Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Gamasutra Explains: The YouTuber Phenomenon
View All     RSS
November 1, 2014
arrowPress Releases
November 1, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Gamasutra Explains: The YouTuber Phenomenon

July 31, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Another reason for the attention: Money 

Money always creates interest. We've already reported that PewDiePie generated $4 million in 2013. Disney recently acquired the YouTube multi-channel network (or "MCN," in YouTube culture) he works with, Maker Studios, for $500 million.

While Maker has many shows outside of games, that acquisition illustrates two things: that mainstream media companies are interested in the YouTube space, and that the entertainment establishment views YouTube as a distinct market and medium from its closest analogues, TV and film.

That kind of heat generates a lot of light; everyone is now closely watching the space. While not every company will be acquired -- some will see investments, and others may flounder -- the Disney deal alone is enough to stir up the pond. As always, old media companies are desperate to stay on top of new trends.

New companies will also emerge; YouTubers that started off as individuals will grow into collectives, and then into new businesses -- which has already happened with Yogscast and 3BlackDot, a marketing and content company co-founded by SeaNanners and Syndicate along with two ex-Machinima staffers. 

Key Quote: "We've noted for some time now that a lot of our younger audience spends a lot of time on YouTube. ... We wanted to propel ourselves further in that arena in as quickly and as high quality a way that we could." - Disney exec Kevin Mayer 

We said it before, we'll say it again: Money 

YouTubers also take money from game developers -- and make money for them, as Howard Tsao writes in this blog post about Guns of Icarus Online and its partnership with YouTube network Polaris (including popular YouTuber TotalBiscuit.)

Tsao paid the company to promote his game; the YouTubers played the game; once posted, the videos generated sales of the game.

Guns of Icarus Online monthly sales show boosts from Yogscast, TotalBiscuit, PewDiePie, Polaris 
(chart by Howard Tsao)

And with developers paying YouTubers to cover their games -- in relationships that are getting tighter all the time -- and partnering with video portals for distribution, the amount of money moving every which way around this phenomenon will both ensure its continuance and everyone's interest in it. 

Key Quote: "For instance, one YouTube video had incredibly generated over $35K in sales for us on its first day of going live." - Guns of Icarus Online developer Howard Tsao

How do they reach audiences? 

YouTubers appeal to their audiences in different ways from traditional game journalists. That's obvious when you consider the medium itself -- printed text versus video -- but it goes beyond that. After all, game websites long pioneered the use of video; many of the gamer-oriented publications also have a "we're just like you" ethos.

There's still a wall there.

The ad-hoc, direct-to-fan approach, and most importantly the entertainment focus of these YouTube videos sets them apart.  They're convenient, direct, clear, and funny. They connect.

While it's obvious that some viewers are influenced to buy games based on the YouTubers' experiences and criticisms, it's just as obvious that many simply check them out to see what it looks like when someone plays a game they're interested in.

But if you watched that PewDiePie video embedded earlier in this article -- whether you enjoyed it or you didn't -- it's obvious that it is, in and of itself, a piece of entertainment, not criticism.

Whether or not you ever play the game featured in a video, you can enjoy the YouTuber's treatment of it. That's one of the reasons that the phenomenon has taken off, and why the most famous series Game Grumps has ever produced is its full playthrough of Sega's notoriously awful 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog reboot.

"My name is PewDiePie"

YouTubers are approachable, accessible, and fun. They're providing something that established media -- both in the form of the online enthusiast game press and entrenched corporations like Disney -- was not equipped to: a simple connection. They treat games as players do; the games press, well, it's still the press, and can never shake that off.

Kjellberg chalks up his success to "breaking the wall between the viewer and what's behind the screen." The oldest video still active on his account? A Minecraft session with a friend.

This article by Maddy Meyers is essential reading if you're trying to understand the appeal of Kjellberg and his cohort.

Key quote: "The implication of this jealousy is that being funny on the internet is easy, and that Kjellberg’s audience is too stupid to realize that they’re supposed to be reading long-form feature stories. I would say that my fellow journalists need to think harder about what Kjellberg offers to his audience that they do not." - Maddy Meyers, "In Defense of PewDiePie" 

Their ethics are under the microscope

If you've been reading Gamasutra, you know we did a recent dive into the ethics of YouTubers. We're not alone, as this excellent article by Simon Parkin illustrates.  

