What *Exactly* Is A Streamer?

Hello. Twitter got me thinking today – I should note that I’ve not reached any real conclusion, I’ve just got a bunch of disparate thoughts swimming around in my brain – set off by this reply by Shannon (the tweet it’s replying to seems to have vanished):

This is a completely reasonable point and, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who’s concerned about handing out a handful of keys in exchange for the off-chance of some decent coverage (and possible sales) probably has bigger problems to deal with in terms of their game. She’s right that the potential benefits when compared to spending money on an advert hugely favour services like Twitch. But is this really a good comparison? To me, it’s not comparing like for like – I don’t regard a stream as advertising. If I were to, I would want a lot more control over how my game is shown than simply handing off a key and having no further input (and I’d imagine the streamer would want more than just a free key). After all, that targeted Facebook ad might be more expensive but I get control over it – the ad is made to my specification, I can use screenshots or artwork which show my game in a favourable light. With a streamer I might hand over a free key for my game and, in exchange, get the thing torn to shreds in front of a large audience. It’s a lucky dip, to some extent. It might not even get played.

So what exactly is a streamer in terms of the relationship between them and developers and publishers? Many streamers have resisted calling their output “reviews” and deny the label journalist. So they’re not press, they’re not advertisers, what exactly are they then? And if they’re neither of those two things then why is handing out free keys an accepted part of our interaction?

I personally have no problem with the current arrangement but a part of me does empathise with those who do – because the whole situation is extremely muddy. Handing keys out just became the thing we do because we need our games to get exposure and indies, in particular, often can’t afford to have a traditional PR campaign. So on some level we’re implicitly thinking of what we’re doing as advertising and yet we step back from having any say on how our game is demonstrated. In fact, were we to make such demands the backlash would be enormous – because the viewers don’t regard what they’re watching to be an advert. So is it an advert or isn’t it? It’s sort of Schrödinger’s advert – it both is and isn’t at the same time depending on whether you’re the person handing the key out or the person watching it be played.

It seems to me that we need to really decide what exactly it is that streamers are, so that we can organise our interactions appropriately. By comparison to traditional ways of generating exposure, streaming is still incredibly new and, as such, I’m not sure that anyone really has a concrete concept of what exactly it is and, therefore, exactly how the interactions between them and developers should work, including streamers themselves. Or maybe we just quietly ignore that and continue what we’re doing and pretend everything’s just fine. Yeah, let’s do that. 😀


In the comments below, I described the arrangement as somewhat lop-sided and I’d like to expand on that a little. What I mean is, I find it comparable to a developer / publisher arrangement. A publisher can (I’m not suggesting this is how they all operate, simply that they could) sign up a bunch of indie games and then basically see what sticks. You don’t *need* to pick and choose intelligently, you could instead just pick 30 games pretty much randomly and, amongst that lot, chances are good that one of them will perform well enough to cover all the costs and them some. Which is great for the publishers, but not so great for the developers whose games didn’t stick.

In the same way, streamers (again not talking about actual streamers, this is just me thinking aloud) get a bunch of free keys. The objective isn’t so much to give exposure to those games but instead simply to see which one sticks as far as their audience is concerned. Find the one which helps your channel grow. Which is great for the streamer, but the developers whose games didn’t stick… well, they’ve not really had anything out of the arrangement.

Ultimately though, even if you didn’t get much in the way of exposure, what have you really lost? A few keys that you have infinite supply of – big deal. But there’s a potential disparity here which I think, at least, should not go unnoticed or unremarked upon.

All of this could, of course, be total bollocks. I’m not stating any of this as fact, it’s just brain farts dribbling out onto the page. But this is why I have some empathy for those who feel contrary to me in terms of how they feel about handing out keys – I don’t think the points I’ve raised are unreasonable or ridiculous even if I personally don’t consider them to be sufficient to change how I feel about handing out keys.

10 Replies to “What *Exactly* Is A Streamer?”

  1. I think streamers actually fall more into the category of a demo than a straight-up advertisement. Back in ye olden days when Blockbuster and other rental stores were still a thing you could rent and try a game, see what it was like for some small cost, out of curiosity or as a test before you bought it. Now, many games have movie-style trailers and steam preview videos that show off the features without really letting you in on the experience – to the streamers fill in that gap by showing a significant amount of gameplay footage that isn’t as awkward as raw footage (hopefully) because they’re talking the whole time. It feels more like going over to a friend’s place to try their game, instead of a cold, awkward gameplay footage demo where you don’t empathize or enjoy the experience because you don’t know or see the person playing.

    1. I can appreciate the comparison with a demo. Yet it’s still a demo that the developer has no control over beyond the content of the game itself. You could argue, of course, that this is no different to actual demos – the only way I can shape your experience with it is with the content I put in it. But I can still choose precisely what subset of features it focuses on to try and sell the game to you, and each person’s experience of that is likely to be quite different.

      With streaming, you’ve only got one shot at it – it’s how the single streamer themselves experiences it which either sells the individual audience members on it or doesn’t, not the individual. So in that sense, although I can accept the comparison, it’s not quite the same thing.

  2. To me as a viewer, streamers are essentially entertainers. Their stage is the game they’re playing. And just as entertainers on TV or on a theater stage get sponsored in some ways (“dressed by “) they can be sponsored by being supplied with a stage. A key for a game in this case. Or keys to hand out. Merch to raffle. Mentioning the devs every hour or so. Regular overlays. Something at least.

