Noclip’s latest documentary, an hour-long exploration of the development of the popular spacefaring indie game Astroneer, doesn’t look like a normal YouTube video.
Its long runtime is matched with an appropriately meaty story. It starts with the formation of developer System Era Softworks, and it goes through Astroneer’s heady post-launch days when hundreds of thousands of copies were sold and big-name Twitch streamers picked up the game. “The Untold Story Behind Astroneer’s Difficult Development” also deftly touches on a darker story that’s largely unknown, involving the death of one of the studio’s founding members not long after the game launched in early access. It’s a difficult watch that shows a side of game development that we rarely see.
The video also breaks many of the conventions of gaming coverage on YouTube. Not only is it long, but it’s completely devoid of advertising, and it fails to cater to YouTube’s all-powerful algorithm. That’s par for the course for Noclip since it launched in 2016. “I knew it wasn’t going to get that much traffic, but it’s one of the most important things we’ve done,” Noclip founder Danny O’Dwyer says of the Astroneer video. “It’s one where I could show my parents, and they’d understand [game development].”
Noclip was founded in 2016, and it differs from most gaming channels on YouTube. Instead of earning money from monetized videos, Noclip is funded entirely through Patreon, where it rakes in more than $23,000 per month from close to 5,000 patrons. Instead of the personality-driven coverage that dominates the space, the channel focuses almost entirely on the games themselves, and the people who make them. O’Dwyer, along with a small team of contributing freelancers, has managed to take advantage of platforms like YouTube and Patreon in a way that has allowed him to create exactly what he wants without worrying about issues like view counts or demonetization. “We’re breaking so many rules,” he says.
O’Dwyer has worked in video game journalism for most of his life. He started working at the UK branch of Gamespot when he was 15, steadily moving up the ranks and eventually moving over to the US office in San Francisco. He hosted a number of shows while at Gamespot, but one of his favorite things was attending preview events — the kinds where a large group of press play a game early and talk to the developers about it — and trying to create something akin to a video cover story about the game in question. “We always thought it would be a fun challenge to go to these preview events and, instead of just trying to get a headline, we thought if we put a bit of production behind it, we can make these things look cool,” O’Dwyer explains.
Around the same time, he was realizing he had reached something of a ceiling in his career. Unless he wanted to get into management, there wasn’t really anywhere else for him to go at Gamespot. While this was happening, a group of former IGN editors had just quit their jobs to launch Kinda Funny games, a YouTube channel funded by Patreon, which immediately exploded in popularity, blasting past its initial funding goals. For around six months, O’Dwyer toyed with the idea of doing something similar. Though his vision was vastly different from Kinda Funny — instead of personality-driven videos, he wanted to make in-depth documentaries that spanned video game history — he thought it could still be a viable platform. By the time he gave Gamespot his notice, the plan was already in motion.
One of the early challenges was figuring out which game to cover first. “The first one can’t be a AAA studio because then everyone will think I’m just in marketing,” O’Dwyer explains. “It couldn’t be a small indie game because there were lots of people doing documentaries about small studios. Indie Game: The Movie was amazing and everyone tried to copy that. So it had to be something in the middle.” On October 31st, Noclip launched the first half of a two-part documentary on the cars-meets-soccer game Rocket League, which has amassed a combined 500,000 views.
Since then, Noclip has covered a large range of games, both big and small. There have been documentaries on The Witness, the 2016 reboot of Doom, Horizon Zero Dawn, Dream Daddy, and Spelunky. The team traveled to Poland to film a doc about The Witcher III, and they spent time in Japan for a piece on Final Fantasy XIV. There have been profiles on the likes of Brendan “Playerunknown” Greene and original Doom designer John Romero. Right now, Noclip is producing an ongoing series that tracks the development of Supergiant’s next big game, the early access title Hades.
That may sound like a lot, but by YouTube standards, Noclip’s output is comparatively small. In 2018, it released nine full-length documentaries, the first of which didn’t debut until March. Meanwhile, 2017 had a much more regular pace. O’Dwyer says that gap in early 2018 was intentional. Like many creators, he has suffered serious bouts of burnout, struggling to keep up with the demands, whether real or perceived, of a large online community. “Creator burnout is very, very real,” he says. “Especially with the patron number, it can feel a bit like plate spinning. If you don’t touch for a while, the number is trickling down because of my output. And it kind of is because of your output, but it’s also because of a lot of other reasons. There’s no way of getting used to that besides time.”
When things went well during that relatively quiet period early last year, he realized that he could work at his own pace and still survive. A new living situation also helped. When things were at their worst, O’Dwyer lived in a studio apartment in Oakland with his wife where it was impossible to get away from work. Now, the couple and their young child have a home in Maryland with a basement dedicated almost entirely to Noclip. “I go down at like 9 o’clock, I come up for lunch, I go back down and come up at five, and I have the door locked,” says O’Dwyer.
The structure of Noclip, particularly the lack of monetized videos, means that it isn’t as dependent on YouTube as most other video creators. “What I like is that everything is free, and we don’t stick anything behind a paywall,” O’Dwyer explains. “YouTube is the biggest funnel for that.” Patreon, on the other hand, is an integral component. (While all of the videos are eventually released to the public, patrons get early access to documentaries, behind-the-scenes content, and a Noclip Discord server.) Noclip is in the upper tier of Patreon funding, and it enjoys a healthy relationship with the company. During the Game Developers Conference last month, O’Dwyer and his team utilized space in Patreon’s San Francisco office to film a series of developer interviews. But this dependence doesn’t faze him.
“I think it’s so far out of my control that I don’t really waste time worrying about it,” O’Dwyer says. “If Patreon disappeared tomorrow, we’d definitely struggle. They make a big difference. But really, all we have to do is convince 5,000-odd people to come somewhere else, or to bear with us if Patreon does something we don’t agree with. It’s manageable.”
To celebrate its two-year anniversary, five months ago, Noclip published a video for what a Noclip 2.0 could look like. Essentially, it was a call to potential patrons outlining what O’Dwyer and his team could do with more funds: more videos, better production values, that kind of thing. It’s an ambitious road map, and the series shows no signs of slowing down, with documentaries on the Elder Scrolls: Blades, the closure of Telltale, and a hefty 15 GDC interviews slated to release soon. (One of the GDC videos will feature Verge reporter Megan Farokhmanesh.) For O’Dwyer, it’s been a chance to live out a dream, with a little help from YouTube, Patreon, and 5,000 or so people who want to see this kind of long-form video game coverage.
“I felt like more of a journalist at Gamespot,” he says. “Now, I feel more like a filmmaker or a creator because I’m following what I want to do and stories that are important.”