Thought Bubble: Why Nintendo’s Creator’s Program Isn’t Completely Insane

Nintendo tried to catch up to the 21st century yesterday with the announcement of the Creator’s Program, a new initiative in which Nintendo will split the profits of YouTube videos featuring Nintendo content with the people who make them. It’s a logical, but bold step that could reshape the relationship between consumers and developers.

In practice, Nintendo’s plan seems pretty simple. Fans will be allowed to profit from videos using footage from Nintendo games as long as they sign up for the Creator’s Program first, earning either 60 or 70 percent of the ad revenue generated from views of those videos (the numbers are subject to change). It marks a strong departure from Nintendo’s previous policy, which held that profiting from such videos represented copyright infringement and therefore shouldn’t happen, a stance that falls somewhere between ‘No Fun Zone’ and ‘Buzzkill’ on the ideological spectrum.

The Creator’s Program represents an improvement insofar as it indicates that Nintendo finally understands the value of Let’s Play and fan-driven material, which (I’m assuming) is primarily what the Program is intended to address. For years, games have offered a mostly solitary experience. Let’s Play is an easy, unobtrusive way to share those experiences with others, which is why it has rapidly become an integral part of the gaming cultural sphere.

Having said that, Nintendo’s policy seems more begrudging than altruistic, which is why I’m of two minds about the development. There’s money to be made whenever there’s a demand for a product and the demand for Let’s Play is pretty well established. Unfortunately, Nintendo seems far more interested in that financial aspect. It’s as if the company just realized that deliberately quashing fan enthusiasm is indeed the aforementioned Buzzkill, mixing things up not because it wants to but because that’s simply the cost of doing business in the online era.

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I can see where Nintendo is coming from. Players perform the commentary that makes a Let’s Play a Let’s Play and they deserve to be compensated for those efforts. But those videos look a hell of a lot better with Nintendo assets than they would if the players had to provide their own artwork, which means there’s a real value add depending on the game in question. Nintendo spends a lot of time cultivating the look of its products. If the company thinks it’s entitled to some of the money, I don’t feel like I’m in a position to argue.

So why hasn’t this happened before? There’s a longstanding assumption that developers benefit more from Let’s Play videos than the people making them, a notion that gained traction when Double Fine suggested that Let’s Play videos drive more sales than conventional reviews and press coverage. It sounds obvious, but studios have a vested interest in allowing the public to play their games, even in public for an audience. It’s a form of free advertising, the adoration and future sales more than making up for skipping profits in the short term.

If Nintendo really wanted to build goodwill, it could factor those losses into the marketing budget, as many studios have done already.

But that’s not how it’s playing out. What’s more, I think Nintendo’s strategy could work. Let’s Players will play ball, because doing so is better than the alternative. Right now, nobody is outside Nintendo is making any money off Nintendo Let’s Play. The new proposal is better than zero, and conditional permission erases much of the legal ambiguity.

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It’s ultimately unclear if Let’s Play is covered under fair use copyright laws and we’re unlikely to know anytime soon because it’s not a legal battle anyone wants to fight. That part is crucial. No individual Let’s Player can afford to stand against corporations that keep an entire legal staff on retainer. Settlements are also more likely when neither side is sure of the outcome. We’ll see partnership because it’s preferable to animosity and expensive legal skirmishes.

But if Nintendo gets its way, I suspect the other major publishers – the Activisions, EAs, and Ubisofts of the world – may follow suit and attempt to implement similar arrangements. Let’s Plays are done for games that are already finished and marketed. Generating money from those videos – where the developer doesn’t have to do any additional work – is akin to grabbing money off the curb after landing on Free Parking. Free advertising is good, but getting paid for it is even better.

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Then again, who knows? Should that transpire, perhaps all Let’s Players will collectively decide to abandon triple-A and focus exclusively on independent games – games that are generally hungrier for advertising – to avoid the profit sharing of the Creator’s Program. If that’s the case, then forget I said any of this because the big publishers will backtrack pretty quickly.

I just don’t think that will happen. Nintendo is proposing a symbiotic relationship that allows both parties to profit, and while many people are upset at the moment, I think they’ll come around given the money that could be made. That could also rapidly become the norm. The Creator’s Program delivers a smaller percentage to Let’s Players on the back end, but that may not be a deal breaker if the pie is large enough and the process is relatively painless. If anything, that will be Nintendo’s undoing. Nintendo still seems out of touch, especially given its stated desire to restrict coverage of certain games while demanding final approval. So far, the implementation doesn’t seem terribly user-friendly.

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Whatever the case, I can’t say I wholly disapprove, at least in theory. The Creator’s Program could be the games industry version of royalties and syndication, where TV shows and songs generate residuals years after peak popularity.

Nintendo’s initiative is an attempt to find a new equilibrium within the industry, one that’s probably long overdue. While the company disapproved when YouTubers profited off its games, there’s an equally strong generational entitlement that resents being held accountable for the free use of other people’s material. The world of online streaming has basically been an unregulated wild west for years because the law typically lags behind technology, and in many ways there’s still no precedent. But that was never going to be true forever. Major corporations are good at collecting their legal portion of the profits. We’re seeing that negotiation now, even if it’s not in the courtroom.

I really don’t know where things go from here, or what shape the future will take. But Let’s Players should probably get used to the idea of sharing. Something like the Creator’s Program is inevitable even if Nintendo’s proves to be a bust because it’s an attempt to create structure in a turbulent marketplace. History typically trends in that direction, and some sense of governance is likely coming to the world of consumer-driven gaming content.

 



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