What is the market? Something something marginal utility value logic circulation exchange. Any exact definition is probably less helpful on the level of everyday usage than an image or a dream. The market is something that allocates goods, rewards, and punishments. The two types of people in a market are buyers and sellers; the buyer is a sort of homespun moral authority, affirming or denying some set of values with each purchase. The seller is a less settled character, perhaps unsure themselves of what they're selling, perhaps taking some creative short-cuts on the way, but ultimately sure to succeed if they’re an earnest and worthy petitioner. The stern father rewards the striving child. There are market stories celebrating foresight, or cunning, or sometimes hardness or ruthlessness, or generosity, or sometimes just random chance. The "suffering artist becomes big hit" story, for example, can exemplify all these themes at different times. Part of the appeal is the sense that the market is outside of or adjacent to history, a mysterious realm of autonomy and accident which resists crude deterministic readings. There’s always money in there somewhere, so success can never fully be ruled out; like a slot machine, there’s always the prospect of fantastic winnings with just one more go.
As a vision this is complete and compelling even as it's deeply hard to sync with the lived experience of what 'marketization' means in practice, for example the way that this redistributive paradise somehow ends up with everything in the world is owned by the same 12 companies which are owned by the same 7 guys. Or the way the eminently commonsensical gut-driven logic of marginal utility somehow morphs into the byzantine financial transactions of Goldman Sachs et al. Or the day to day strangenesses of an investor-led economy in which large and influential companies don't actually make any money but are kept afloat as vehicles for speculation - hey, just like indie games. All this stuff might be a direct consequence of the market, it might in fact be market logic (and the logic of the freakish inequalities the market helps produce) taken to its natural conclusion - but it somehow never leads to doubt about that original market idyll, a set of images and promises that sit uneasily atop a world it has no actual resemblance to and in fact sometimes directly grinds against.
I watched Mannequin (1987) recently. It does the same thing as Gremlins 2 where the villain is not the boss of the enormous, hyperconsumerist corporate setting, but that boss's duplicitous underlings. The actual monied WASP owners are depicted as benign, maybe a little slow witted, but ultimately flexible and enthusiastic in their openness to new ideas - when those ideas can manage to get through the toadying middlemen that stand in the way. The good king and the corrupt courtiers. I think there's an element of this in the cultural imagination of the market – ‘the market’ as something which has never been officially displaced, which is still nominally in control, but which still seems mysteriously irrelevant and ineffective when it comes to life on the ground. And which must, therefore, have some obstacle which can be removed for proper functioning to occur, as long as we can just identify what it might be.
The response to Ooblets being financed by Epic is both gruesome and depressingly predictable, and part of that predictability is in the invocation of the market as a vengeful god. Thou hast disobeyed the ten commandments of perky salesmanship and now must be punished - either by the market itself (poor sales!! a flop!!), or by a dedicated representative ("no, see, it may look like I personally am sending you anti-semitic mail, but in fact it's the invisible hand.."), or else I guess by being exiled from the realm of market worth altogether via digital piracy, etc. The repeated lines about not aggro-ing consumers tend towards the strangely impersonal, not any specific 'consumer' or even the speaker personally but 'consumers' as a general class or caste. If part of the market fantasy of the consumer involves the ability to reward or punish then this has ability has to be demonstrated in order to prove the market's relevance and force – as ostentatiously as possible, as if the language of the individual purchase was no longer quite enough.
Which in fact it might not be. One of the recurring lines around the Epic store is that it's anti-consumer, in part because it effectively has bottomless cash reserves to throw around. Which itself demonstrates how "the market" (the brief scuffle for position in the Battle Royale format) leads to positions which are "anti-market", in the sense of having enough money to no longer have to play by those original imaginary rules. But in fact I suspect that the store, like Steam, and to an even greater extent Uber, Twitter, etc, is in fact just post-consumer: post 'consumer' as a meaningful economic category, after decades of widening income inequality gave a tiny few an ever more freakishly disproportionate amount of wealth and monopoly power. Maybe a more appropriate term now would be 'user': a basically passive entity for externally-financed platforms to hoard and gamble with en route to ubiquity. Of course the famous ability of consumers to choose in the first place has always been limited and at times purely symbolic. But as a symbolic form, as one of the ways market ideology propogates itself by establishing and celebrating a mythologised consumer-caste, the gradual irrelevance of that celebrated ability to choose must be threatening. The self-elected members of the caste assert their special status by exercising the traditional right to punish. Market cosplay - a situation where the ceremonial performance of a phantasmagoric ideal market becomes more and more important as it bears less and less relation to real economic activity. I'm excited for the next step of just imprisoning people in a giant wicker model of the New York Stock Exchange and then setting it on fire.
