Do Let's Plays and Streams Keep You From Buying Single-Player Games?

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I pirated games all the time as a kid. It took careful planning to download Hexen over a 14.4kbps modem that got disconnected anytime someone else in the house picked up the phone, but eventually, the games were mine. Without the resources to spend on new games—the monthly demos from PC Gamer only got me so far—I turned to the next logical option. It sure didn’t feel like stealing at the time. What choice did I have??

For years, the conventional wisdom—and by conventional, I mean the line pushed by game publishers who have every incentive to make people believe this is true—suggested piracy was killing them. On paper, this makes sense, and it’s easy to buy an argument built around the idea where pirating a game means a lost sale. But after reporting on piracy for years, I’ve come away with a far muddier picture of its impact.

CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077, almost certainly one of the biggest releases of the next few years, will be DRM free on platforms like GOG. If piracy was a doomsayer, why take that risk? Maybe, as developers have told me over the years, just because you can’t use an Excel spreadsheet to point out the positive (or neutral) ways piracy impacts a game, doesn’t they don’t exist. My gut tells me streaming is awfully similar to piracy.

IGN writer and producer Alanah Pearce recently published a piece called “Developers Say Twitch Is Hurting Single-Player Games,” which pulls from discussions with game developers about the way streaming culture may be trickling into creative decisions:

The fear of a decrease of single-player games isn't too irrational, and many developers - from indies to Triple As - told me Twitch is having a really significant impact on what games studios are choosing to make. One person I spoke to is Rami Ismail from Vlambeer, who said, “One of the most under-discussed effects of Twitch, YouTube, Let's Play - the whole content creator ecosystem - on the games industry is how the marketing impact of those platforms has affected what kind of games developers make. Why would any major studio outside of a first party trying to sell consoles, or a studio with a reputation for single-player games, bother with an immersive, single-player campaign?”

The notion that single-player games are dying has felt like a myth, given 2017 was a year where Super Mario Odyssey, Horizon Zero Dawn, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, Breath of the Wild, Prey, Nier: Automata, Resident Evil 7, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Pyre, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War showed up. And those are just off the top of my head.

It’s certainly true, as Pearce points out, a huge number of single-player games come from hardware manufacturers like Sony and Nintendo, who are incentivized to create the kinds of narrative-driven, big budget games to drive platform sales. (Microsoft seems to finally get this, based on the acquisitions it announced at E3.) But that list also includes a number of third-party releases, and Bethesda just announced two new big ones.

I started thinking about this after an interesting tweet by game critic Julie Muncy, who’s written for Waypoint before.

A few years back, I investigated the reasons various people chose to pirate The Witness, after the game’s designer, Jonathan Blow, was complaining about the impact of piracy.

My takeaways were, as I mentioned before, pretty muddy: some people think of piracy as a demo, some people think games are too expensive, some people think paying for a puzzle game is ridiculous, some people just don’t want to pay for a video game. The Witness went on to sell very well.

You could probably swap the word “piracy” with “streaming” in the last paragraph, no?

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I think it depends on the game? But I also tend to avoid watching streams for story-heavy games that I might be interested in, and if I find myself liking something about one I’m watching, I’ll usually stop and wait to watch the vod until after I’ve played it. More often, I’ll watch let’s plays after finishing a game because I like to see others’ reactions to moments or sections I enjoyed.

At the same time, streams have definitely sold me on games that are nominally single-player (but not narrative-heavy). I would never have considered the possibility that I’d like XCOM (strategy games have never been my thing) before watching the Waypoint streams, but now I’m very much planning on getting XCOM 2 whenever the Steam Summer Sale kicks off. And definitely for multiplayer games—it was Overwatch streams/let’s plays that sold me on it back around when it came out, and I’ve been playing it ever since.

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I have definitely watched/read LPs of games I have no intention or ability to ever play, but half the time I do ones for games I’m already familiar with just to see them done really well or very informative/completionist stuff.

I like watching 'casts of some select strategy multiplayer games just to see the game played at a very high level that I will never be able to achieve


For me its a definite no, Steams are the way in to a lot of game. Hell people Streaming stuff like Yakuza 0 is the only reason i auto bought it when it turned up on steam.

