Online games news Tedious Retro Gamer, 07-11-2022
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Three completely different personalities created a quite unique youtube gaming channel called Outsidexbox in 2012. After about 8 years of successes, they reached a surprising decline they still cannot recover from. Yes, it’s gonna be one of those "how to miss a point in 3 easy steps" stories.
In 2012, three people formerly linked to gaming media, Andy Farrant (Inside Xbox), Jane Douglas (Gamespot) and Mike Channell (Eurogamer) created (together with Eurogamer Network) a youtube channel called Outsidexbox. Within 3 years they gained 1 million subscribers, within 5 they reached two million subscribers, after six years they added a second channel, Outside Xtra, with two additional hosts, Ellen Rose and Luke Westaway.
What made this gaming channel so special? It’s hard to describe really, mostly the personalities of the hosts: Andy Farrant was meticulous in his approach to games, Mike Channell was reckless, and Jane Douglas usually was choosing violence above other options. The channel was a mixture of lists (f.e. "7 Incredible Boss Weapons That Sucked When You Got Them" or "7 Worst Levels in Otherwise Great Games"), short lets plays and Show of the Week (a mixture of news, summary of the week and short sketches). All of it was gaining traction among viewers, offering a mixture of new games, some classics from XBox and funny skits.
In 2016, after the main channel gained 2 million subscribers, they branched out to create another channel, Outside Xtra, which would cover games for a younger audience and titles not available on XBox. Outside Xtra quickly gained an audience using a similar formula and a couple of new hosts that worked well together. A year later, they also added a new theme to their channel - a Dungeons & Dragons campaign called Oxventure, which (with time) turned out to be a double-edged sword.
In 2020, when the global pandemic started, OutsideXbox team was, like many other youtubers, struggling to find a new formula. Their Show of the Week, which was filmed in a studio, had to be suspended, since the hosts were unable to film it anymore, they had to switch to streaming live. But while the pandemic was a chance for some youtube channels to grow, it began a surprising decline of OutsideXbox, which is pretty much still going on 2 years later.
As I mentioned, it is another "how to miss a point in 3 easy steps" story, so I’m not gonna list all of the events that took place between 2012 and 2020, enough said that when the pandemic started both channels had together over 3 million subscribers and were generating around 20 million views every month. And then they took the 3 easy steps: first they ignored reality, then they ignored feedback, then they blamed the reality. Here is the curious case of the fall of OutsideXbox and its major stages.
Pandemic was hard for everyone
The global pandemic gave some people an impulse to do something with their lives, caused a lot of problems for others, but OXBox team had a completely different problem. Unable to film Show of the Week, which was a blow to the channel, since it was the main chance for Jane, Andy and Mike to show people their personalities and the chemistry within the group, they decided to experiment with formats that would replace it. To complicate things, Mike just became a father, he did not have much time to be involved with production, so it was far more challenging with a third of the team missing.
The best opportunities for Mike, Andy and Jane were games, in which they could play together, make a mess and show how differently they approach problems. Without Show of the Week and unable to play together, they were, for some reason, stuck within just a few titles, like Hitman, Two Point Hospital or Red Dead Redemption 2, which hit their viewership quite a lot, especially since usually Andy and Jane played on their own and not together. To put it nicely, the channel was slowing down - the content was repetitive (12 episodes of Two Point Hospital in a row or about 20 of RDR2 in a row could have worn out any audience), the lists of seven games were hardly ever as interesting as before, not to mention some of them were just re-used old materials.
It’s not quite so important what that content is
In August 2020, Andy, Jane and Mike took part in an interview called "What TV can learn from YouTube" for GamesIndustry.biz (channel belonging to the same network as OXBox), in which they, among other things, said a few questionable things. One of which was "the appeal of YouTube I think for the audience is a kind of personality-based thing (...) people will watch youtubers do anything (...) so it’s not quite so important what that content is". Of course, it isn’t a shocking statement, and it’s hard to disagree with it, but combined with mention that livestreaming is taking interaction to another level, it was showing symptoms in which direction the channel will be moving soon.
Kind of core fan base
Another fragment of the same interview for GamesIndustry.biz revealed that Show of the Week will not be returning to the channel because "that was a lot of effort to put together, and it was a really (...) nice video, it was a lot of community engagement with it and things like that, but in terms of the sort of views it never reached beyond the kind of core fan base, and it was, you know, obviously a huge undertaking to produce it every week and (...) actually we worked out that we could modify it and sort of satisfy the audience in kind of different ways (...) that will sort of resonate with more people".
That statement, as vague as it was, sounded a bit strange to some of their viewers. It could be paraphrased into "it took a lot of effort and only our regulars were enjoying it, so we will figure out something else". I can’t say that I’m an expert in the matter, but I was taught that in marketing, it costs 10 times more to gain a new client than to keep the current one. But I guess it works on a completely different set of rules on YouTube, and it’s a good idea to cut off content for the "core fan base" to reach out to people who don’t know you. And since the material you cut off was the only real chance for people to get to know you... Yes, it must work differently on YouTube.
