Using YouTube as an Accelerant for Video Games

New York- When Dynamic Pixels, a small Russian game developer, decided to make a stealth horror video game about sneaking into an ominous neighbor’s house, it turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The campaign for the game — called Hello Neighbor — flopped, earning less than $13,000 of its $100,000 fund-raising goal.

So Dynamic Pixels took a different approach. Last October, after teaming up with the publisher tinyBuild, it sent a demo version of Hello Neighbor to several thousand popular creators on YouTube and Twitch and invited them to make videos of themselves playing the game. If their viewers liked the game, they could download the demo for free as well.

Within a month of showing up on YouTube and Twitch, Hello Neighbor had earned back its budget through pre-orders and has since more than tripled that number. Even though the game’s final version does not go on sale for Xbox One and PCs until Aug. 29, people have already downloaded the demo versions more than 1 million times, and some YouTube videos of the game have earned tens of millions of views.

The results were “mind-boggling,” said Alex Nichiporchik, a producer of Hello Neighbor and chief executive of tinyBuild.

Hello Neighbor’s experience reflects the rise of video sites like YouTube as an accelerant for the video game business. Big-budget video game studios are courting popular YouTubers by sending them early review copies of games or paying them to make positive videos, and the impact can be even more significant for independent games with little money to spend on marketing.

YouTube, in particular, has a strong reach with younger audiences, who watch more than twice as much online video content as they do television. According to YouTube, hundreds of millions of people watch more than 246 billion minutes of videos about gaming on its service every month, with 70 percent of the viewers younger than 34.

For some video game developers, the goal is to gain the attention of someone like Felix Kjellberg, a Swede better known by his YouTube alias PewDiePie, whose channel has more than 56 million subscribers. Earlier this year, Mr. Kjellberg was embroiled in a controversy over posting anti-Semitic videos, but he is still regarded as so influential that developers sometimes refer to his impact as “the PewDiePie Effect.”

Ryan Clark, who designed an independent video game called Crypt of the Necrodancer, experienced that effect firsthand. After a glowing PewDiePie video about the game in 2015, Crypt of the Necrodancer saw an immediate $60,000 increase in sales. Factoring in the halo effect of the PewDiePie video, Mr. Clark estimated the total value of the video at more than $100,000.

In 2013, attention from PewDiePie and other YouTubers also helped Surgeon Simulator, a game made by the London-based Bossa Studios, become a global phenomenon that has sold more than 3.5 million copies.

“It’s something that has become really important to how we think about how we market our games going forward,” Tracey McGarrigan, the chief marketing officer of Bossa Studios, said of YouTube.

But some game developers warn that YouTube exposure is not a magic bullet that translates into sales, even if millions of people are watching.

When Lurking, a horror game made by four students in Singapore, caught the attention of PewDiePie and Markiplier, another well-known YouTube personality, their videos amassed more than 7 million views. But the results were marginal; one video about the game with 1.5 million views spurred only 8,000 downloads, even though Lurking was free.

Justin Ng, one of the creators of Lurking, said that when YouTubers make videos featuring a complete play-through of a game, it can potentially hurt sales, especially if the game is focused on a linear story.

Play-throughs can “spoil the narrative experience,” Mr. Ng said. “The game mechanics need to seem interesting enough for me to want to experience it for myself and not vicariously.”

While top-tier YouTube influencers can help put a game in front of tens of millions of eyes, their celebrity can also be a double-edged sword when fans are more interested in watching the player than buying the game.

What really drives sales, some developers said, is not just one-and-done attention from the most popular YouTubers, but creating communities of broader support from other content creators who are devoted to the game — and whose audiences are as well.

In some cases, smaller YouTube channels that focus on specific games can grow alongside them, creating positive attention and community for both. For example, Mr. Nichiporchik said he has seen some YouTubers who had 5,000 subscribers grow that to 200,000 subscribers over the course of playing Hello Neighbor.

“That’s a good lesson for a lot of indie developers: Don’t always go for the top-tier guys,” said Brendan Greene, creator of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a battle royale-style multiplayer survival game. “Go for the midlevel guys who are looking for something to get behind.”

He added, “If you find those people, they will walk through fire to help you out and it’s a great thing to have.”

Mr. Greene, who spent years cultivating relationships with video game streamers, knew he wanted to get the streamers involved before releasing Battlegrounds this year. So over the course of a few months, his team interviewed top streamers of other battle royale games to hear what they wanted to play. Later, as a sweetener, Mr. Greene offered some streamers their own server computers where they could host customized versions of Battlegrounds for other players to try out.

The moves worked. After a preliminary “early access” version of Battlegrounds went on sale in March, it sold more than 6 million copies in four months.

“I owe a large part of my success to streamers,” Mr. Greene said. “I wouldn’t be here today making my own game without the support of the content creator community.”

Dynamic Pixels and tinyBuild have also worked to keep the Hello Neighbor community that was fostered by YouTube and Twitch viewers engaged. They have regularly offered updated demos of the game to customers who pre-ordered it, for instance. And when the game’s final version becomes available at the end of the month, it will allow players to enter the one room that they could not reach before: the basement.

