Press vs. YouTuber: Ryan Letourneau talks video, Metacritic, ethics

Gamasutra's Mike Rose sits down with YouTuber Ryan Letourneau to discuss where the scene is headed, how it compares to the traditional press, and where YouTubers should stand on topics like ethics.
Ryan Letourneau is a big name in video games right now, although if you're not particularly interested in the YouTube scene, the chances are you may not have caught his work. Known as Northernlion on YouTube, Letourneau has over 320,000 subscribers on YouTube, and is one of the biggest video game YouTubers to date. His videos are part game criticism, part Let's Plays, and plenty of episodic content. He also livestreams on Twitch, where he has over 60,000 followers and 6.7 million views. With the YouTuber scene exploding right now, Gamasutra's Mike Rose sat down with Letourneau to discuss where the scene is headed, how it compares to the traditional press, and where YouTubers should stand on topics like ethics and coverage. Rose: You must talk to lots of devs these days. What do think of the general shift that has occurred whereby YouTubers are now as important, if not more important, than getting written press on your game. What is going on right now? Letourneau: If you compare it to what it was like a couple of years ago, a lot of developers didn't really know that there was this huge YouTube gaming sphere. A lot of them did - a lot of them are proactive. Two years ago was not even that long ago in the grand scheme of things, even with the fast-moving industry.
"Publishers would be asking how many uniques I had, or what my Alexa rank was. And I was like, 'Beats me!'"
So it took a little bit more convincing of being like "This is what I do, and I'm not just a kid trying to snag a copy of a free game off you." I'd say two years ago, 100 percent of the games that I covered were games that I talked to developers for. Now, the vast majority of games I cover... I get way more volume of emails to cover a game than I do actually go out and proactively solicit games. I think developers are way more aware of the power of the industry, and the fact that you're probably more likely to get coverage if you cast a really wide net and contact 150 YouTubers, versus if you only contact 20 standard websites that all pretty much cover the same stuff. There's a little bit more variety of some extent, and more likelihood that you're gonna get covered by someone of some notoriety I guess. There's definitely deliberate initiative to talk more to YouTubers. Almost every developer that I talk to is very aware of that kinda side of things. Rose: Yeah, I've talked to several developers about it, and a few of them said that they'd been getting press coverage for their games at fairly reputable places, and they'd seen little spikes in traffic or sales. Then they'd get covered by someone like NerdCubed, and they'd see the traffic or sales doubled just from that video. It kinda casts getting written press for your game in a crazy light now. But then developers told me that they still feel like written press is just as important, as they feel like it's more reputable. A lot said they are able to quote written press and say "this site has written about me" and link it, whereas with videos and YouTubers, they don't feel like they can do that so much, especially with smaller YouTubers. Letourneau: Yeah it's weird. If you look at Steam's store pages for example, the vast majority of the quotes in the reviews sections for those are GameSpot, IGN, PC Gamer, stuff like that. Part of the issue there is that they're prestigious and known names - way more people know the name IGN than they know the actual writers who work there. Most people who read those sites treat them as a brand, which is fine. But if you look at individual YouTubers, there's hundreds or thousands of them, and it's impossible to follow all of them and know what all of them do. And they all have names like Northernlion or TotalBiscuit, that don't necessarily tell you what they do. I'm not surprised for stuff like that. Those names have been around forever, and they carry a lot of clout, whereas I think there's still this perception that it's like, those are companies, while people like myself are hobbyists. It carries less prestige. Rose: It's interesting that I guess when someone decides to be a YouTuber, it can look a little bit more like someone sitting down and playing a game, taking a video while talking over it, and that might seem like a harder sell for building up reputations, getting review copies etc, compared to someone who is writing about it. Is that the kind of obstacles you were finding to begin with? Letourneau: There are some times when I think I should just start up a blog and do text transcripts of my first impressions style videos, because people take it more seriously. And for a while, especially a couple of years ago, publishers would be asking how many uniques I had, or what my Alexa rank was. And I was like, "Beats me!" Or they were like, "Are you on Metacritic?" And it's funny to see sites that get, like, 1,000 hits a day getting super early access to games from big publishers thanks to these PR policies, because they're on Metacritic. And that makes a lot of sense! If I was a publisher, I'd likely do the same thing. But they wouldn't talk to many YouTubers. That's sort of