Uneven Playing Field: How Digital Platforms Hurt Indie Games

Australian videogame Armello

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to prevent in-person events through the second half of 2020 – like Brisbane’s Game On Festival, or the myriad opportunities of Melbourne International Games Week – the importance of online showcase events and digital storefronts has come into increasingly sharp focus. While a booth at the indie showcase at PAX, for example, has always been a substantial expense (albeit one subsidised by some state funding bodies), the opportunity it provides for real-time feedback from potential players can be invaluable. This year has instead seen a number of online storefronts run their own showcase events – the Steam Game Festival, for example, has featured developer live­streams and game demos that aim to generate prospective players’ interest, written feedback and behavioural play data.

Realistically, of course, Australian game makers have depended on platforms like Steam and the App Store for some time. Local developers’ access to shelf space in bricks-and-mortar stores has historically been limited to games that simulate cricket or football; movie tie-ins; and, more rarely, original intellectual properties like Ty the Tasmanian Tiger and Untitled Goose Game. In contrast (and with some caveats), digital storefronts generally permit the presence of indie games, although their success is contingent on visibility, which is inherently zero-sum. Although traditional and digital storefronts are in some ways comparable – both act as gatekeepers in some capacity, restricting access to shelf space or the front page – the consequences of game developers’ reliance on digital platforms are less self-evident.

David Nieborg and Thomas Poell have articulated these consequences in terms of platformisation – in short, the ways that platforms’ extensible architecture is deployed to influence the economics, governance and infrastructure of cultural production. Facebook’s architecture, for example, has been deployed online as a number of unrelated ‘solutions’ – login authentication, news-media publishing, videogame hosting, content sharing and so on – each of which generates user data that can be sold to advertisers.

Crucially, videogame platforms like Facebook, Steam, Epic Games Store and Google Play devalue individual games and disempower developers. The subscription-based Xbox Game Pass, for example, is marketed on the sheer quantity of games available across Xbox, PC and Android devices. As all first-party games are due for a day-one release on the platform, Game Pass seems primed to generate a large user base who will create large amounts of behavioural data and make in-game purchases. Live service games conveniently benefit from both: data are used to inform design changes, which in turn aim to maximise retention and monetisation. Although more enduring Australian games – Armello and Crossy Road, for example – are often based on a live service model of some kind, it’s neither reasonable nor desirable to force a long-term content pipeline and in-game transactions into every game concept, particularly as many Australian studios lack the requisite staff, finances or interest in making such attempts.

As Microsoft purchases games for the platform based on the company’s own appraisal – a process ripe for automation, along with all its biases – fair offers seem unlikely for games that prioritise cultural values over economic benefits, as Australian games often do. Still, a guaranteed payout (if offered) may yet be preferable to the algorithmic curation of platforms like Google Play, where the systems governing each game’s (in)visibility are themselves opaque.

Even before the pandemic brought an abrupt halt to international travel, Australia’s geographical isolation and small domestic market made local studios unusually reliant on digital platforms – although state-funded support for travel to international events had improved prior to COVID, reducing the regional disadvantage. Put another way, developers everywhere are now forced to deal with typical Australian conditions – which goes some way to explaining why Steam, which is at best ambivalent toward indie games, would run inclusive seasonal game festivals at all. At the same time, this uncharacteristic support should not be construed as generosity: in the midst of a pandemic, a time when studios have fewer avenues to publish, advertise or cultivate an audience, platform operators are capitalising on every opportunity to extend their reach and consolidate their market dominance.

In all this, it’s a welcome surprise to see the federal government recognise that platforms like Google and Facebook are inherently monopolising forces, and begin attempts to curb their influence, albeit only for news media. Less surprising is that similar policy, or budgetary support, for game development (among other creative industries) is not considered worthwhile – or, more likely, considered at all. While acknowledging that some aspects of the legislation would not readily apply to game development, the code’s proposal to require platforms to explain their content-ranking algorithms would be an immense benefit to Australian studios (assuming their AI-created systems are indeed interpretable at all). Platforms affect most, if not all, forms of cultural production in Australia; to act in service of just one is wasteful. Australian game makers are not powerless, but neither is their individual or collective endurance guaranteed in systems designed to serve multinational technology companies. To allow videogame platforms to exert the same powers that Google and Facebook now wield would be small-minded, to say the least.