XXXI.2 March - April 2024
Page: 54
Digital Citation

From Pixels to Play: Opportunities and Challenges of a Diverse and Democratized Games Industry

Sebastian Long, Alena Denisova, Pejman Mirza-Babaei

back to top 

In the past decade, smaller video game development teams have defied the odds to create novel and commercially successful games without the financial and technical support of larger parent companies, publishers, or benefactors. These fiercely independent studios sustain total creative control over their own outputs, building their own unique ideas and eschewing the financial, legal, IP, or creative constraints that hold back their far-larger game development competitors.

back to top  Insights

Indie game development drives innovation in HCI by exploring new gameplay mechanics, technologies, and storytelling approaches.
Cross-cultural collaboration in indie game development fuels diversity, creating titles that honor heritage, address societal concerns, and embrace inclusive portrayals of gender, ethnicity, and identity.
Game developers are leveraging player behavior insights to revolutionize game development, offering personalized experiences based on data-driven strategies.

Compared to the risk-averse mainstream, this avant-garde "indie" game development approach comes with considerable challenges. Small teams are forced to operate without financial safety nets, with minimal resources, and with limited access to niche expertise, all the while independently shouldering sky-high operational costs and overheads, against the rising cost of living.

Taking this indie leap has become far more affordable thanks to today's availability of performant, low-cost, commercially available digital game development tools and distribution platforms. They offer aspiring game developers a truly global potential, at a fraction of the investment of fully "DIY" efforts. Developers can leverage off-the-shelf game engines like Unreal or Unity, release their games to billions of customers using mature digital storefronts such as Steam or various app stores, and access knowledge, resources, and experienced game development peers online. Gone are the days when game development was a niche and secretive skillset, limited to siloed groups of creatives.

This article continues the conversation on democratization within software development, specifically focusing on the game industry and its impact on the future of creating diverse playful experiences (Figure 1). The thriving game development scene holds substantial relevance for the human-computer interaction and user experience communities. Games often push the boundaries of creativity and innovation, experimenting with unique gameplay mechanics, technologies, interactions, and storytelling.


back to top  The Cultural Impact of Diverse Developers

A decade of game development growth—helped along by consumers needing to stay indoors for swathes of it—has ushered in an era of unprecedented creative freedom and diverse expression. As the number of game developers has grown, there has been a parallel increase in the variety of narratives, characters, and gameplay mechanics explored by the games they produce. Independent developers, unencumbered by the creative constraints often faced by larger, more mainstream studios, have the liberty to experiment with unconventional ideas and tackle niche topics that might otherwise be overlooked or deemed financially unviable at scale.

The creative autonomy of independent development has produced an array of games that challenge established norms, pushing the boundaries of storytelling and interactive experiences. Moreover, the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of developers from different cultures and communities have enriched the industry, leading to games that celebrate unique cultural heritage, tackle social issues, and offer new, inclusive representations of gender, ethnicity, and identity. In essence, the surge in game development has not only broadened the horizons of gaming experiences but also fostered a more inclusive and creatively vibrant gaming ecosystem.

These indie studios, and their games, are typified by a focus on artistic and technical novelty, pioneering innovative gameplay and narrative, such as Firewatch, a game that explores themes of loneliness; Gris, a game that portrays grief (Figure 2); and Braid, which subverts the damsel-in-distress trope common in mainstream content.

ins02.gif Figure 1. Impacts of the democratization of game creation.

back to top  Advancement in Technology and Infrastructure

Games are among the most complex of software systems. Game developers must acquire prodigious skill to implement advanced programming and protocols including graphics rendering, physics and collision detection, asset management, cross-platform compatibility, multiplayer networking, and anti-cheating systems, in addition to audio and visual design.

ins03.gif Figure 2. Screenshot from Gris, developed by Nomada Studio and published by Devolver Digital. You can watch ACM's CHI PLAY 2019 closing keynote by Nomada Studio cofounder Adrián Cuevas on "The Creativity Process behind GRIS" (

Historically, major game studios have needed to create their own proprietary game engines: elaborate software frameworks that provide generic technical infrastructure applied to develop a variety of games compatible with modern hardware and infrastructures. The availability of commercial third-party game engines has played a critical role in making game development more approachable and inclusive. These commercial game engines offer intuitive user interfaces and user-friendly functionality, such as visual scripting and drag-and-drop interactions, that do not require extensive programming knowledge, helping lower the vast learning barrier. Using third-party game engines allows developers to focus on creating game content, rather than building foundational underlying components from scratch.

