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How streamers have changed the face of MMO launches

While I am 99% giddy and thrilled that New World is launching next week — the first truly big new MMORPG launch in a long, long time — I can’t help but notice that there’s one significant difference to this release than, say, back in when Guild Wars 2 or WildStar first rolled out. And that’s the streamer phenomenon.

I’ve been watching with growing disquiet how the streaming culture has affected online games, especially new ones. By and large, I have no problem with individuals who like to livestream games and share those experiences with followers. It can be entertaining and informative, and there’s a lot of good eggs out there doing this. I don’t watch streams, but I do often pick up a YouTube video here or there from streamers, so I’m acquainted with the field.

But there’s a darker side to the streaming phenomenon that is hard to ignore. On the individual level, it’s what the constant pressure to perform and be popular can do to wreck a person’s psyche. I’ve lost count of how many streamers I’ve seen crumble from the pressure to stay relevant at all costs, especially when that’s tied to a revenue source. I also think that the relationship between streamers and fans gets unhealthy more often than not. There’s a lot of celebrity worship, toxic comments, objectification, and idol-making in the works here.

Without an agent or PR agency as a shield, a streamer has to handle his or her own mob. And as with any mob leadership, it doesn’t take much — an unguarded suggestion or careless word spoken in anger — to send a mob careening at people or studios.

And it’s these super-popular streamers and their associated mobs that have become the target of MMO studios. PR people will court and woo streamers to their games for all of the extra publicity, often giving these streamers preferential treatment and visibility and presents. I know how that goes, because it’s what PR people also do to the press, and in both cases, extreme caution and care is needed. But while the press (theoretically) is bound by ethics and guidelines, there are no such boundaries placed on streamers. It becomes an escalating scramble to get into games first, to get the affection of a studio, and to gladly lay one’s efforts at the foot of a studio for its service.

Then we get to the actual launches, where streamers and their mobs, again, are literally changing the game. People either are fleeing servers where popular streamers are or flocking to them, causing no end to imbalances and server performance and widespread trolling. We saw this with the launches of WoW Classic and Burning Crusade Classic, not to mention this past summer when many popular WoW streamers migrated to FFXIV virtually overnight.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to see that players are creating spreadsheets to track streamers’ intentions to roll on specific servers for New World so that everyone else can change their plans accordingly. And boy does that rankle me. I mean, good to know so that I can avoid the crowds, but I’m annoyed that I even have to do this in the first place.

So. Yeah. Streaming culture is both here to stay and problematic on many levels. And there’s no good answer for it yet.

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