Independent of What? Ways Out of the Mainstream Industry's Shadow

Curator's Note

Video game production has become something of a dream job, embodying all that is good in creative production.  Jobs in the industry have become highly desirable, with universities crafting programs dedicated to teaching game design even as a range of countries, regions and municipalities have crafted deals to attract production to their regions.  In part, this owes to the continued growth in video game popularity and expansion of video game audiences. 

The structure of the mainstream industry is well-documented.  Game developers produce games.  They, in turn, need distributors which get games to the major hardware manufacturers and to retailers.   Hardware manufacture is dominated by a small number of companies which also, not coincidentally, tend to own the major distribution companies.  Games are made to be profitable. These companies tend to be situated in the regions where video games are most popular: North America, Western Europe, and Japan.   Labor practices on the development side of the industry are also well-documented.  Numerous examples demonstrate that in spite of increasingly diverse audiences, employment is heavily gendered.  Workers, though well-compensated, are routinely over-worked, particularly as games near completion.

Independent games, then, exist in response and resistance to this mainstream system and the labor practices of software development.  Often such independent development is still geared towards the very platforms that dominate the mainstream industry.  There are, of course, counter examples.  Development of games for mobile devices offers one, as does Valve’s distribution platform Steam.  Both cases, however, are still tied to the mainstream industry.  There is even the example of Zebo to suggest what alternative console development might look like. Beyond these, what even a rudimentary understanding of the mainstream industry suggests for us is that there are a number of ways and a number of reasons around which independence could be gained worth examining. 

If independent games are to truly escape the shadow of mainstream production, it might not hurt to broaden our scope.  We should ask ourselves what would game development look like if it was independent of the geographic centers of the mainstream industry?  How might hardware production also resist dominant practices? What might games look like if they were independent of the profit motive or mainstream audience expectation?  And does this mean that beyond independent games, we must address independent gaming?  

 

Comments

Zachary McCune's picture

thinking about support & education

Terrific post Randy. It has me thinking about how we can incentivize independent game production through new approaches to how we teach programming and design to young students. For instance, the current gravity of certain programs (i.e. NYU Game Center or Georgia Tech’s Masters in Digital Media) has created indie game bubbles around those schools. Which is wonderful, and should encourage other universities, colleges, and even high schools to develop their own games programs in order to potentially spark new indie game communities. Moreover, if the skills of game development were to be more distributed (multiple cities rather than a handful) we might see new communities grow and flourish. 

Brett Boessen's picture

Games and Movies

Reading your Note, I’m mindful that almost all of what you’ve written could substitute "cinema" for "games" and still be accurate.  And cinema is notoriously suffering from a current contraction of independent projects and voices.  What has usually been at the core of American independent cinema is a sense of independent "spirit" — seeking to open opportunities for creative freedom — whether that is supported by the risk-averse field of big-budget producers or as is more often the case, far away from it.

Is this where independent games also must spring from?  With a sense of unfettered freedom, regardless of who’s paying the bills?  Or must independent game producers necessarily shrug off any attempts at co-optation by deep pockets? 

Randy Nichols's picture

Alternate Contexts and Competing Models

One of the interesting things about such creative communities emerging is how often they still do so as a sort of gateway to the industry.   I have anecdotal examples of people working in independent development as a way of creating a porttolio to gain them entrance to the big leagues.  That’s great, as it is often how innovation in games strike the industry.  But if that’s the case in more than just the examples I have, then it means mainstream development is dictating in some semi-passive way what independent games must be as well.  That difficulty of moving beyond the mainstream industrial definition of a game is part of what I found so interesting about the topic for the week:  if we tweak the model in some way - whehter subtle or overt - a video game potentially becomes something radically different. 

The cinema similarities Brett raises are no accident, and provide what I think is an interesting counter-history.  I argue elsewhere that the video game industry modelled itself in large part on Hollywood cinema (I’m thinking esp. about interviews with Trip Hawkins in the early days of EA).  Unlike cinema, though, there were no real competing models of what the artifact that was created might be.  There was little if any debate at the start about whether video games were art or commerce, reality or dream, capturing light or motion or any of the great debates that flew through the cinema community.   Whether video games are art is something that’s come up only later, after the industry was viable and  worthy of study.  That seems like one of the challenges of theorizing video games:  we lift a lot from cinema, but we haven’t had the debates or the examples of what video games might be in another context. 

Independent games can do that, particularly if they find a way to tear away from the mainstream definition. 

Matthew Thomas Payne's picture

Indie on the Go

My wife has keenly noted that my iPhone contains a "considerable" number of apps, the vast majority of which are games. My defense (such as it is) remains the same every time she shares her observation — "this," I say, "is research." (And please know that I don’t use air quotes when I say "research").

Touchy defenses of one’s gameplay aside, I *am* consistently amazed with the kinds of games that I’m willing to play on my phone, and ostensibly similar ones that I’m unwilling to make the time for when they appear on my home consoles and computer. Surely much of this difference is owed to changes in play time, game spaces, and all of the expectations that come with playing on-the-go versus sitting at home. But I want to say that there is something else that makes mobile gaming promising for indie game developers.

Mobile games can be produced and distributed quickly, and (as importantly) they can be consumed cheaply. And because mobile games can access data from the smart phone’s other onboard technologies (e.g., GPS, music library, internet browser, etc.), there are a wealth of unexplored directions designers might take mobile games. These untapped design assets may ultimately, as I believe Randy’s post suggests, challenge what it is we understand a game can and might be. My provisional answer to Randy’s question then, and in keeping with the shadow metaphor, is that indie gaming might escape the industry’s shadow by "moving" — by embracing in a radically experimental way all those design opportunities that mobile phones offer.

But please don’t misread this response as some utopian panacea. There is nothing inspiring about the story of cell phone manufacturing, the industry’s monopolistic business practices, or gaming’s own labor abuses. Still, it is exciting to think about all the games that might be crafted when the creative impulse is untethered from the mainstream industry’s production demands that keep the craft bound primarily to living room consoles and PCs.

Randy Nichols's picture

Similarities in Labor Practices

Matt, your comments dovetail nicely with Zachary’s post, so I’m going to focus this comment on the similarities between cell phone and console manufacture.  It’s interesting that we still tend to separate out cell phone and tablet manufacture from video game labor.  One of the things that’s led to is a tendency to discuss video game labor practices in terms of software development while almost never raising the question of hardware. 

The problems with cell phone manufacture that you reference aren’t all that different from what we see in hardware.  Console manufacture carries with it both environmental consequences and serious labor issues as well.  It’s not coincidence that the factories that make iPads and iPhones are very close - in the same region, if not the same cities - as the locations where our consoles are made.   

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