Skip to main content

Why pay to play when you can watch for free? How YouTube burns indie developers

that dragon cancer and lets play dispute thatdragoncancer
Designer Ryan Green plays That Dragon, Cancer Image used with permission by copyright holder
That Dragon, Cancer never stood much of a chance. In 2013, when it was secured as an exclusive title for the crowdfunded Ouya microconsole, the game’s future was ostensibly bleak. Emotional by nature, the narrative-driven art-adventure game focused on the real life and unfortunate death of Joel Green, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at twelve months old. Following the diagnosis, Joel lived for four years before succumbing to the disease.

Developed by Joel’s parents, That Dragon, Cancer was largely funded by a timed exclusivity deal with Ouya while the remaining costs were taken care of by a series of loans and donations. The game went on to achieve critical success. A blog post published last Thursday, however, suggested that Numinous Games, the studio behind That Dragon, Cancer that was started by parents Ryan and Amy Green, “has not yet seen a single dollar from sales.”

That Dragon, Cancer designer Ryan Green Image used with permission by copyright holder

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean That Dragon, Cancer made no money, but after paying off the expenses required to make the game (such as staff wages, loan repayments, and the music from composer Jon Hillman), Ryan and Amy Green were left without a profit. Reckoning with the company’s losses, Ryan’s blog post introduces the idea that “Let’s Play” videos on sites like YouTube and Twitch are to blame.

That Dragon, Cancer was created by a studio of eight, and for many of us it was a full-time effort that involved thousands of hours of work,” he declared. “This huge effort required taking on investment, and we decided to pay off all our debt as soon as possible. But we underestimated how many people would be satisfied with only watching the game instead of playing it themselves.”

Green’s resentment toward “Let’s Players” started as a response to an anonymous Twitter follower who complained about a Content ID notification on YouTube, which had been issued as a result of Jon Hillman’s music being featured in their videos. Oblivious in the face of irony, the user complained that it “[sucks] having someone else make revenue off my videos,” to which Green responded, “I agree with you, it does suck to have someone else make revenue off your work.”

Although a handful of developers have publicly taken issue with Let’s Play videos in the past, notably including Fez creator Phil Fish, they’ve largely been written off as nonsense by gamers and Let’s Play creators alike. In Fish’s case, he likened Let’s Play videos to explicit online piracy.

Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie
Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie Image used with permission by copyright holder

“If you buy a movie, are you then allowed to stream the entirety of it publicly for people to watch for free? No, because that’s illegal,” Fish posted on Twitter back in 2014, shortly before deleting his account. “Systems are in place to prevent that. But buy Fez, put ALL of it on YouTube, turn on ads, make money from it and that’s TOTALLY fine.”

Measures have been taken by the more dominant video game companies, like Nintendo, to address the potential loss in revenues when it comes to video game play-throughs published online, but smaller studios are unable to benefit from these corporate-owned affiliate programs. In turn, this only makes the rich companies richer, leaving independent developers in the dust.

While small businesses like Numinous Games are failing to to turn a profit, Let’s Play video creators like PewDiePie are raking in earnings between $140,000 to $1.4 million every month, incurring only marginal production costs.

“There is simply no case law to point to for a precedent, and that could become a very serious problem.”

Kill Screen founder Jamin Warren spoke up in an episode of PBS’ Game/Show last year, saying “Let’s Play videos have completely flown under the radar,” crediting his insights to a conversation with a copyright lawyer. “There is simply no case law to point to for a precedent, and that could become a very serious problem.”

Fortunately for Let’s Play content creators, there are a few loopholes that distinguish video game streaming from, say, pirating Kanye West’s new album. Fair use, for instance — as defined by the Stanford University Libraries — upholds that “any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work” can be devised and published without permission from, or recompense to, the original copyright holder.

In this case, though, it would only make sense to restrict some Let’s Play videos on the basis that they are bankrupt of original commentary. Without going too in-depth about the legal nature of the medium, Ryan Green denounces Let’s Play creators for this exact behavior:

“We have seen many people post our entire game on YouTube with little to no commentary. We’ve seen people decompile our game and post our soundtrack on YouTube. We’ve also seen many, many Let’s Players post entire play-throughs of our game, posting links to all of their own social channels and all of their own merchandising and leaving out a link to our site.”

