We Call It the Videogame Industry

A few weeks ago, alongside my fellow Matajueguian, Pablo F. Quarta, and several other people, I participated in a panel held during the first edition of Meet the Devs 2016 about the current state of the videogames industry here in Argentina. I was struck by the thought that someone would think me capable of talking about the industry, since I’ve (almost deliberately) never been a part of it.

MeetTheDevs2016

In the past, I studied film. In the manifestos by different filmmakers and in the other theoretical texts I read, the difference between industrial and independent cinema was always latent or explicit. We see this same confrontation in animated film, comics, music, and other art. There’s always this idea in the background that independence means independence from the industry, and that it promotes a more authorial product, not one designed for popular taste but rather one that takes risks, either formally or in its content.

On the panel I understood the breadth with which the concept was used by its organizers: if I make games or partake in any labor related to making games even if I don’t make any money, I am part of the industry.

We only discussed the matter briefly at the beginning of the panel and with few words, I didn’t care that much either — there were other issues to discuss that evening that captured my attention. In the following days, however, my confusion grew as to why the distinction I had naturalized wasn’t being made, and why instead it was taken for granted that I belonged to the industry solely because I make games on my own.

My Confusion

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For some reason, in the world of videogames, this dichotomy feels different than in other mediums.

Someone who makes no money, with a product that doesn’t sell — are they part of an industry?

Are they included because some consider that it might be possible to market their product in the future, although it has yet to make a dime?

And what if someone makes games as a hobby without any intention of gaining a profit?

Or is it simply a manner of speech, as if “industry” were synonymous with “the world of game developers”?

My Conflict

Many developers we’d call indie work or have worked in videogame companies or as freelancers on all kinds of projects of all kinds of sizes, where the common factors are the games we were asked to make, and not the ones we thought up ourselves (except, perhaps, in the case of a few very lucky game designers). In this type of work relationship, the employee provides services according to market demand: what the company asks for, the needs of an advergaming project for an insurance company, the wants of a government educational program, etc.

It’s very common that many, or perhaps most games made under these conditions are simple, formally conservative, or reduced to trivias, or tutorials we can hardly call games, or large scale games where the employee’s work is but a small cog in the machinery. Other times, poor quality is the result of ideologically ambiguous content that exploits clichés and conservative positions in order to reach a wider audience.

These indies move or have moved in those spaces and at some point decided to start their own projects, often with their finger held high, explaining how bad their employers’ games are, and how much better they could be.

I want to emphasize the difference between one’s own projects and somebody else’s. In the second case, the developer is not independent because she depends on what an outside interest is asking for. My initial conflict is that both situations, the independent and the non-independent, are referred to by the same name: the industry.

And Why Not Consider Both Part of the Industry?

Creating our own projects and providing services for other games could belong to the same industrial space, yes, but that’s not where the dissonance lies. Cramming everything into a single concept becomes complicated if we analyze the project’s main social function — be it to entertain, educate, achieve social impact, criticize or advertise a product — and the work methodology related to this function; we can encounter fairly different philosophies here, even opposed ones. That’s where we begin to find dissonance.

My first conflict with this way of conceptualizing independent spaces as part of the industry is that what I do on my own had nothing to do with what I do for others. However, this is not the case for all game developers, some of whom often try to adopt industry models and structures, and even try to grow financially in order to become a larger company and possibly make games similar to those made by AAA studios. So ultimately, yes, the product itself can clearly attempt belonging to the industry. My point is that this is not always the case.

Functions

I consider, then, that certain social functions and work methodologies are inherently industrial while others are not.

In order to speak of an industry, if something (a good or a service) has a sufficient demand, then it is plausible for a corresponding offer to emerge in order to satisfy it. That means that anyone who wants to offer a product like videogames should first see if there is a demand, and then offer something related to it. The principle of this methodology is to make games by analyzing the market. Their social function could be satisfying one of the player’s needs or problems: boredom on a trip, relaxing after work, momentary escape from everyday problems, education at school, buying an advertised product, etc. The dissatisfaction of these needs generates a constant demand that sustains the industry.

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There also exist plenty of other functions that resist being defined as a market demand, and come from all artistic mediums: the representation of minorities, social criticism, the construction of memory, formal experimentation, etc. These functions tend to meet social rather than economic needs, and their nature is to cause an impact, a change, however minimal, in the players.

