UPDATE: Google announced today via a blog post that it is shutting down its in-house development studio for Google Stadia and will not be investing further in first-party games for the platform beyond any near-term releases. The project will instead pivot towards third-party releases and making Stadia primarily a cloud gaming platform. "Having games streamed to any screen is the future of this industry, and we’ll continue to invest in Stadia and its underlying platform to provide the best cloud gaming experience for our partners and the gaming community," the blog reads. Former Ubisoft Toronto founder Jade Raymond is departing Google, as are its approximately 150 developers whom Google says it is committed to working with and finding new roles for.
In light of this news, we are recirculating this article about problems with Stadia's creative leadership. This story initially ran on 10/22/2020.
How does streaming work, really? For someone who isn't tapped into video games, it can be difficult to understand. If playing video games is commonly viewed as a waste of time, then watching someone play games is what Jimmy Kimmel once infamously called "a double waste of time."
The financial model for streaming doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, either. Why are game developers okay with streamers broadcasting footage of their products to hundreds of thousands of viewers without buying licenses the way others do for movies and music? Why is Youtube littered with gaming footage while scenes from movies and videos without licensed music get taken down? The answers are complicated and it's easy to see how someone who's just learning about this industry might not understand.
But Alex Hutchinson has no excuse.
Hutchinson, who has had a long career in the games industry as a director at EA Games and Ubisoft, now works as a creative director for Google Stadia, Google's games streaming platform. Earlier today, he tweeted out a scalding take about a recent outcry from Twitch streamers who have had their content taken down for using unlicensed music.
"Streamers worried about getting their content pulled because they used music they didn't pay for should be more worried by the fact that they're streaming games they didn't pay for as well," he tweeted. "It's all gone as soon as publishers decide to enforce it."
"The real truth is the streamers should be paying the developers and publishers of the games they stream. They should be buying a license like any real business and paying for the content they use," he added.
Hutchinson's tweets have been relentlessly mocked. For those of you just joining us, I'll explain why.
Medium is message
Stadia and Twitch's "streaming" aren't one and the same; Stadia is about streaming games to play them the same way you'd stream a show on Netflix. Twitch's is about watching someone play a game while interacting with them and other viewers.
Twitch streamers don't pay developers licensing fees to play their games because developers pay streamers to play their games in front of an audience. Every Twitch stream is a live, real-time advertisement for the game on display, whether the streamer was given a $1 million cheque to play it in front of thousands (yes, this actually happens) or whether they're playing it without sponsorship in front of a much smaller audience. Publishers get paid when someone watches a stream and decides to buy the game.
Streamers can bring thousands of eyes to a game, and platforms like Twitch have been responsible for years-old games suddenly seeing a major resurgence, like the recent popularity of 2018 murder-mystery game Among Us, and part of the popularity of now long-running games like League of Legends.
Games are not a static experience in the way music and movies are. Every player's experience with a video game is different, whether it's in a multiplayer game (which the 15 most-viewed games on Twitch right at this moment are) or even in an extremely linear, story-driven games.
As if his broad strokes take wasn't bad enough, Hutchinson decided to double down and make it more specifically terrible in the replies. "Most of the time playing the game just helps the streamer," he wrote. "People tune in to watch their 'show' which is built on content they didn't pay for. If their show requires game content, then a percentage of their revenue should go to the game they used."
A streamer's "product" is not the live video itself, but the experience. As critic Chris Franklin puts it, streaming is not really about content creation. "The output isn't the video, not really," Franklin writes. "No one wants back-catalog DVDs of Ninja's streams. The license doesn't matter. It's the personality, community, and parasocial relationships streamers sell."
This symbiotic relationship between streamers and game developers has worked well for the industry over the years, and the handful of times that a publisher has cracked down on streams and Youtube videos often results in a backlash so intense that the publishers pull a complete 180.
Bad leaders and bad products
Hutchinson's misunderstanding of all this is made worse by his long career in AAA game development during the rise of streaming, and all the more dramatic by the fact that Google Stadia is doing terribly. His tweets received such a negative response that Stadia made a statement distancing itself from his take.
Less than one year after its disappointing launch, Stadia's job listings are down 68%. With a shallow library of games and a number of technical issues, critics immediately warned consumers against the service. It has also failed to gain momentum even during COVID-19 when games are experiencing one of their biggest booms in popularity in the medium's history. Stadia has every excuse to be doing well, but it's losing.
Perhaps that's because its most senior staff fundamentally misunderstands the ecosystem they're a part of. This isn't the first time Hutchinson's comments have gotten him into trouble either. In the past, he's called critics "subtly racist" for liking Japanese-made games more than American-made ones. He's said that players couldn't choose between male or female characters because of a "workload issue." Most recently, he was director of a game with a title that used a disparaging word against indigenous people (despite having himself directed a game with a Native American protagonist in the past).
How does someone with such a messy history and with such a flawed understanding of how their industry works end up as a lead creative for Google Stadia? Maybe it's a symptom of an industry that is far too insular and only willing to hire within its own pre-existing circles. Maybe it's because companies the size of Amazon and Google like to throw money at rising trends without any clear understanding of it in hopes of landing a hit, which has repeatedly turned out to be a failing strategy. Maybe it's all these things, and because Hutchinson looks a certain way.
Whatever the reason and whatever the bad tweet, publishers will not be charging streamers to play their games on camera any time soon.
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