Game development tools are becoming so capable and user friendly as to be increasingly used in other domains, such as film and TV, rapid prototyping, and architecture, bringing game-like experiences to the homes and offices of professionals outside the game development sphere. Several games and platforms allow players to access the same development tools employed by the product's game designers, unlocking user-generated content for other players to enjoy. Roblox, Dreams, and Minecraft all include scripting tools: games that can build games. Naturally, these in-game tools inherit all the UX challenges of their full-size interactive game engine counterparts.

The availability of third-party game engines has played a critical role in making game development more inclusive.

In our era of big data and artificial intelligence, game developers are amassing ever-expanding repositories of information on player behavior and preferences. This data serves a dual purpose, as it can be used to construct highly detailed profiles of individual players, encompassing aspects such as their purchase history and play-session durations, and in-game actions such as their combat style and puzzle-solving time. Simultaneously, this wealth of data empowers developers to conduct aggregate analyses on entire player populations, enabling insights into player retention and the sale of in-game items. The use of such extensive player data is fundamentally reshaping game development and UX strategies and allowing for a more personalized and data-driven approach in catering to the needs and preferences of the gaming community.

Game developers have been early adopters of generative AI and large language models to help create, translate, and analyze their content. The concept of "procedural generation" far predates recent AI advancements, with complex custom algorithms being used to generate game worlds of colossal size and complexity. Each of the half a million worlds in Minecraft is a unique and explorable world equivalent in size to the entire continent of Australia. Each randomly generated using carefully curated algorithms for earth, sea, caves, trees, and so on. Delivering a consistent and deliberate player experience among these colossal worlds and randomness is a substantial challenge, particularly for smaller teams.

back to top  New Ways to Play, New Ways to Pay

The distribution of games underwent a significant transformation with the emergence of digital platforms like Steam for PC gaming, with well over 100 million monthly active users, alongside similar services on consoles such as the Xbox Games Store and Nintendo eShop. These platforms add more than 10,000 new games to their digital storefronts per year. While it is exciting that anyone with a passion can create a game and share it with the world, the reality is harsher: Digital stores are flooded with poorly made games, unoriginal copies, and "shovelware," muddying the sincere and creative products that can consequently struggle to gain deserved traction among the tens of thousands of competitor titles, regardless of comparative quality.

Discoverability is, to some extent, a pure HCI/UX challenge: how to surface personalized relevant products to individual consumers in these storefronts, while simultaneously providing usable access to the total wealth of experiences available. The sheer volume of relevant, high-quality content that one could purchase presents a substantial user interface challenge—upon which the dreams of indie creatives desperate for exposure may be granted or dashed.

With the changes in distribution strategies, there have also been shifts in how games generate revenue. Free-to-play (F2P) is a business model where a game is made available to players without any up-front purchase, which can attract a large player base, with revenue subsequently generated through in-game purchases: unlocking advancement, cosmetics, gameplay benefits, or other desirable content. Originally finding popularity in mobile gaming, the F2P model has also been adopted on other platforms, despite the often higher development costs associated with console and PC game development. Some developers adopting this model aim only to fund the release of a "proof of concept" or "minimum viable product," and then launch to measure the game's performance indicators such as player acquisition, retention, conversion to paying players, referral, and non-returning players, so-called churn. In practice, this enables developers to make proportional investments for the initial release to then subsequently justify and further fund development based on data-driven insight on how their game currently performs in the market.

Development teams seeking substantive feedback have pioneered "early access," an approach whereby sometimes barely playable games are released, for free or paid, with the promise of involving the purchasers themselves in the ongoing game design process, as they exclusively access iterative releases and inform development progress. Releasing in early access serves a twofold benefit for developers to both finance further development and galvanize development direction through engagement with their fan community. Steam launched formal support for early access releases in 2013, and it has produced several hit titles, including 2023's Baldur's Gate 3, which soared to critical success, becoming one of the highest-rated games of all time.

These approaches may solve financial challenges, but they are not without risks or criticism. They can incentivize the implementation of questionable game design tactics, known as deceptive design, wherein players are deliberately deceived, through interface design or clarity of communication, with the intent of stimulating purchases from players accidentally. Several high-profile early access games have been abandoned, canceled, or had development ramped down without ever reaching full-blown release. Early purchasers can feel scorned or neglected, or disappointed by the realities of slow progress in game development. Furthermore, from a UX perspective, developers risk over-indexing on the wants of their niche and vocal early access players, and away from the more mainstream players who should, eventually, be their target consumers.