The short of it: Some YouTubers are accepting money from developers and publishers to feature their games, and their disclosure of this fact may not meet legal standards. Even if it does, well... Is it quite on the level to take money to talk about games when you oftentimes do it for free, and it's hard to distinguish which is which? Maybe not.

There's a lot more to the issue than this quick summary, but you've either already read the articles linked above -- or you should do so immediately. One sign that this is a developing issue, however, is that John "TotalBiscuit" Bain has now said that, moving forward, his sponsored videos will include a splash screen that clearly identifies them as paid-for.

Key quote: "Generally speaking, if an advertiser or a marketer is paying someone to write favorable reviews, the reviewer needs to disclose that, and that disclosure should be clear and conspicuous, and should be upfront and easy to see where the viewer won't miss it." - The Federal Trade Commission's Mary Engle

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Related Jobs

Twisted Pixel Games
Twisted Pixel Games — Austin, Texas, United States

Senior Graphics and Systems Engineer
Twisted Pixel Games
Twisted Pixel Games — Austin, Texas, United States

Mid-level Tools and Systems Engineer
Giant Sparrow
Giant Sparrow — Playa Vista, California, United States

Junior 3D Artist
Giant Sparrow
Giant Sparrow — Playa Vista, California, United States

Lead Artist


George Burdell
profile image
As games become "more watchable" for youtube, will they also become "less playable" ?

Javier Degirolmo
profile image
Not necessarily, usually those situations that make them watchable end up being even more interesting when you're the one playing. The problem would be if you shoehorn "watchability" on a design that doesn't lend itself very well to that (which usually results in both the gameplay suffering and the game not being very fun to watch either).

Christian Nutt
profile image
It seems not. What many YouTubers seem to like (and it's partially generational, I expect, but also has to do with showmanship, so to speak) are games that offer a lot of unpredictability. Minecraft is a big star, of course, because it's so popular but also because it offers a lot of changeability and randomness. But other sandbox / procedural games do well. Linear, storytelling games, less so, because they're set.

So this is influencing game design away from that, at least in cases where people want to appeal to YouTubers. But so are other factors, like the popularity of Minecraft, the popularity of sandbox games on Steam (think DayZ, Rust, The Forest) or even Kerbal Space Program, which is really player-directed if not sandbox.

Peeeeersonally I don't have a lot of interest in these kinds of games for a variety of reasons, but I wouldn't call them "less playable" in some sort of inherent way even if it is the case on my part.

Emile Tynures
profile image
Very much agree with this, the less player agency the less the videos will tend to differ from both other videos of the same game by other channels and from the game experience someone could get by going out, buying, and then playing, the game.

In addition the more player agency the more it allows the individual content creators 'personality' to show through and make the video unique - which is the selling point of most channels, not the content but the personality behind them. The more the personality can impress their unique brand/persona/style on the gameplay the better the video. Generally.

Benjy Davo
profile image
Indeed Amnesia Dark Descent was a youtube marvel due to its systemic gameplay. Even the makers admitted they traced a decent portion of their sales to youtube.

Steve Fulton
profile image
Another great example of a younger generation taking the tools supplied to them by an older gen, and doing something unexpected.

Matt Robb
profile image
In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons the YouTuber phenomenon has caught on as much as it has is because you almost never see real gameplay in any of the marketing done for any game. You see a few flashy bits, a lot of clips from cinematics, and various non-game artwork and the like.

A lot of the traditional media coverage has been co-opted by the game companies themselves, whether through direct paid reviews or just an unwillingness to play ball with media companies willing to put actual criticism into their reviews. As we've seen lately, this problem is leaking into the "YouTuber" space for the same reasons.

You're basically stuck with demos and trying to find bloggers and/or YouTubers you feel you can actually trust. Game demos seem to be becoming less and less common. F2P games are getting more clever about pushing the paywalls out far enough for you to feel time/effort invested before you hit them. That really leaves YouTube or piracy if I want to see what a game is really like before buying.

