The punk ethos of the video-games industry

Freddie Sehgal Cuthbert

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The ‘Shock! Horror!’ version of video games has it that they are doubly dangerous. First, they corrupt the youth by turning us into mindless zombies; and then, the mindlessness we are sucked into is solely owned by mega-corporate brands who have created an entire industry so that we have to pay a premium for the pleasure of being sucked in.

As with fizzy drinks, the power of the brand is said to be as problematic as the drink itself, because it’s the brand – rather than the sugary concoction per se – that makes you want to buy it, allegedly.

But the second myth (video games are always spawned by branded corporations) turns out to be as inaccurate as the first (video games turn your brain to mush). It’s just the opposite: video-game production is now as open to non-corporate newcomers as the Punk music scene – so my Dad tells me – was meant to be 35 years ago.

Yes, the games industry still has its fair share of mega publishers doling out millions to make high-profile games which will generate yet more millions worth of profit (Grand Theft Auto V clocked in at roughly £170million). But there is also a new type of game, made by a new type of games developer, sold through (relatively) new means.

The new developers are none other than people in their bedrooms at home, with almost no money and sometimes no prior experience.

If you look on metacritic (the review site which aggregates other review sites), you will find that one of the highest rated games of 2013 is the re-make of Stanley Parable. The first version was put together in 2011 by Davey Wreden, a self-taught 22-year-old who learned his trade through wikis and forums. He went on to re-mix a second version of the game in conjunction with another independent developer. By then Stanley had acquired high-definition visuals and various gameplay tweaks. In this form – put together by two bedroom developers – it has enjoyed considerable success and the very highest profile. Independently produced games are not consigned to far-flung corners just because they don’t come compete with corporate branding.

Indie games often focus on far more abstract and philosophical themes than big-budget games. Stanley Parable, for example, plays on choice and its consequences. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy these games if you just want to play a game; but the ideas are there if you want to play around with them, too.

Far from being sewn up by multinationals, the games industry is much more multi-tiered than other media industries. There are big publishers, then the intermediate developers who are often hired by the big companies, and then the indie community, which is able to self-publish through digital media without losing a single byte of creative control.

While some of the best games have been made by developers with a budget of millions, eg GTA V, the flipside is that some of the worst games have also come out of the same sort of set-up, eg Duke Nukem Forever, which languished for 15 years in development hell. Similarly, some of the best games are made by medium-sized development studios, who also make some of the worst. I’m sure you can see where this is heading: it’s not the commercial context which determines whether a game is any good, but the imagination and the technique which go into producing it – whether these qualities are corporately funded, or not.

An integral part of the indie-game revolution is digital publishing. Without it, indie-game developers would have to box up their games in order to sell them, and the cost would surely be prohibitive. But nowadays they can publish through digital media such as Steam and the Playstation Store. Better yet, Playstation and Xbox (after a huge u-turn which meant reversing almost every aspect of the new Xbox apart from the actual hardware) have agreed to let game developers self-publish on PS4 and Xbox One.

Bigwigs operating behind closed doors do not have a monopoly on the video game world. It is open to anyone who has the knowledge and effort needed to develop a good game. Neither sweatshop nor penthouse, this is one industry in which social mobility is real rather than virtual.

Freddie Sehgal Cuthbert is a schoolboy.

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