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What It’s Like for Tiny Developers to Watch Their Games Go Viral

What It’s Like for Tiny Developers to Watch Their Games Go Viral:

For years, video game press tours worked in the exact same way. Developers gingerly presented their half-finished projects to a small gaggle of journalists and critics, who’d relay their hands-on experience in a standard, objective pre-release preview. A few months later those previews would be replaced by reviews, which would translate to sales for the game developer (or not). It was an efficient machine, keeping influence and publishing power in the hands of the appointed tastemakers. The quickest way to success was a green metacritic score. You’re toast without the institution.

But things change, and in 2016, that institution is completely decentralized, which means a game like Surgeon Simulator 2013 can thrive.

Surgeon Simulator was born in a game jam [a live game development event], the same way every other game we worked on came to be, so we did not know if it’d be successful or even become a real project,” says Henrique Olifiers, Gamer-in-Chief of Bossa Studios, the company behind Surgeon Simulator. “The theme of the game jam was ‘heartbeat,’ and people were getting very creative in that theme, making music games or rhythm games, but our team got very literal and went for open-heart surgery. It was a happy accident.”

Surgeon Simulator is more joke than game. You stand in front of an open chest cavity, prepped for surgery, and then use some intentionally obtuse controls to try (and fail) to operate. It leads to a lot of ridiculous, viscerally horrifying moments, like, say, dropping the patient’s liver off the table, or breaking all of their ribs with a clumsy scalpel swing. It’s not exactly a great game, but it’s both memorable and hilarious—which made it perfect fodder for the many personalities on YouTube and Twitch.

“The game was popular on YouTube from the very first prototype. It was popular overnight,” says Olifiers. “After that it was a no brainer to turn it into a proper project. From there we knew it was going to be a success.”

The “Let’s Play” is a subgenre of YouTube videos and Twitch livestreams in which commentators record themselves playing and talking about video games. That might come off weird and especially boring if you’re not invested in the medium of games, but there can be something oddly soothing about experiencing a game passively. Sometimes you can’t muster the brain power reqired to play Civilization 5, the twitchiness for League of Legends or the fortitude for Dark Souls—but watching someone else do the heavy lifting is akin to watching sports on TV.

“Let’s Plays” are insanely popular. PewDiePie is king of them, with the most successful channel on YouTube—43 million subscribers. (To put that in perspective, Justin Bieber’s channel sits in fifth place with a scant 20 million.) And in 2013 PewDiePie recorded [13 different videos on Surgeon Simulator], each one garnering anywhere from 4 to 12 million views. The same thing happened with Markiplier, Rooster Teeth and Game Grumps.

Surgeon Simulator was never going to be exalted by the conventional games media—it’s too simple and stupid for their attention—but it made for some captivating internet content. By February of last year it had sold two million copies, and you can chalk almost all of that up to its momentum on YouTube and Twitch. It pays to go viral.

“It’s all about awareness. The conversion rate you get from a big video on YouTube isn’t correlated directly, but what happens is when people see the video, they start talking about the game, and when they come across it on a Steam or iOS or whatever, they already know what the game is and the decision to purchase it is much easier,” says Olifiers.

Surgeon Simulator’s triumph is proof that video games, like everything else, no longer live and die by attention from traditional authorities like critics. Snowpiercer can ride word-of-mouth VOD buzz to universal acclaim, Transparent can accept an Emmy while airing only on a less popular streaming service, and Donald Trump can accept the Republican nomination no matter how loudly the rest of the GOP screams. It’s freeing, exciting, and forces a lot of questions about how this industry works.

DARKEST BEFORE THE DAY

And Surgeon Simulator is hardly the only unlikely success story spurred on by streamers and YouTubers. “Our first big surprise was when the game blew up in early access,” says Tyler Sigman, one of the co-founders of Red Hook Studios, who just put out the red-hot Darkest Dungeon earlier this year. “We always thought Darkest Dungeon could translate well into [YouTube and Twitch] because there’s a spectator element involved. Performers can play at their own pace, or name heroes after their subscribers. We’ve done a lot of efforts to pursue that stuff, but most of it has been organic. We’re grateful that it’s translated over.”