“People get really into the game trying to figure out exactly what is in the basement,” Mr. Nichiporchik said. “That creates a community effect that makes people want to participate, and participating means playing.”

The New York Times

Coming to Video Games Near You: Depressed Towns, Dead-End Characters

The new Night in the Woods is one of several video games in recent years to deal with the decline of working-class towns and a dismal economy.

In the coming video game Night in the Woods, a young woman named Mae decides to drop out of college and return to the former mining town where she grew up. It’s a place where there is little opportunity and most people are struggling to make ends meet.

Mae, who is an anthropomorphic cat, drinks too much, shoplifts and likes to break things in parking lots with baseball bats. As she meanders through the fictional town of Possum Springs, players of the game are confronted not only with her memories but also the sense of a place whose better times are behind it.

“I grew up in central Pennsylvania, and my town was a steel town,” said Bethany Hockenberry, one of the three independent game developers behind Night in the Woods, which is being released for personal computers and PlayStation 4 on Feb. 21. Alongside Scott Benson and Alec Holowka, Ms. Hockenberry drew on her hometown experience to create a game with an aesthetic that the developers describe as “Rust Belt Gothic.”

Night in the Woods is one of several video games in recent years that tapped into themes that came to the fore during last year’s presidential election campaign: the decline of working-class towns and what it feels like to be crushed by debt or left behind by the economy. In the games, players explore what it means to be in those situations through role-playing and storytelling, in contrast to the shoot-’em-up and sports titles that dominate the games industry.

Night in the Woods gets part of its inspiration from Kentucky Route Zero, a continuing and episodic PC adventure game from the independent studio Cardboard Computer. That game, which debuted in 2012 and whose most recent episode was released last year, follows an aging deliveryman named Conway as he travels the back roads of Kentucky in search of a secret highway that will allow him to make his final delivery.

Last year, a game called Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor imagined the daily grind of a trash collector living hand-to-mouth on the fringes of an alien society. And Cart Life, which was released in 2011, takes a hard look at the poverty line by simulating the stressful and precarious life of a food-cart vendor.

These games do not aim to make players feel successful and powerful as conventional video games do, and instead challenge people to look at the world in a different way. Creators of the games said they were more interested in showing the complicated lives of the people and places the world has left behind, as well as the economic realities that inevitably circumscribe their stories.

“We want to create stories and mythologies about the places we’re from and the people we know, and that includes addressing the economics of it,” said Mr. Benson, one of the Night in the Woods developers. “If you don’t, I think you’re not getting the whole picture.”

Some of the games have been critically acclaimed. Kentucky Route Zero won the best narrative award at the Game Developers Conference last year, while Cart Life took home the grand prize at the Independent Game Festival in 2013. Sales of these games do not come close to those of matching blockbuster titles, though they can still sell in the hundreds of thousands. Kentucky Route Zero, for instance, has sold around 250,000 copies.

Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy, who created Kentucky Route Zero, began making the game in 2010 when the country was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the housing bubble. Mr. Elliott said the feelings of frailty that emerged from those times, along with the rise of esoteric financial concepts like “shadow banking,” helped inspire the game.

“When we started working on the game, I was thinking about exploring the mystery of that relationship, of being a person in a precarious financial situation and trying to grapple with these forces that seem almost supernatural,” Mr. Elliott said.

In Kentucky Route Zero, the two developers mixed together magical realism with the everyday financial difficulties that people were encountering. Players find not just foreclosed houses and abandoned mines, but also giant eagles, ghostly mathematicians and tugboats powered by mechanical mammoths.

Conway, the game’s main character, is put through numerous tough situations that evoke economic despair. In one scene, after he suffers a serious injury, his leg is replaced by a gleaming skeletal prosthetic, and he is vaguely informed that he owes money to a corporation. In another, he descends into a subterranean whiskey distillery staffed by animated skeletons, whom he learns are doomed to toil endlessly for debts they can never repay.

With one more installment of the game to come, Mr. Elliott said he was thrown by the presidential election and the backlash of racism and xenophobia that accompanied it. He wondered how to incorporate that into a story that reflects contemporary working-class life. Although there had been subtle references to racial inequality in the game before, he and Mr. Kemenczy now plan to make them more evident.

“I don’t know that it’s responsible to continue to treat it as though it’s simmering under the surface anymore,” Mr. Elliott said.

Still, these games are not all doom and gloom. Night in the Woods game is leavened by its cartoony aesthetic and the animal characters. At times, it can be downright cheerful, as Mae bounds through the streets of Possum Springs throwing colorful autumn leaves into the air.

“People want to typify the Rust Belt as the most depressing, dead place,” said Mr. Benson, who is based in Pittsburgh. “But there are people who live their lives happily here, too. No matter where you are, you’ve run down your street kicking up leaves.”