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It’s great how people are so certain they are correctly reading the tea leaves to justify their pre-conceived notions of what must be happening, totally independent of any larger trends (or even an understanding of the direction of causation if there is more than coincidental correlation). I’m sure we’ll even get some amazing graphs pulled from extremely partial data that “conclusively” show a correlation (does that mean streaming is good and stimulates sales or bad and harms them? I’m going to bet it’s entirely down to the expectation of whoever made the particular chart).

Personally, answering the question in the title, I’ve purchased plenty of games after seeing some of them in a LP or other stream. Why? Because games are not a passive medium. Also lots of solo games are not linear or even the ones that are still offer branches. What did you do in your play of Life is Strange? What decisions did you make in Walking Dead? How do you build up your colony in any city builder etc?

The thing that might really scare some developers: watching someone else play a game (and this is just as true for sitting next to them on a sofa, the internet just makes it much easier to do) is a great way of getting a better understanding of if you’ll enjoy a game. That’s the GiantBomb QL magic: the commentary works with just watching the game being played. I knew the new XCOM wasn’t for me, a huge and continuing fan of the original X-COM series, just from watching it being played. XCOM 2 was on PS+ recently and I jumped into those early missions and yup, the feel of that RNG mush just doesn’t do it for me at all. BattleTech is one of my top games this year while XCOM 2 leaves me cold. Without being able to see them being played before buying, that would be much harder for me to grok (and so make the right purchasing decision to maximise my enjoyment). With demos being far less common than in the past, a move to paint QLs as bad (or “killing” a type of game) comes off as anti-consumer (and bad for the long term health of the industry which benefits from delighting customers by making it easy to play the games they’ll enjoy the most).


I really only watch one channel thst does traditional LPs, since they’re talking over pre-recorded footage so it’s more of a commentary, but it has zero impact on what games I buy. I would never just watch a game if I actually did want to play it.

The only times I’ve decided not to buy a game after watching a streamer play it are cases where it’s shown that the game is significantly different than I thought/hoped it would be.

I can also think of a couple of cases (Caves of Qud and Dark Souls) where I’ve picked up a game I know I won’t play much of because I really enjoyed watching streams of it and want to both reward the developer and get a little taste of what it’s like to play.

All that said, if I were designing a single player game I would definitely be inclined to include significant content that isn’t visible in a single play through and to emphasize this in my marketing. Because, while I think you get something very different out of playing a game yourself, I’m not sure if most people agree.

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For narrative heavy games, I never even watch a let’s play or stream beyond the first hour if I’m going to get it. If I do watch the stream, I was never going to buy it in the first place.
I mostly go to the steam/let’s play after I’ve played the game so I can get another person’s thoughts on it.

Also, the main reason I got God of War is because I was interested in the discussion that Waypoint was having and wanted to listen to the spoilercast with my own thoughts.

I think this assessment is mostly fair and correct, but at the same time, I think it’s worth referencing what happened with That Dragon Cancer around its release and games that are solo, linear, and non-branching. (For anyone who wasn’t around, here’s the devs’ post: When the experience of watching a game is fairly similar to that of playing it—people do end up doing the former to avoid paying for the latter.

And even with demos not being as prevalent, Steam’s refund policy (not to debate the merits thereof) basically allows anyone to demo any game they want for up to two hours. I don’t think it’s super-difficult in today’s marketplace to get a sense of whether or not you’ll enjoy a game, just because that’s available to anyone willing to use that platform.

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Let’s Plays have an effect on my buying habits, I think, but mostly because whenever I start one and the game seems interesting I’ll go and buy it, or at least put it on my list of games to watch out for.

For example I’ve never made it through any full Giant Bomb playthrough despite loving those guys because no matter how much they add with their commentary on Yakuza or whatever, I’d rather experience the story without any kind of commentary. I am interested on their take on when Majima did x or y but sometimes it gets in the way for me a bit and I lose steam. That said I do recognize the value of stuff like that for people who can’t play certain games for good reasons like cost or lack of accessibility options.

The kinds of Let’s Plays I do really gravitate toward are ones that have some kind of specifc objective or gimmick. I love watching Austin and Janine Hawkins drive across The Crew’s bizzaro-USA, or Abby Russell play The Sims 4 to murder all the sims in the community centre. When the story being presented is a little more than the one created by a game’s built in narrative combined with the streamer’s commentary.


Yes! Streams have quite often kept me from buying single-player games. I’ll tune into a streamer playing a game I was interested in and discover that it doesn’t seem as good as I expected.

