28 July 2011

A Question for Game Developers (also asked on Y!Answers)

Developers' Thoughts on Let's Play Videos (S.978)?
So this S.978 bill is causing a lot of fervor among people on the web, mostly in terms of Let's Play videos. For those of you who don't know, a Let's Play (LP) is a largely unedited recording and streaming of a complete playthrough of a videogame. They're not exactly reviews as, well, movie reviews don't show you the whole entire film (they don't need to) while the critic reads their review. Basically, they're free shows instead of free samples.
Yet, I've been having arguments with people insisting that these playthrough videos HELP the industry, as in LPs are more effective (if not equally) as marketing tools than demos or rentals (wherein you'd actually play the game yourself) or reviews (which at most show brief clips). Someone told me they could furnish reports showing how they increase sales, but I'd rather hear from the horse's mouth, so to speak.
My question is, have any developers talked about LPs? Have any of them openly and explicitly praised LPs as a superior means to generating interest and getting word about their games out there than normal advertising methods? Basically, find me a quote from (let's say for the sake of argument) Dennis Dyack or one of the Bioware founders saying anything along the lines of, "if it weren't for those Let's Plays, we'd never see the kinds of sales figures we do now."

For me, I just can't see how watching someone play an entire game without paying anything to developers is a more effective marketing tool than seeing brief clips in a review or renting or downloading a demo of the game itself. How long does your test drive have to be before you decide whether or not you want to buy the car?

ADDED QUALIFIER: Avatar is the highest grossing film of 2010 and also the most pirated. Correlation is not causation, and I'll maintain that as the fallacy of that kind of defense until I hear it from a developer. Also, as a minor announcement: as much as I'd rather not do this, I've disabled Anonymous comments from this weblog. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and stand by it. If you really take issue with this bill, and can prove that LPs are essential to the point that making their production and distribution a felony will cripple the industry, stand and be counted.

Something of an update: Notch's adding of a gameplay video clause to the TOS of Minecraft doesn't count. Why? Because Minecraft relies on user-generated content; it's more of a virtual building tool than a game. Similarly, I wonder where Sony stands on gameplay videos for user-created levels in Little Big Planet?

09 July 2011

S.978: What it is, what it isn't (culled from DevART Journal)

This is just going to be a quick summation of random thoughts of mine regarding this bill that's circulating through Congress that may well be put into law in the coming weeks.

It's an amendment to existing copyright laws that includes digital streaming and distribution of copyrighted material.

*) It goes so far as to lay down a time frequency and monetary damage table, which lend the bill its nickname "The Ten Strikes Bill" referring to the frequency of 10 performances in a 180 day period, which not only applies to content "users" uploading the materials for viewing, but also to the viewers themselves. As for the monetary aspect, each of those "strikes" beyond the first ten is compared to legitimate and legal costs of the materials (say, buying the DVD, for example) is tallied and exceeds 2500USD (or 5000USD if compared to licensing fees, such as those a third-party content distributor such as some operation like Crunchyroll or Hulu).

*) The significance of laying down the figures for monetary damages goes all the way back to an old copyright case wherein some moron (I'm not going to bother looking up its specifics; the verdict is never used properly as a defense, anyway) got his sentence for copyright infringement reduced from a criminal charge to a civil charge because in the language of the law at the time, an illegal copy distributed at any price (even free) did not constitute theft because the number of unsold legal copies remained the same.

*) When I first read that defense, my first thought was: Okay, so it's not theft, it's counterfeiting. People who use that case as a defense to insist that piracy is not theft are missing the finer detail that getting a criminal charge reduced to a civil charge is a moral victory at best and a Pyrrhic victory at worst. I said once in another comment that this turn of events is akin to getting an attempted murder charge reduced to assault and battery because the victim was only rendered comatose from the gunshot wounds instead of dead. "I wasn't trying to kill him, I just wanted to beat the crap out of him... with bullets."

*) The reason why this bill is causing a fervor in the videogame community is that the bill supposedly has some vague wording regarding what constitutes copyrighted materials (though it doesn't look that way to me, based on those amendments I read). Here's the problem (according to them): The uploading and "broadcasting" of videogame footage falls under these stipulations, meaning that all gaming videos may well carry criminal penalties. What they're most upset about are Let's Play videos....

*) And here's where I roll my eyes, shake my head, point and laugh, call them all ignorant sluts... you get the idea.

*) The fear is that Fair Use as we know it is going to be rendered null and void by this bill, as the redistribution of ANY copyrighted material will carry criminal penalties regardless of the DMCA's rather lenient stance on copyright in the information age. Any and all videogame reviews and LPs, the paranoia continues, will become things of the past, and nothing will ever be reviewed, ever, unless permission is given by the copyright holder, effectively allowing corporations to control what people can and cannot say about their products. OH, HORROR OF HORRORS (insert backward question mark to stand in for irony mark as that character is not available to me to use here).

*) And to that anxiety and those who champion it, I say: Bullshit! and here's why:

*) I made this comment (approximately, I couldn't fit it all on YouTube due to character limits) on The Archfiend's video about this bill, about the whole "gatekeeping" portion of the fear-stricken goons' defense against s.978: There is a world of difference between something like an Angry VideoGame Nerd episode which uses brief clips from a game as part of an overall review, critique, and retrospective and a Let's Play video that shows Noah Antwiler playing through the entire single-player campaign of SWAT 4. An episode of Escape to the Movies with MovieBob showing clips of a film accompanied by a voiceover giving a brief synopsis and review of the film is far different than someone simply uploading Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon wholesale and unedited to a torrent for anyone to download for free.

*) In the end, the point is that I'm not worried at all about this bill, and don't feel one iota of pity for the people who will probably be affected by this. Reviews and critiques are not going anywhere, and I'm not going to shed a single tear for the potential passing of the Let's Play video as a format. Sure, I've watched a few, and even made a video entitled Let's Play Rampart (which, by the way, was a ten minute clip, presented as part of a longer review and retrospective, analyzing the game's historical significance, hence only being a Let's Play in name only), but do I think they qualify as fair use and are therefore entitled to the same protections reviews get under Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press?

Nope. Not at all.

Just because games are interactive doesn't make them any different from movies, books, television shows, or music. To say (as I've heard from certain idiots on YouTube) that a Let's Play video is not a form of piracy entirely because of the interactive nature of the game is effectively a contradiction and double-standard. Gamers had been saying for years that games did not deserve more strict regulation or censorship than books or movies, with the proponents of said strict censorships insisting that games being interactive set them above mere ratings or disclaimers like those of the MPAA or RIAA.

So, think about it, the people who were fighting for games to be treated equally with other media are now making the exact same arguments that the people they were rallying against were making in the first place, this time as a defense to lawmakers wanting games treated as any other media. You can't have it both ways. Either games get special treatment or they get treated like any other art/entertainment medium, simple as that.

*) I'll end with a declaration: People who unironically defend Let's Plays (of the complete walkthrough variety, especially) as legitimate forms of fair use are idiotic hypocrites, and deserve to be called as such.