20 September 2018 | 21 Comments
I opened a YouTube account 9 years ago so I could post a silly video of my cat. 4 years later I started using YouTube for Stonemaier Games, posting the occasional how-to-play or preview video for our Kickstarter projects. But my YouTube channel really didn’t begin until 4 years ago–more on that in a moment.
Yesterday I watched a video of one of my favorite “booktubers” talking about things he’s learned from his YouTube channel, and he had some great insights that resonated with me. So as my channel approaches 500 videos, 10,000 subscribers, and 1 million total views, I thought I would share how it has changed over time and what I’ve learned along the way in case it’s helpful to my fellow creators.
4 years ago, I wanted to discuss game mechanisms, and I didn’t have a place to do it. I wanted to keep this blog focused on Kickstarter/entrepreneurship, and my personal blog is full of random topics. BoardGameGeek is great, but I already spend so much of my time there for conversations about my games.
I realized that YouTube might be a good fit. I could just turn on my webcam, talk for a few minutes, then turn it off and upload. Hopefully some people would watch and share their thoughts.
That’s exactly what I did (the first video was about Robinson Crusoe). I didn’t really have a master plan or a goal–I really just wanted an outlet to discuss mechanisms, as I think a lot about games and love talking about them.
I also knew that I didn’t want to review games. As a publisher and designer myself, I felt like that might create some awkwardness among my peers. So I instead decided to focus on “my favorite mechanism” in games that I played. That gave me the freedom to talk about all types of games in a positive, constructive way.
Here are a few things I learned/wish I knew at the beginning of the channel:
- Goals: I like that my goal from the start wasn’t about popularity/subscribers or money (I don’t monetize my channel, though this calculator shows me that I could be making $6k/year from it), nor was is a marketing scheme. I simply wanted to talk about game mechanisms. If I had set out to be the next Tom Vasel or Pewdiepie, I would have been discouraged and disappointed by the results. Instead, having subscribers is just a nice feel-good perk.
- Not Reviews: While I’m glad I decided not to review games, I completely understand if that’s something other people are interested in. I would recommend reading this open letter I wrote a while ago, particularly the part about starting by reviewing games you already own. Publishers aren’t going to send you free games until they’ve seen that you are consistent, influential, and insightful.
- Lighting: I’m glad I didn’t invest in fancy microphones and cameras from the start, as I may have quickly decided that YouTubing wasn’t for me. However, I wish I had improved the lighting from the start–not by buying anything, but simply by turning on the lights and letting in as much natural light as possible.
- No Editing: At the time, I had the option of recording and editing on my iPad or recording on my webcam and not editing. I went with the latter, as I really wanted a low barrier to entry. Basically, I didn’t want to dread making a video (which editing would have done)–I just wanted to jump in and film my thoughts, even if it took several takes. I’ve stuck with that to this day.
To my surprise–especially as a writer at heart–I really enjoyed the outlet of YouTube to talk about and discuss game mechanisms. I learned a lot during the period, so I’ll jump right to those insights/mistakes:
- Consistency: Rather quickly, I got into the rhythm of posting 2 videos a week. That fit well into my blogging schedule. I find that the perceived expectation of consistency is a great motivator.
- Brevity: I would later learn that brevity isn’t always an asset, but I liked that I was targeting 5 minutes per video. That kept me focused on one (sometimes two) mechanisms.
- Homepage video: YouTube lets you film and post a video on your channel’s homepage as a way of introducing people to your content. I highly recommend doing this, as it’ll help answer the question people ask when they discover your channel: “What’s this all about?”
- Clarity: Early on, I named my videos in this format: “My Favorite Game Mechanism in _____.” Quickly I realized this wasn’t ideal, as the most important part of the title–the name of the game–was getting lost in the video thumbnails. So I now lead with the name: “______: My Favorite Game Mechanism.” I actually see way too many video creators, podcasters, and bloggers mess this up: Let us know the focus of today’s content in the title.
- Engagement: I absolutely wanted to create and participate in conversations around the topics mentioned in my videos (otherwise why post them publicly?). So I end every video with a question, and I participate in the comments.
- Social sharing: Not everyone wants to subscribe YouTube, so I try to share the videos on Facebook, Twitter, and BoardGameGeek. That might be one too many places, but my sense is that a lot of people subscribe to one specific place and not others, so as long as it’s on brand, I’ll share it in a variety of places.
