ALEX MANN enters the realm of new media, seeking the wanderer, the scholar and the strategist
Alex Mann investigates the realities of making money on youtube
Today’s society raises us to work. We enter schools an open book, dreaming of anything from astronauts to rock stars. Yet as we make our way through the various stages of education those dreams are often sifted out, leading us to focus on more attainable careers. It’s a worn old tale really: the passionate individual who forsakes his or her hobbies, crumbling to the necessity of a paid wage.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The rise of new media has begun to erode these cliches, allowing those who are passionate enough to carve their own way in the world, often creating jobs that were previously unheard of. Sure, it’s a far cry off being an astronaut, but at the very least one could establish their own captain’s deck at home.
MAKIN' THAT MONEY >> “Earning a living gaming seems more a daydream than a real likelihood,” muses Daniel CouttsSmith, a 24-year-old gamer based north of Sydney more commonly known to the online community as ZiggyD. “I've been gaming pretty much all my life, I don't think I can remember a time before PC games or Sega Mega Drive. However, I never really considered it anything more than a way to kill time.”
After years of working a retail job that didn’t quite fit, Daniel was desperate for a more creative outlet to fuel his passions. It wasn’t until his partner Amy Gilbert suggested he utilise his StarCraft II obsession that Daniel looked to YouTube guides as a viable option. “I'd earned a few dollars through freelance writing efforts and I thought maybe I could earn a few more through videos, maybe enough to buy a game in a few months time.”
But it wasn’t long until Daniel began to see the potential behind the ZiggyD channel. “Only a couple of months in I saw that some
If one vIdeo makes $10 In a month, what happens If I make 10 more?
of my videos were earning a couple of dollars a day from search traffic,” he recalls “If one video this good could make ten dollars in a month then what happens if I make ten more videos that are even better? It was a very exciting concept and I was probably hooked from that moment.”
Over the past couple of years, Daniel and Amy have been building up ZiggyD, transforming it into a sustainable business that now supports the pair full time. With multiple new videos each week, the channel offers strategy guides, playthroughs and even the odd self-improvement video as part of ZiggyD’s ‘Monday Musings’ segment. “My channel's core strength has always been the way I take complex games and break
their mechanics down into easy to digest guides,” Daniel explains. “I do hours of testing, collecting and analysis of information on a specific game problem.” The result takes the form of a five to ten minute video accompanied by Daniel’s personal commentary.
For ZiggyD, the majority of his channel’s sustainability is thanks to YouTube’s advertising policy. Once a channel reaches a certain amount of views, video creators are offered the chance to link advertisements to their content. If accepted, with every new view there’s a chance that a short advertisement will play beforehand, whether it be relevant to the content or within the viewers’ interest. Each view roughly equates to less than a cent, but when you’re getting 30,000+ views a day, it adds up. “The whole system is amazing really,” Daniel says. “I get paid to create free content for my viewers and the advertisers get to show off their products in a highly targeted fashion. Everyone involved wins and I feel like I am really creating value out of nothing.”
Sydneysider Michael “Vaati” Samuels, 22, has a very different approach to his YouTube channel. ‘VaatiVidya’, as it’s known, is entirely dedicated to the Souls series, uploading gameplay footage, tips and previews. But what Vaati is most widely recognised for is his in-depth exploration of the series’ cryptic lore. “The Souls series has so much depth, and focusing on one game allows me to go in-depth to an extent that other content creators wouldn't be able to,” he explains. “There's so much to cover, and I don't think my videos would be good unless I could devote an entire channel to bringing the Souls games to life.”
Vaati has made it his goal to focus on quality over quantity, creating cinematic videos that capture the heart of the Souls series. “Some channels are driven by personality, others are driven by scripted content,” Michael says. “My persona is largely separate from my videos, and I like to think that the storytelling and information in my videos can stand on its own without an overbearing personality.” This focus on storytelling and content is what draws Vaati’s fan base, but to maintain that fan base, Michael is aware he needs to maintain the regularity of his uploads. “If people look at your channel and see that your last video was created five months ago, then they won't subscribe. If people are aware that you create once a month or once a week, then they'll be more likely to subscribe. By keeping it regular, people know what to expect.”
