After the news last week that YouTube star Jordan Maron bought himself a $4.5 million mansion with his ad revenue, we found ourselves discussing the rights and wrongs of immense Let’s Play pay. Sian Bradley and Robin Wilde each take a different view.
If you’re sat reading a gaming website, then we may assume that you spend a lot of your free time playing games. You do it to relax, to forget about the struggles of the real world and place yourself in a character’s shoes for a few hours. Put simply: gaming is a hobby. So it’s understandable when many people feel hurt that a select few are paid extraordinarily well for doing something that they do every Saturday morning in their underwear. But this jealously actually simplifies a YouTuber’s job greatly and is less than fair.
What we must remember is that sitting and playing a game doesn’t get it out into the world, otherwise we’d all be famous. There’s a lot of work put in to YouTube videos that takes an extremely long time. For a while, I made my own videos and had to quit because I didn’t have enough time in the day alongside other commitments. You have to set everything up, make sure your audio levels are correct and that your game is recording alongside your voice without any lag. Then, after playing an hour of one game, you have to edit it into tiny chunks, with enough going on in each segment, plus any post-edits you want to make and you’ll probably come out with a video around 15 minutes in length. If you’re lucky.
Playing through the game is the easy bit, and unfortunately, the only bit we see. Putting the video together and creating a thumbnail and any other graphics takes a lot of skill and those skills spread across a wide variety of programs and knowledge. Of course, when it’s your job, it becomes a lot easier and you have all day to spend on it rather than the couple of hours after work that the rest of us get. But editing is tedious above all else and no matter how good you get at it, it takes a long time to create something that other people want to see.
YouTubers are also primarily entertainers and a lot of people forget that. Not only are they paid for the skills that they put to use, they’re paid for being someone that we actually want to listen to. They have to have a certain kind of charisma and to be able to bring up this personality every time they turn the camera on. Many famous YouTubers are regular in their video output, putting out videos every day of the week, as well as organising fan meetings and talking to developers and other people in the industry. There’s no time for a bad day. Sure, they may have a reserve pile of videos that they can release if they are unable to create a new one, but fans have demands and expect the YouTubers to follow them. If they don’t bring across the same lovable, funny personality in each video, people are going to notice and they’re going to lose interest. Being an entertainer is hard work in itself.
What we see on each video doesn’t begin to highlight the planning and work done off-camera. YouTube is a funny job where you’re mainly expected to do every part of production yourself as well as be the character that everyone asks you to be. It’s a lot of hard work and deserves to be paid to reflect that. Millions of people use YouTube for entertainment daily – they’d be lost without the entertainers.
It would be easy to spent this debate whining about how PewDiePie shouldn’t be earning millions to squawk over bad horror games to the delight of nine year olds. A less sophisticated me would be doing so. But it would also be unfair.
Even though most Let’s Plays, like most professional wrestling or most opera, aren’t to my taste as a form of entertainment, I do acknowledge the amount of hard work that goes in. Producing half an hour of well-edited and reasonably entertaining material a day, in between dashing around conventions and fan events, is bloody hard. I’ve seen people attempt it and do admire the way they’ll slog their guts out, even at the earlier end of the subscriber scale.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the pay scale for this sort of thing, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. For example, when I hear the story of a Minecraft streamer buying a $4.5 million house in LA, I start to wonder how many of the developers of games he’s played could afford to do that. Like building a TV camera versus making masterful shows with it, the jobs are different, but the one is surely at least as difficult as the other.
The games industry is more meritocratic and easy to break into than some other industries, but it’s a long way from being there. By focusing our news on the breathtaking financial exploits of the YouTube community, we’re missing out on problems of low pay, exploitative contracts and lack of appreciation that too many developers run into.
We, as an industry, have an unfortunate fixation on glitz, glamour and green, green money. It may be a maturation thing as an industry – film, for example, does talk about budgets for productions and the earnings of its major players, but not so much. Ditto music, while the traditional art world hardly brings it up at all.
The personality-based and high-return nature of YouTube risks presenting the face of gaming to the young and new as the professional players, not the great minds behind a work. There are high-profile developers who have popped up in the last few years – Davey Wreden, Notch and Phil Fish to name three – but they’re dwarfed in number by new internet personalities playing their games. It’s hard, meanwhile, to think of many film critics (except Ebert, RIP) who match famous directors or actors in renown.
When a young person looks at a game they love, I want them not to think “I could make videos like that” but “I could make games like that”. Let’s Plays are an important vessel for critical commentary, humour and curation of quality titles. They allow for a quick look at a title rather than buying it sight unseen or from a cherry-picked trailer. But they cannot and should not be allowed by huge salaries to become the shop window display for our entire industry.