The Rise of The Influencer - And Why Epic's New Store Approach Is Huge
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Ten years ago in 2009, the word influencer didn’t bear much weight. Our most watched YouTube video was Susan Boyle singing her heart out and Facebook had only just become cash positive as a company. Social media was not what it is today with traditional media forms still dominating gaming. Reviews and articles circulated in magazines and TV as often as they did online and we still bought a majority of games from brick and mortar stores, lining up for precious midnight release collectors editions. While influencer as a word has been around since the mid 1600s, it wasn’t a job title according to the dictionary until 2016.
Obviously, a lot has changed. There’s something we’ve missed though—the degree to which influencer culture has shaped our media consumption over time and is doing so more than ever in our present day.
The millennial childhood was a constant barrage of new technology, consoles, games, mediums, access, often growing up in the age of the internet and the birth of memes—making for a consumer generation that is constantly looking to be the first. The first to tell you how great a movie was, or how good a TV series is.
Remember liking bands “before they were cool”? Yep, we need to be first.
With limited access to strong download speeds, a lot of these ‘firsts’ spread by word of mouth, listening to songs on shared headphones, or crowding around a PC to look at a weird website or FunnyJunk video. As YouTube influencers began to appear with viral content, like your JennaMarbles’ and ShaneDawsons’, slowly but surely we began to cultivate an entirely new form of relationship. Just like those friends we crowded around a PC with, we began to engage with consistent content from specific people. Often, the content didn’t matter—it was like catching up with a friend.
Millennials in 2019 are now aged between 23 and 38 —quite far from the youthful, irresponsible image they are often lauded with in the media. With one of the biggest markets purchasing PC games being 18–35 year olds, millennials make up the largest chunk of the PC gaming audience. They are also increasingly seen as burned out, possibly due to the hangover of going from delayed and fragmented interactions to constant connection and our “always on” culture in the space of years. They are constantly seeking nostalgia (perhaps desperate for the simpler times above) and emotional intimacy but unsure how to achieve it.
A rise in apps like Tinder replacing conventional dating methods, coupled with nostalgia for the age of instant messenger log-on/log-off has left millennials desperate to find ways to fulfil these needs—however they are more anxious and tired than ever before. Instead, we look to spaces online where the onus of this intimacy is on the influencer or content creator we’re engaging with.
All of these factors have contributed to the value of the influencer and seem to be interacting in new and strange ways. There are numerous articles and studies to show their impact on us as consumers. Their content is often easy to digest so we can comfortably enjoy the second-hand nostalgia and intimacy. Now, with stronger access to personal computers to the point they’re in our hands, better internet connections, and a more global landscape than ever before we have Netflix, Kindle Unlimited, Apple Music, Spotify, Razor Subscriptions, Comic Subscriptions, Food Subscriptions—everything has become an accessible service where we are guaranteed to have access to something new on a schedule, and more often that not, an entire tier above: new and exclusive (e.g. Patreon, YouTube Red).
Influencers are constantly expected to pump out new content—regardless of their branding. If you’re a streamer and you stream less than a few times a week, people will leave, seeking the next new thing. If you’re a YouTuber and don’t upload frequently enough, you’ll see subscribers disappear. In order to maintain a relationship with your audience, you need to be as active, if not more so than the audience themselves—who, with global reach, are always on. Think about it—your audience literally never sleeps, because someone in the world is awake. (Sorry to spook you, content creators.)
In order to maintain a relationship with your audience, you need to be as active, if not more so than the audience themselves—who, with global reach, are always on.
Let’s talk specifically about gaming influencers. They create their audiences by cultivating a brand for their channel—whatever that may be. Often, this means a particular style of game or experience whether social, individual, intense, comical. It also means they constantly need to be able to provide something new, yet relevant, to their audience. This might mean they only play first person shooters, but variety streaming (that is, streaming more than one game or game type) is highly difficult to get audiences to consistently engage with, even within a similar genre.
