The Price of Fame

Superdata's Joost van Dreunen examines the impact YouTubers, Hollywood celebrities, and big-name developers are having on the industry

During a recent conference, I ended up holding the hotel elevator for what I thought was a couple on vacation. As they entered, they shouted to someone in the lobby: "No, we're YouTubers. We're kind of famous. You should check us out online." Later that week at a party organized by the community manager of a big Asian MMO company, I noticed a group of gamers asking one of the other attendees for an autograph. Not knowing the person, I asked someone and was told: "Yeah, he's a well-known German YouTuber."

Celebrity will kill the video game star.

By now PewDiePie is a household name among many of us in the industry. Here's a guy with a knack for witty commentary and an ability to speak as an authentic human. He, above all others, managed to connect with a growing audience for gaming video content. As one of the most popular channels on YouTube and Twitch, gaming-related videos are on track to generate $3.8 billion this year alone, catering to an audience of 483 million people.

Think of it as a layer on top of the actual game play: Rather than playing the games, people will watch others play. According to some observers, "watching games will soon be more popular than playing them." And the data confirms it. But the growing abundance of YouTubers and other aspiring celebrities that seek to make a living by providing commentary and witty banter around game video is also a sign that the games industry is changing.

The question is whether it's a good thing.

Red carpet games event.

Years ago I had a guest speaker from Rockstar Games in my class who pointed out that, different from the film industry, there was no 'celebrity culture' in the games industry. He argued that most people don't buy a game because a particular developer worked on it. To paraphrase him, "There is no award ceremony for the guy who programmed the chopper in GTA." However, stars like Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep can bring a lot of people to the cinema on name recognition alone. Consequently, people like them are honored every year in a series of award shows that help both raise their profile and provide the film industry with a cultural gravitas. It serves to remind us of how important the film industry is.

For a long time we've been telling people that games ($25B in 2015E, United States) are now bigger than movies ($11B at the box office). And now celebrities are answering the call. For someone like Kevin Spacey, who was a voice actor in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare or Kate Upton, a model that starred in a TV commercial for Game of War, it is just another job. For others, it's more lucrative. During an earnings call, Glu Mobile's CEO was asked what it was like to work with an A-lister like Kim Kardashian. "Isn't she difficult to get a hold of?" asked a financial analyst. The CEO simply replied, "No. Because after her reality show, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is her second biggest revenue stream."

It works both ways, of course. Electronic Arts knows this all too well and for years has featured famous NFL players on the cover of its boxes. In the increasingly crowded mobile games market, celebrity has proven to be a great way to reduce user acquisition costs and keep, especially free-to-play games, on the top of people's minds. Glu Mobile recently posted stellar figures, not in the least thanks to its persistent and successful use of well-known people, musicians, and Hollywood plumage. So while there still may not be a celebrity culture among programmers and developers on the same level as the film business, it looks like this is about to change.

More like "crowdedfunding."

On the creative side, too, there's a noticeable move towards celebrity culture. It makes sense, of course, to invest in people who have a proven track record. Especially in a hit-driven industry, it is practically a no-brainer when trying to mitigate the risk that comes with the massive but necessary capital investment. It doesn't always work out well, it seems. To do well on Kickstarter and raise a bunch of money it really helps if you've worked on a game in the past that did well. It crowds out newcomers who, in the absence of notoriety, have a more difficult time seeing their projects materialize. According to Thomas Bidaux at ICO Partners, "The majority of the money raised by video games was through very large projects. If the current trend continues, projects that raised less than $500,000 are on track to garner less money than in 2014." In a follow-up email conversation, he added that it is in particular a combination of "celebrity designers with a wide public appeal...[and] the closer to their game of fame, the better."

High-flyers on Kickstarter can raise a lot of money, like Shroud of the Avatar by Richard Garriott ($1.9 million), Shenmue 3 by Yu Suzuki ($6.3 million) and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night by Koji Igarashi ($5.5 million). As an increasingly top-heavy layer of celebrity talent monopolizes investment money, without providing a consistent output of new innovative experiences, it fundamentally undermines the model of crowdfunding and makes it even more difficult for small fry outfits to raise capital.

Collectively, all these aspiring YouTubers, cross-media celebrities and famous designers are adding a new content category to the games industry. I'm not advocating some utopian purist game industry, void from the very forces that inform every other cultural industry. Games are necessarily and irrevocably the product of a much more complex intercourse of ideas, beliefs, commercial principles, and market forces.

