms of Service. For example, if I play Hearts of Iron as Germany, spouting neo-Nazi propaganda without irony, this will be banned. But this is not a particularly desirable solution either because the Terms of Service are selectively enforced, and does not place any power in the hands of the rights holder but rather the site on which the infringement is taking place. For example you’d likely think it a very strange conversation if you heard “My music is being played without permission and without compensation on your site.” “Oh, don’t worry about the infringement. We don’t like foul language so we were going to ban them for playing music with swearing in it.” Some (I’d argue most) rights holders are happy to support small projects by giving them permission to use their work, but I think all of them would prefer to have the option. Furthermore, this coverage is incomplete. There are different rules for different platforms, and it’s perfectly feasible for anyone to simply open up a stream on their own. The idea here is that even if we even address the worst of the ‘added-value’ streamers might bring to a game, relying on ToS alone does not really give creators a voice as to what happens with their creation after it’s released to the world.

But up to this point I’ve been dealing with broader principles and hypothetical (cartoonishly evil) streamers. Is there an example that I would have a reasonable chance of finding on a streaming site if pressed? There is one that is unfortunately common instance where a developer should be worried about the perception of the game: the stream is boring. Obviously you’re not boring, it must be the other guy, but the fact that there are so many unfollowed and unwatched streams on these platforms communicates that there are a large number of streams that are utterly failing to connect. Yes, some of these are simply trying to find their stride, and yes, there can be other factors affecting the viewership of a stream (likewise, being popular does not mean you aren’t boring. There are also well established casts that are cashing in on past glory), but there are low barriers to entry for streaming, and a lot of people who think there’s a fast dollar to be made playing video games in from too people. This is not a recipe for high standards in the average stream.

Before I go further, I’ll just clarify that I don’t think these streamers should stop, or that they shouldn’t make an effort (in fact, the majority would be improved if they started making an effort), and I am certainly not free from the accusation of being boring (“Play the game. What is this a talk show?” is not an unfamiliar phrase in my chat). But if we are going to make a general statement as to what a good deal it is for developers to allow streamers to use their games without their permission, then we should confront the fact that the quality of stream we’re thinking about is not representative of the majority of streams that will actually be using this access. If the claim is that unfettered access to a company’s IP is in their interest because of free publicity, then we should be sure that this is the kind of publicity that a developer wants.

This has a nice side effect of constraining the discussion to streams that are not specifically geared towards criticism or otherwise fall under unambiguous instances of fair use. It is not the developer’s right to silence critical views of their product. On the other hand, turning on a game and perpetually complaining about it does not constitute a critique (I have a particular big streamer in mind on a AAA title, but it serves as a general principle). More importantly, I think it is important that the product not be misrepresented either through overstating its benefits (shill reviews. My perpetual fear whenever I receive promo keys, because I am actually quite easily satisfied), or through underselling its strengths (ie. the ‘boring stream’). The former certainly is not short on attention, but the latter is equally concerning and receives less attention because it tends not to fall under our direct experience (companies aren’t going to pay unknowns for a shill review). And this is not a hypothetical, but rather a genuine problem I encountered when looking into a game I was interested in.

Buying Games Off Twitch

In a previous article I comment on how interesting I thought Satellite Reign looked but that I had reservations given that the reviews implied that a lot of attention had been given into creating an attractive product, but the gameplay left much to be desired. Now, having had the benefit of a full release, you can actually go into the Steam reviews and see a shift in public opinion (likely coinciding with a patch) where it ceased to be an ‘interactive trailer’ and held its own as a game. Having been disappointed with early access games in the past, however, I decided not to take the Steam reviewers’ word for it and instead decided to see what the game played like by going to Twitch.

There were not too many streams broadcasting it (which is probably a side effect of early access. The impulse to stream a new game isn’t exactly the same for a game you’ve already owned and played for months) and so I went down the list ordered in the same way Twitch orders them: by viewership. Lamentably, all of the English speaking streams I watched didn’t offer anything in the form of commentary. When they did interact with the channel/game it was practically monosyllabic. The challenge here is that while Satellite Reign is actually quite an exciting game, and has some tense moments while sneaking through compounds, it is not immediately apparent when you drop into the game without context. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking the game is quite slow at times given that missions tend to go best when you’re not detected, which means there is an incentive for planning and thought (none of which is communicated unless the streamer is actively participating in the broadcast instead of just passively playing a game while recording). I think this is a largely under appreciated element of strategy streams in that people familiar with the game may be able to appreciate strategic decisions made in and of themselves, but that to the average viewer, these streams are incomprehensible without context and explanation.