Shifts in the availability and connectivity of modern technology have enabled these new business models, but it is the shift in consumer behavior that has caused them to proliferate to the point of necessity. Driving games down in price until they're totally free, and increasing the volume of free content players can expect to span years and perhaps indefinite free play time, has radically shifted and consolidated the games industry into a dozen key players. Indie teams compete in differing areas, promising perhaps a more artisanal and niche experience, a more self-contained narrative, or more influence over future content than their mature, juggernaut competitors.

back to top  Getting to Know our Diverse Players

The collaborative and community-driven nature of game development aligns with the core principles of HCI/UX research, emphasizing user participation and cocreation. By examining the interactions between indie developers and their player communities, researchers can gain valuable knowledge about player feedback mechanisms, community engagement strategies, and the impact of player-driven content on overall user satisfaction. This understanding is invaluable for designing user-centered interfaces and experiences, not only in gaming but also in other interactive digital platforms.

The collaborative and community-driven nature of game development aligns with the core principles of HCI/UX research.

Communities of players have become integral components of modern game development. Developers increasingly recognize the importance of building direct connections with their fan base, fostering a sense of community engagement and shared enthusiasm. Social media platforms, online forums, and gaming conventions serve as hubs where developers interact directly with players, listening to their feedback and incorporating their ideas into the game design process. This direct line of communication allows developers to understand the players' preferences, concerns, and suggestions, enabling them to create games that resonate deeply with their audience. In turn, players appreciate the transparency and involvement, feeling valued as an essential part of the game's evolution (Figure 3).

ins04.gif Figure 3. Different layers in the democratization of game creation.

back to top  An Alternative Career Path

The democratization of game development has opened new career pathways for developers. Indie game development is a valuable alternative career path, offering multifaceted exposure across roles such as game design, programming, marketing, project management, and community engagement. This exposure often equips indie developers with versatile skills, making them adaptable candidates for roles within and beyond the gaming sector. Recent graduates are often drawn to indie game development for its opportunities for skill diversification and entrepreneurial ventures. Starting as indie developers allows them to gain hands-on experience, build diverse project portfolios, and later transition into more specialized roles, contributing to the dynamic and diverse growth of the gaming industry.

Moreover, the democratization of game development, while offering diverse career pathways, exists against challenges such as massive layoffs in the game industry. In the face of industry-wide uncertainties, indie game development offers an alternative pathway, providing developers with the means to take control of their careers, if they can find the initial funds needed to do so. The ability to be one's own boss and create games aligned with personal creative visions becomes a means of artistic expression and a strategic response to the instability prevalent in the traditional gaming job market. This phenomenon reinforces the argument for the importance of indie game development as an empowering career choice, allowing developers to navigate the industry's uncertainties with more autonomy and resilience.

back to top  Authors

Sebastian Long is managing director at Player Research, the premier agency for games-specialist user research. He has contributed to hundreds of commercial games, including for Lego, EA, Sony PlayStation, Amazon Games, and more. [email protected]

Alena Denisova is an assistant professor at the University of York. Her research focuses on conceptualizing, measuring, and improving the user experiences of video game players and designing and developing tools and methods for researching interactive experiences. [email protected]

Pejman Mirza-Babaei is an interaction design consultant, author, and research professor at Ontario Tech University. He coauthored The Game Designer's Playbook: An Introduction to Game Interaction Design (2022) and coedited Games User Research (2018). He has worked on pre- and postrelease evaluations of more than 30 commercial games and other interactive products. [email protected]

back to top  Sidebar: Suggested Reading

Denisova, A., Bopp, J.A., Nguyen, T.D., and Mekler, E.D. "Whatever the emotional experience, it's up to them": Insights from designers of emotionally impactful games. Proc. of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2021, Article 120, 1-9;

Freeman, G., Li, L., Mcneese, N., and Schulenberg, K. Understanding and mitigating challenges for non-profit driven indie game development to innovate game production. Proc. of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2023, Article 293, 1-16;

Freeman, G., McNeese, N., Bardzell, J., and Bardzell, S. "Pro-amateur"-driven technological innovation: Participation and challenges in indie game development. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 4, GROUP (Jan. 2020), article 4;

Stahlke, S. and Mirza-Babaei, P. Chapter 12: What comes next? In The Game Designer's Playbook: An Introduction to Game Interaction Design. Oxford Univ. Press, 2022.

Whitson, J.R., Simon, B., and Parker, F. The missing producer: Rethinking indie cultural production in terms of entrepreneurship, relational labour, and sustainability. European Journal of Cultural Studies 24, 2 (2021), 606-627;

back to top 

Copyright held by authors. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2024 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found