'Absolutely ludicrous': Online gamers unhappy with Persona 5 streaming restrictions

Demands from a Japanese video game company that players refrain from sharing videos or screenshots online have been met with skepticism and anger from the gaming community, re-igniting questions about what constitutes fair use with interactive media.

Persona 5, a Japanese role-playing game by developer and publishing studio Atlus, launched in April to rave critical reviews.

The sprawling storyline, which can take players upward of 100 hours to complete, stars a group of high schoolers who moonlight as cat burglars. It includes a heavy dose of Japanese folklore and Buffy the Vampire Slayer-like supernatural action.

As with many major releases, gamers on sites such as YouTube and Twitch planned to upload or live stream videos of themselves playing Persona 5 online (commonly referred to as "Let's Play" videos).

Atlus aims to stop that.

A warning

The day Persona 5 hit stores, Atlus's U.S. blog posted a long and extensive list of rules for anyone posting videos of the game online.

Citing "our masters in Japan," Atlus USA asked players not to stream or post content beyond the in-game date of July 7 and not to post "major story spoilers."

It threatened action against any channel that breaches these rules.

"If you decide to stream past 7/7 (I HIGHLY RECOMMEND NOT DOING THIS, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED), you do so at the risk of being issued a content ID claim or worse, a channel strike/account suspension," reads Atlus's blog post.

CBC News reached out to several Let's Players and game developers, and most agreed Atlus is probably more concerned about YouTubers' effects on the game's sales than spoilers leaking out to the wider internet.

"It's absolutely ludicrous," Toronto-based gaming vlogger Brock McLaughlin said. "When you click on a 'Let's Play' video you know what you're getting into. There are going be spoilers involved in the stream you are watching. That's just how it goes."

"No one is forced to watch a stream on Twitch or another platform," said Tanya DePass, a Twitch streamer and director of the I Need Diverse Games non-profit group.

"In fact, it's easier to get spoiled browsing Twitter or Tumblr than it is to accidentally go to a stream of a game you're interested in."

Copyright violation or fair use?

Many video creators take care to avoid dropping major story spoilers in the path of anyone not looking for them.

Adam Koebel, a Vancouver-based gamer, posts his Let's Play videos on YouTube with simple, spoiler-free descriptions and thumbnail images — if you want to know what happens in a game, you have to click on the video.

Key to the debate is whether someone recording themselves playing a video game is in violation of copyright or whether it constitutes fair use and should therefore avoid a copyright-related Content ID claim.

Content ID claims are filed on YouTube videos that improperly use copyright-protected material, such as film or TV footage and copyrighted music. A video with such a claim filed remains online, but will not provide advertising revenue for the uploader.

These claims can apply to video game content as well, but have historically been less tightly enforced than other media.

Copyright strikes are more serious: Each successful strike results in restriction on a channel, and after three, the channel is removed altogether, with no recourse for creating a new one.

Koebel argued that Let's Plays are more akin to "reaction" videos than reposting copyright-protected material as is.

"It's not as if we're playing the games totally silently and just running it out as though we were all watching a movie together," he said. "I spend more time talking about the game than I do playing it, I think."

To Toronto-based developer Mare Sheppard, the act of playing a game inherently transforms and personalizes the experience.

"A video can never be a substitute for the actual feel of playing — most of what makes our favourite games special isn't captured very well in video, because it's all about the feel of controlling the character and performing the action," she said.

'A zero-sum game'

Some players, however, were sympathetic to some of Atlus's concerns, even though they disagreed with what they characterize as a heavy-handed approach to the situation.

"I understand that they want to preserve the integrity of the experience. Especially for a game that's very narrative-driven, like a [Japanese role-playing game]. I appreciate that they don't want people to be spoiled," said Erika Szabo, a Toronto-based gamer and YouTuber. "But I think that the extent to which they've done so is the problem here."

Nic (TetraNinja) Truong, a Mississauga, Ont.-based Let's Player, said Atlus is "still stuck in the past" with its restrictions.

"They probably view the entire thing as a zero-sum game, that if people are watching it online and have the story spoiled for them, that means they think that's one less sale. But in reality, that's not the case at all."

Whether Let's Plays and live streams of video games constitute free advertising or something more akin to piracy remains a sticking point in the games community with little concrete data to confirm one way or another.

"I honestly can't say how many viewers who, say, watch a long-form Persona 5 playthrough would still buy it, or would be dissuaded because they had seen it already, or were never planning on buying it all, but were just curious," said Toronto-based game developer Benjamin Rivers. "Without that data, we're all just grasping at straws."

Atlus appears to be in a good position with or without the support of the Let's Play community. It announced last week that it had shipped 1.5 million copies worldwide, more than twice as many as its predecessor Persona 4 Golden shipped in 2013.

Looking for clarity

If there's a silver lining, though, it's that Atlus outlined in specific terms what kind of content would draw the ire of a Content ID claim.

Gamers on YouTube note a lack of clarity on what kinds of content will get them dinged for copyright violation and what won't.

Creators told CBC News that Twitch is more open and communicative, but since they aren't employees of the company, there's only so much they can do to support them if a copyright-related complaint comes up.

"If I were to say to someone on Twitch, 'Hey I was thinking of ignoring this Atlus recommendation, what do you think I should do?' They're not really in a position, legally, to offer me any advice on that," says Koebel.

"The only thing that's going to get us out of it is a willingness for all sides to engage in a conversation about what this kind of content should look like. I think it's possible — it's just going to take work."