Now let’s consider this from the developer’s point of view. Here I am, a customer deciding whether or not this game is worth a purchase at near-full price (10% discount for launch week) and my purchasing decision now hinges on whether or not the game is appealing based on what I see from the streams I’m looking at. This may not be fair to the developer, as the appearance of someone else playing the game may not be representative of the experience of playing, but it’s all I have to go on. In the absence of another indicator, a stream is a nice way to get additional information and separate an overly positive view (marketing material), and the experience I’m paying for (unaltered footage of the game being played live). In this case we’re replacing an overly positive bias for the game with an overly negative bias for the game in the case of bad streams that are playing the game. It’s in my interest to be as objective as possible about these things (being overly critical denies me the ability to enjoy a game. Being overly understanding wastes money that could have been spent on something more fun), but the truth of the matter is that the experience of a stream is inevitably going to colour your opinion of the game, no matter how careful you are trying to disentangle the streamer from it. If the characters are just standing around, or meandering with seemingly no purpose, and there is no context for this behaviour, then they only reasonable conclusion I can draw is that this is a game with a lot of wandering around where nothing much happens.

This is likely most acutely felt in the case of independent games. If a new Battlefield game is released, or a WoW expansion, there is a substantial marketing effort behind it, and people feel compelled to have some kind of opinion on it (even if it’s “I don’t play WoW anymore, it was better in [insert expansion when person started playing]”). Trying it ‘to see what it’s like’ can very much be a reason for a purchase, and there is also a minimum quality threshold that these kind of blockbusters tend to hit (with notable exceptions). Like, I don’t know anybody who has played single player Battlefield 3, but for my money it was a pretty fun ride. Sort of like a summer action movie that you might have seen Harrison Ford star in. I’m sure a steady diet of this stuff might get dull, but I feel like I will receive some positive value from playing a big release, while there is literally no boundary as to  how bad an independent can be. AAA seem to compete more on “How much is this experience worth to you?” while indies have to compete on “Is this thing worth anything to you at all?”

It turns out that while independents certainly are the ones most in need for attention, but as a result, they are also highly susceptible to poor quality streams. If I had to make an estimation as to whether or not I would have enjoyed Satellite Reign based on what I saw on the 4 streams available at that time, I would have said it looked boring and that it probably was designed to rake in Early Access money with some fancy art and the wish for a good modern Syndicate style game. Here the ‘free publicity’ it received was decidedly negative and completely contrary to the actual experience of the game which his actually quite exciting and interesting. Fortunately, this wasn’t the end of the story.

Making a Decision on Satellite Reign

After exhausting my options with English streams, I noticed there was a streamer who tagged their Satellite Reign playthrough with [FR]. I had to take French in school and it is a requirement for a lot of government jobs in Canada (I also have some friends in Paris), so I try to get a little practice in by watching the French version of things. I thought Twitch might be a good opportunity for this as well, though my command of the language is very poor. The streamer was Elkinoo and his stream was an absolute delight to watch.

There’s a big lesson to be taken from here. I can’t claim to really know what’s being said on the stream a lot of the time, and can’t/don’t interact in chat a lot (although Elkinoo and his community are extremely friendly and accommodating, so I feel like I could participate a lot more), and yet none of these were impediments to enjoying the stream. Elkinoo is a remarkably friendly streamer, and has a degree of charisma that translates through things like tone and body language. What’s also noteworthy is that so far as establishing context for the actions (which I identified as a failing in the English streams), a French stream does not have the benefit of establishing this verbally given my weak comprehension. In addition to being a lot of fun to watch in its own right, it’s actually a good case study for English speakers simply because you get to see how other factors other than the direct words you say affect the entertainment value of the stream. For instance, I think Elkinoo possesses a delightful sense of humour and a wicked sense of comic timing, even though I wouldn’t classify it as a ‘comedy stream.’

Even despite my handicap of not being able to follow the full dialogue, I got a much better idea of what the game was about. It’s sort of funny how you can tell when a streamer is on a ‘okay I’m between objectives and let’s fill in the time’ part or in ‘alright, we’re about to take an objective’ part by their tone. He was playing the same game that the other streamers were, but I was able to see that any slowness I perceived in the game was more about the individual streams, and not a feature of the game itself. As you might expect, I wound up buying the game (and following Elkinoo. You should too!).

