Let’s Plays didn’t kill “That Dragon, Cancer”

That Dragon, Cancer's logo

Long story short, the dev of That Dragon, Cancer posted an emotional and controversial post about how Let’s Plays may have affected the game.

The general conclusion of the piece is that Let’s Plays did extreme harm to the game, and there’s a rather emotional backlash towards them.

I’m not entirely happy to write this piece, as I really do wish games like That Dragon, Cancer were commercially viable (or at least, a viable way to live and keep making games), I constantly show Alt Games and all sorts of experimental, noncommercial or generally out-there games on my channel, twitter and website. I love games like this, I want them to thrive.

However. There’s a great deal of problems with this piece that I can’t let go unaddressed. The conclusion that Let’s Plays are harmful, even for a specific type of game, is exactly the conclusion a lot of powerful players in the gaming industry love to latch onto and predictably this story has been making the rounds to show how awful, greedy, and draining these so called “Let’s Plays” are.

So let’s run through the various problems with the points made in this piece.

No Profit does not mean No Sales

An emotional lede is great, and what’s more heartbreaking than “our studio has not yet seen a single dollar from sales”, a direct quote from the article. It goes on to state, very sassily, “And so yes, Let’s Play person, I agree with you, it does suck to have someone else making revenue off your work.”

Oh snap! Take that, Let’s Play asshole! I’ve made zero money while you’re rolling in dough!

…but wait a second here. While That Dragon, Cancer certainly didn’t sell massively, Steamspy estimates it’s sold around 14,000 units. Most of those appear have been sold at full price, and there was only a single sale so far.

I doubt anyone actually believed they didn’t sell a single copy, but this lede is really misleading. What they mean to say here is “we have not profited off of this game”. What they said is, essentially, “we have not earned any revenue on this game” which is clearly false.

This allowed them to make a false equivalence, Let’s Players earned money while we didn’t! What a scam! How dastardly! Evil, sick…hang on though. As a Let’s Player, I can plainly tell you there are extremely few Let’s Players who earn a profit. They earn revenue which is easily spent solely on equipment well before accounting for their own work hours. Only the very largest channels, generally with millions of subscribers, are earning a profit.

So comparing Let’s Players revenue to their own profits is a pretty nasty debate tactic. Straight up deliberately misleading. I don’t care how emotional you are or how tragic your story is, you simply do not mislead people like that. That is not how any of this works. This is the sort of tactic where even if I agreed with you I’d be screaming at you to shut up and stop misleading people.

There’s a lot of reasons not to play That Dragon, Cancer

I really hate to say this, and I frankly often mock players who don’t like to step out of their comfort zone and play games exactly like this. But That Dragon, Cancer is not a comfortable game. Many reviews considered it downright painful to play, and that’s part of the point.

That’s not a black mark on the game, but it’s perfectly understandable why some would shy away from the game. Some people play games purely for enjoyment, to relax, to lighten their mood. Those players probably don’t want to spend $15 and spend a few hours to completely crash their mood.

And you know what? That’s fine. I complain about it, but at the end of the day it’s your money. No one can force you or anyone else to pay your own money for a product you don’t want. It sucks when it results in experimental games not selling, but you’re not under an obligation to buy…anything.

A quick look at the Steam Forums for this game is…well, it’s disgusting honestly. There’s a lot of people who hate this game, who consider it a scam, who consider it not a game, and so on and so forth. Again, I don’t agree with these people. But it’s very clear this game is not everyone’s cup of tea. And pretty much none of these people are saying “I watched this on Youtube so I don’t need to play it,” they just actually dislike, even hate, the game or the concept of the game itself.

The game also has religious themes which may be pretty jarring for those who do not share the religion of the developer. For an atheist it can be truly maddening to watch a religious person talk positively of a child’s illness or death as some god’s will. Actual people die because of that, because their parents refuse treatment for religious reasons. While that’s not the case in That Dragon, Cancer, the topic is potentially a very unpleasant reminder of real world pain (and again, the game is deliberately an unpleasant reminder of real world pain).

Whether you agree or not, religious matters are very touchy, especially when integrated so tightly to the core of a thing. It’s not bad, but it’s not for everyone.

There are a lot of reasons people wouldn’t want to play this game even if they didn’t watch it on Youtube. It’s incredibly depressing. It’s very short for its price ($15). It contains very specific, potentially alienating religious content.

I don’t agree with all of these as reasons to not buy a game…but they are certainly reasons that do keep people from buying games. So let’s not pretend everyone in the world was totally going to drop $15 on a two-hour long game with controversial religious themes and an unusual, low-fi art style. I wish they would! I love experimental games.

Other 100% linear games thrive

For the purpose of argument, let’s assume Let’s Plays 100% murder the sales of linear narrative games with no branches or significant gameplay or replay value.

Gone Home is possibly the harbinger of the recent trend of narrative exploration games or “walking sims” that are entirely linear. There are tons of Let’s Plays of this game despite that, so these Let’s Plays are total spoilers of basically everything. Despite the frequent calls of “not a game” it sold about 250,000 copies in it’s first year and has been a clear critical and commercial success.

Firewatch is a more recent example, and seems to have garnered a lot less hate than prior titles in the same style, but is still quite arguably a “walking simulator” if we allow the others to be so called. Firewatch was quite successful financiallyThere is no shortage of Firewatch Let’s Plays on Youtube.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter recouped it’s costs in a week.

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture was the top selling game in the UK the week of it’s release, though it didn’t technically chart as digital games are not included.

I won’t rattle off any more, but it’s quite apparent that these sort of walking sim, mostly/entirely linear experiences can in fact thrive. And no game is free of Let’s Plays in the current age. In fact many developers send Let’s Players advance copies to have videos out day one (though it’s common to request that certain spoilers are not shown before certain dates).

