Dabe Alan

War on YouTube: How publishers are missing the boat on video coverage, and attacking their friends

War on YouTube: How publishers are missing the boat on video coverage, and attacking their friends

The world of Youtube is still relatively young, but the explosive popularity of Let's Play videos and coverage of games from online personalities like PewDiePie and John “TotalBiscuit” Bain can bring hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of viewers to the games they discuss on their Youtube channels.

It’s good publicity, and if any news outlet or blog had an audience this size the publishers would roll out the red carpet with review code, invitations to events, and priority coverage for the larger games. The problem isn’t just that many publishers and developers are skeptical of YouTube coverage, but many actively stop anyone from making videos of their games.

It’s a backwards approach, and some publishers directly attack the people covering their games via YouTube. This is one situation where it may not be wise to fight the future.

What’s going on?

The terms of service of some games now include language that states it’s against the rules to “monetize” videos of a game. So if someone like Bain makes a video of a game, talks over it, or presents a video review or preview using in-game footage, he can find himself shut down.

Here are the rules about video content from the “Materials Usage License” of Final Fantasy XIV:

  • The video must not require a paid membership for viewing;
  • You may not monetize your video via the YouTube partner program or any similar programs on other video sharing sites.
  • You may not split our videos (vocal, music, visual, etc.) and distribute components as separate assets;
  • You may not combine or synchronize the Materials with third party content (e.g., a mash-up), but you may include the Materials alongside third party content (e.g., before or after in the same video) as long as you also have permission from the original copyright owner);
  • The video must not contain racist, sexist, homophobic or generally offensive content of any kind. This includes graphic violence or sexually explicit content.

It’s the second part that’s so damaging. Those who cover games on YouTube depend on ad revenue to make a living, and this rule basically destroys their ability to profit from the video. For some this is a full-time job, and the rule against ads is the equivalent of saying PAR can’t run ads on a page that shows a video or has a review. It’s a direct attack against the business model, and the publishers have the muscle to follow up on the threat.

So what happens if you ignore the rule against monetized videos? “There are two things that could happen,” Bain explained. “It could be that they simply not deal with you anymore, at which point you get blacklisted by the PR company so you can no longer get review code or access for interviews, or they can take it directly to Youtube and put out a DMCA copyright claim on your footage. If you get three of those your entire channel is terminated.”

Bain has received two DMCA claims from Sega, both from videos talking about Shining Force 3, a Sega Saturn RPG released in 1998. The strikes came in within a few minutes of each other, and he quickly removed all videos that showed any footage from Sega titles. Other channels were reportedly taken down completely.

Nintendo is another company that received negative press for attacking YouTube channels, and almost shut down the streaming of a Super Smash Bros. tournament at EVO 2013. The stream went on to attract over 130,0000 concurrent viewers, all of whom were able to see Super Smash played at the highest level. It was briefly the most widely viewed fighting game in history. That’s buzz you can’t buy, even though Nintendo seemed content to discourage it.

You have to dig through the terms of service to find these limitations as the reviewers' guide, which details restrictions on the use of content by the press, doesn’t mention the issue of monetized video. So Square Enix sent a copy of the game to someone who makes their living on Youtube, without mentioning that the game can’t be covered on YouTube. Even worse, Bain may be one DMCA strike away from losing his Youtube channel.

He’s since stopped covering Sega titles, and his audience will never see a video about Final Fantasy XIV. Bain’s videos easily find hundreds of thousands of views, and in some cases millions of views. There are hundreds of games to cover in any given month; Sega and Square Enix are only making the decision to avoid their games easier.

I reached out to Sega and Square Enix for comment, and have yet to hear back. This morning, however, Square Enix seemed to reverse the restrictions on video taken from Final Fantasy XIV. Here is the new text in the License:

You may not use the Materials for any sales or commercial use, meaning you cannot receive license fees or advertising revenue, except as part of the partner programs operated by YouTube.com, Twitch.tv, Ustream.tv, or similar programs. If the operator of a partner program seeks to confirm our policy, please point them to this page as we do not have the resources to respond to all requests.

What’s been lost

Most companies understand the power of YouTube. Devolver Digital released this handy guide to monetizing video of their games, and in fact sends preview code to YouTube commentators for coverage. Activision invited a number of YouTube personalities to cover the latest Call of Duty event, and provided an example of a live match on stage, complete with two big-name casters providing commentary.

Activision used to send out automated DMCA claims, but that time may be over. “For the most part, for Call of Duty they’ve been cooperative, because they realize that the streaming audience and commentator audience is a very potent one to go after,” Bain explained. “If you keep people interested in the game they buy more DLC, those games are service platforms, so it makes sense to have a steady stream of content coming out to keep people interested.”

Indie developers are also more than willing to court the YouTube audience.

“It takes skill and tact to properly present a game and explore your opinions on it while visually showing what you may or may not like about them. This is something that I at least believe deserves compensation. Frankly it's free marketing like you don't see anywhere else,” Octodad’s Phil Tibitoski said.

“Our highest traffic days on our website in the history of Octodad's existence have been the days a large personality like TotalBiscuit, Northernlion, PewDiePie, or Mangel have played the game(s). By being against these Let's Players you're essentially saying, ‘No, please don't show hundreds of thousands or even millions of people my game,’” he continued. “Doesn't that sound a bit…odd?”

The stories of YouTube Let’s Play videos getting a game funded on Kickstarter, or pushing it over the edge of a tricky Greenlight campaign, are legion. The important part of the YouTube movement of game coverage isn’t just that people are watching, but that the audience is engaged. They buy the games they like to watch. They back Kickstarters. They keep the community alive.

The industry is warming up to YouTube, even though it takes a vast audience to get the attention of publishers. Companies like Sega may attack those who cover their classic games, Square Enix may be forced to allow monetization of videos in order to avoid public criticism, and Nintendo still seems to be struggling with streaming and videos of their games.

The world is changing, and as print dies and online news matures, Youtube and video content may be the next frontier. The successful publishers and developers will embrace this fact as an opportunity. Others will struggle.

There is also the possibility that the DMCA takedown notices and policies against streaming are a way to maintain control over the press, although Bain himself admits this is a fairly conspiratorial thought.

“The idea that these companies are afraid of new media, and the power of individuals. There are loads of people on YouTube that have more reach than any traditional media sources ever would when it comes to games, and more influence,” Bain stated. “And they want to try and reduce that power. But that’s the conspiracy side of it, who knows?”