Streaming with IP in Mind

We live in a weird space so far as IP goes. I think that the failure of industries to adapt to digital distribution led to people adopting the piracy channels (Napster, Piratebay etc.) which has created something of a norm for piracy. The pendulum has somewhat swung back now that iTunes and Netflix provide digital alternatives for music and movies, but I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that there is a meaningful segment of the population that does not believe in paying for content still (of course, the availability of free content such as Twitch and YouTube also contributes to this, but I’m not entirely sure we have a truly free equivalent to Game of Thrones or House of Cards yet). While I may be misdiagnosing the origins, I think it’s safe to say that we do not put a lot of thought into IP considerations when we are producing or consuming entertainment.

In one sense I’m happy about this, because I think it’s better that we have innovative ideas and be able to implement them, but it’s not without its problems. If you left it to streamers, they’d obviously want to keep everything open because they live and die by their ability to work with other people’s IP. Twitch largely abdicates its responsibility concerning IP issues by adding a condition that streamers are responsible for obtaining the rights to the content they create (they are, of course, still happy to receive payment for advertising over infringing content, and would be shocked, shocked to find out if there was any infringement going on at their establishment). Twitch actually has a benefit from specialization regarding business matters and should probably be more active in asserting and establishing the rights of streamers (Twitch can hire better Lawyers to establish some general rule, rather than individual streamers working on their own account), but in the current state they really have no reason to do this. As a result, we’ll mute our VODs if we have to, not really care about whether or not we have the rights to the music on a live stream, and continue streaming a given game until we’re told not to.

Even though this is likely to be the status quo for the foreseeable future, I do think there’s one area in which an individual streamer can improve the way they handle other people’s IP. Ultimately it’s just simply to recognize that they are working with someone else’s work, one that almost certainly took considerable effort to bring to the market. In this sense it puts an obligation on us to show the game in the best light that we can. This is not to say we can’t criticize a game, or that we should misrepresent the quality of the product. Showing it the best light does not mean ‘skipping over’ weak spots in the game if I’d have played them normally, but rather we should do our best to be as entertaining as possible and show the game as it is. The game isn’t just a prop to be the butt of a cheap joke or a rant. If we put on a bad show, the consequence is not just felt in whatever hit to viewer/donation numbers we feel, but is also felt in the lost sales for the developer whose game was poorly presented, as was almost the case for Satellite Reign for me. As we saw above, larger games are less likely to suffer this as there are alternative streamers, but indies may never get another opportunity to show what they’re made of.

In the end, it’s a matter of recognizing the fact that we are profiting (even if only in a small way) from other people’s IP, and respecting the work by ensuring that we are providing some kind of added value in the form of commentary, skill, or viewer interaction.

Early Access: The Case of Caves of Qud

As you might have seen, @esprite_bay asked me to compare two games — Caves of Qud, and Halfway — and suggest which one I thought was better for streaming. This was the first I had heard of either title. I offered a response but, as is the risk of opinions on Twitter, the review was brief to the point of being dismissive. In particular, I contrasted Caves of Qud, an Early Access roguelike, to the fully released turn based strategy Halfway by pointing out Qud that Qud’s main selling points seemed to be on its potential. To my (pleasant!) surprise, Brian Bucklew (aka. @unormal), programmer at Freehold Games, respectfully weighed in by pointing out that Qud had been in development for 11 years. Any team that takes the time to engage an online presence as minor as mine is worth more than a single tweet, and so I committed to providing more thoughtful feedback. Given that Early Access, and game development in general, are topics that we’ve discussed on the stream more than occasionally, I thought it might be instructive to post an elaboration on that decision making processes.

What’s Good About Qud?

I’d like to begin in a slightly unexpected fashion and talk about the things I found interesting about Caves of Qud. This is partly to address an imbalance that is created by comparing two games where there has to be a winner and a loser (or a non-committal ‘I like, or hate, both’). While online discussion of games can seem predicated on the assumption that a preference of one title precludes the enjoyment of another (see: Dota 2 vs. League of Legends), this certainly does not align with my experience of gaming, and I’d hazard a guess that this assumption does not hold for the majority of gamers in general. In addition, by first articulating the value of the title, we’ll be in a better position to see the ‘tax’ that Early Access places on otherwise worthwhile games.