So, what is the average creator going to do? They find a game-as-a-service (GaaS), like Fortnite, that’s widely played, constantly releasing something new for them to discuss, report on, and talk about—essentially providing a trickle down funnel of content. They find a shtick or funny persona to put on. They create a customised community where you get to feel like you’re a part of something. They play games with you that make you feel like you are their friend. Maybe they do all of these and more.
By creating subscription models with their audience that are more akin to friendships, we are far more open to the experience of subscribing to content across all these other platforms. With the shift away from traditional media due to a lack of direct connection to creator at times (think Giant Bomb—you, as an audience, feel like you know the team thanks to the videos, social media and so on that support their personal voices), we seek out this feeling everywhere. Netflix's’ social media talks to us like they’re recommending a show as our friend and we respond positively to it—it’s new, it’s exciting. Even Sex Education, one of the most recent Netflix Originals is seeing discussion everywhere, barely a week after YOU was the “hit new show.”
Influencers have, over time, primed us as viewers to look for ongoing engagement that you often can’t find outside your own friends. They’ve personalised it as a consistent touchstone for emotional satisfaction, alongside whatever your hobby is. With access to games and development of games rising as a medium, paired with a greater level of interactivity than a clothing haul or written review, we have a perfect storm—that Epic Games has cleverly decided to bank on for curating their sales funnel and continuing to close the gap between influencer and trusted friend.
Epic Games announced that influencers will help to curate and create the game discovery system on the new Epic Store—with influencers receiving a cut of the profits.
To jump start the creator economy, Epic will cover the first 5% of creator revenue-sharing for the first 24 months. Sergey Galyonkin, creator of Steam Spy and team member at Epic stated on Twitter that he “[believes] influencers are one of the main game discovery engines in the industry right now. Friends are the most important one, of course. In-store discovery while important is nowhere as important as those two.”
I recommend reading the whole thread, but he also says:
“Our goal is to empower smaller devs to have the same access to creators that only big publishers right now can afford. It’s not in any way mandatory, we’re just leveling the playing field, giving devs the tools. On the other hand, it also levels the playing field for mid-sized and small creators. We found that ROI on small and mid-sized creators is actually better when running promotional campaigns, but there are so many of them, most devs can’t manage that. We’ll give them the tools.”
While this initially sounds good for indies, it could be difficult to get influencers on board for smaller titles if the revenue isn’t worth their time. However, the Epic Games store looks to be planning to address many of the different landscapes hungers: exclusivity, newness, influencer creator relationships, smaller and stronger community connection, higher developer margins. It’s aiming to tick boxes in marketing approaches and recognise the shifting landscape of distribution and consumption in an attempt to reach all the right people, in the right places, at the right time, right now.
A lot of people are displeased with this— as influencers are increasingly becoming more commercialised, the same questions we asked of traditional media outlets are coming into play. As these people, once our relatable down to earth friends, become their own brands, we begin to treat them as such. Are they truly looking out for us, the normal individual? As a society, we are beginning to turn away from them even as we continue consume their content—deeming them fake, biased— you merely need to look at the concerns being voiced on Twitter about the Epic Store Creator Program to see this.
There is a very real chance we are seeing a new era of media consumption begin, as we saw a decade ago— perhaps the power influencers wield will fall as the market becomes ever saturated, with people always searching for the newer, smaller, intimate experiences. Maybe distribution platforms like itch.io will double down on being your friendly neighbourhood distribution service, alongside other big-business platforms. Perhaps large influencers like Ninjaget bigger, becoming the 1% and becoming more brand than individual, until they are treated with the same fervour and disdain as many major celebrities. Will developers shift to games as a service thinking this may be the only way to secure content creators over time to consistently maintain an audience and new buyers?
There are so many things at play here. We’re just getting started.
I’d love to know your thoughts—let me know here, or you can ping me @merryh on Twitter.