(The New York Times)

Virtual Reality’s Possibilities Lure Video Game Developers

tech

Phil Fish, an independent video game developer who made the hit game Fez, quit the business in 2014 after burning out and becoming fed up with the gaming industry’s sometimes corrosive culture.

Now he’s back, lured by the promise of a long-anticipated technology: virtual reality.

“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 10 years old,” Mr. Fish, 31, said from his office in Austin, Tex. “I just got really excited about the realization of the dream of V.R.”

Mr. Fish is part of a four-person collective called Kokoromi that is poised next month to release a virtual reality game called Superhypercube.

The object of the Tetris-like puzzle game, set in a red-tinged world of incandescent tubes and gleaming neon, is to rotate a cluster of blocks so that they fit perfectly through the corresponding hole in a rapidly approaching wall. All the while, players are suffused in 360 degrees of shimmering colors and must physically lean to peer around the blocks and align them in the 3-D space.

Mr. Fish’s enthusiasm for virtual reality is being echoed by others in the video game business — in some cases pushing retired game developers to return and inspiring others with its creative potential — even as many hurdles remain to virtual reality’s entry into the mainstream.

Paul Bettner, co-creator of the popular mobile game Words With Friends, has called virtual reality “the most important thing to happen to interactive entertainment in decades.” This year, he designed a virtual reality game called Lucky’s Tale.

The creators behind the blockbuster 1993 computer game Myst recently came out with a spiritual successor called Obduction, which was released for both virtual reality devices and standard computers.

What makes virtual reality so potent is not only how it envelops players in a 360-degree visual experience, but also how it uses 3-D lenses, immersive audio and head-tracking technology to create a profound sense of physical presence that developers are just beginning to explore.

“We always wanted to build places and worlds, not just games, and V.R. just does that — it makes you feel like you’re in another place without even trying,” said Rand Miller, a co-designer of Myst and the designer of Obduction.

The interest in making virtual reality games follows the introduction of several virtual reality headsets over the last year. On Oct. 13, Sony plans to release PlayStation VR, a $399 virtual reality headset that can connect to the company’s popular PlayStation 4 console, which has sold more than 40 million units.

PlayStation VR is cheaper than other virtual reality goggles, like the $599 Oculus Rift and $799 HTC Vive, which also require expensive computers. That makes PlayStation VR one of the industry’s better chances at establishing a foothold with a mainstream audience. Superhypercube is one of the introductory games for the headset and will be available to download for $29.99.

Yet these developers are betting on an unproved technology. Some critics remain unconvinced that virtual reality devices will become mainstream consumer products, given the cost, the potential to induce nausea in some people and the sky-high expectations for the technology.

This month, Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, said he believed that augmented reality — in which the digital world is overlaid on the physical one — had more consumer appeal than virtual reality, which he said would ultimately attract “lower commercial interest over time.”

That does not faze Mr. Fish, who started making video games in 2005 with the games developer Ubisoft. In 2008, he formed a studio, Polytron Corporation, which developed Fez, a game featuring a two-dimensional character who discovers that he lives in a 3-D world. It sold more than a million copies for consoles and PCs.

Mr. Fish has come and gone from the video game industry more than once, leaving in 2013 and returning in 2014 — only to depart again. All the while, he remained connected to Kokoromi, which he formed in 2006 with two other developers, Heather Kelley and Damien Di Fede, later joined by Cindy Poremba. They had originally met in Montreal, sharing a mutual interest in experimental games.

Together, they developed Superhypercube for a 3-D-themed creative event in 2008. At the time, the game was more of an interactive art installation than a commercial product. Since there were no virtual reality headsets then with the necessary capabilities, they made their own with a Nintendo Wii Remote controller, stereoscopic LED glasses and hot glue.

Although early versions of Superhypercube could be played at large parties and gaming events, there was no way to play it at home without building a do-it-yourself virtual reality headset. When the makers of the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles raised more than $2.4 million on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in 2012, the members of Kokoromi realized that virtual reality technology was finally catching up to them.

As other headsets were announced, it started to seem obvious that a newer, more polished version of Superhypercube could be made for a broad audience.

“We had years of prototyping and play-testing data, because we were foolish enough to make a V.R. game with hot glue and plastic 3-D glasses,” Ms. Poremba said. “It’s an advantage that very few other people had bringing games into V.R.”

Adapting Superhypercube for PlayStation VR gave Mr. Fish and Kokoromi the opportunity to fine-tune the game, experimenting with how to design elements like menus in 3-D and refining colors and lighting.

Today, the visuals of Superhypercube evoke the retro-futuristic feel of films like “Tron” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with their varicolored tunnels and neon lines slicing through the darkness. “We’re referencing this aesthetic history as if it were real, and making it real at the same time,” Ms. Kelley said.

Although virtual reality’s commercial future is uncertain, Kokoromi remains more interested in the creative possibilities.

PlayStation VR “could sell 100,000 units or it could sell 10 million units; we don’t know,” Mr. Fish said. “But it’s superexciting. It’s the Wild West right now. Everything’s a discovery, everything has to be reinvented and reconsidered.”

New York Times