8: The Circulation, Delivery, and Spreadability of Indie Video Games

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The short story has been around for millennia, and the way it is distributed and circulated has changed. At first it was the switch from oral tradition to written text. Now, with the invention of the Internet and digital technologies, short stories can take on almost limitless forms. A short story can be a digital text on a website like Wattpad, or a webcomic, or a video game, or an audiobook, you get the idea. This makes short stories difficult to talk about in terms of circulation, distribution, and spreadability. It mirrors the evolution of journalism in the digital age that Vivian describes. In the interest of time I will focus on independent video games as a method of storytelling.

Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and Sam Ford discuss the “top down and bottom up” methods of distribution in Why Media Spreads. Independent video games subvert the notoriously top-down distribution of video games by the AAA megacorporations such as Nintendo. They are often crowdfunded and rely on word of mouth rather than advertisements. The most efficient way these games are circulated is when a large YouTuber, mainly Pewdiepie, Markiplier, or Jacksepticeye, plays the game, since they have millions of guaranteed views per video. I say circulated and not distributed because there is a difference. Why Media Spreads examines the “shift from distribution to circulation” and how it shows “a more participatory model of culture, one which sees the public not as simply consumers of preconstructed messages but as people who are shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways which might not have been previously imagined.”

Indie game developers are counting on this participatory culture to get their games out there. They often ask for feedback while the game is in development by releasing demos – short unfinished versions of the final product – to a few people or to everyone. If a gamer records their playthrough of this demo and posts the video online, this is free advertising for the developers.

The indie gaming scene shows that there is a shift in what gamers expect from their video games. It’s clear there is a high demand for variety. While the top-selling games are all first-person shooters and sports titles, it’s impossible to ignore games such as Undertale and Five Nights at Freddy’s, which have grown so big they even have official merchandise.

Undertale has become so successful that a copy of the game was given to the Pope.

With methods of distribution now open to everyone, not just the large corporations, independent developers can get their foot in the door and have more of an opportunity to take risks. Games like Undertale and Doki Doki Literature Club challenge and subvert the tropes of their particular subgenre of video game, something a AAA gaming corporation would never do. This illustrates how “the affordances of digital media provide a catalyst for reconceptualizing other aspects of culture.”

The high interactivity of games makes them very shareable, especially if they are free or cheap. Most indie games can be accessed through sites such as Steam. Sharing videos of playthroughs of the game is also a way people can encourage others to play it. While video games may lean more towards the “sticky” mentality defined by Jenkins et al, indie games definitely benefit from using various elements of the “spreadability” mentality to enhance the user’s experience.

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