By its published description, Caves of Qud is an RPG, Adventure, Strategy game. Genres are much more fluid than they seem to have been in the past, and so such a description may not give you a very clear idea of what the game is like (while I have not played it myself, I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that the adventure in Caves of Qud has very little in common with the adventure in Grim Fandango or Full Throttle). Roguelike certainly does a lot to combine and clarify these genres, and it’s worth noting that the game really seems to wear this origin on its sleeve. With the revelation that the game has been in development for 11 years, it’s hard to talk about inspiration (even on a shorter timeline, anything I have to say on the inspiration of a game I have not had a hand in the creation of is simply a matter of conjecture), but it seems that Dwarf Fortress either has had some influence on the title through its ‘deep simulation’ (not that Dwarf Fortress has a monopoly on complexity. How many titles have we connected with Dwarf Fortress that may, in fact, have their origins in a game like Starflight?), or at least provides a point of comparison. The ASCII art, pages of text, emphasis on scope and complexity, and enumeration of cultures, mutations, casts, and kits all invite this comparison as well.

On this front alone, Caves of Qud is worthy of attention. Certainly people who like digging into lore and unwrapping rich, complex worlds are well represented among lovers of fantasy/sci-fi settings, and the game certainly promises to deliver on this front. In fact, it seems that this story is uncovered through interaction with the environment so, if you’re like me and thought the way the story of Dark Souls was slowly pieced out through interactions and reading descriptions was a positive feature, extended time in the game’s world appears to be rewarded. The emergent gameplay features heavily in the trailer’s narration as well as the Steam descriptions.

Emergent gameplay is a feature that interests me specifically. Those who have enjoyed the Crusader Kings II playthroughs, and specifically the House of Rose session which has no historical precedent (other than a lot of religious war), will know that I tremendously enjoy ‘filling in the blanks’ during streams of games like this. I’m also delighted when games hand me unexpected, but dramatically satisfying chance events, such as encountering a relative who surrendered his birthright in order to join a military order on the road to Jerusalem. I can’t imagine these kinds of games are easy to do, and yet Caves of Qud seems to offer this (perhaps a bit over enthusiastically on occasion if the bug reports are to be believed).

All in all, Caves of Qud seems to appeal to anyone who is interested in complex games with a large scope. In many ways, this is the bread and butter of my stream because, at the risk of being immodest, a common compliment I receive is that I have some ability to make more complex (to the point of being unplayed) games enjoyable to watch. As such, it’s not just worthy of my consideration, but also of anyone who happens to have similar interests to mine.

On Recommending Games

At this point it’s worth commenting that I generally don’t follow gaming news. I usually follow streamers, developers, and fellow gamers, then learn of things that might interest me that way. For instance, I did not know about Bloodborne until people started actually streaming it. As such, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heard of Halfway or Caves of Qud before, but the fact I find both interesting is something of a testament to the effectiveness of being able to rely on the advice of friends and other like-minded individuals.

Now, the context for my comments on Caves of Qud were, as identified above, in response to a recommendation as to which I thought would stream better. I took this to imply that the person asking was considering something that they would want to stream for themselves. When dealing with other people’s money it can sometimes translate into just being less careful overall (esprite gets and plays Qud so I can see if it’s something I’m interested in myself), but there is something of a reputational factor to consider (my opinions don’t count for much if I make too many chancy recommendations), in addition to the fact that I want to be as honest as I can in my estimations of people’s enjoyment of games. This means game recommendations are closely aligned to how I choose my own games. It’s hard to cry poverty when I have a machine capable of streaming, and can attend school, but the fact I’m embarking on the master’s means I’m adding another year of no employment while seeing the time I can spend on gaming shrink appreciably as the course material becomes more advanced. As such, while my tastes are already sensitive to maximizing the enjoyment I get out of the scare resources of time and money, this effect is amplified by my strong aversion to the possibility that I am causing someone to spend money on something they won’t enjoy, meaning I am going to be fairly conservative in my recommendations. To put it another way, if I were giving a gift, I’d feel safe going for an ‘out there’ pick, because at worst I give a gift that won’t be used, and at best I give someone a game they may not have otherwise picked up. If, on the other hand, someone gave me some money with which to buy them a game, I’d become a little more cautious because all of a sudden a ‘0 return game’ has a negative value given that some worldly resources were given up in obtaining it.

With this in mind, let’s consider some of the reasons why my personal interest in this game did not translate into a recommendation.

