Who Else Makes Videogames? Considering Informal Development Practices

This is a modified transcript of the presentation I gave at DiGRA 2017. It marks the start of a new trajectory of research for me, but is also in a very preliminary stage. One day soon this will hopefully form the foundations of an actual academic publication, at which point I might have to take this page down temporarily for the sake of the blind peer review process. In the meantime, here is what I spoke about at DiGRA and what I am currently interested in.

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I want to start with an anecdote of a videogame made here in Melbourne. In 2013, four Melbourne friends with no formal videogame development experience decided they wanted to make a local multiplayer videogame together. Under the monicker ‘House House’, they began development in their spare time around existing study and jobs on what would come to be called Push Me Pull You. For a while, they worked in relative isolation with no real connections to the broader videogame industry or local scene that was flowering in Melbourne at the time. But as they posted gifs of their work on Tumblr and Twitter, they gradually came to know other local developers in Melbourne.

In 2014, fellow Melbourne developer and event organiser Lee Shang Lun took the game on a laptop to the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, showing the game to an international community of developers, publishers and press, mostly in a park. GDC is a massive event with tens of thousands of attendees. It costs several thousand dollars to attend, but literally above the Moscone Exhibition Centre is the Yerba Beuna Gardens, in which all the videogame developers who can’t afford tickets hang out in the sun, network, swap passes, and, at times, run their own informal events such as Lost Levels. It’s a striking contrast of two very different sides of videogame development.

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A social highlight of that GDC was the annoyingly named ‘That Party’, run by Wild Rumpus and Venus Patrol. This is either the highlight of GDC or a hipster hellhole, pending on where in the industry you stand (and whether or not you were able to get a ticket). In a dark, back corner of the second floor, you had to climb up to this small weird mezzanine where you could play Push Me Pull You. A few journalists were at the event and they played the game (some that I personally dragged over due to some sense of national pride or obligation). The game was subsequently written up in outlets such as Ars Technica, Eurogamer, and Kotaku. The game’s reputation grew. 

Eventually, the team received funding from the government body Film Victoria to support the game’s development. Through Renew Australia’s Dockland Spaces project, the team scored temporary office space to work on the game in a more formal setting, though still around other jobs. In mid-2016, the game released on the Steam platform for PC and Mac, and with the help of Melbourne game developer collective League of Geeks afforded through Sony’s Pub Fund, was ported to the Sony PlayStation 4 console

I retell this broad strokes account of Push Me Pull You to draw attention to how contemporary videogame development—especially but not exclusively in Australia—is defined by a complex network of actors and practices that stretch beyond what is traditionally and strictly understood as the ‘formal’ videogame industry. Social networks, local communities, formal studio spaces, hobbyists, professionals, government funding, social initiatives, friendship, share houses, word-of-mouth, part-time employment, and corporate events all have a hand in the development of one of only a handful of Australian games released on a home console in 2016.

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If one is to study contemporary videogame development as a creative culture in Australia, you would surely need to account for Push Me Pull You. But what bits of Push Me Pull You? At what point of the story are House House part of the ‘videogame industry’? Where in this story can you draw a line and say, here, this is where they became professional videogame developers and this is where our analysis should begin’? When they are four mates making a game for themselves to play? When they are exhibited at a party in San Francisco? When they won the best game award at Freeplay 2015? When they had a studio space? When they received government funding? When you could buy their game on Steam and PlayStation Network? Considering the game’s development has never been their primary source of income, are they ‘professional’ videogame developers at all?

I would contend that not only are these questions unanswerable, but they are entirely insufficient questions if we wish to fully comprehend how videogame development, in its currently emerging shape, functions as part of the cultural industries.

The complex web of actors and practices involved in the story of Push Me Pull You exemplifies an increasing concern I have with how we comprehend just who videogame development consists of. I’m thinking about industry surveys and statistics, such as this one undertaken by the IGEA/GDAA in Australia last year:

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These surveys give us a valuable snapshot of just who the videogame industry consists of. But I think of House House in 2013 making a game out of their homes that, years later, would transition into an internationally released title on the PlayStation 4, and such surveys leave me with the question: who is creating videogames that might be missed by such a survey, or who doesn’t consider themselves a ‘professional videogame developer’ and so doesn’t respond to such a survey? Who else makes videogames? Who aren’t we talking about when we talk about videogame development as a practice? How might we account for those creators, and why do we need to?

