Developer Credit: Para-Industrial Hierarchies of In-Game Credit Attribution in the Video Game Industry

The journal Games and Culture has just published my article Developer Credit: Para-Industrial Hierarchies of In-Game Credit Attribution in the Video Game Industry. In this article, I analyze in-game credits of 100 games published between 2016-2020, which represent four major sectors of video game production: AAA, AA, indie, and freemium games as service. I explore how credits shape above-the-line/below-the-line divisions and establish (or potentially subvert) professional hierarchies.

The specialized press has repeatedly reported on missing or denied credits, showing that there is no industry standard regarding what constitutes a recognized and noteworthy contribution to video game production. Despite efforts from developer organizations and initiatives like IGDA or Game Workers Unite, my analysis shows that credits are handled in various ways, leaving individual developers at the mercy of studio leadership when comes to receiving credit for their work. In the article, I highlight three major aspects of in-game credits that influence above-the-line/below-the-line divisions.

First, opening credits, which tend to be stylized after film and television and appear prominently in story-driven AAA games such as Final Fantasy VII Remake, Gears 5 or The Last of Us Part II, highlight specific professions and leadership roles, effectively and literally promoting the selected creators to the above-the-line category. At the same time, the cinematic remediation of opening credits subverts the so-called core game development triad/tetrad (artist, designer, engineer/programmer + producer) by featuring actors and other publicly recognized external contributors such as composers.

Second, the order of credits and the level of detail of role descriptions hierarchizes the professions involved in video game production, but there are significant differences among the analyzed games. While many studios structure their credits according to core development triad and prioritize leadership positions over regular employees (e.g. A Plague Tale: Innocence, Call of the SeaDisco Elysium, Forza Horizon 4, or The Last of Us Part II), some subvert these traditional hierarchies using alphabetical order, e.g. Afterparty or Battlefield V. The latter approach is sometimes accompanied by a lack of role descriptions, which on the one hand might flatten the studio structure, but also undermine the information value of credits as a record of professional experience. That is, for example, the case of American Truck Simulator, Borderlands 3Fortnite, or Half-Life: Alyx.

Third, systematic credit omissions relegate many freemium game developers and individual employees of outsourcing companies to the below-the-line category. Within the corpus, 26 of the 35 freemium games as service titles lacked any in-game credits, suggesting that individual contributions are undervalued in this sector of video game production. Outsourcing credits in some cases only list company names (e.g. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice or Super Smash Bros. Ultimate), but other games provide more detail and include individual outsourcing workers and their role descriptions (e.g. Final Fantasy VII Remake or The Last of Us Part II).

To summarize, in-game credits can both uphold and contest existing professional hierarchies. The lack of crediting standards allows studios and publishers to shape these self-reflexive elements according to their preferences, sometimes embracing the highly individualized authorship of film to evoke artistic value, in other cases downplaying individual contributions and claiming corporate authorship. The unclear rules of credit attribution further emphasize the precariousnees of careers in video game development.