Do Zero Punctuation Video Game Reviews Influence Video Game Sales?

escapist-review-of-braidIt’s been over a year since Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw was plucked from YouTube obscurity to host Escapist Magazine’s Zero Punctuation video series, and the acid-tongued Brit with the surreal, machine gun patter remains the undisputed star of game reviews, with regular appearances on G4 TV, at the Game Developers Conference, and more. But does his massive fan base buy the games he loves (which are few), and skip the titles he hates (nearly all of them)?

Depends on who you ask. Here’s a case study on the relation between an online video celebrity and the consumer behavior of his fans:

Croshaw recently gave a rare rave to indie art game darling Braid, available on Xbox Live’s download service. (Conquering its mind-bending challenges, he memorably noted, is “a more satisfying feeling than teabagging a hundred noobs in any deathmatch shooter you care to name.”) But did his fans follow his advice with their dollars?

“I don’t see any real case for Zero Punctuation increasing sales by a lot,” Braid designer Jonathan Blow told me, after checking his game’s Xbox Live purchase stats. Looking at the period when Croshaw’s review went online, he added, “There definitely isn’t a visible sales spike or anything like that.”

painkiller-amazon-salesThat isn’t the full story, however. Last May, Croshaw effusively praised Painkiller, a somewhat obscure, hyperviolent first-person shooter from 2004; a pull-quote from the review (“All you really need to know is there is a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning”) showed up as an ad on Steam, the game download service, generating big gamer acclaim. On Amazon, sales of the old game immediately jumped 7,400 percent.

Yahtzee’s impact in this case was so notable, Escapist publisher Alexander Macris even cites it in the company’s marketing brochure, to demonstrate the site’s reach and influence. “As I’m sure you know,” he told me, “media companies are always fighting to prove audience engagement and relevance.” As to the comparative lack of consumer engagement after his Braid review, Macris speculates that the game “was already a breakthrough hit by the time Yahtzee reviewed it, while Painkiller was a lesser-known title that was given a new look based on his review.”

Maybe. My personal guess is that Croshaw’s audience is overwhelmingly comprised of gamers who enjoy the vulgar smack talk in his reviews, which are almost always of hardcore titles from established genres, but no matter what he says, are less interested in experimental games without the usual rock ‘em sock ‘em conventions. That would be a sad irony, given Yahtzee’s passionate advocacy of games as an art form. But then, that’s generally the challenge of online video stardom — once your fans decide why they like you, it’s difficult to stray outside their expectations.

Image credits: www.escapistmagazine.com. Amazon screengrab courtesy of Escapist.

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