Selling Qud

Given that it spawned the exchange that inspired this article, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Early Access. Caves of Qud is presently in Early Access, which is a state that has earned a certain degree of infamy in the gaming community. While I think this reputation is largely deserved, it’s important not to be too dogmatic about these things. I have been severely burned in Early Access with games like Starbound (which I actually purchased before a playable version was available based on my enjoyment of Terraria), and found myself a little burned out on Don’t Starve by playing it before it was done. I’ve also enjoyed Dungeon of the Endless through Early Access, and am presently enjoying The Darkest Dungeon. Whether we think it’s right or wrong, and whether or not the model could use improvement (personally, I’m inclined to seeing early access funds held in escrow until the exit from EA, allowing developers to borrow against them, but providing an incentive to deliver a finished product in a timely fashion. But elaborating on this is probably best left for another time), Early Access is part of the landscape and now factors into our decisions to purchase.

I think it’s fair to say that there is a ‘tax’ on Early Access at this point. That is, seeing a game in this state is going to have a negative impact on the game’s perceived value. I think in many ways this is appropriate because the proposition is that the game is being purchased in an unfinished state. Certainly Valve states “This is the way games should be made” in terms of the idea of involving customers, which implies that Early Access is adding value, but it’s also worth noting that none of their own titles are in Early Access. The additional value through community input is also something of a public good, given that everyone benefits from the feedback, but only those who purchase in Early Access are in a position to give it (which, suggests that we will see a less than optimal production of feedback). Whatever promise the original conception of the system had has long since been overshadowed by its present form which seems effective at generating fairly lucrative vapourware. This is the environment in which Caves of Qud is currently operating.

There are some admirable ways in which Qud has decided to go about Early Access. You may notice that a lot of EA games appear to have put the art assets front and centre in order to make a particularly enticing product. For instance, I’m interested in Satellite Reign, but a casual review of the feedback over the course of the game’s development reveals a very good looking, and decidedly unplayable game for a fairly significant period of time (this is certainly a title I’m waiting for a full release on). All of Qud’s promotional material (on Steam, the only source I based my decision on) displays the game in its ASCII form (I take the commitment to ‘tile art’ to mean that there will be a visual overhaul of the game at some point, though I’m not sufficiently versed in developer lingo to know if this is the case). Unfortunately, proverbs about books and covers notwithstanding, it makes the valuation of the game quite difficult as there’s no indication if this is a fly-by-night cash grab with ambitions that will only be fulfilled with a sufficient number of sales, or if the game will be seen through to completion. Even with the (not unwarranted, given Freehold’s past success in shipping quality games) assumption that the developer will see the project though to a timely completion, there’s no indication as to what the final style will look like.

This dilemma is extended through the game’s trailer, even though I actually really like its style. For someone who enjoys emergent gameplay, and thinks that Caves of Qud has a chance of being something very interesting, it’s neat to see a promotional video that focuses entirely on the experiences that happen, rendered in an attractive voiceover over gameplay (and, as someone who hopes to maybe one day lend their voice to some kind of game, special commendation for providing a link to the actress who provided such a memorable voiceover). The challenge is that there is still quite a bit of good faith that I as a consumer need to place on this game so far as entertainment is concerned. This is to say that while it may be true the game contains a staredown with a mother bear, whether this experience is enjoyable or dramatically satisfying in the current or future versions of the game is highly speculative in nature. Even knowing that the game has been 11 years in development (something unknown at the time of the recommendation) does not necessarily mean that all of this hard work will be actually felt in the experience of the game. That is, it’s possible that all of these encounters may simply feel like random draws from a fairly extensive library of prepared scenarios, and so miss out on component that creates the appeal emergent gameplay. Here it may be worth mentioning that the new Steam returns policy creates the possibility to return games that fail in this regard, though for the purposes of the reputational risk of recommending a bad game, a returned game is still a costly game.

These are primarily what I mean through the game being sold on ‘potential’. Clearly there is something of a leap of faith that must be taken on any game (Darkest Dungeon has some cool voice overs, but ‘does the world need another dungeon crawler?’), but based on the available information it’s very hard to discern whether I would be experiencing a personal narrative emerging out of this massive world, or just pushing around an ASCII character and reading flavour text with varying degrees of unenthusiastic detachment. The intention here is not to be overly pessimistic, but rather to counterbalance the ‘ideal version’ of the game (the version that gets sold to us and we usually never see) with the ‘disappointment version’ (the one that at best is what we encounter in EA and gets fixed, or at worst is released as a full product after which everyone talks about what a scam EA is).