reversing now. There's still a prestige thing about it. Very rarely when there's a controversy in print or online games journalism, do you have people saying "Get a real job, writing isn't a real job!" So YouTubing does still have the stigma of being a hobby. But I think it's become more legitimized depending on what you kinda do within the sphere, as the audience for it keeps growing. Rose: Do you think that Metacritic will start taking video into account? Letourneau: It seems like it would make sense given the trends, that so many people treat YouTubers as relevant, trustable sources. But I don't know how they would do it. That's a problem that I think requires a very creative solution, because you can't reliably be Metacritic, and say "We're going to watch 100 videos that are half an hour long each, and sort through and gauge where we think it is." Because rarely do videos even have scores attached to them that they can use. So it might be a little tricky. I'd love to see it happen, because that's still such a dominant force in the industry that really determines who has influence. But I would be surprised if it happened. Rose: I can imagine it could actually work out badly, in that if Metacritic were to say "We'll include videos, but only if they have scores," then you'll start getting YouTubers putting scores on, and then you'd viewers skipping to the end of videos trying to find the scores, and then you guys would have the same issues as us! Letourneau: Yeah! And you know, "time watched" is something that's really important on YouTube. Nobody really knows the exact specifics of how Google calculates its search algorithms and rankings and stuff like that, but they've basically said in what's called "The YouTube Creator Playbook" [PDF] , which is tips on how to be successful on YouTube, that the time watched and user engagement is super important when it comes to ranking videos. If two videos have the same factors, then the time watched can actually be a major thing.
"I don't think the traffic from Metacritic would be that important... I think if people go to sites like that, they want [written] reviews."
So in some ways not having a score is advantageous there. And if you cut together an actual video review it'd be four minutes long, and it's a lot easier to get people to watch a four minute long video than it is a 40 minute long video. So there's positives and negatives on both sides I guess. [Additional note: I contacted Marc Doyle at Metacritic shortly after my chat with Letourneau to get his thoughts on whether or not Metacritic plans to add YouTubers and video reviews to its scoring system, especially given that so many YouTubers are more highly regarded that some of the written outlets pulled for scores on Metacritic. Doyle responded with, "Thanks for the opportunity, but I don't have a comment at this time."] Letourneau: What I will say is that I don't think the traffic from Metacritic would be that important. I already see YouTubers embedding their videos in Steam reviews all the time. There's always some YouTubers who's like, "Here are my thoughts on the game" and it's embedded on Steam, and they'll have like 80 or 90 views. I think if people go to sites like that, sometimes they want reviews... but I don't think they actually want to watch a video to get the thoughts. Rose: Yeah, from my limited understanding of where people are coming from to visit YouTube videos, it always seems like the two main factors are how many subscribers a person has, and generally a video being passed around, rather than a video being embedded in a specific website. Letourneau: Yeah I agree. The stuff that I do is not really very viral for the most part. Rose: You do a lot of episodes of games, right? Letourneau: Yeah, probably like a third of what I do could be lumped under standard game criticism, except I don't actually finish the games. I play for a few hours and then record thoughts. Two-thirds of what I do is episodic content. Rose: I just do not get episodic video series at all, or why people would want to watch video games in that format. This is just a personal thing obviously, but clearly people like it since so many watch it. Letourneau: I totally understand. I watch very little episodic gaming content, even though I make a whole bunch of it. Maybe I watch so little because I make a whole bunch of it. But when I have leisure time, I'll sit down and watch Breaking Bad or a movie or read a book. So it's weird to me as well, and I'll look on YouTube and be like whoa, 15,000 people watched me play Tropico 5, that's crazy! But I do get it, because when I was a little bit younger I watched a ton of gaming content. For me, the influence came from Giant Bomb, who were doing things like Quick Looks and their Endurance Runs. So I wouldn't say I've grown out of them, but I'd say I just don't have as much free time for them. So I understand it. Rose: So you've mentioned that a lot of devs get in contact with you now. What are a few main points that immediately come to mind when devs are getting in contact with you? Letourneau: So I don't cover Kickstarters anymore, and a lot of the stuff that I get in my email is about Kickstarters. Previously, a decent number of games would have a playable pre-alpha demo, and if the game was noteworthy, maybe I'd cover it. I maybe did it half a dozen times I'd say.