To stress, I’m not saying we need methods to replace surveys such as this, but that we need other methods to account for other fields of videogames development as wellUltimately I want to consider how we might identify the broader network of actors and practices that underpin contemporary videogame development cultures but which do not neatly fall under the umbrella ‘the videogame industry’. To tie it to this morning’s keynote, where Melanie Swalwell stressed the importance of these ‘illegitimate’ cultures historically, I’m interested in their importance in the current, ongoing moment.

I am interested in framing the complex tapestry that the above anecdote alludes to through the lens of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ practices—words that I think carry much less negative connotations than ‘professional/amateur’ or ‘commercial/hobbyist’. It also addresses something more specific than the vague notion of ‘indie’ which I’ll touch on later. The idea of informal videogame development also feels more inclusive to me than terms like ‘art games’ or ‘experimental games’ or ‘alt games’ or ‘trash games’ or ‘diy games’ or any of the other myriad terms from recent years that adequately identify different aspects of informal videogame development, but not the whole umbrella, and I think informality also frames the current moment of videogame development differently than would considerations of ‘fan activity’ or even ‘homebrew’ that can risk situating this activity as subservient to the formal industry.

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I take the term informal from Ramon Lobato and Julian Thomas’s 2015 book The Informal Media Economy, where they explore how every media economy is a mingling of formal and informal economic practices. They use ‘informal’ as a broad analytical concept to “refer to a range of activities and processes occurring outside the official and authorized spaces of the economy” (7).

Rather than a clear cut and unambiguous line of informal actors on one side and formal on the other, Lobato and Thomas demonstrate how every media economy is an ever-shifting tango of actors that cross between various degrees of formality that mediate and shape each other. The music industry confronting MP3 technology in the late 90s and early 2000s provides a prime example. The formal actors of the music industry were confronted with distribution sites of pirated music such as Napster, and free-to-use media players such as Winamp. Apple’s iTunes, then, formalised these informal practices by not only commodifying MP3 use, but by providing a tool for users to manage their massive libraries of informally obtained MP3s. Elsewhere, livestreamers of videogames or other media have transitioned from fringe, informal actors relying on the formal products of videogame companies to formal actors in a media industry in their own right, with influential streamers now forming a significant component of a game’s marketing strategy.

The formal and informal are fundamentally interdependent. Directions rather than neatly delineated spaces. Lobato and Thomas stress the importance of not simply accounting for the informal as something that happens ‘over there’ at the margins of a formalised core, but of accounting for media economies as constituted by the rich interconnections of formal and informal actors and practices. They use the notion of the informal as an invitation to consider “the unmeasurable, the uncertain and the unsettled; it’s about rapid change, transformation, and things we don’t fully, and may never, know.” An invitation for researchers to “view ostensibly stable objects of knowledge from the perspective of this uncertainty” (12).

To account for the informal is, explicitly, to ask what else is happening around a creative industry that is not captured by traditional forms of inquiry but which is foundational to that creative industry all the same.

Lobato and Thomas are primarily concerned with consumption and distribution, but the same holds true for media production. We have seen time and time again a medium’s production formalise so as to be produced by a literate elite few and again informalise to a much more general demographic of creators: writing, music, photography, film. In each instance, the means of production and distribution have fluctuated between being more or less accessible and, in the process, the scope of just who is understood to write words, play music, take photos, make films has expanded so that, in turn, just what that medium is has changed irrevocably. But also in each instance, a close symbiosis connects the formal and informal modes of production with technological developments and dominant/alternative aesthetics. And what is informal or formal does not necessarily stay so.

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What we are seeing in the last decade is the same thing happen to videogames after a period defined by peak formality. A range of technological and social shifts have made it easier to, following Anna Anthropy’s work in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, ‘sketch a videogame’. The craft of videogame development has exploded outwards over the past decade to render visible a much wider array of practices, aesthetics, people, and value propositions than ever before. The rise of relatively accessible (both in terms of use and cost) middleware platforms such as Twine, Unity, and GameMaker have minimised the need for expert programming skills and a massive budget in order to make videogames.

Just as once it was not feasible to just take a bunch of photos for yourself and now it is, it is increasingly feasible to just chuck a videogame together for yourself or your friend.

At the same time digital distribution platforms such as the App store, Steam, and most importantly itch.io, which really demands its own platform study for its impact on informal videogame development, have made it easier than ever before for creators to reach audiences without the help of a publisher or physical storefront. (Or maybe it is just formalising them??)

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The culture shift of informal videogame development over the last decade—and its impact on broader development cultures—can’t be understated. Where the commercial industry has a vested interest in ana monopolising aesthetics of technological fidelity that is financially impossible for individuals and small teams, these more informal creators have messier, dare-I-say ‘punkier’ styles. Not just nostalgic of a style that was once the cutting edge of the commercial industry, as is often tapped into by ‘indie’ games, but archaic and vibrant and jarring. As if to say ‘it’s okay for videogames to be trash sometimes’.