Darkest Dungeon is a strategy game set in an endless supply of macabre catacombs, equipped with a number of mechanics that can drastically affect your gameplay. If, for instance, you adventure for too long without light, some of your party members may develop permanent scars on their psyche, making them too traumatized to be any good in combat. It’s an engrossing quirk, elevating Darkest Dungeon to high review scores and a cult following among streamers and YouTubers.

“We showed at some shows and did everything we could to build up press over time, but ultimately I think a huge part of it is the viral reach,” says Sigman. “We tried to hit it all. We hit the press but we always took streamers and YouTubers very seriously. In early access we spent a lot of time trying to reach them, we partnered with a streaming group called Main Menu that helped us out at launch. I think it’s about trying to seed your game—to let enough people know about it so they can spread the word.”

Darkest Dungeon is a much different game than Surgeon Simulator. It’s far more complex, mechanically rich, and could never be mistaken as a joke, but both games cultivated their success from a strong, independent, unpredictable base. And now Darkest Dungeon has a dedicated community of players, which is more valuable than anything else in the industry.

“We’ve got people who are really passionate about the game world, we’ve got people who are really interested in more game content and ancillary stuff, so all of a sudden we’ve made a little farm for ourselves,” says Chris Bourassa, director of Darkest Dungeon. “In the old days you’d do your gold master [finished game] and send it off to a publisher and have your development team party, but you really had no idea how people felt during development. But with Darkest Dungeon I’ve been glued to watching people play through the end game just to watch that emotional response and hear what they say. It’s been cool to experience that.”

NEED FOR SPEED(RUNNERS)

Everything about SpeedRunners was perfect for Twitch and YouTube. It’s a fast-paced, competitive game where four friends attempt to navigate an obstacle course without falling too far behind. It’s bright, exciting and easy to watch. Publisher tinyBuild Games has done an excellent job of engaging their Let’s Play audience, even releasing downloadable content packs of characters based on YouTubers like PewDiePie, Jesse Cox and Dodger.

“I think the audience has been changing for the past decade or so. They don’t need to be told what games are good anymore,” says Alex Nichiporchik, CEO of tinyBuild. “I think we’re in the day and age where a GIF can sell a game better than a preview from a major games publication. Twitch and YouTube decide what’s hot now.”

Nobody is claiming that the traditional games press is dead—there will always be a role for real journalists doing real journalism and real critics writing smart criticism—but developers have discovered that the best way to solidify their success is by taking their games directly to the proletariat. In-depth reviews have their place, but many gamers today are more likely to make purchasing decisions based on simple gameplay footage. You watch someone you like having fun with a game, and then decide that you want to have fun too. It’s the same jealous reaction you had watching your neighbor play his copy of Goldeneye, only magnified for an infinite audience.

“We were desperately trying to pitch SpeedRunners to all the press we could, doing all the things you traditionally would, but then PewDiePie makes a video,” continues Nichiporchik. “Then he makes another one. Then we see fan art appearing—not based on SpeedRunners specifically, but of PewDiePie and other YouTubers as characters in the game. That’s when we realized we should be focusing on YouTube.”

Sure enough, late last year SpeedRunners reached over $1 million in sales. The game still hasn’t officially left “early access,” which means it’s not technically a finished product, and not a single official review score has been published—and that doesn’t matter.

The best thing you can say about YouTube and Twitch is that they’ve allowed microscopic indie developers to find success despite being up against the massive marketing budgets of traditional blockbuster games. Even though publishers like EA and Ubisoft are starting to focus on non-traditional media more, the playing field is more even than ever before.

speedrunners-dlc-2-cover

Surgeon Simulator likely couldn’t have carved out space on most journalists’ busy E3 schedules—much less afforded a booth at an expensive convention like that—and it would never be mentioned in game-of-the-year talks or receive any real estate at massive press conferences. But it did inspire PewDiePie to record something. In 2016 that’s all it takes for a dream to come true.

“When we started making video games we always had the dream of doing exactly this,” says Olifiers. “We wanted to make a game that resonates with people. We wake up every morning wanting to do something great. It’s not about being a financial success, it’s about being financially enabled. So of course it was a surprise. If it’s not a surprise there’s something wrong with you. You have to appreciate the result of what you do; if you’re not surprised you’re not enjoying it anymore.”


Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker living in Los Angeles. You can follow him @luke_winkie.


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