"Covering Kickstarters became really weird, because it almost has this obligation to be positive."
But I ended up getting these demos that were basically, you could move around but you couldn't do anything else. And that's just not suitable for video content. Covering Kickstarters became really weird, because it almost has this obligation to be positive. You feel like your obligation is to raise awareness about these games. Then there's the whole issue of maybe the game will never be completed, and then you're the guy who said people should support it, and a bunch of people lose money as a result of your influence. It's a complicated kinda system. Apart from that, emails two weeks after a game's released are tricky. You feel bad, but there are so many games that come out on Steam now, you really gotta be around your window of launch, otherwise it becomes very difficult to convince people to play your game because there's always forty games coming out next week that are going to be more likely to garner attention just by virtue of the fact that they're new. Rose: So if I've got a game coming out in a month's time, when should I be sending you this game? Letourneau: It depends what your thoughts are on embargoes. But generally if it's done, the earlier the better. But it can be taken more on the extreme side. There's been times where I've had games for five months, and they've been basically near completion but you're waiting on a release date, and people are saying to you, "Have you checked out that game I've sent you yet?" and you say "Well, there's really no rush, so no I haven't!" But like for example, the developers of Always Sometimes Monsters sent the game three weeks in advance and said we could play whenever we wanted. That was cool, I checked it out and enjoyed it a lot. But if you're going to set an embargo, which is also fine, a week in advance can be really helpful. Rose: I guess one of the issues with a developer giving you a game super early, it can be such that a video gets big hits, gets lots of exposure for the game, but then people will forget about the game after the video. So then if you cover the game before it's actually released, it might be that people don't notice when it's released. Would you go and revisit the game when it's actually released? Letourneau: For me it's usually a one-shot deal, but I also try to do right by the developer and publisher as much as possible. If a store page isn't up prior to release, I'll try to make sure that even if it's the day of release, I'll get content out on the day of release just so people can go to the store and find it. I make sure I have store page links in all the first impressions stuff I do, just because it is a two-way street. That's kinda why I like embargoes to some extent, as long as they are sensible. Rose: Oh yeah, silly embargoes are a no, but embargoes as an idea do make sense. Letourneau: First to print is so important when it comes to getting traffic and getting people to look at your stuff, so it is sometimes frustrating to be undercut by people who just want to be out there first, while meanwhile I'm holding a video back because there's no preorder page or store page for a game. I agree with you, and this is what I think most people don't think of when it comes to embargoes -- it makes sense to have embargoes on a release day or just before release day, so that people who actually like what they see are motivated to pick it up right away. Which is obviously what these developers and publishers want for the most part. Rose: In terms of playing a game, are there any specific things that can occur that immediately stop you from covering a game? Letourneau: It's very video specific, but copywritten music is a problem sometimes. There is this situation with Tropico 5 where they licensed a bunch of music, and everybody who is posting video content for Tropico 5 was getting content ID matches, which means that money goes to the composer of the song, rather than Calypso or the YouTube creator. So copywritten music is a big issue. Apart from that, if something is really bad, I won't cover it just because I don't wanna play it! The bare minimum I play is 45 minutes to an hour. Making a first impressions video after 15 minutes sits wrong with me, but for my own personal sanity, if something is godawful, I don't want to put 45 minutes into it before doing a video, so I'll just move onto something else. It's not like there's a shortage of stuff to cover these days. Rose: Imagine you have an inbox full of games. How do you decide which ones you're going to cover that day? Is it a case of working from the bottom to the top? Or do you skim and see which look most interesting? Letourneau: Priority number one is for stuff I solicit, because I have some vested interest in the game. When those come in, those are the games I'm most likely to cover. After that it's noteworthy stuff that's coming out soon on a mjaor distribution platform, and then it's stuff that's on a major distribution platform that's maybe not noteworthy. Then it gets down to, like, Greenlight stuff, sale stuff, that looks cool. Stuff beyond that doesn't get covered too much. Occasionally I'll still cover games with Greenlight campaigns if they're really cool. But as you know, Steam's front page has kinda become the new Greenlight to some extent, by virtue