Next time we will play with Ellen
One of the highlights of the year for OXBox team was the Hallowstream season, during which they played mostly horror games around Halloween. Not the most original idea, but each year it brought a lot of fun, and around 2019-2020 it became a two-week-long event on both channels. In 2020, Phasmophobia was the hit of the season and OXBox team played the game on Halloween, then twice after Hallowstream season, with the conclusion that "let’s next time bring Ellen with us, she could be in the van". It sounded like a lot of fun, since Ellen Rose (host of Outside Xtra) was suffering in Fear Academy series at this time, where she was tormented by others to play horrors she hates.
And... well, they kept that promise. They did play with Ellen next time they sat down to Phasmo, but it was at the next Hallowstream event. Yes, a year later. By that time Phasmophobia was not really that popular any more, Ellen meanwhile played it with Eurogamer team, not to mention that throughout that year almost every single gaming channel on youtube was showing the best, funniest, most scary, weirdest moments from the game, while OXBox, channel struggling to find interesting content, was waiting a year to play that game again. When they finally have, in 2021, the number of views of that video was unsurprisingly unimpressive.
In 2017, together with Johnny Chiodini, former host from Eurogamer and Dicebreaker, OXBox team created the Oxventure, a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that brought something new to the channel - it gave Mike, Andy, Jane, Ellen and Luke the chance to insert their personalities and unusual humour into world of classic RPG game. The first videos gained around 1 million views, then there were live episodes in front of the audience, and then the whole seasons of Oxventure. But as the effect of novelty was dying out, the number of views quickly dropped below 100 thousand views per episode, and then some more. To be fair, in some episodes there were technical problems (7 people recording a conversation using just 1 microphone, what could possibly go wrong?), but they seemed to build an audience, which was returning to follow the misadventures of their D&D characters.
But there was just one tiny problem with Oxventure - while it was generating not very impressive numbers of views it quickly became, especially in 2019 and 2020, a most important part of the channel. While usually, there were Friday live streams of some random games, they were replaced by episodes of Oxventure, and then in 2020 also Blades in the Dark, a spin-off of Oxventure was created. They were doing live shows, live streams of the episodes, podcasts, while the rest of the content on the channel was getting less and less interesting. At the same time, the audience for the Oxventure content was rather low and OXBox team seemed convinced that D&D is the way forward. Remember the "it never reached beyond the kind of core fan base" comment? It sounds even weirder when you realize they cut off their regular viewers and replaced them with an even smaller group of audience, but perhaps people who were buying their new D&D merchandise.
Where is Jane?
During the pandemic, Mike, due to a family situation, was often missing from videos and, as it turned out, Andy and Jane were not enough to keep the videos entertaining. Mike usually brought some wacky ideas to the gameplay, without him the videos were just... meh. When Mike returned to regularly taking part in the channel, Jane was absent from videos, or Andy was missing. In 2021 and 2022, some of the viewers noticed that there were long periods of time when Jane was missing from most of the videos. And again, Mike and Andy were not enough to keep the videos entertaining, there was something missing.
While the reasons behind it (apart from usual vacations) were never explained, it wasn’t hard to find that Jane might have been engaged in other activities, since she joined a talent agency as a host for events. It’s not unusual for youtubers to have side projects, but it doesn’t sound great when your audience notices that you neglect them, while you do a job on the side.
Batteries are low
Another thing that was noticeable during late 2020 and 2021 was that OutsideXbox was doing more sponsored content than in previous years. It isn’t something unusual for gaming channels to do sponsored videos, especially in Eurogamer Network, but it reached a critical point in late 2021, when they made a sponsored video for one of the batteries brands. It went well like a led balloon - the video was simply cringeworthy and wasn’t well received by their audience, but most of the viewers understood that they must have been forced by the Eurogamer Network to do it. And then... they had another of their yearly traditions, OXmas Challenge, sponsored by the same company. I mean, what could be more fun during Christmas than a sponsored content?
It’s hard to entertain people all the time
In late 2021 Ellen Rose, host of the Outside Xtra, mentioned in some conversation how hard it is to entertain people all the time and that the audience should understand that they are just human beings, it’s hard to smile all the time. Of course, the audience of OXBox channels was sympathetic and understood that as youtubers they were under a strain, but it was one of the signals that not everything is that great behind the scenes. At the same time, there were voices that the quality and quantity of their videos were declining and people were simply skipping over some of their materials.
That’s why we created our Patreon
In February 2022 OXBox team announced... creation of Patreon, which was a huge surprise. There was a theory that they made it to break free from the Eurogamer Network and start on their own, but a simple visit to Companies House records (UK registrar of companies) showed that it isn’t possible for OutsideXbox to break free from Eurogamer Network because owner of that network is the majority owner of OutsideXbox. But those public records also showed something else, something that was even more surprising. While the channel was losing audience (between January 2020 and January 2022 they dropped from about 14 million views per month to less than 8) the incomes were actually far better than before the pandemic.
