Among Giants: The Agency Offered By Independent Video Game Production

By Andrew Meloney

Video games have had a meteoric rise in popularity and recognition as a media industry. This growth can be trace to the corporate structure that has formed within the video games industry. Large corporate produces have the resources to produce large scale video games as well as market and distribute these games to wide audiences. The video game industry was not always dominated by large corporations, during its inception there were small companies made of small teams that produced many of the early games. In recent years, as corporately produced games are still growing in success, there is an independent sector of the video games industry that recaptures the small team spirit of the early video game industry. Independent video games give both the creator and audience more agency in the creative process then both traditional media and corporately produced video games.

Before we take a step outside of the corporate structure of the video games industry, it is important to understand the structure of the industry. Like the traditional media industry there are trends of the video game industry of, “increasing concentration in fewer and fewer hands” (Croteau, Hoynes, & Milan, 2012, p. 32). The ownership of the media industry is divided between two groups of large corporations, the hardware manufactures and publishers. Publishers often do not do the direct development of the games but buyout companies developing games—or their intellectual properties—to provided logistical support in getting the games to mass market (Zacakarisasson & Wilson, 2008). The hardware manufactures are the de facto dominate forces in the video game industry, because they—Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo—manufacture the home consoles that majority video games are played on (Economist, 2007; ESA, 2013).

Controllers of the Big Three Systems

Controllers of the Big Three Systems

Between the publishers and the Big Three the corporate structure of the video game industry is controlled by more groups and their interests when compared to the traditional media, which Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012) show is dominated by five companies: Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company, Viacom, News Corporation, and Bertelsman AG (p.32). The variation of control in the video game industry creates opportunities for small companies to grow outside of the corporate structure. These small companies are ‘independent’ of the corporate structure; often they are single person or small teams working to make a game. As a result of operating outside of the corporate structure the independent developers have the ability to focus on novel ideas and topics within their games, which is a demonstration of their agency.

For media analysis purposes, Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012) describe agency as, “intentional and undetermined human action” (p. 20). When discussing agency as it relates to the structures of media production, agency is best described as the freedom of action a creator has during the creative process. In the traditional media structure there are concerns that the corporate structure constrains content producers (Croteau et. al., 2012, p. 22). In the video game industry there are trends that indicate that the corporate structure is having the same trends of constraining developers with in the industry. This can be seen in the lack of truly novel games developed within the corporate structure. Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012) indicate that, “the amount of autonomy will vary depending on the position an individual occupies” (p. 22) is found in the traditional media structure, a trend that is mirrored in the video game industry. While there are some cases where game developers have been allowed to take leaps with their corporate produced games—Bioshock: Infinite (2013) and Spec Ops: The Line (2012)—this opportunity only comes after the developer has proven themselves with previous successes.

Yet not all who aspire to create video games want to spent years climbing up the corporate ladder to finally see their dream project created. Entrepreneuring individuals often turn to the field of independent game development to find their agency. The teams that create independent games are often small groups or single persons; in such instances the primary developer finds himself or herself in a high level position. The creators of an independent game often find themselves playing a number of roles that would otherwise be filled by others if they were working in the corporate structure of the industry. As the independent developers place themselves outside of the corporate structure—and at in high positions of control within their enterprises—they are not beholden to the same constrains as corporate produces. This gives independent producers more agency to pursue different approaches towards video games development.

The most successful example of an independent game that challenged the corporately produced status quo is found with Minecraft (2009). Minecraft was initially developed my one person, Marcus Persson (Persson, 2011).

Markus Persson Creator of Mincraft

Markus Persson Creator of Mincraft

At the time it was released Minecraft was a revolutionary game; it emphasized exploration and building over war and fighting. Not only was the gameplay of Minecraft revolutionary; the graphics of the game set it apart from corporately produced games.

The World of Minecraft

The World of Minecraft

Minecraft had simple graphics consisting of simple blocks (Persson, 2011). The style of Minecraft makes it a stark contrast from the photo realistic games that dominate the rest of the video game industry, yet it was in this simplicity that Persson was able to find his agency within his project.

The simplistic nature of independent games is important for their success; due to the small teams that work on these games. In an episode of their series Extra Credits James Protnow and Daniel Flyod provide insight into the challenges that independent producers face when they seek production outside of the corporate structure of the video game industry. Since independent games are often started by a single person they take on the duties of not only developing their game but also running a company (Protnow & Flyod, 2012). The source of agency is the position a person holds within the media production structure (Croteau et. al., 2012, p. 22), the independent developers gain their agency but also have to manage their own (small) video game corporation. The can only maintain their high agency if they find a way to remain both at the top of their corporation and in direct control of development of their game.

The creators of independent video games are not the only group that gains agency when games are produced outside of the corporate structure; the audience also gains agency in the creative process of these games. Croteau, Hoynesm, and Milan (2012) introduce the idea of an active audience as an audience that demonstrates intelligence and interacts with the media they consume (p.256). When discussing the actions that active audience take there are three modes of action, “individual interpretation of media products, through collective interpretation of media, and through collective political action” (Croteau et. al., 2012, p. 257). The individual and collective interpretation of video games is no different for independent games from corporately produced games; players of both types of game become extremely active in sharing gameplay experience with the world. For independent games it is the collective political action that Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012, p. 259) describe that provides audiences of independent games with more agency.

Steam Greenlight within the Steam digital storefront

Steam Greenlight within the Steam digital storefront

One of the most successful online video game storefronts, Steam (created by Valve Corporation) recently opened up a service called Greenlight (Corriea, 2012). This service gave the users of Steam the ability to vote on what games they would like to see available for purchase on the Steam digital store (Corriea, 2012; Murray, 2012). At the same time that Steam started their Greenlight program many independent games were witnessing high levels of success in gaining fund using the site Kickstarter. Both Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight turned the average audience member into a producer with the power to determine what games could see release or gain funding.

Not only are audience members of independent games gaining agency in deciding what games are made; Steam has also given players agency into how games are being made. After the success of Greenlight, Steam added a service called Early Access (Farokhmanesh, 2013; Williams, 2013). Audience members are given the ability to purchase games which are not yet fully completed, and join a community around that game that can watch and shape the game’s development (Valve, 2013). While the audience members who buy an Early Access games are not actually doing any work toward the production of the game, they do have the ability to provide those developing the game with feedback. It is the feedback channel presented by the Early Access program that the audience gains agency into the production of independent games.

While the corporate structure of video games is very similar to that of the tradition media, there is a sector that is developing games outside of the corporate structure. Individual independent video game developers are creating games with more agency then individuals within the corporate structure. Also through feedback channels between an active audience and game developer the audience has gained agency into the production of independent games.


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