of the number of games that are coming out. It used to be that when games came out on Steam, there would be some kind of confidence that there's a certain standard of quality. Now there are way more games that I play on Steam that are not particularly coverage-ready.... Rose: Or just crap? Letourneau: Yeah, to put it less diplomatically [laughs] That does happen a lot. It's kinda shitty to say because it's one of those things where the rich gets richer... Rose: Well it's the big talking point at the moment, right - people on one side say well, why shouldn't all these developers be allowed on to Steam? Why make it a closed garden? Then the other side says OK, but if you keep letting all these games in then you're saturating with the crap stuff, which takes sales away from the good games. It's tricky. Letourneau: I understand both sides, but I'm more on the walled garden side I think. For me, it was really nice when 10 or 20 games were getting through Greenlight every month. That was perfect to me, because you started getting those games that, for a year and a half prior, everybody was like "Why isn't this on Steam?" So then those games got on and everybody felt good about it.
"Being on Steam doesn't guarantee you much coverage anymore. If you look at new PC releases on Metacritic, probably about 95 percent of the PC games that come out don't even have Metascores."
But now we've kinda reached the point where... well, maybe it should be open like the App Store. But we've created an environment like the App Store where just coming out on the platform doesn't mean anything anymore. You actually have to find some other way to market your game, which maybe is fine. But what it means is that there's a limited amount of coverage available, and most of it goes to the same games. Which is just the way the industry works, and the way that the industry has always worked. So it is one of those "be careful what you wish for" moments, where being on Steam doesn't guarantee you much coverage anymore. If you look at new PC releases on Metacritic, probably about 95 percent of the PC games that come out don't even have Metascores. They get zero or one review from, like, 3DJuegos or someone like that. I don't know if it's made Steam worse, but it has made it way less... reputable's not exactly the word I'm looking for, but... Rose: I mean, I see people saying it's not so great for developers, but it's amazing for consumers. But then again, is that actually true? Why is it good for consumers that there's so much mud being flung at the wall? It's not exactly more great choice - rather, you have to pick your way through it. And the people who would normally help you pick your way through it are also having a hard time picking through it because there's just so much more mud. Letourneau: Yeah, it's not like these games didn't exist before Greenlight either, they were just the kinds of things that you would buy on Desura or from the game's website. These games have always been out there to find if you were willing to find them, but they weren't getting so much press. Now they're out on Steam and they're much easier to find, but they're still not getting press... I even see games that come out that have no Steam reviews the day after launch. That is crazy to me. Rose: Is there a sort of YouTuber hangout, where YouTubers are all talking to each other and you tip each other off on games? Letourneau: Ha, yeah it does happen to some extent. Not all YouTubers, but people can grouped together for colloborations, like this Blood Bowl league started in December, and it's still not over, so we all shoot the shit in the chat. Somebody recently was like "Hey, you guys should really check out The Last Federation," which is this 4X strategy game that came out last month that nobody had really heard of in the chat. Then somebody else played it and said it was really cool. Then it started gaining traction, and TotalBiscuit did a video on it. Stuff like that does happen. There's another game called Ascendent where that happened fairly recently, it's like an action Castlevania meets The Binding of Isaac thing. Word of mouth does spread like that. Also people just pay attention to what other YouTubers are playing, and if you see two videos of something new, it makes you think maybe I should be playing it. So yeah, it spreads like that. Rose: So YouTubers and charging money for reviews - and the other way around, publishers paying YouTubers to cover games. The written press goes on a lot about ethics, discussing issues of publishers paying for trips, sending copies of games, all that stuff. But when this topic comes up with YouTubers... it's tricky, because personally I feel like YouTubers don't need to have the same set of ethical rules as the written press. It's a different medium. But how do you feel about it? How do you feel about the rules of getting paid for covering games on YouTube? Letourneau: I like what you said, that you don't understand why ethical rules should always be the same for YouTubers as they are for written press. This is something that I try to explain when things like the Machinima "payola" scandal with the Xbox One happened in January. There's no set of rules for how PR and YouTubers should interact. There's kinda an implied standard based on the way that PR and publishers and journalists interact.
