Once again, I’m not an academic. I see my role as criticising and exposing problems in pseudo-academia as it relates to research in the area of games, much the same way I see my role in debunking creationist arguments or exposing their flaws.
I’m bringing together the next two questions I was asked as they interrelate.
Show that the gaming media has a significant impact on game sales, to the point that corruption would impact game sales.
Show that the Let’s Play coverage style isn’t as or more influential than other forms of gaming media coverage (or to phrase it differently, show that GG’s decision to not include Let’s Players in the definition of game media reviews makes sense).
This hasn’t particularly been my assertion. My concern, rather, is over the effect media coverage has on devs, thought leaders, academia (and vice versa) and the role of hate mobs (genuine ones, rather than Gamergate) in creating self censorship. So I find myself in the odd position of being asked to prove something I don’t particularly consider relevant.
Still, there is a huge corpus of information out there about how sales are affected by reviews though much of the current research is concerned with how much customer reviews affect sales rather than how much professional reviews do. To pick out just two (you can find plenty of others yourself and they broadly suggest the same thing) Dimensional Research‘s survey (2013) suggests 90% of customers are influenced by online reviews while The Cone Agency did a survey in 2011 that suggests around 80%. These are generally for all products and not hugely useful save to establish a sort of background expectation.
With gamers considered by many marketers to be more technologically and social media savvy it’s important to consider them in their own light and according to a recent ESA survey professional online reviews only account for about a 3% influence over gamers purchasing habits.
That’s not to be sniffed out, despite sounding small, when you look at the other parts of the survey showing that advertising (a huge budget drain) only accounts for 1% – according to the survey. By contrast, word of mouth is at 11% and the biggest factor (22%) is having an interesting story/premise.
It is, incidentally, interesting to compare this with the Waggener Edstrom survey of 2009 (it’s behind a paywall but pertinent information is here). In 2009 reviews were rated at 15%, which shows a considerable drop since then.
So I would actually disagree with the contention that reviews are an especially significant driver of sales. Somewhat, but nothing compared to word-of-mouth.
Where do Let’s Play’s feature in this? It’s hard to say since they’re really a form of word of mouth. Certainly the industry is taking greater notice of YouTube personalities and Let’s Play’s as a way to shift product as evidenced by the Shadows of Mordor scandal.
So, into opinion-land then. Let’s Plays are good for sales as they are essentially word of mouth and they allow the average punter to see the game being played and thus have a nearly direct experience of the gameplay. However, that doesn’t mean people can’t be paid to shill the games harder and there are other pathways by which this avenue could be corrupted. I won’t go into detail here for fear of giving people ideas, but hands-on play at conventions/via demos already has issues and there’s no reason this couldn’t extend to Let’s Play.
So what influence does the games media have then? Some via sales, but also some via the conversation and condemnation or praise. Much of this is hard to directly demonstrate without a decent study (I’d like to see one on the real influence of Let’s Play’s too) but bad review scores, even if they don’t affect sales, can and will affect bonuses and the greenlighting of sequels etc. As shown by the New Vegas/metacritic issues. The original tweet confirming this is missing, but there’s an archived image here and it is mentioned and reproduced in many news articles on the issue.
Perhaps devs should respond to this by paying less attention to their fears of reviews, and pay more attention to their customers. As things stand content is being changed or removed due to fear of negative press. One well known example being linked here, and another being Lucky Chloe (this one being more of an example of mob-censorship).