By age 24, Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, known to his fans as PewDiePie, had successfully cultivated the most subscribed channel on YouTube. Image used with permission by copyright holder

On the other hand, you could dig even deeper by classifying a Let’s Play as a public performance, in which each play-through is distinguished entirely from the rest. Green concedes that videos can add immense value and build community for “games with more expansive or replayable gameplay.”  Still, there’s a line to be drawn there. For a self-proclaimed “short, relatively linear” game like That Dragon, Cancer, how unique or distinguished could each play-through be? Moreover, artists generally do have to pay royalties to a work’s creators for live performances, such as theaters paying licensing fees to playwrights through companies like Samuel French.

In regards to story-driven titles with little player input, there’s a case to be made to at least entitle developers to a percentage of the ad revenue, if nothing else, such as with a more generally-available affiliate program on YouTube. In the end, recording yourself playing a game requires little effort versus enduring presumably sleepless nights on end taking part in its development. That sense of injustice is compounded in this particular case by the raw and emotionally-draining nature of a painful, personal game like That Dragon, Cancer.

When the commentator is making substantially more than the artist from the same creation, there is a fundamental imbalance in the creative ecosystem that needs to be addressed. Otherwise, the people who made your favorite game to watch might not be able to make another.

Editors' Recommendations

Gabe Carey
Former Digital Trends Contributor
A freelancer for Digital Trends, Gabe Carey has been covering the intersection of video games and technology since he was 16…
Video games are changing, and Summer Game Fest just teased what’s next
Geoff Keighley shows a slide showing the top 10 selling Steam Games of 2024.

When Geoff Keighley takes the stage at an event like The Game Awards, he doesn’t tend to talk about current events. That’s been a point of frustration for some people over the years who have voiced criticism over how the gaming figurehead uses (or misuses) his platform. As Keighley walked on the stage at this year’s Summer Game Fest, expectations that he’d acknowledge the current layoff crisis in the video game industry were low. Then Keighley delivered the show’s biggest surprise in its first minute.

“This has been a tumultuous and difficult year with company layoffs and studio closures which have disappointed all of us. But there’s also something else happening,” Keighley said to open the show before flipping to a slide showing the top 10 bestselling new games on Steam so far in 2024. The list wasn’t filled with blockbusters; it was topped by surprise success stories like Palworld, Balatro, and Manor Lords.

Read more
Battle Aces does for RTS games what Pokémon Unite did for MOBAs
Battle Aces' kraken in the cinematic reveal trailer.

Whether they're a traditional real-time strategy (RTS) game or a full-on competitive multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) title, these kinds of intense strategy games are often a time commitment. Players can spend hours having to strategically think and constantly ensure that they're building and investing toward the right things, fighting with the right character or unit matchups, and more.

I find that pretty exhausting, which is why I tend to avoid the most hardcore games in these genres. In 2021, though, The Pokémon Company got me to fall in love with a MOBA by boiling it down to its basics with Pokémon Unite, and now the same is happening with the traditional RTS in 2021 thanks to Uncapped Games' Battle Aces.

Read more
All upcoming Switch games: 2024, 2025 and beyond
Luigi with the Poltergust 5000.

The Nintendo Switch is one of the most popular consoles Nintendo has ever produced, with a wide variety of games to choose from and plenty of unique features. We’ve already gotten to play new entries across the Zelda, Super Mario, and Pokémon series on Nintendo Switch, but there are still plenty of great games on the way for the hybrid console. These include exclusive games developed internally by Nintendo, as well as third-party titles and ports of games that are also available on other platforms.

Here's our list of the best upcoming Nintendo Switch games for 2024 and beyond. Of course, some titles without release windows could skip the Switch entirely and wind up on the Nintendo Switch 2 (or whatever it ends up being called) And if you're looking at future releases on multiple consoles, don't forget to check out what's upcoming on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and PC this year.
Upcoming Switch games 2024
The games listed below either have 100% confirmed release dates or solid release windows that we expect them to hit this year. Anything that's up in the air due to more vague launch predictions or previous delays will be listed below confirmed launches.

Read more