Videogames 101: Developers, Pioneers of an Industry

Part 1: The Burning Question

Part 2: Best Selling Consoles & Games

Part 3: The Perception of Videogames as a Sport

Make no mistake about it, videogames would not be the culture-penetrating force they are today if not for the gestalt of hundreds of thousands of man-hours that have gone into their development and design during the last few decades.  From the corporate titans and their talented teams of professionals to the brave pioneers on the indie scene, videogames are dissected and modified every day, pushing the limits of their potential and evolutionary capacity.

“Developer” is a broad and painfully vague term in general, and that vagueness is only emphasized in an industry where so many components must be synthesized for the final product.  Videogames need writers, directors, concept designers, graphic designers, animators, musical composers and producers (sometimes requiring entire orchestras to fulfill the agenda), audio engineers, voice actors, and many more positions of almost endless variety and function.  But this article is not going to discuss these nuts-and-bolts characters.  What most people think of in terms of videogame developers are not these folk, hardworking and significant as they may be.  Sometimes a particular director or composer will break out of their mold and make a name for themselves separate from their overarching label (Masahiro Sakurai, director, and Troy Baker, voice actor, come to mind), but usually a “developer” is the company or group that creates (not owns) the intellectual property of the franchise.  Developers are often confused with producers, but there are definite differences.  I still forget that Nintendo isn’t a developer, even though I give them all the credit for the newest Smash Bros, which was technically developed by Sora Ltd. and Bandai Namco.  Producers own and market the product created by the developers.

As with any art-related industry, each of these developers have created or adopted formulas and styles that distinguish them from among their contemporaries.  Some developers are known specifically for the genre of game they work with (Bungie is most familiar with first-person shooters), while others set themselves apart by focus or art style (Telltale and their narrative, comic-book style) and others offer different approaches for more lifestyle games such as the new business simulation game.

Developers will often be as religiously followed as the properties they manage, and blamed when a certain series never sees the light of day.  Sometimes the very absence of a game can become a running gag; for example, Valve Studios, and their almost hilarious inability to create trilogies: Dawn of the Ancients 2, Portal 2, Left4Dead 2, and Half-Life 2… None of these series have featured a third installment, despite their respective ages and overwhelming demand for such sequels.  Fans are particularly crestfallen over the lack of a third Half-Life, which has led to plenty of humor on internet forums.

But there are different kinds of developers, so they shouldn’t all be perceived as the same.  Here’s a quick outline of the four major groups of developers:

First-Party Developers

A “First-Party Developer” is a videogame developer which is usually subservient to a company which produces a specific videogame console and creates games exclusively for that hardware.  Nintendo is the best example of this, as their teams will often just claim the title of the company itself (this also helps explain my aforementioned issue of incorrectly labeling Nintendo as a developer).

Second-Party Developers

“Second-Party Developer” can be tricky to describe, so I will let Wikipedia handle this part (Yes, Wikipedia is legit, don’t hate.  Plus they use the word ‘colloquial’, which is just fancy):

Second-party developer is a colloquial term used by gaming enthusiasts and media often used to describe two different types of game development studios:

  1. Independently owned studios who take development contracts from the platform holders and what they produce will usually be exclusive to that platform.
  2. Studios who are partially or wholly owned by the platform holder (also known as a subsidiary) and what they produce will usually be exclusive to that platform.


In reality, the resulting game is first party (since it is funded by the platform holder who usually owns the resulting IP), but the term helps to distinguish independent studios from those directly owned by the platform holder. These studios may have exclusive publishing agreements (or other business relationships) with the platform holder, while maintaining independence. Examples are Insomniac Games (which previously developed games solely for Sony’s PlayStation platforms as an independent studio) and Game Freak, (which primarily develops the Nintendo-exclusive Pokémon game series).

Third-Party Developers

Activision was officially the first “Third-Party Developer” circa 1979.  Most of the time, these are developers who are contracted into making particular games by publishers.  Successful or popular developers (especially ones with adequate man-power), will often simultaneously have several teams working on several games for several different publishers.  These, however, are the exception rather than the rule.  Most third-party developers are small teams that rely very heavily on their own skills and hard work.  Since they can usually tend to the needs of only one publisher, and because the teams are so small and must do all the work, one failed game can be devastating to the longevity of the studio, leading to eventual abandonment.  Once in the realm of success, a third-party developer will often sell themselves to a willing publisher, thus solidifying allegiance to that corporation and becoming “in-house.”  As in-house developers, the studio is usually granted a longer creative leash for their games and more leniency should any budget or deadline issues arise during the development process.

Independent Developers

A lineup of various, remarkable indie characters.

Independent Developers are their own sort of beast and are notoriously breaking new waves in the videogame industry.  While they will sometimes sell to publishers, indie devs usually rely on the power of the internet and word-of-mouth to advertise and get their name in public circles.  Their budgets are relatively non-existent in comparison to the monolithic forces of larger corporations.  Some indie developers will create their software for a very specific audience or recipient (usually indie projects are exclusive to computer gaming), but sometimes they will develop for distribution across all platforms.  While usually considered to be hit-or-miss, the sheer volume of indie games have begun to generate many industry-altering designs and concepts that have since been adopted by stronger companies.  Steam is especially kind towards the indie scene, accepting most indie projects and having entire features on their site for players to find new indie games.

I know I said I wouldn’t look at the nuts-and-bolts people who develop videogames, but I wanted to talk about them for just a moment.  Because of how popular videogames have become, and because of how easy it can be to start manifesting skills related to videogame development, more and more people are looking to the industry as a potential career path.  This is alright.  In fact, this is good, and I encourage anybody with this aspiration to gun for that dream.  It’s not so unrealistic nowadays.  Though, because it is a competitive labor market, there are a few disclaimers that must be clear.  First, it is just that: competitive.  Not only does being a videogame programmer require skill, but it also requires a wealth of creativity.  Fortunately, I believe both skill and creativity can be trained if you are not naturally inclined to these things.  Second, burnout is a commonplace issue among salary employees (most developers are salary, with few exceptions).  This is due to an almost required, consistent dedication to working overtime.  Fortunately, the working environment is very casual and generally nonchalant.  Third, an entry-level programmer makes roughly 70,000 dollars a year.

Though I don’t think many people would have a problem with that.

Aside from this, all that’s really left to discuss are the little quirks and industry-level stigmas revolving around developers.  Most people are in a love-hate relationship with Square Enix because they have so much potential, but keep squandering it on things like mobile games and MMO’s.  Capcom has dropped the ball on nearly all of their franchises.  Nintendo has a ton of subsidiaries pumping out massive amounts of stuff, and it’s making them flourish.  LucasArts was purchased by Disney, which could lead to some… interesting future releases.  And developers in general have taken to these awful things called “Day 1 DLC,” which, despite being hated by everyone, are totally the fault of the consumers for not being patient enough to wait for a faultless, final product.

Take your time on Fallout 4, Bethesda.  Take your time.

God bless, learn from your mistakes, and always remember to smile.

VERSE OF THE DAY – Proverbs 25:15
“Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.”

SONG OF THE DAY – “Give Me Your Eyes” by Brandon Heath

Cooper D Barham

Aspiring author, marriage and family therapist, and active behavioral health technician, Cooper fills his world with God, music, videogames, anime/manga, drawing, reading, writing, and some physical stuff in between. If you ever want to talk about the big or little things of life, fire him a message. Helping others through tough times is both his passion and way of living. 'Got it memorized?'

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