Using YouTube as an Accelerant for Video Games
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- August 17th, 2017
When Dynamic Pixels, a small Russian game developer, decided to make a stealth horror video game about sneaking into an ominous neighbor’s house, it turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The campaign for the game — called Hello Neighbor — flopped, earning less than $13,000 of its $100,000 fund-raising goal.
So Dynamic Pixels took a different approach. Last October, after teaming up with the publisher tinyBuild, it sent a demo version of Hello Neighbor to several thousand popular creators on YouTube and Twitch and invited them to make videos of themselves playing the game. If their viewers liked the game, they could download the demo for free as well.
Within a month of showing up on YouTube and Twitch, Hello Neighbor had earned back its budget through pre-orders and has since more than tripled that number. Even though the game’s final version does not go on sale for Xbox One and PCs until Aug. 29, people have already downloaded the demo versions more than 1 million times, and some YouTube videos of the game have earned tens of millions of views.
The results were “mind-boggling,” said Alex Nichiporchik, a producer of Hello Neighbor and chief executive of tinyBuild.
Hello Neighbor’s experience reflects the rise of video sites like YouTube as an accelerant for the video game business. Big-budget video game studios are courting popular YouTubers by sending them early review copies of games or paying them to make positive videos, and the impact can be even more significant for independent games with little money to spend on marketing.
YouTube, in particular, has a strong reach with younger audiences, who watch more than twice as much online video content as they do television. According to YouTube, hundreds of millions of people watch more than 246 billion minutes of videos about gaming on its service every month, with 70 percent of the viewers younger than 34.
For some video game developers, the goal is to gain the attention of someone like Felix Kjellberg, a Swede better known by his YouTube alias PewDiePie, whose channel has more than 56 million subscribers. Earlier this year, Mr. Kjellberg was embroiled in a controversy over posting anti-Semitic videos, but he is still regarded as so influential that developers sometimes refer to his impact as “the PewDiePie Effect.”
Ryan Clark, who designed an independent video game called Crypt of the Necrodancer, experienced that effect firsthand. After a glowing PewDiePie video about the game in 2015, Crypt of the Necrodancer saw an immediate $60,000 increase in sales. Factoring in the halo effect of the PewDiePie video, Mr. Clark estimated the total value of the video at more than $100,000.
In 2013, attention from PewDiePie and other YouTubers also helped Surgeon Simulator, a game made by the London-based Bossa Studios, become a global phenomenon that has sold more than 3.5 million copies.
“It’s something that has become really important to how we think about how we market our games going forward,” Tracey McGarrigan, the chief marketing officer of Bossa Studios, said of YouTube.
But some game developers warn that YouTube exposure is not a magic bullet that translates into sales, even if millions of people are watching.
When Lurking, a horror game made by four students in Singapore, caught the attention of PewDiePie and Markiplier, another well-known YouTube personality, their videos amassed more than 7 million views. But the results were marginal; one video about the game with 1.5 million views spurred only 8,000 downloads, even though Lurking was free.
Justin Ng, one of the creators of Lurking, said that when YouTubers make videos featuring a complete play-through of a game, it can potentially hurt sales, especially if the game is focused on a linear story.
Play-throughs can “spoil the narrative experience,” Mr. Ng said. “The game mechanics need to seem interesting enough for me to want to experience it for myself and not vicariously.”
While top-tier YouTube influencers can help put a game in front of tens of millions of eyes, their celebrity can also be a doubled-edged sword when fans are more interested in watching the player than buying the game.
What really drives sales, some developers said, is not just one-and-done attention from the most popular YouTubers, but creating communities of broader support from other content creators who are devoted to the game — and whose audiences are as well.
In some cases, smaller YouTube channels that focus on specific games can grow alongside them, creating positive attention and community for both. For example, Mr. Nichiporchik said he has seen some YouTubers who had 5,000 subscribers grow that to 200,000 subscribers over the course of playing Hello Neighbor.
“That’s a good lesson for a lot of indie developers: Don’t always go for the top-tier guys,” said Brendan Greene, creator of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a battle royale-style multiplayer survival game. “Go for the midlevel guys who are looking for something to get behind.”
He added, “If you find those people, they will walk through fire to help you out and it’s a great thing to have.”
Mr. Greene, who spent years cultivating relationships with video game streamers, knew he wanted to get the streamers involved before releasing Battlegrounds this year. So over the course of a few months, his team interviewed top streamers of other battle royale games to hear what they wanted to play. Later, as a sweetener, Mr. Greene offered some streamers their own server computers where they could host customized versions of Battlegrounds for other players to try out.
The moves worked. After a preliminary “early access” version of Battlegrounds went on sale in March, it sold more than 6 million copies in four months.
“I owe a large part of my success to streamers,” Mr. Greene said. “I wouldn’t be here today making my own game without the support of the content creator community.”
Dynamic Pixels and tinyBuild have also worked to keep the Hello Neighbor community that was fostered by YouTube and Twitch viewers engaged. They have regularly offered updated demos of the game to customers who pre-ordered it, for instance. And when the game’s final version becomes available at the end of the month, it will allow players to enter the one room that they could not reach before: the basement.
“People get really into the game trying to figure out exactly what is in the basement,” Mr. Nichiporchik said. “That creates a community effect that makes people want to participate, and participating means playing.”