    1. That’s fair enough, blindcoder, but to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment how, in this situation, is this really then any different to the “work in exchange for exposure” scenario lambasted in every single other situation on social media? Because that’s, ultimately, what’s going on right? We provide our work, for free, in exchange for exposure (regardless of either positive or negative).

      To answer my own question, of course in the situation with games we have the ability to generate sales from that exposure – so there’s a more direct pathway from that to cash than there would be if, say, a writer provides an article for exposure. But that it’s more direct doesn’t make it any less comparable. The article you write could lead to a job offer. And while I don’t doubt that streaming the game does lead to sales, it’s all a bit woolly and hard to pin down without cold hard stats – ultimately I think the streamer does far better in the deal than the dev does which makes it a rather lop-sided arrangement.

      1. I feel like there’s a difference with the ‘giving the work away for free’ analogy in the sense that what you’re building can’t be experienced properly in its entirety by spectating. Games are interactive experiences, and particularly for something like PZ – just watching someone play is entertaining, but not comparable to the incredible feeling of playing yourself when zombies jump through the window in the middle of the night. The streamer is getting your whole product for free (in a non-exclusive, low-to-no-cost key/file transfer scenario) but unlike images or articles given to newspapers or magazines, a game can’t be fully enjoyed by their followers the way you designed it unless they own it for themselves.

        The dynamics between the devs and the streamers are like any exposure situation. If MrJoe9929 streams Assassin’s Creed, obviously Ubisoft is losing out – but somehow I don’t think most smaller devs would be offended if Jacksepticeye or Markiplier asked for a key. Apparently, Jack’s playthroughs of Subnautica actually helped the devs stay afloat. True, plenty of streamers wouldn’t be able to make a show at all without game content to fill it, but their skillset is kind of new and unlabeled – the YouTube Adpocalypse is proving how little society knows about what it’s doing in this regard – though I think everyone (except Nintendo) have kind of agreed that it’s somehow worth it (financially? culturally? somehow) at this point.

        1. Agree with all of that and I certainly won’t deny that there are sometimes huge benefits in terms of sales in having your game streamed. But the thing is, unless there’s broad data out there, then it’s somewhat anecdotal and assumed. Does it scale? I mean, if you have 10,000 viewers watching odds are the dev is going to see those sales spike because even 1% of those viewers buying would be noticeable. But assuming 1%, does that scale down to smaller channels? Is that 1% across the board, or is it just 1% with this particular streamer? Buggered if I know because that data doesn’t seem to be out there that I can tell.

          I would also posit that the situation with streaming is somewhat muddy – I think there is increasingly a sizeable proportion who watch streamers play games entirely passively and they’re not interested in buying, and playing, the game for themselves. But, again, without data I’m rather assuming that too.

          So my ultimate point is: the exposure and driving of sales argument is the primary argument used, and yet I almost never see that backed up with stats. I think, at this stage, this needs to be examined in a broad sense sampling all scales of game, and all scales of streamer.

          1. That’s absolutely true. There’s no numbers right now, and someone needs to get out their analytics cap and fix that if we ever want to know for sure.

            An interesting point I’ve seen about streamers and gaming is that it’s practically the same as televised sports! The difference is, games can be story driven and exciting to watch only once (or twice) where most sports are skill based – which is why a lot of people draw the conclusion more with eSports. Personally, I don’t understand why people want to watch basketball or hockey on TV, even though I like playing both of those games – but some people will only watch them and not play them, but still buy merch or sports equipment related to their teams. I wonder if that’s another revenue stream people could tap in games somehow? T-shirts that collab the game’s IP and a streamer in place of a ‘team’? That might make the whole streaming thing more worth it 😛

      2. As Scy and you have already pointed out, unless someone corresponds SteamSpy data with Twitch / YouTube video release dates, this’ll be absolutely anecdotal.

        To add some of my own, I only knew about (and bought) several games because of it being streamed on Twitch: Void 22 on SirTwiggy, 7 days to die on Banlish, Darkest Dungeon on several channels, several games on MemoriesIn8Bit’s and Outstar’s channel. So if it’s advertising, it definately works on me.

        As with the keys-for-exposure (or in my analogy, “stage”-for-exposure), the devil’s in the details, as usual. It’s a difference if it’s a streamer with a small audience or a streamer with a large one. It’s a difference if it’s a small 1, 2 or 3 person developer team or if it’s a huge studio developing their tenth iteration of a title.
        And it’s a difference who does the asking. Is the streamer asking the studio for a free key or is the studio asking the streamer to “perform on their stage” if we keep my analogy.

  3. Hmm. Apparently my comments only nest so far so this’ll have to be a new reply.

    Scy wrote:
    ” I wonder if that’s another revenue stream people could tap in games somehow? T-shirts that collab the game’s IP and a streamer in place of a ‘team’? That might make the whole streaming thing more worth it”

    If I put my cynical business hat on for a second then yes, I think that’s definitely an avenue which could be considered. HOWEVER at that point, what you’ve got is pretty much explicit advertising/product-placement so this would, to me, fundamentally change the relationship between devs and streamers and start treading down an awfully corporate road.

  4. You’re right again, and it could have really negative effects on the relationship, but I’m willing to bet someone is going to do it anyway.

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