Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Benevolent" Nintendo Lets You Let's Play (For Their Financial Gain)

(Original artist unknown, let me know)
In case you haven't noticed, recording oneself playing through a video game and then sharing the video on Youtube (aka making Let's Play (LP) videos) is kind of a thing nowadays. There are seemingly gazillions of channels uploading kablillions (citation needed) of videos of games for your viewing pleasure, and some are even popular enough that they earn a significant amount of money from their viewers viewing ads in the videos.

Why would people want to watch someone else play a game, you ask? For any of a variety of reasons including: to see what a game is like before buying it, to watch the rest of a game that is too difficult to finish, to watch part or all of a game that you're too lazy or unable (due to region-locking, etc.) to play yourself, or just because the player's reactions are entertaining to watch. Whatever the case, they're pretty darn popular, say nothing about the rapidly growing popularity of live streams on

Now what Nintendo has done this week that's gotten the LP community in an uproar is staking its claim on its games by running ads on LP videos "over a certain length" and collecting the ad revenue for itself. For many small time LPers (like me), that might not be a very big deal, but for more popular channels, it could be disastrous. What this means is that small channels which didn't run ads for their viewers' convenience may now have ads anyway and popular channels which were previously earning money in ad revenue, will no longer earn revenue from videos that Nintendo stakes its claim on.

Nintendo has every right by law (and by Youtube's terms of service) to do this and could even demand that the videos be removed if they wanted to (a fact that they made clear in their official statement, basically saying "you should be thankful for the privilege of earning us ad revenue, since we could shut you down completely").

It's the same reasoning behind not being allowed to upload copyrighted movies and music to Youtube. Except that video games are not the same as movies and music. While uploading music and movies is essentially giving it away for free, gameplay videos do not capture one important aspect of video games that music and movies lack: interactivity. 

If you can watch a movie online for free, there's no need to buy it. However, if you watch a game online, you may get to see the story, but you'd be missing out on actually playing the game yourself, the whole point of video games as a form of entertainment, and thus you'd still have a reason to buy the game for yourself.

Would I be infringing on copyright by showing off my
awesome new bounce house? (img source)
There's also the issue of fair use. In most cases, the gameplay videos aren't simply being uploaded raw, but are uploaded after dedicating a significant amount of time to cutting videos, adding commentary and reaction videos, balancing audio, and other editing. By the time a professional quality Let's Play video is finished, it isn't solely a display of the game developer's work, but is also an original work by the LPer (albeit, one significantly using the game as source material). You could compare it to taking a video of one of those inflatable bounce houses and the bounce house patent holder claiming ownership of your video because you used their product to produce the video. Or if football players couldn't earn money for playing football because they weren't the ones who invented the game. It certainly is a grey area in regards to copyright, though as of now, the law is on the side of the copyright holders. Still, there's always the possibility that the law could be "wrong" (for lack of a better word) and changed in the future.

The troubling thing is the precedent that this sets. If all video game companies forced their own ads on LPers of their games, it's likely that the number of professional Let's Play videos would decrease significantly. Or worse, other companies could demand that videos be taken down completely (perhaps to stop people from seeing how much their game sucks, as some companies do with review embargoes). If this trend carried over to the live-streaming community, the entire streaming site could go under without any way to make money off of the streams.

Let's Play videos are essentially advertising the games that they show off already and are a rapidly growing phenomenon. One could even argue that game companies should be paying the LPers for the free publicity. The announced Playstation 4 will have a share button built into the controller to facilitate sharing gameplay footage (though likely in small chunks and possibly also with ads), and there are rumors that the next XBox may also place some focus on sharing gameplay online. Although Nintendo may be smart and well within its rights to make this move from a financial standpoint, I have my doubts as to whether it will be worth inconveniencing such a large and growing subset of its fanbase in the long run.
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