I’m not saying these games are “better”, and I don’t really care to go into why they may have sold more, but it’s very clear that Let’s Plays do not universally destroy the commercial properties of similar games. TDC, as I show above, had a lot more going against it than Let’s Plays.

Longplay videos exist

Here’s the thing about Let’s Plays. Someone just straight up talking over the whole game isn’t the exact same experience as the game. Some people hate let’s plays and want to view the video without commentary. So some people upload “longplays”, generally the entire game, start to finish, with no commentary. If I actually wanted to just “watch” That Dragon, Cancer instead of playing it myself, I would watch a longplay, not a Let’s Play.

Let’s Plays are generally watched because of the player themselves or to find out the general opinion of a game. If you just want to watch the game alone, you watch a longplay.

Culling every Let’s Play of That Dragon, Cancer would remove a lot of unique commentary, opinions, a lot of unique entertainment content created based off of the game. But it wouldn’t remove That Dragon, Cancer Full Game Walkthrough, a video showing the game in it’s entirety without a whisper of commentary or original content. I’d have a lot less objections if the furor were over that style of video (though I still believe they have value), but Let’s Plays and commentators were specifically and singularly called out.

Let’s Plays didn’t kill “That Dragon, Cancer”

It sucks when your game doesn’t sell. It’s natural to look for a culprit. But That Dragon, Cancer had a lot more going against it than Let’s Plays, and Let’s Plays have not similarly affected other titles. Let’s Plays cannot be stopped, and Let’s Plays aren’t even the worst thing on Youtube for a game like this (Longplays/walkthroughs are).

Let’s Plays have gotten a ton of hate over the years and major companies like Nintendo have only recently come (partially) around to see their value. Let’s not lose our heads because of a very emotional story that has very little facts to back it up.

Let’s Not Play The Whole Thing

Bringing it back a bit, there’s two points I will agree with in the original article: One, donating towards experimental games is great. It’s hard out there, and being able to pay more than the price of one copy can be really nice for games you strongly care about; I love that Itch.io and Humble Bundle allow players to do this.

Secondly, not all Let’s Plays really need to show the whole game. I obviously disagree it’s as bad as the original author claims, but I simply find many games are better suited to “first impressions” or “quick look” style videos. That is in fact by far the most common format of my own videos.

Just last night I decided it would be quite silly to show all of Samorost 3 due to various reasons, so I show the first half hour. Generally I want people to play the games I show, so if a game is especially spoiler sensitive like a horror game I throw a warning in the first few minutes that one may wish to play a game before watching at all.

Later videos in a Let’s Play series also tend to get less views anyway as people lose interest in the game. Commentators often start to run out of things to say. Later levels in some games may end up with the player getting stuck much more often or for longer than early levels. There’s a lot of reasons to show the first 15, 30, 60 minutes of the game, but there’s often less reason to show the last few minutes.

But this isn’t really the point I wanted to belabor in this article, I may write a separate article on my preference for short looks at games. Instead I wanted to show that Let’s Plays simply are not the boogieman they are claimed, even for this very specific style of game. It’s 2016, we can leave that 2007 copyright-hungry attitude in the dirt where it belongs.

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Author: Sir TapTap

Opinionated gaming spikeball dedicated to showing cool games and making games more enjoyable for everyone.

  • I feel that the big difference now is that Let’s Plays are much more effective at helping a person decide whether they would enjoy a game than traditional reviews were. With better informed consumers, there is a lot less randomness in the way they spend. There’s a lot less “buying to see if I like it” and a lot more “buying because I already know I will like it”, and this means that fewer games are profiting, but they’re making much greater profits.

    I used to think that spreading the money over more devs was better than focusing it on the few that make outstanding games, but now I think there’s a much more important factor in play. Consumers are getting bitter about the quality of games, and something needs to change.

    You mentioned in your Let’s Play of Outline that you got antsy about playing bigger games – you’re not alone. Even putting aside money, I don’t want to invest the time & energy installing a game and sitting through its intro & tutorial if I’m not going to enjoy the game. I’ve just been burned so many times by Spunkgargleweewees and “cinematic” cover shooters that I barely play first-person games, even though a decade ago I played practically every story-driven FPS I could get my hands on.

    Let’s Plays help reassure players in cases when they actually should buy the game – I can do my research before getting emotionally invested, and only buy games that won’t make me regret it. I watched over an hour of gameplay of Stardew Valley before I bought it, and I’m loving it; I’ve seen the first 30 minutes of Firewatch three times already, and I totally intend on buying it when it drops to what I’m willing to pay for 4 hours of excellent walking simulator (about $10).

    For me, Let’s Plays actually meant that I took a second look at TDC. I watched about 20 minutes of gameplay, and in that time it showed me that it wasn’t something that I would enjoy. If it weren’t for Let’s Plays, I wouldn’t have even gotten past the store page because the game is not a safe bet for a fun time, and my inner cynic just won’t let me take risks any more.

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  • Partariothegoth

    as someone with anxiety over spending money, let’s plays, aside from demos, are the most effective way to show if I actually want to buy a game or not. I don’t “experiment” much with games, and the only time I do is if a game is having a huge sale (otherwise the only games I have that I’m not sure about are because they were a part of a bundle). I have a lot of games in my library that I bought because a certain let’s play piqued my interest in it.

    I have to say as well, I was looking into getting That Dragon, Cancer and I watched a review and then I completely lost all interest once religion was mentioned. My mom recently died of cancer and we were given a little booklet to help deal with a dying loved one but it had a religious slant and as soon as it got into that I couldn’t take it seriously, I was rolling my eyes and chuckling at it more than being helped by it, so it would definitely kill whatever emotional weight TDC relies on for me.