But now that games have entered the mainstream, they are bound to change. As fame and celebrity latch onto the games industry as it moves upward, it begs the question of if and how it will affect the industry. Will it help accelerate its creative effort and inspire new innovative experiences? Or will this drag it down to a base level form of entertainment? (Is that even possible?) And even if that happens, isn't that the price an art form must pay to reach mass adoption and allow designers to share their ideas with a larger audience?

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Latest comments (9)

James Ingrams Writer 4 years ago
This is one of the reasons for streamlining and dumbing down of games. You will now notice that just like IGN and Gamespot, many "famous" YouTubers will now give a good review to major AAA titles however many problems it has. It used to be that IGN could give 91% to a game and a famous youtuber reviewer would give it an honest 75% because of game problems. Now these yooutubers will also give 90%+ scores!

This does not bode well for the future of gaming. Because without honest reviews, casual gamers will lose faith We might be seeing that already with 30%+ declines in game sales over the last 5 years.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago
Something is twisted about a creative industry where the audience members --- gamers --- are more famous than the people who actually do the creative work.

Also this...

"By now PewDiePie is a household name among many of us in the industry. Here's a guy with a knack for witty commentary and an ability to speak as an authentic human."

Nonsense. PewDiePie screams like an idiot. His fame is a fluke... Like a fad. He doesn't have a talented bone in his body.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 28th August 2015 10:21pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
He blew your game out too huh.
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Show all comments (9)
Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design 4 years ago
Something is twisted about a creative industry where the audience members --- gamers --- are more famous than the people who actually do the creative work.
That is because the game is entertaining, and not the person developing it. The same goes for cartoons and other forms of animation. The characters are what become more memorable than the people who worked on it, even if those characters are not real people.

There is no reason a developer can't become famous, but the only way that will happen is if they put themselves out there, and do something that gives people a reason to watch them. But of course this sort of thing can't be done all to often since developers are usually unable to disclose information on games they are working on, because it's treated as a business.

In other words, a developer is to games, what a camera man is to movies. Behind the scenes stuff that no one cares about. You are not the entertainment.
Nonsense. PewDiePie screams like an idiot. His fame is a fluke... Like a fad. He doesn't have a talented bone in his body.
I don't know if I would go as far as to say he isn't talented. Clearly, people disagree or they wouldn't be watching him. I say it takes talent to have gotten as far as he has doing what he has been doing.

A fluke? Maybe, but if so ... that is one hell of a fluke. You have to give him credit for that XD.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany4 years ago
"Nonsense. PewDiePie screams like an idiot. His fame is a fluke... Like a fad. He doesn't have a talented bone in his body."

When you have 38 million subscribers, you have at least the talent to attract people and make them listen to you. Don't be so fast to bash somebody; everybody is where he/she is for a reason regardless of how fair/unfair it may seem to others.
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Jacek Tuschewski Audio Director, Producer and Audio Designer 4 years ago
Interesting perspectives in the article and comments... I actually hope and think that once we have mastered the creation of games that have minimal or no required input (control) from the player/viewer and are still engaging and entertaining, the game industry will hit an all time high and leave books, music and film in the dust.
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Jim Perry Programmer, head geek of indie studio Mach X Games 4 years ago
Like John Owens said, the reason designers are the only ppl who have a level of fame in the industry is the same as with the movie industry. They're the only visible part of the game to the public (usually). They do the interviews and talks to the public facing part of the industry. Just like you don't see cameramen or lighting guys on late night tv talking about a movie, you're not going to see actual developers or graphics/audio guys doing talks that reach gamers. They'll do talks at GDC but those are facing into the industry and not out to the public. Actors in movies are equivalent to character in video games. Designers are equivalent (for the most part) to directors. People will go to see Peter Jackson movies, for example, just like people will buy games where Miyamoto was attached to it - they're known for producing products people enjoy. This somewhat extends to the studios that are known for consistently good games, BioWare for example.

It would be great if the industry awards ceremonies were to get better recognition as long as they don't become the farce most awards shows have become.
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Jerry Liu Director of Strategy & Consumer Insight, Telltale Inc.4 years ago
Sorry...he lost credibility when he calls Kim Kardashian an "A lister"...
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She... is, though? Kim Kardashian is incredibly famous, recognisable, wealthy and successful. You may not like her for whatever reason, but she is practically the definition of "A-list".
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