Not buying a game because I’ve seen it, though? Nah, never. I’m completely willing to buy a game that I’ve already watched in full on a stream or let’s play because it looks great and I want to experience it myself. (Shout-out to cool LPer Ritcheyz for making Enslaved: Odyssey to the West look better than it really is.) I totally see the concern about narrative-driven one-shot games like That Dragon, Cancer, but I don’t personally seek out that kind of stream unless it’s a confirmed bad game being dunked on, in which case it’s not like I’d buy it anyway. Watching someone play something like Gone Home or OneShot doesn’t feel at all like a substitute for playing it myself.

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Steam refunds are not and have never been advertised as a demo. Saying that consumers can go through a sale and refund process to emulate a trial only helps to paint the system as generous (when actually it is literally the minimum required to legally operate in several territories).

So That Dragon, Cancer is a game that got critical acclaim, $105,000 in KickStarter donations, and masses of free press which ultimately ended up paying off development debts from the initial sales only for that to be framed as…

our studio has not yet seen a single dollar from sales. That Dragon, Cancer was created by a studio of eight, and for many of us it was a full-time effort that involved thousands of hours of work. This huge effort required taking on investment, and we decided to pay off all of our debt as soon as possible.

Indie games typically do not break even, many of the indies who make it do so only after a decade plus of increasing debts and shovelling money from a second job into the pit of trying to break into games. This isn’t a secret, every indie will shout this from the rooftops.

To blame LPs for sharing your game with a wide audience and assuming that those viewers are doing that because of a desire to avoid paying rather than came to the video to enjoy the stream (quite possibly on top of making a purchase or as part of deciding about a purchase) is just such a modern retelling of the piracy myth (that all these young kids with no cash who get 3 games a year via gifts would suddenly go out and buy 50 games at full price each year if only we stopped them being able to pirate stuff). They made the indie dream and then asked, “but who is to blame for this not being even better” rather than realising they’d already beaten the expectations of almost everyone who was also making indie games.

Edit: Are we really going to spin tales of how this is a major issue around not compensating labour while completely ignoring the hours and hours streamers put into attracting and maintaining their audience, living off the ad revenue and tips that it generates while working on other gigs to get up to basic survival income? Other than the extremely few at the very top, LPers are just as much at the bottom of the economic hierarchy as standard indie devs (the ones who don’t make back dev costs, who don’t have the economic backing to even get access to major debts to push their project forward).

Edit: Game development is hard. Running a small business is hard. Capitalism does not actually want the small business owner to succeed. You pay for all these lottery tickets, the exhibitor badges and stands at events and travel to show off your work to the press, in the hope that it pays for itself. And then, if it looks like it’s not really giving you back the money you turned down taking a boring office job (selling your dev skills making widgets or whatever), you start to wonder what might have gone better. We get it. Every indie has been there (or will go there at some point). But going after LPers isn’t going to help anyone.


I have found that for shorter, narrative based games, I can watch a commentary-free complete playthrough and get the full satisfaction of playing the game. The first game this really happened with for me was Inside- I liked (but didn’t love) Limbo, and felt that $20 was more than I was willing to spend on something I was going to play once and then never go back to. Since then, I have “experienced” games like Tacoma, Edith Finch, and Adrift by watching long videos, and had they come out later, I probably would have done the same with things like Firewatch, Gone Home, Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, and other games in the “Walking Simulator” genera. In general, if the idea of a game is to experience a linear story over the gameplay, I am going to get the same out of watching a video than I would out of playing it, and I can do those while I am at work instead of the precious few hours of couch time i get each week

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I do feel like an oldie for not really enjoying streaming culture all that much. Quick Looks and gameplay videos to make a buying decision I understand, but watching Twitch for more than 15 minutes is an exercise in extreme boredom for me. There’s just too little entertainment for too much content, and I even include the vast majority of Waypoint streams in that bin. I’d just rather play games than watch them.

One small exception, I did watch an all cut scenes video of Injustice 2. It ended up feeling like another entry in the DCAU rather than a video game, so I guess it doesn’t really count when people discuss streaming.


Is the game bad? Then yes. Is the game horribly overpriced? Then it probably makes me wait for a sale.

In almost all other cases I’d say the opposite is true. I have routinely purchased games I was not planning to buy (most recently, Battletech and Vampyr) explicitly because I watched somebody playing them on a stream or a quicklook / let’s play and thought “hunh, okay, actually I do want that.”