Again, why am I not considering both to be part of the industry? From the point of view of their function, the latter do not prioritize the satisfaction of an economic demand. Even though they could, it’s more common for them to break the cycle described above and put into motion by the industry. Games made with these functions in mind are successful if they achieve some kind of transcendence, even when they haven’t made a single dime.

Work Methodologies

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Depending on the function we assign a game, we can take several actions to design it, and depending on our priorities, some will come before others, possibly leaving many out of our plans.

  • Prioritizing the economic performance of the project: researching the market, imitating the experience of something which is already known to work, adopting a genre we know sells more, making a working schedule that will avoid surprises, using more universal themes and characters (like romantic conquest, war, kittens, medieval fantasy), following the KISS principle, planning a sequel if the type of game is successful, etc.
  • Prioritizing experimentation: taking risks to try unconventional forms and content that might therefore fail.

Let me be clear: neither of the two methodologies is better than the other, they are philosophies that adhere mostly to one function and can complement each other very well. However, which we prioritize is decisive. In order to support a project the developer or indie team tends to adopt a model focused on the economic function of the project, leaving expression and experimentation aside. Or there’s also the opposite case: that of making a project without any economic pretense, oriented towards expression but with greater difficulties reaching a mass audience

So let me ask again: why do I not consider both to be part of the industry? This time it is much clearer — if the project isn’t taking into consideration any aspect of its economic performance it can’t be considered part of the industry. And even if it is taking them into consideration, if they’re not a priority then the risk is still too high to achieve the efficiency that the industry demands.

This figure of the independent developer who prefers other things over the industrial model usually gets caricaturized for the simple fact of not prioritizing the economic aspect of their projects.

And the (in)Famous Labels Appear…

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Refusing to feel part of the industry usually brings about certain well-known labels:

  • “They make games only for the love of it.”
  • “They think it’s wrong to make money from their games.”
  • “They make games that don’t interest a lot of people, so they’re opposed to being popular.”

In turn, the words society, expression, art, culture, help create this picture of the exclusionary artist, sometimes frivolous and not very empathetic, and other times non-pragmatic.

However, let us return to that indie dev that we described at the beginning, who left her day job imagining a thousand ways to make a better game than what she was being asked to make, who had no freedom to change the dialogue of a misogynist character, who doesn’t want to make advergames and wants to try something more risky. The developer who arose from the need to make something better than the games she knows To say something often not said. She decided to make something different from the industry. It’s happened thousands of times, it’s failed hundreds of times. It is not a machine, it is not an efficient model, it is not industry, it’s something else and for her success is somewhere else. She may be too idealistic, or will have trouble with financing, and that’s when she’ll seek ways to fund the project rather than making money from it from the very beginning , which would be the opposite course.

That’s why this independent space is also considered avant-garde. A term that sounds (even more) exclusive in nature, although judging from the origin of the expression, its members are those that take on the most risk and are likeliest to be killed.

Figures are Figures

Figures are not specific people, they’re abstractions that help us think about concepts. They don’t exist in a pure state, anyone can try different approaches on different projects, or balancing different aspects that result in a product more consistent with its material conditions.

We could talk, for example, of a pilot project, highly polished, which seeks to be accessible regardless, in order to gain some popularity, and prioritizes maximizing profits in order to finance the next project. Or we can speak of an independent project of considerable scale which is seeking to position itself by making freemium social games whose content is developed by a screenwriter who cares about her job and has enough freedom to experiment with themes rarely touched upon.

The line is blurry, each side feeds the other. And yet, standing on the opposite side of the road helps me feed on the best that the industry has to offer without having to belong to it; the only way to copy the model effectively is by achieving the same material conditions, where the greatest concern is the scale of production. On the other hand, being away from the epicenter enhances the diversity of worldviews, which is ultimately the basis of understanding videogames as culture. Creating a space separate from the industry opens our eyes to many more of the things that happen outside it, and which will surely enrich the world of videogames.

Translated from Spanish by David T. Marchand and Pablo F. Quarta

About Santiago J. Franzani

Makes interactive stuff under the name of Antennaria. A friend of graphic adventures, maker of absurd animations, lover of discussions leading nowhere. His mission is to smuggle surrealism to the confines of the Internet.