The real kiss of death for a recommendation of Caves of Qud came in the ad copy though, which is one area in which I think there can be some improvement. I think it’s safe to say two things about the game:

  • The developers face an uphill battle regarding early access (evidenced by the need to differentiate it from “EA hot air”)
  • The people who are on board are really invested in the world (as evidenced by particularly strong reviews)

Here are the first words I read about Caves of Qud: “Caves of Qud is a science fantasy roguelike epic steeped in retrofuturism, deep simulation, and swathes of sentient plants. Come inhabit an exotic world and chisel through layers of thousand-year-old civilizations” (with tags Early Access, Rogue-like, RPG, Indie, Strategy). Given the ‘tax’ of Early Access, it’s really hard to read the blend of two genres (science fantasy), and the terms: roguelike, epic, retrofuturism, and deep simulation as anything but buzzwords. Obviously my opinions are my own, but I remember thinking “Well gee, why don’t you throw zombies, open world, and crafting in there too?” Under ‘About the Game’ there’s a lot that is written about the setting, then finally a list of features in the game (which sort of gets covered in the preceding paragraphs: the fact that there is a system that allows me to get my limbs hacked off may simply mean there’s a very complex system inside an otherwise uninteresting game). In my own case (arguably the worst case), the suspicions aroused by the short writeup coloured a lot of the features as further evidence there was no real substance to the game (for example, procedurally generated is a commonly advertised feature that no longer holds a promise as to the quality of a given title).

So far as I can tell, anyone who is invested in Caves of Qud will like the description for the game, because of the focus on the environment and its lore. In this sense it’s quite effective, and so if the average member of the game’s potential audience is already invested in the world of Caves of Qud, then my under-enthusiastic response is simply a reflection of my individual preferences and, so it’s just a matter of a mismatch between the game I was recommended and my responses to its ad copy. If, however, the aim of the ‘about the game’ sections are intended to convert neutral readers to sales, I feel like more work needs to be done in communicating how these interesting mechanics translate into rewarding gameplay.

In one sense, I feel the exit from Early Access will already be a strong shift towards making the existing writeups more effective. Where Early Access immediately creates suspicion for some of the terms used, the absence of this label allows a potential consumer to view the game with less jaded eyes. It’s almost a weird Orwellian world we live in now with Early Access where legitimate descriptions of the game in question arouse suspicion simply because the abuse of those same terms through lesser titles (that is, I think Caves of Qud is giving an accurate description of itself, but one that carries unintended meaning through previous misuse of these words). Whether developers should adapt to the potential that others have abused these terms, or attempt to let their games stand on their own is clearly a matter for them to resolve. It’s worth remembering that my thoughts in this regard are only going to be informed by my individual experience of buying and recommending games, while a developer’s living is inextricably tied into navigating these kinds of decisions. However, I felt the fact that the team was invested enough to correct a misunderstanding on my part merited the best attempt to give as honest of an accounting as I could of the reasons why I rated the games the way I did.

In the end fact that the alternative (Halfway) had a smaller price tag meant that even posted concerns about past bugs (which were also noted as being fixed), and a more straightforward, comprehensible presentation meant that Halfway was ultimately a safer choice, though the better choice could only ever be determined by playing both. In addition, given that I was recommending the game to another streamer who may not derive the same pleasure from ‘filling in the blanks’ on stream, Halfway seemed to be a bit more appropriate in terms of a more general ‘game to stream’ criteria.

Conclusion

Having put down the specific decision process of making a recommendation (or lack of one in this case) for a game like Caves of Qud has strengthened my opinion that the current practice of Early Access has largely hurt the games that it should have been built to support. Caves of Qud seems to come about the enterprise honestly: it has reserved any visual polish for the end, opting instead on to build (what appears to be) a sprawling world of experiences that now require actual players to iterate through the encounters to uncover any problems. In an ideal world the question is if a player is invested enough in the potential of the game that they will play an incomplete version without a discount, but this has long since been replaced by the question as to whether or not the game being sold bears any relation to what the finished product will actually look like.

So divorced from the context of recommending a title to anyone else, what do I think of Caves of Qud? I’m interested, but not enough to take the plunge yet. In the end, I really only can gain from waiting to see how the game turns out. Waiting increases the likelihood of tutorials being written, bugs being ironed out, and feedback from people not so invested in the game already being presented (that is, both positive and negative reviews. Though in general, I heavily discount Steam reviews simply I have no frame of reference for the individual’s comments). Do I think this should be a universal response? Hardly. My benefit from waiting derives entirely from people willing to take the plunge. While I may not have made the decision to purchase the game for myself, I can say that  any development team that shows the kind of dedication to their product that Freehold has stands out. Hopefully anyone who’s been good enough to read through to the end will be able to take this elaboration and give this worthy title its due.