But balancing the regularity and quality of VaatiVidya’s tightly scripted, cinematic style poses a problem for Michael, as YouTube’s advertising policy rewards those with a large number of views across a large amount of content. “Very, VERY few people will make a meaningful amount of money off their early content.” Michael cautions. “Without a subscriberbase, it's hard to get views, and without views, it's hard to make money. If you make videos for the money that means you'll be looking to maximise the amount
VERY, VERY FEW PEOPLE WILL MAKE A MEANINGFUL AMOUNT OF MONEY OFF THEIR EARLY CONTENT
of views you can get. This means you'll try to make as many videos as possible, which usually means that the videos won't be of very good quality. So I stuck to making one good video a week. I had advertising on my videos during this time, but it took me almost a year before I started making anything near minimum-wage.”
It’s for this reason that Vaati began looking elsewhere, for if he wanted to improve his channel, make it sustainable and achieve the high cinematic quality his videos demanded, he would need a more secure grounding.
QUALITY > QUANTITY >> Enter Patreon, a crowdfunding website not dissimilar to Kickstarter, but one that allows fans to donate a small sum of money to creators on a regular basis. Creators can set up their accounts on a videoby-video or a month-by-month basis, as well as set milestone goals, provide rewards for patrons and discuss future content with dedicated fans in a more secure environment. The result is positive on both sides. Fans receive guaranteed, continual content, while creators can continue to do what they love.
“It's a great system,” Michael says. “When I was being paid through advertising, I was being rewarded for the amount of videos I could make. On Patreon, I'm being paid through appreciation. The better my videos are, the more likely people will be to pledge towards my videos.” It’s a system that rewards quality, not quantity, and it means Michael can focus on making the best content he can, without compromise.
That’s not to say ZiggyD’s constant stream of releases are not quality, not by any stretch. Daniel and his partner work tirelessly to make ZiggyD a versatile channel. “Time is the biggest requirement of a successful YouTube or Twitch career,” Daniel says. “If you are serious about it you have to do everything you can to buy yourself more time: drop back to part time work, sell things you don't need, move to a smaller phone plan or a cheaper house and do whatever else you can to save money so you can invest time into building your channel and skill set. Over the past two years I have probably averaged six or more hours a day on this, including days off, even when I was working a full time job.“
Vaati has a similar dedication to content, committing at least five to ten hours of work per video to ensure every piece of content is up to standard, not counting the work involved in research, play time and the many other necessities of maintaining a channel. “Imagine if someone clicks through to your channel page after seeing one of your videos.” Michael says. “The second video they watch might decide whether they become a subscriber, and it's important to have a channel full of great entertainment.”
A veteran of the YouTube ‘Let’s Play’ scene, 31-year-old Kurt J Mac spends at least 50 hours a week in his Chicago study working on Minecraft-centric channel Far Lands or Bust.
"There is a lot of competition," he explained in a recent interview. "In order to stay relevant, it is essential to have content seven days a week. The biggest misconception is that we gaming YouTubers simply play games all day, when in fact the actual playing and recording gameplay accounts to only about a quarter of the time spent."
For the past three years, Kurt has been walking in the same direction in Minecraft, questing for the fabled far lands that creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson originally addressed on his developer’s blog. In earlier builds, the game’s randomly generated maps have a limit, a suspected flaw that once a certain point is breached strange anomalies will start to appear. The bug has since been fixed, but Kurt’s version of the game hasn’t been updated in a long while. "When I set out I was kind of underprepared," he admits. “If it was a three-year journey and I had gotten there already, it probably wouldn't be as special a thing. If, 20 years down the line, I finally make it, that would be a cool thing!"
To Mojang’s credit, Kurt predicts that it will take at least that amount of time before he reaches those far off lands but, as is the case with many great adventures, the journey has become the focus of his channel, much more so than the destination.