"People pay attention to what other YouTubers are playing, and if you see two videos of something new, it makes you think maybe I should be playing it. So yeah, it spreads like that."
Personally that is the ethical standard that for the most part I try to hold myself to. I practice things like full disclosure whenever there's any kind of promotion. I did a promotion with Humble in February for the Roguelike sale that wasn't even paid, but I still disclosed it because otherwise people are like "You're being paid for this!" So I think 100 percent transparency is important for what I do, and I wanna be taken as a reputable and trusted source. I think that stuff's important. But for people that exclusively do Let's Plays, they don't really criticize games or make editorials, they just play games and they have fun with them... I don't see why they shouldn't be able to be paid by publishers for what they do. I'm not saying these YouTubers should be demanding money from publishers, but offers come in occasionally that are like "Hey, we'll give you 200 bucks to make a video about our game." For me, that stuff doesn't fit, but I don't understand why people that basically are doing an entertainment job are sometimes vilified for that. If you're watching those people to get opinions on games, you should be watching other people. There's plenty of people out there that do that. If you're watching to be entertained, I don't see the issue. Rose: When these people started making videos, they were thinking OK, I'm going to use my time to have fun and make some money off my hobby. They didn't think oh, I also need to make sure I follow all the rules of this new hobby I'm doing, I'd better Google those! But again, it's a tricky line, because at what point does a YouTuber become a professional critic, and feel like they should follow ethical rules? Letourneau: I still think even if you are an entertainment focused YouTuber or streamer, full disclosure is still important for that exact reason, so that people can draw their own conclusions about it. But yeah, with the Machinima Xbox One thing again, it was basically, "Hey, we'll give you a $1 per 1000 views bonus if you put this tag in your Xbox One videos." There was a contract, and the biggest problem with the contract was that it actually prohibited disclosure, which was not OK. But the budget for the whole promotion was something like $2,000 for hundreds of partners that ended up participating - thankfully I was not one of them because I read the contract and it didn't jive with my own personal terms or ethics. So it was interesting seeing NeoGAF going crazy and saying "This guy with 800,000 subscribers did it, this guy with 400,000 subscribers did it, how can these people be so greedy?" And meanwhile you talk to those guys and they're like, "I made $15 on this promotion because the budget ran out in a day." All they did for the promotion was go into an old video and put the special ad tag in. And people were like, "They've compromised their ethics!" But that's the danger of doing stuff like that and not having full disclosure. Rose: It feels like, even though YouTube, Let's Plays etc have been around for ages, the video games YouTuber space is evolving incredibly rapidly at the moment, and there's just so much that still needs to be laid out for people doing it and coming into it. It's really interesting to watch. Letourneau: I do want to say that the people demanding a revenue share for covering games... I think that is very audacious, let's put it that way. That seems crazy to me. Demanding a flat fee, that is take it or leave it. It's something I would never do, but that being said, I'm at a size where the value proposition makes sense to me. You give me your game that you put your heart and soul into, I play it, I make enough money on ad revenue to survive, it generate sales for you... that's a win-win right now that I don't want to mess with the equilibrium on. If the equilibrium changed - I'm not saying I would do it, but I can understand why people would maybe want a little bit more... or if they're generating 100,000 sales for a dev, I can understand. But demanding a rev share... these devs invested their saving sometimes and spent two or three years working on the game, and if the game doesn't pan out then that's going to be a major problem for them. 30 percent goes to Valve already, and then a YouTuber says, "I'm going to put in one hour of work and I'll take 2% of your sales for the next week." That rubs me the wrong way! And I'm glad that a lot of other YouTubers spoke up about that too, saying "That is absolutely mental."

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