For me, I’d say they both do and don’t keep me. On one hand, seeing LPs of The Wonderful 101 and Super Mario 3D World were absolutely what pushed me to buy a Wii U and said games. I don’t think I’d have bought them if I hadn’t been able to see a chunk of each to really see how delightful and great they both were.

On the other hand, there are games like Inside, where I watched a whole playthrough and now completely don’t feel the need to buy at all. The thing about that, though, is that I was mostly only just curious about Inside, but wasn’t too keen on actually getting it anyways. If I hadn’t been able to watch a full playthrough of it… I just never would have experienced it because I don’t think I’d have wanted to drop the money on that sort of game.

If anything they make me buy single player games. Well, providing the game looks good. Things like buying Spec Ops the Line because of a lets play made it look more interesting than just another modern military shooter, I got into Paradox games because of Wiz’s mega let’s play too.
That said I do use let’s plays to experience games that I am curious about but would either never actually buy anyway or which I like say, the story of but which the gameplay of is really not for me. My main experiences of dwarf fortress beyond bouncing off the UI are Boatmurdered and Gemclod and while I own Nier (the original one), I quickly grew to dislike the actual gameplay and just watched someone else play it. Basically anything naughty dog has made after Jak and Daxter sits in this catagory. I’d never play or buy the games, not even on a sale, playing them doesn’t really interest me but I’m happy to watch a Let’s Play.

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As other have mentioned, the only way a let’s play has stopped me from buying a game is if I didn’t like what I was seeing. With narrative games, I’ll specifically not whatch a streamer playing it until I have played it myself, and I think it’s actually fun to then go back and see somebody else’s gameplay, to see how differently they’ll react to different parts of the game.

It does seem like the stream culture influences game development, not by killing narrative-driven games, but in how we’ll now see more and more games with roguelike elements or, let’s say, absurd/sandboxy/physics experiences. Of course, it’s just a feeling (I don’t have data do back this up) but it sure seems like the number of games that have these characteristics has increased since stream culture got bigger, due to their unpredictability, making it fun not only to be player but also watched.

I haven’t pirated a game in over a decade. Even then, my usual escapades with piracy were of old, hard to acquire games like old NES and SNES roms before there was a thriving secondhand market through ebay and the like.

I am absolutely guilty of watching LPs of games I’m interested in yet have no desire to buy or lack the necessary hardware. I watched most of the story beats in the latest God of War on youtube, but I also don’t own a PS4. That’s morally dubious at best. True I was never going to pay upwards of $300 just to play one game, so it’s not a lost sale, but I also got to experience the time, effort, and work of others with no contribution at all.

It’s definitely a personal grey area that I’ve yet to work out exactly how I feel about it, and more often that not how I feel in each particular instance tends to hinge on the size of the dev/publisher which seems like not a great system. It feels less icky to watch and not buy a game put out by a massive corporation like Sony than it would to stream the entirety of Night in the Woods. I’m sure lots of people far smarter than I have sat down and crunched the math to figure out whether or not there’s a net positive effect of someone like me freeloading, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling odd about it personally. At the same time, it’s not something you can realistically quantify because you’re dealing with assumptions and unknowns.

I have no doubt that there are people who stream or torrent that are capable of paying for games and would pay for games if they had literally no other option. They’re probably not the majority, but they absolutely exist in some capacity, and if your livelihood is based on something selling I can only imagine that’s absolutely infuriating.


Only time I’ve watched a Let’s Play instead of playing a game is when it’s a horror game. I’m always interested in their story and content, but often can’t handle playing the ones in the Amnesia model of run-and-hide, out of a combination of annoyance and fear.

I often buy the games I watch just to support. Did so for Alien Isolation. Watching an entire stream of Yakuza 0 made me buy a copy of the game just to give them some money for the enjoyable experience, never to play it myself. That’s because I have disposable income to do so. Making LPs or streams unavailable will not change how much money one has to spend on games per year.

When I was younger, I would thread my finger through the level diagrams shown in magazines like EGM and Nintendo Power, pretending I was playing the platformers before I could afford to get them. Isn’t watching an LP kind of like that? I want to see some of the game and get excited, even when I can’t buy it yet.

Also, as someone who’s worked on indie games, I’ve heard often enough that an LP led to someone purchasing our single-player story-heavy game that I’d believe they’re helpful.