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The expectations of what a publicly released videogames has to be has shifted as more people more visibly create videogames in a wider range of regional contexts and, in turn, even more people are visibly creating videogames that ever before due to this shift. Tools like Unity and Twine, and distribution platforms like itch.io are underlining and affording a type of informal videogame development that is increasingly visible as an aspect not of fan cultures but of videogame development cultures.

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Videogames are being informalised. It is seen as increasingly permissible (and viable!) to release a game that is five minutes long, or that uses pre-existing assets, or that simply tells a story, or that tells no story at all, or that isn’t ‘interactive’ in a traditional sense. Just like zines challenge literature. Just like amateur photography challenges professional photography. Informal videogame development is challenging popular and formalised ideals of what videogames are, and what videogames are allowed be.whoelsemakesvideogames.022

Queer and trans folk in particular have been fundamental to this culture shift, making a space for themselves where none was offered them by the formal industry, and creating videogames unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the process. By this point, the intertwined histories of Twine, ‘ungames’, and gamergate, and minority developers are well understood but just incase, here are some books to explore if this is unfamiliar to you:

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This is important as to account for informal videogame development is to represent a broader spectrum of videogame developers. There was an uproar in 2012 when ABS numbers showed that only 8.7% of the Australian Videogame Industry are women. This is inarguably a shocking statistic but I can’t help but wonder just what videogame developers are excluded from such a survey. To stress, I’m not saying the videogame industry might be less hegemonic, but that it is so hegemonic that not only are women and other identities under represented, but that the lens is narrowed in such a way that we struggle to account even for the women and other under-represented identities that are already making videogames at the margins of our current lenses.

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It’s important to note, though, that this informal aspect of videogame development is not a new thing. Videogames, like every creative industry, are born from the mingling of formal and informal processes, or legitimate and illegitimate cultures as Melanie considered them this morning. Students hacking military-funded university computers to create games that would become commercial arcade titles. Floppy disks sent across the country in zip-lock bags. Tim Sweeney’s Pontomac Computer Systems finding success with Shareware title ZZT and morphing into Epic Games who produce the Unreal Game Engine, one of the most important corporations in the game industry. Homebrew, mods, and romhacks. Ben Nicoll presented yesterday about the important role of piracy as the ‘shadow economy’ of commodified videogame development and a valid creative process in its own right, and we all heard this morning Melanie Swalwell’s great work on Australian microcomputer homebrew. The informal didn’t just emerge around videogames once they were big enough to support an informal underbelly but has always existed in symbiosis with the formal and authorised processes of development and distribution. Videogames as a media economy have always been constituted by the formal and informal interplaying.

This is thus not a linear trajectory from informality to formality or from formality to informality. Different regions and periods are more regimentally formalised, others are more informal. What I think we are seeing in the present moment is a re-emergence of informal videogame development as legitimised and validated and visible, especially in Western countries but ultimately in regional contexts. One that is now afforded by a range of technological and social factors to produce and distribute their original work, and not necessarily the ambiguously legal work of cloning and rom-hacks and mods as it was primarily defined by in the 90s.

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Of course, research on the nebulous idea of ‘indie’ and more recently regional videogame development is already quite robust. Daniel Joseph’s 2013 article on the Toronto indie scene is particularly insightful, using assemblage theory to highlight the interdependencies between Toronto’s indie developers and commercial studios, and between actors and the urban geography of Toronto itself. The materiality and political economy of just how games are made in situated and regional contexts is explored in recent anthologies such as Video Games Around the World edited by JP Wolf, and here in Australia in Tom Apperley and Dan Golding’s chapter on Australia in that anthology, Christian McCrea’s chapter in Gaming Globally, the ongoing research of John Banks and Stuart Cunningham, and Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis, and Helen Stuckey’s research on Australian videogame development in the 1980s. Just recently, Felan Parker, Jennifer Whitson, and Bart Simon published an article on the Indie Megabooth and the role of cultural intermediaries in indie game cultures. All of these publications point to complex, situated, regional, interdependent, and material networks of practice that constitute videogame development.

But things have become for more nebulous and fragmented and tangled up, and the word ‘indie’ itself no longer adequately captures the full-spectrum of less-formalised videogame development work happening beyond the large studios, and has been actively resisted by a range of informal developers. Neither does it strictly define a sort of ‘counter-culture’, either in terms of aesthetics or economic reality. Many indies now are large studios. In many cases, ‘indie’ is simply business as usual.

