Indie game development beyond developers

Curator's Note

Contrary to popular narratives of starving artists making it big through passion and perseverance, contemporary indie game development is a crap shoot. Digital distribution, accessible tools, and a surge of popular interest have resulted in an incredibly oversaturated market, cheap sales and bundles have made many players unwilling to buy indie games at full price, and digital platforms like Steam promote only the most popular titles while taking a 30% cut of every sale. Indie game development in this context is a precarious pursuit, and only a small proportion of developers find success or sustainability.

Cultural intermediaries are positioned in the nebulous space between producers, consumers, and industry powers-that-be, and use their knowledge, connections, and status to bestow visibility, legitimacy, and prestige on certain objects and creators. In spite of the internet’s supposed “disintermediation” of cultural production, the work of intermediation is more important than ever, but is often overlooked or seen as peripheral. Cultural intermediaries in indie game development include organizers and curators of indie community groups, co-working hubs, events, festivals, and showcases like the Indie MEGABOOTH, depicted here in a time lapse video from PAX Prime 2013. In an overcrowded ecosystem, intermediaries like the Indie MEGABOOTH promise to cut through the noise, acting as tastemakers for potential consumers. However, they also provide other, less visible forms of support.

This video illustrates that although “downstream” consumer-oriented intermediary activities may help indies find an audience, behind-the-scenes “upstream” intermediation is equally important. Spaces are allotted and furnished, booths are assembled, introductions are made, and impromptu meetings are held, all of which falls outside of what is considered the “real” work of game development, but is nevertheless crucial. To make this happen, cultural intermediaries do constant logistical and relational labour, coordinating the social and material infrastructure of their venues, maintaining networks of contacts, and mediating encounters between developers and influential industry actors like journalists, streamers, investors, publishers, and platforms. Far from peripheral, intermediaries are in fact constitutive of indie game production, distribution, and reception; they are the glue that holds things together and the grease that keeps things running smoothly. As such, to understand indie game development we must look beyond developers.

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Fantastic post, and I look forward to continuing the lines of thought you make on cultural intermediaries with my post later this week. Given the glut of indie games, cultural intermediaries dictate not only which games get found, but what aesthetic or other design choices are prioritized, thus incentivizing similar games in the future (any wonder why there have been so many pixel-graphic platformers in the late 2000's, and now pixel-graphic rogue-likes are all the rage?).

Absolutely, design practices, aesthetic trends, etc. are all also shaped by intermediation processes. The popularity of zany local multiplayer party games can be tied to the popularity of indie game parties and events both at a local level and at larger conventions, for example. One of the things that cultural intermediaries are asked to do is to identify emerging trends and genres (which they can do because they dedicate a formidable amount of time playing new and upcoming games, as well as talking to developers), and in doing so they precipitate the emergence of those trends and genres. Jesper Juul has written about the connection between "independent style" and the IGF, although I think he paints with too broad a brush.

Great post and comments! In the protean nature of the indie industry, intermediaries have increasingly become the “constant” or as you put it “the glue” that holds things together. Some of the most enduring definitions, canons, and networks of indie games are curated and stored by intermediaries and institutions. I agree with you about Juul’s insights and believe that while he is right to identify some key aesthetic trends emerging from the IGF, the IGF (and UBM) has invested quite a bit of capital becoming the de facto canon and archive of indie games. Given that all independent media are necessarily defined by their relationships to mainstream institutions and organizations, this gives me pause about the role of the IGF as the naturalized corpus of indie games in Juul’s discussion. Thus, as you point out, the endurance, longevity, and visibility of a given intermediary helps their chances of becoming central nodes to the industry. After a good critical political economic vantage that helps unpack some of what might be constituting the “glue” and the “grease” of these cultural intermediary practices and institutions, I wonder how else we might trouble some of what is shaping these trends of emergence.

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