While there is a meditative tranquility to watching someone cross the shifting planes of Minecraft, Kurt’s personality plays a large part in keeping fans coming back to his channel, often discussing the latest gaming news, theories and life in general. "I hear of a lot of people who now prefer to watch people play games on YouTube instead of buying or playing them," Kurt says. "It's about the personality of the person playing. Minecraft is a different game for everybody. People can make their own storylines, like I have with Far Lands. It lends itself to being more of a stage."
Kurt has taken his YouTube channel a step further than merely making it sustainable. Since 2011, Far Lands or Bust has raised upwards of 250,000 dollars for Child’s Play Charity, an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of sickly children by supplying toys and games to over 70 hospitals worldwide. Interestingly, Child’s Play Charity was originally established by the lads behind Penny Arcade, bringing Kurt’s journey full circle considering he first discovered Minecraft via one of their online comic strips.
DMCA OR BUST >> But aside from the individuals behind each channel, the community that absorbs the content and, in very special cases, the charities who receive funds, Vaati believes that new media is mostly on the side of the creators and distributors of the original content. “Gaming uploaders have an interesting connection to the publishers and developers of the games they display on their channel,” he says. “We operate in a legal gray area, where footage used is classified as ‘fair use’, a notoriously meaningless law if publishers or developers decide to take down that footage on YouTube.” This has been a strong point of contention amidst the online community, as the past year has seen different developers alienating certain communities with their controversial actions. Nintendo recently targeted specific Let’s Play channels earning revenue from their content, taking down the footage and putting a halt to any further revenue that came from the videos. In another case, EA paid certain YouTube producers to say positive things about their games, a perfectly legal approach, except for the fact that the content creators declined to mention receiving said payments. “The uploader should be encouraged to produce, not with money, but with access to game assets, information and giveaways.” argues Vaati, who strongly disapproves of both company's actions. “Bandai Namco has done a great job of this with Dark Souls 2. Before the game released, they gave assets and information to new media producers on YouTube and Twitch, just like they may have given to traditional media forms. After the game was released, Namco has sponsored giveaways of Dark Souls 2 steam codes on Twitch.tv, drawing more viewers to those who cover their game, and donating rewards that can be distributed among the community. This is a healthy relationship that I would love to see adopted by other publishers and developers.” ZiggyD expands on this. ”Accessibility is something that regular TV or print will never have,” he says. “I think the best way to leverage this in the future won’t be to simply use new media to advertise, but as a platform for creation. Giving content producers and their communities the chance to shape the way games or other products are designed will lead to the creation of a organic way of marketing that results in high quality products.”
This communication is integral to ensuring stronger content for the future. Just as it’s important for developers and publishers to be on the same page, both parties need to understand what the community wants. New media has
EA PAID CERTAIN YOUTUBE PRODUCERS TO SAY POSITIVE THINGS ABOUT THEIR GAMES
allowed for that dialogue to be as open and varied as possible, and channels such as ZiggyD, VaatiVidya and Far Lands or Bust are helping bridge the once divided gap. Not only are they giving a passionate community a place to gather, but they also provide a forum for discussion, creation and suggestion. “Gaming is not only a great way to unwind, but it can be a real personal development experience,” Daniel reflects. “You get to challenge yourself, learn how to overcome your limitations and even form relationships with people from all around the world.” For those out there with the gaming bug who have the itch to try their hand at YouTube, Vaati has this advice to give. “Get out there and start making videos, regardless of whether they're good or not. Learn the platform, learn what people like, take constructive criticism and enjoy the experience. Eventually you'll find a fan base who likes the same thing you do, and that's what it's always been about for me.” He’s adamant about this point, clearly eager to see the gaming community expand on YouTube and Twitch. “Thinking and planning are important, but nothing is as valuable as getting real experience and feedback. So grab a microphone, learn how to edit and throw yourself into the deep end.”
Kurt J Mac