Well, it's nice to sneer. But aren't indie games engaged in a similar kind of market cosplay, even if it's from the other direction? Releasing commercial work online means being hit by a double imperative. Firstly - be realistic! Sell your art, pay attention to the market, learn to do PR, etc, etc. Secondly - be unrealistic, in your assessment of how much any of this makes a difference. Pretend to be a plucky small-business go-getter; pretend that the magic circle of the market is immune to wider general tendencies of precarity and monopolisation which incidentally leave everyone with much less time or money to play your artful platformer game. Of course, even for wellknown or popular contemporary developers, making games commercially seems to be less connected to producing work for an actual audience and more to do with.. producing vehicles of financial speculation for the benefit of large platforms, large publishers, or perhaps just individual HNWIs; and these roles are themselves limited and vulnerable to all the weirdnesses of private patronage. Still, though... there's always the distant possibility of a payout if you just keep hustling.
In the early days of indie games there was a tendency to celebrate the idea that the scene lacked internal competition; a sense that one person’s success would also help to open the doors wider for all the others. We can laugh about that now, but it's also a good example of how internalised market logic can appear as vague idealism while working towards its own ends. Firstly, even as developers are imagined as all in this together, a market framing imposes its own strict libertarian ideas of what that entails - not any kind of positive form of mutual relation, that could entail communicating or organizing, but only the negative relation of "not doing anything to directly sabotage one another". The idea of just gaining that toehold into the mass market also not only glosses over but actually valorizes whatever weird power dynamics already exist among developers.
Secondly the framing of the market as something outside, to be broken into, obscures the ways that capital itself is always searching for new spaces to enter and convert into profit centers. The games which "break out" also immediately turn into the vehicle by which capital can "break in" and begin structuring and reorganizing what's already there - everyone in indie games is familiar with the way a successful game becomes a sort of gravity well for the culture around it, that pushes everything else to adapt and frame itself in relation to its terms. The mid-00s cliche of the symbolism-laden platformer game or the minecraft clone is usually framed in terms of cynical developers trying to ride a wave. But we can also think of it in terms of capital (publishers, vencap funds, etc) equally cynically using a success as opportunity to activate and convert a "dormant" pool of talent (the ambient sludge of hobbyist development) into saleable commodities.
It may sound nostalgic to talk about, but in fact the ethos of mutually-beneficial marketization is still with us in increasingly ragged form. Every couple of years somebody with money to burn hustles up some indies to serve as a kind of tile grout plugging the gaps of a new grandiose scheme - new platforms, new consoles, new streaming services, VR, etc.. And we're encouraged to chase that while we can, get contact-high on the success of the lucky few, and not peer too closely at the miraculous gift of temporary market attention. And then, afterwards, to clean up the fallout: interesting work locked away on closed or dead systems, the limited pool of critical attention sucked up and converted into PR for platform holders and publishers, diminishment of sites and networks we own or have a say in running in favour of more walled gardens sporadically tended by cokehead billionaires.
And the truly sad thing is that even the lucky few who immediately benefit rarely seem to reap the rewards for very long, invariably emerging back into a landscape even worse than when they left it. The temporary (yet recurring) sudden influx of new money rarely if ever seems to 'trickle down' in ways which might benefit us all. Imagine some of what could be done with some collective pooling and organization - funds for translating non-anglophone work, for new spaces of independent criticism and curation, for tool production and community organization and helping to subsidize noncommercial practice, etc. As it is, it vanishes immediately into a handful of private pockets, for use at the private discretion of the owners of those pockets, who are themselves more vulnerable to harmful demands by inability to recognize or organize whatever power they do hold. The idea that the market, and the capital encrypted in it, is a neutral given which can only be accessed on its own terms annuls the prospect of any kind of organization from the get go.
This lack of a real, coherent response to cycles of boom and bust finally leaves us stuck in the same old tired conversation – whatever happened to the market? What mysterious obstacle prevented it from working as intended? Cheap games, expensive games, too many games, foreign games, free games, asset flip games, games of the undeserving... indie rhetoric slides backwards into the paranoid, reactionary fantasies of the market cult. And even alternative imaginations feel strangely bereft of ideas to the extent they still cycle around these terms. I like itch.io, I like zine fairs, I've written about them both a lot here... but... nice and useful as they are, isn't it a bit depressing that so much creative and critical energy goes into acting out this Potemkin image of functioning, "fair" markets, ones where all the nasty parts have temporarily been pushed under the rug?
Max Haiven, in "Art After Money, Money After Art" points out that financialisation wasn't just imposed from the top down, that it's produced and embedded in everyday life partly as a collection of opportunities which then contribute to producing financialized subjects. My own analogy for the process would be 'lifehacks', which are not imposed by some dystopian central committee so much as they emerge as small moments of creative grassroot problem-solving, which then become dystopian en masse as they gradually shift the baseline expectations of the everyday itself.
In that market arrangements are not challenged, and remain the default even in the rinky-dink small-scale spaces we create for our hobbyist projects outside the shadow of big capital, they will continue to act as the implicit limit to our sense of what's possible; will continue to act as the rake that we step on, again and again.
(images: The Money Game, Mole Mole 2, Wall Street Kid, Casino Kid.)