In general, the company was in very good shape, with over 1 million pounds of assets, steady income and dividends for the owners, so they were not actually struggling artists, who usually start Patreons to support themselves. And there was another small detail - to be clear, I haven’t done much research on that matter, perhaps it isn’t as uncommon as I think - they were the only YouTube channel that I’ve seen, which after creating Patreon have hidden the number of patreons and what income they get from the platform.
I have seen small and medium channels that are supported on Patreon, and they all leave that data in the open for the public, after all, it is a form of public financing. But OXBox team, for some reason, hides that information, even though they have only one tier of support of around 1 pound per month, which suggests they could not get millions out of it. So why did they it? Why have they created Patreon in a first place? It was never explained. They don’t seem to be strapped for money, they are not particularly active on Patreon, the monthly subscription could give you access to (on average) less than 2 posts per month plus access to their discord channel.
It’s because of the YouTube algorithm
And in September 2022 another bombshell was dropped - OXBox created another channel! Yes, it was Oxventure, dedicated completely to their Dungeons & Dragons saga. Why? Because of the YouTube algorithm, which stops people from finding their content. The theory behind it was, that by moving all of the D&D videos to a separate channel, it will be easily recognized by the algorithm and will reach the new audience. How did it work so far? In the first month they reached 500 thousand views. No, not per episode, for the whole channel. It wouldn’t be so bad for a new channel, but they are not actually a new channel, they have the audience for D&D videos they have built in last 5 years... which turned out to be 35 thousand subscribers to be exact. And speaking of building audience - both of their main channels lost in the same time period almost 3 million views. It doesn’t really sound like a great trade-off, does it?
Everyone is struggling for views
While researching materials for this article, I have stumbled upon a thread on reddit, which pretty much summarized how some people feel about OutsideXbox channel - they were mostly disappointed with the direction the channel is going after 10 years of existence. First they were struggling during the pandemic to produce anything worth watching, then they dropped Show of the Week (most people were signalling that this show was the reason they started to watch the channel), then they moved into streaming instead of producing edited videos because it was requiring less effort (completely ignoring the fact it was generating far less views) and now through Patreon and discord they started splitting audience between patreons and the others.
While the reddit conversation was interesting, it was quickly downvoted by the hardcore OXBox fans, some of which show cult-like devotion to the channel. They were arguing that "because of the algorithm, everyone is struggling for views now" (which is a bold statement and untrue), "people should not complain, the OXBox team is exhausted" (as related to Ellen Rose remarking that it’s hard to entertain people all the time, but then they created an additional channel) and also "you should watch for the creator, not for the content" (which is almost a quote from 2020 interview and a complete BS). The conclusion was more or less that the channel does not bring new audience (which is a fact, in the last 2 years they gained only about 50 thousand new subscribers) because what was attracting new viewers is gone (mostly Show of the Week).
The point of this article wasn’t to shame OutsideXbox team or suggest they are some shady characters, after all, I used to be part of their audience for a few years, but it was really fascinating for me to watch how they were destroying their own creation in the past two years. It might look like a case of schadenfreude, but it is hard to find other examples of people, who reached success and would make such a long streak of really bad decisions without noticing how bad they actually were.
First they ignored the reality that the D&D is a nice niche motif and can hardly bring much new audience, they boxed themselves into just a few games (like Hitman), while completely ignoring more popular titles. Instead, they invested heavily in D&D part of their channels, at the same time neglecting the rest of their audience. Then they failed to notice the decline of their channel (lost almost half of the audience within a year) and feedback from their audience that Show of the Week was the reason that brought them here in a first place or that livestreams cannot replace edited videos. And finished it with blaming YouTube algorithm for lack of views and burying themselves even deeper into Oxventure and the exclusive club-like formula of the channel.
The viewership of the channel was steadily declining in the past two years, and although their finances are growing, two years since interview for GamesIndustry.biz they still have no idea how to appeal to a new audience, and it looks like they lost the touch with (or interest in) their previous audience. For some reason, they focused solely on the very niche audience of D&D, on one hand, they seem too busy to create content on OutsideXbox channel, but spawned a separate channel, additional podcasts, take on side projects, try to put less effort in creating videos and use livestreams to fill the gaps. If one of the information I have read is true, that lately they film all of the material in one go to cover videos for 2 weeks in advance, it really sounds like "it’s not quite so important what that content is" sort of channel.
And that was the curious case of OutsideXbox (at least so far), from success story to bit of a mess, heading into a strange direction. Of course, they are not the only youtubers, who struggle with their identity crisis, even big names on the platform, like f.e. Markiplier, lose a lot of viewership while they get too busy with their side projects, but OXBox seems to be a poster boy for "how to miss a point in 3 easy steps". So far, they have done everything they could to get rid of old viewers in exchange for a small group of devoted D&D fans, who aren’t interested in anything else OXBox has to offer. Will it be worth it? We will have to wait and see, but when a channel with over 2.6 million subscribers struggles to bring 100 thousand views on most videos, I have my doubts it will end well.
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