That Dragon, Let’s Play Videos

You should read this well-reasoned comment from the developers of That Dragon, Cancer about the fact that they’ve not earned any money for their title yet. (They’ve paid off debt, so they have made sales–we’re talking net income.)

The defense I see people throwing around for the Let’s Play videos that have most certainly damaged (not in whole, but in part) the sales for That Dragon, Cancer is that the reason the game has not done well is because it’s the opposite of escapism–“it’s woefully depressing,” writes one commenter on Polygon. “Only a very small percentage of people want to be enveloped in the very real emotional agony and despair associated with what cancer does to somebody’s life.”

But if that’s true, then why would anybody want to watch a Let’s Play of the same thing? Why would someone involved in so-called “mixed media” want to show this game (in full) to other people? Wouldn’t that make them sadomasochists, to subject others to something they suffered through?

I get that we live in a culture where we want to share our opinions and experiences. Things like Periscope are going to turn us into an “always-on” community. But there are some things that are meant to be private, and purchased individually out of respect to the artist who produced that work. We don’t have to share video of the entire game in order to talk about how it made us feel (that’s where reviews or highlight reels–actual “fair use”–comes into play).

This is what the developer is getting at in saying this:

We have allowed our content…to be used for free to create content with…. We are asking that you return that favor by creating Let’s Play videos that don’t just rebroadcast the entirety of our content with minimal commentary, but instead use portions of our content as a context to share your own stories and start conversations with your viewers. We would encourage you to link to our site and directly encourage viewers to support our work financially through buying the game, or donating a dollar or two to our studio if they believe that what we did has value.

It is heartbreaking to me that people don’t understand that. Then again, I do think it’s worth stressing that there are other factors. While a developer is entitled to see returns on the investment of their time, that’s not a guarantee, and a $15 price point (for an apparently agonizing two-hour experience) is a hard sell. If they’re asking for donations from a fraction of those who have experienced the title in one form or another, they might have considered directly selling through the Humble Bundle store (they most likely will down the road), setting an option for cancer-related charities. I’m not sure I have much faith in players to give an adequate amount for an experience that moved them, so that’s still a huge risk. But a Let’s Play does take advantage of the generosity of developers, especially for shorter, narrative-based games, and that must be addressed.

Nobody wants to stifle creativity, mind you. But there has to be some sort of compromise for a game like Layers of Fear, the sort of title where once you’ve seen its scares, you’ve as good as played through it. Perhaps there’s a limit to the amount of consecutive minutes that can be aired from a game? Perhaps there are certain dead spots that cannot be shared, a feature already baked into the PS4’s sharing functionality? Perhaps instead of a Let’s Play video showing the game in full-screen with a window of the player in the lower-left, the two roles are reversed, such that the main output is that which has been added: the narrator and his or her commentary track? These are just ideas, and I think we’re all open to more, but it’s hard not to see the rampant growth and mutation of Let’s Play videos as a somewhat cancerous development, one that can sometimes be benign (or possibly even beneficial to large, open-world games that cannot be spoiled from a few hours worth of footage) but can also be absolutely fatal.

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