Emile Tynures
profile image
Note that important info (at least in my opinion) in regards to the MCNs listed at the end has been missed:

"Maker Studios. A very popular "multi-channel network," or MCN. Home of PewDiePie, and acquired by Disney for as much as $950 million.

Polaris. Another popular MCN, which has worked with TotalBiscuit and PewDiePie.

Yogscast. YouTubers who became a collective, and now produce a number of popular shows."

Yogscast is actually PART of Polaris, and Polaris is in turn part of Maker. Not a huge distinction to someone on the outside but I think it is important to note.

Christian Nutt
profile image
That is important and I have to admit, it's been hard to untangle some of these relationships.

SD Marlow
profile image
I don't subscribe to any of those top 10 channels, and looking thru their videos, I'm not about to start. The "personalities" I do follow provide more in-depth or behind the scenes kind of videos, or are just interesting people who's uploads I can watch over coffee or when I have lunch at my desk (which happens way more than it should).

The trend I don't care for is the over-produced, almost TV-like eye candy videos that are more about flash and "look-at-me look-at-me" antics. The most recent was a painful "junky" of a video about comic-con... just the look on a female cosplayer's face when the guy said something about her cleavage. Ouch. NOT entertained by that.

Steven Christian
profile image
Could you share some of these "personalities"?

Simas Oliveira
profile image
I'm in the same boat as SD Marlow, never even heard of most of this top YouTubers, so I can provide some great channels that you could watch over coffee, or more likely over a meal. This is stuff I find really good, in arbitrary order of preference:


Hope you find some of these channels good for your tastes!

Jonathan Murphy
profile image
It's just another social craze. Remember the waves of 2-5 million players who jumped from one MMO to the next? How about the massive fitness craze of the Wii, then motion controls finally dying with the Kinect. Facebook was a big deal. One day it'll join Myspace, Aim in the pile. I'm more concerned with indie games getting a free pass on critical reviews. Games that have a goat with rag doll mechanics(and that's it). When I think $10-$20, I think Cave Story, or Bastion. With all crazes it'll settle down. The new fad will replace it.

This is mostly Television's fault. The amount or garbage they try to pass off as entertainment has made people move onto Netflix, Youtube. When the History Channel started coverage on Ice Road Truckers. I said, "Good bye you fkers."

Kyle Redd
profile image
Does anyone know of a "Let's Play" channel that does gameplay videos of current games, but with little or no audio commentary by the player? I'm interested in these videos because they provide a clear, unedited look at how a game actually plays (making them much more informative than trailers or other publisher/developer-created videos), but I want to hear the actual audio of the game instead of all the endless yammering.

The only channel I've been able to find that advertises "no commentary" is Alzu Gaming, but they play big AAA games almost exclusively. I'm looking more for someone that focuses on $10-$30 PC games.

Loren H
profile image
I'm not quite what you're looking for, but I don't know maybe you'll find it interesting. I mainly like to play games (not necessarily new) and just stream them without really any commentary on Twitch. I also have a YouTube channel, but both of these avenues I don't post a lot. I guess I don't feel super motivated to do so, what with a lack of views/user engagement. But regardless, if you care to check my stuff out here's the relevant info for ya:

I threw my twitter in there because if I decide to stream on twitch you'll see me tweet about it.

Mike Higbee
profile image
What you're looking for is Long Plays.

Kyle Redd
profile image

Thank you. I searched around and found several Long Plays I was looking for.

Todd Boyd
profile image
Have never seen a PewDiePie video before today. By the end of it, I was laughing myself to death, tears streaming down my face... in my cube at work. Whoops.

Bernie M
profile image
Erm, ... nope. Everything starts with a good game. After that, various media outlet (like Youtube) *might* pickup your game. But games first!

Erskine Blue
profile image
Nothing new here, make a good game. Ship something with glitches and the tubers will eviscerate it and make money while doing so.

Terry Lugviel
profile image
So artistic integrity is being sacrificed in favor of looking good on YouTube? Everything the indie game market achieved has just been dismantled. I guess it's back to making video games as a business instead of an art form.

"that features the YouTubers as playable characters in the game -- and, in turn, they promote it to their fans."

That's one way to get a site to give you a great review.