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Over the past few years, the traditionally clear delineation between the IGF and GDC awards has completely broken down as ‘indie’ titles such as Her Story dominate both award categories, and the IGF has responded in turn by awarding much more ‘out there’ titles such as David Kanaga’s Oikospiel Book I. When the counter-culture becomes the culture, the emergent informal cultures becomes more visible.

In development circles, tensions emerge as indie as a catch-all concept is stretched and fragmented. When Steam’s Greenlight program started charging $100 for each new submission, some saw that as a necessary investment to prove you were ‘serious’ about game development, and others saw it as a barrier to a platform. The same happened when IGF introduced its submission fees. A discursive touchstone of the past year has been the ‘indiepocalypse’. That there are too many indie games flooding the market and thus damaging sales. Others have argued that this is not really a problem so much as videogames finally maturing into a creative form where a lot of people make a lot of things for a lot of reasons and some of those people make a bit of money. Just last week Robert Yang wrote a blog stressing that we (developers, critics, researchers, players) must find modes to value videogame creativity beyond the commodified, rather than walking every developer down the aspirational plank:

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This points to the increasing tension between intent, style, and audience as informal videogame development becomes more and more difficult to ignore. To stress: Robert isn’t saying this lack of financial value is a badge of honour for artists to wear, but an acceptance of the stark realities of the precariousness of creative labour (including videogame development): everyone can make videogames but not everyone can afford to try to live off making videogames.

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This is where the Australian context provides a particularly vivid example where ‘indie’ isn’t the alternative but business as usual for how the videogame industry functions. At the beginning of this century, Australian videogame development was defined primarily by the work-for-hire model, where American studios outsourced much of the heavy lifting to then-cheaper Australian studios. Through the Global Financial Crisis, however, as the American and Australian dollars hit parity, the financial benefit disappeared and one by one the Australian studios were shut down. Leaving a large base of skills with few employment opportunities.

The story of what happened next has been told elsewhere (see John Banks and Stuart Cunningham’s work above) but the tl;dr: a nebular of small mobile studios set up by veterans of the collapsed large studios, collective work spaces such as The Arcade, and a concentration of developers primarily Melbourne where government funding for games actually exists makes up the current videogame industry in Australia. The Australia Bureau of Statistics numbers are telling: over the past decade, the number of jobs have halved while the number of studios has nearly doubled.

Australia’s videogame industry has fragmented to one of smaller companies making smaller games. This is arguably more stable than the old model that was dependent on American publishers and a weak US dollar, but it also ensures studios are less likely to take big creative risks if they lack the safety nets of publishers or grants, and are thus less likely to grow. Consequentially, this provides less formal opportunities for new graduates and up-and-comers when there is such a massive body of skilled labour already seeking work. In the recent Senate Inquiry into the Future of the Australian Game Development Industry, the GDAA estimated that 5000 students a year are enrolling (not necessarily graduating) in game development programs every year. Thousands of students striving to enter an industry with less than a thousand jobs.

This has afforded a particularly vibrant scene of informal and precarious videogame development in Australia. In Australia, and particularly in Melbourne, there is a rich tapestry of informal videogame development practices that exists both thanks to the existence of the formal videogame industry, and in spite of the formal videogame industry. These two sides are intimately interconnected across events, funding, share houses, student cohorts, but each comes with its own distinct ideals, values, and aesthetics. One begets the other.

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To account for contemporary videogame development in Australia is to account for the configurative role informal development cultures have on just what the identity of Australian videogame development is. As the anecdote about House House showed at the start of this talk, there is no clear distinction between the informal and formal videogame development cultures, and individuals often transition or live liminally between the two. Yet, informality is by its very definition unmeasurable. There will always be more people making videogames than any of us are ever aware of. So how can we even begin to adequately account for the informal?

Rather than a specific method or gap in knowledge that could be perfectly filled, what I think this points to is a perspective from which to ask what else is happening in terms of videogame development that will always allude quantitive work. And not just ‘over there’ beyond ‘the videogame industry’. As Push Me Pull You shows, these actors and practices are intimately connected with what constitutes the contemporary, regional videogame industry in this real messy tangle.

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It is a little bit Latourian in the sense that it would require us to follow a vaster range of actors, and it is a little bit ethnographic as it would require us to ask people about their craft and how they self-identify their practice, as well as observe their communities of practice, which is ultimately where I hope this research takes me. But I think considering informal videogame development practices will ultimately challenge us to expand our perception of just what videogame development is: who is making videogames, and to what end.

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