After several years of twice-daily videos, I was no longer thinking about YouTube as a hobby. Rather, it was a part of my weekly routine at Stonemaier Games. While there’s no direct impact on Stonemaier’s bottom line, it truly was helpful for me as a designer to have such in-depth discussions about game designs, and I think there is a certain appeal to publishers who share their unfettered enthusiasm for games from other publishers. I root for people like James Hudson who do that.
But I had room to grow, and this is where I specifically want to credit Ed Baraf of “Gaming with Edo.” Ed emails me from time to time with really great advice about my YouTube channel. While there are certain things–like editing–that I simply don’t want to do (I know I would lose my passion for the videos if I had to edit), I’ve adopted several key pieces of advice from Ed that you’ll see below.
- Audio: My audio still needs improvement, but it’s come a long way. I use a Blue Yeti USB microphone, and it works well (except when it doesn’t due to desk vibrations and a bad cord). I’ve also heard that a Sennheiser ME 2 lapel mic would work well (and it’s more cost effective).
- Visual: My webcam was old, and apparently HD is standard now. So I upgraded to an HD webcam. I could probably go more fancy, but the webcam is just so easy to use.
- Playlists/tags: For a while I was just typing in the name of the video, a brief description, and posting it. But I’ve found that people seem to appreciate when they can look at specific playlists, and tagging the video with things like “game design” helps YouTube decide where to share your video.
- Links: If I mention a specific video, blog, etc in the video, I try to link to it in the video description so people can easily find it.
- Trolls: It’s exceedingly rare, but every now and then someone shows up in the comments to ruin the conversation. YouTube makes it very easy to hide that person’s comments from your channel and/or report them. I’m very selective about this, as I want people to feel comfortable expressing themselves.
- Primary image: This is perhaps Ed’s best suggestion. See all of the different images below? My web dev, Dave Hewer, created those templates (which I edit in InDesign) to differentiate various types of videos, including my crowdfunding videos. They’re much more visually appealing than the screenshot options YouTube gives you.
This brings us to the last few months, which has seen the largest growth in the history of my channel (+3300 subscribers in 5 months). It’s for a specific reason, and it all started with my decision to sit down in front of the camera on Sunday, April 14 to talk about a game I failed to design: Red Rising (see video here).
The reception to the video was unlike anything I had seen before on the channel. At 27 minutes, it was 5x longer than my normal videos, and it wasn’t particularly focused–I just casually rambled on, saying everything I wanted to say. It was a lot more relaxed than my normal videos.
I realized that I really liked the format, so “Sunday Sitdown” videos were born. They’re longer videos, though they’re still focused on a specific topic. I’ve had a lot of fun with them, and they continue to resonate with viewers, so I’m very glad I gave myself permission to break from the normal format and try something new.
Actually, a lot of recent improvements have been the result of viewer comments and suggestions:
- Visuals: I don’t own all of the games I discuss on the channel, so I don’t always have something to show the viewer. However, video is such a visual format that I think it can be frustrating to the viewer if they’re just looking at my face the whole time without visual context. So I’ve been trying to print out a photo of the game in advance and use it as a visual as I discuss the game. I know this is very low-tech, but it seems to have worked pretty well.
- Don’t bang the table: I didn’t realize I was doing this, but because my mic is on my desk, if I put games down on my desk while I’m talking, the sound is jarring to the viewer. So I’ve been trying not to touch my desk at all and instead use a side table when I have a game to show.
- Listing names: A number of my Sunday Sitdown videos have been top 10 lists, but a viewer pointed out that they didn’t recognize the names to many of the games. So I now list all games mentioned in the video description (the next level would be to timestamp them).
- Encourage subscriptions: This is something I forget to do 99% of the time. The vast majority of your viewers will be people who watch one of your videos, not subscribers. I think it’s incredibly helpful to remind those people that they can subscribe to the channel if they want more.
- Transcripts: I’ve had several members of the deaf community ask if I can create transcripts for my videos. It’s extremely time consuming to do so (right now, the entire process of creating a video takes about 20 minutes; typing out a transcript would take at least another hour). However, we do have some volunteers who do this on occasion, and YouTube now has a way to upload a normal-text transcript (you don’t need to break for each line by time). Thanks for Andre Ribera for finding this method and transcribing some of my videos this way.
I still have a LOT to learn about YouTube, but it really has been a delightful surprise so far. For those of you who have subscribed, thanks for being a part of the process, and I look forward to many more game design discussions in the future!
If you create videos on YouTube, what have you learned along your journey? Also, if you’re a fan of Stonemaier Games, I highly recommend checking out the new channel, The Mill!
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