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A few weeks ago a multiplayer horror game, Section Studios' Dead Realm, was released on Steam's Early Access service and quickly rose to (briefly) become one of its top sellers. (According to SteamSpy, it's sold 70,000 units at $15, and it's undoubtedly a satisfying game, given almost 1,500 reviews averaging 'Very Positive').
In particular, the game has proven popular among YouTubers, in part because it's explicitly designed to be played in front of an audience. "We developed this game to not only be fun to play, but also fun to watch," reads an excerpt of the game's description on Steam.
The rise of YouTubers has definitely affected how many developers make games, but Dead Realm is a special case: it's published by 3BlackDot, the "influencer-driven" entertainment startup founded last year by ex-Machinima staffers in conjunction with YouTubers Tom "Syndicate" Cassell and Adam "SeaNanners" Montoya.
This is important because both Syndicate and SeaNanners have published multiple videos of themselves excitedly playing Dead Realm without clearly disclosing their financial ties to the game's publisher, seemingly defying the FTC's strict guidelines for how YouTubers should disclose paid endorsements (coincidentally, the UK Committee of Advertising Practices published a similar set of revised guidelines this week in an effort to enforce transparency among YouTubers producing advertorial videos.)
Gamasutra has contacted multiple 3BlackDot representatives to verify whether or not the company is aware of the FTC's expectations and ascertain whether it has any plans to comply, but received no direct response to that question.
"If an ad features an endorser who’s a relative or employee of the marketer, the ad is misleading unless the connection is made clear," reads the FTC's endorsement guide. "The reason is obvious: Knowing about the connection is important information for anyone evaluating the endorsement."
It may well be an honest oversight. The FTC's revised disclosure guidelines for YouTubers are relatively new, as is the fact that Let's Play videos can serve as effective ads for games, and both Cassell and Montoya have previously published videos (albeit weeks or months ago) in which they speak briefly about being involved in the development of Dead Realm.
Moreover, in direct communications about Dead Realm 3BlackDot proudly touts the YouTubers' involvement. Gamasutra received an email from a company representative this week that read, in part, "Evan Fong (VanossGaming – 13.7 million subscribers), Tom Cassell (TheSyndicateProject – 9.1 million subscribers) and Adam Montoya (SeaNanners – 5.4 million subscribers), all partners and co-creators at 3BD, joined forces to create the first multiplayer PC game that was created by an influencer network specifically for the YouTube community." (It then goes on to tout the number of unique views YouTube videos made about the game have garnered since its release, "all with zero marketing spend.")
While each of the aforementioned YouTubers has published multiple Dead Realm Let's Play videos, only Fong appears to have made any attempt at disclosing his ties to the game in post-release videos -- and only implicitly, in a text description on his first Dead Realm video that reads (in part) "We will also be releasing new ghost characters, human characters, and maps as time goes on...Thanks for all your support."
Even that probably doesn't cut it, from a federal standpoint. When Gamasutra spoke to FTC representative Mary Engle last year amid concerns that some popular YouTubers were accepting money to play or review games in their videos without disclosure, she made it clear that the commission expects "... disclosure should be clear and conspicuous, and should be upfront and easy to see where the viewer won't miss it."
Failure to do so is grounds for an FTC investigation, which could lead to a lawsuit; the FTC recently compelled Sony to pay refunds over misleading Vita ads and barred employees of its marketing firm partner, Deutsch LA, from misleading consumers with product endorsements on social networks without clearly disclosing their financial ties to the product.
This isn't the first time that 3BlackDot YouTubers have failed to clearly disclose financial ties to the products they play, either. When Gamasutra spoke to company co-founders Luke Stepleton and Angelo Pullen last year, Stepleton said that transparency was "not an issue" and that company representatives would clearly disclose all paid videos.
"Adam and Tom have done a brand integration for Disney Infinity. It's very clear when you watch the video, they're saying, 'Hey guys, Disney asked me to do this video,'" Stepleton said. "It's clear they're working with the brand to market or promote."
Gamasutra then promptly watched those videos and never heard either YouTuber say 'Hey guys, Disney asked me to do this video,' nor give any clear indication they'd been paid to produce the "brand integration" videos -- only that they'd been invited to play the game early.
3BlackDot's established disregard for being transparent about its YouTubers' business arrangements is doubly troubling because complying with FTC expectations (by, say, adding a line of text or a graphic that clearly states "I had a hand in making this game" to these videos) probably won't make these videos any less appealing, but failing to do so potentially damages the credibility of YouTubers as a whole.