The Independent Games Movement (Part One): An Interview with Manifesto Game's Greg Costikyan

This is intended to be the first of a series of interviews with some key thinkers in the independent games movement which I will be running in this blog over the next few weeks. Many of us have long wondered when and how a strong independent games culture might emerge. Across most other media, we have seen in recent years the resurgence or emergence of strong indie and niche media production: the rising visibility of documentary films; the growing respectability of graphic novels; the fragmentation of the music marketplace, the proliferation of ever more specialized periodicals, and so forth. This is what Chris Anderson is talking about when he describes the Long Tail effect. Yet, during this same period, there have been strong barriers of entry into the platform market and companies like Electronic Arts have been gobbling up more and more so-called boutique studios resulting in a consolidation of games publishing. In such a world, what incentive is there for diversity and creativity in games design? How might we support distinctive and visionary work in games? How do we broaden which publics get addressed by the games industry or expand the range of acceptable game genres?

Over the past year or so, though, we've seen signs of the kinds of support systems that might be needed to sustain a substantial Indie games movement. Through this series, I will be looking at the fledgling efforts in this direction and talking to some of the key players in the indie games space.

I begin that series with this two-part interview with Greg Costikyan, the CEO of Manifesto Games. Costikyan has designed more than 30 commercially published board, role-playing, online, computer, and mobile games. His games have won five Origins Awards, a Gamer's Choice Award, and have been selected on more than a dozen occasions for Games Magazine's Games 100, their annual round-up of the best games in print. Greg began his career when he was 14, assembling and shipping games for Simulations Publications, Inc., for whom he designed 6 games before he graduated from college. Over the years, he has also served as Director of R&D for West End Games, a house husband, lead designer for Crossover Technologies, Chief Design Officer for Unplugged Games (a mobile games start-up he co-founded in 2000), a game industry consultant, and a games researcher for Nokia. As a consultant, his clients have included Viacom, Mattel, France Telecom, Sarnoff Corporation, IBM, Intel, Nokia, the Themis Group, and Roland Berger & Partner. He left Nokia in 2005 to found Manifesto Games. He is the author of four published novels and a number of short stories.

Most of the above comes from his official biography. But anyone who has been observing games culture in recent years knows that he is one of the smartest and most outspoken thinkers about the medium -- a real maverick who overturns apple carts and chases the money changers out of the temple (to mix metaphors). You can get some sense of why Greg (AKA Designer X) is such a breath of fresh air by reading what his website describes as "My GDC Rant on the iniquities of the game industry, which seems to have established me as the industry's voice of cynicism and despair :)." Here's part of what he had to say:

Games GROW through innovation. Innovation creates new game styles. Innovation grows the audience. Innovation extends the palette of the possible in games. The story of the last twenty years hasn't been, as you've been sold, the story of increasing processing power and increasing graphics; it's been the story of a startling burst of creativity and innovation. That's what created this industry. And that's why we love games.

But it's over now.

As recently as 1992, the average budget for a PC game was $200,000. Today, a typical budget for an A-level title is $5m. And with the next generation, it will be more like $20m. As the cost ratchets upward, publishers becoming increasingly conservative, and decreasingly willing to take a chance on anything other than the tired and true. So we get Driver 69. Grand Theft Auto San Infinitum. And licensed drivel after licensed drivel. Today, you CANNOT get an innovative title published, unless your last name is Wright, or Miyamoto....

EA could have chosen to concentrate on innovation, rather than continually raising the graphic bar to squeeze out less well capitalized competitors, but they did not. Sony could have chosen to create a Miramax of the game industry, funding dozens of sub-million titles in a process of planned innovation to establish new world-beating game styles, but they declined. Nintendo could make dev kits cheaply available to small firms, with the promise of funding and publication to to the most interesting titles, but they prefer to rely on the creativity of one aging designer.

You have choices, too. You can take the blue pill, or the red pill. You can go work for the machine, work mandatory eighty hour weeks in a massive sweatshop publisher-owned studio with hundreds of other drones, laboring to build the new, compelling photorealistic driving game-- with the same basic gameplay as Pole Position.

Or you can defy the machine.

Costikyan's remarks might be seen as the prelude for the launch of the aptly named Manifesto Games, which is already becoming a key center promoting the cause of independent games in all of their many shapes and sizes. The first installment sets the stage by laying out Costikyan's vision for what a thriving indie games culture would look like and his critique of creativity in the current games industry. Next time, we will look more closely at what he is trying to accomplish through Manifesto Games.

Manifesto Games has some bold ambitions. I'd like to walk readers through them. First, you want to promote independent games, drawing an analogy to independent cinema. In the Independent cinema model, films are independent if they are made outside of the Hollywood studios, though this quickly got blurred by the emergence of studio owned boutiques aimed at niche consumers. Today, it is not clear whether an independent film is one made outside of the studio system, one made for a niche public, one made with an "indie" aesthetic, one made outside of traditional genres, or what have you. Will we get into this same problem in thinking about independent games as a movement? Can we agree on a definition of what an independent game is?

Actually, not really. Here's the IGF's [Independent Game Federation] definition: "An independent game is any game that is not published by a member of the ESA. [Electronic Software Association]"

That's kind of a ridiculous definition; if I recall correctly, Eidos (being British) is not a member of the ESA, but they are a substantial publisher. I'd have a hard time considering games produced by their internal studios to be "independent." But of course the IGF needs a definition, so they can distinguish between eligible and ineligible games, and it's the one they've chosen.

Traditionally, "independent developer" has meant any developer that is not owned by a publisher; but by that definition, Doom 3 is an "independent game," since id is privately owned. Surely, though, any game that high profile is a mainstream title.

I'm not at all sure it's helpful to nail down the definition of an "independent game" too narrowly. Some would define it as "any game released without a publisher," but from my perspective, games published by, say, Matrix or Stardock or Strategy First are adequately "indie", since they don't achieve much exposure to the conventional retail market, and what they publish are clearly of interest primarily to a niche rather than a mass audience. Certainly none are ESA members, but also, all are moving increasingly to direct sale online, rather than via conventional retail.

In other words, we have a spectrum, from "true indie" developers like, say, Digital Eel or Dan Marshall or Dave Gilbert, through operations like Three Rings that pretty much operate independently but occasionally distribute through conventional publishers (there was an Atari version of Puzzle Pirates), through companies that think of themselves as conventional publishers but are forced to find alternative distribution paths for their product, like Matrix et al.

I'm not even entirely sure I'd want to exclude id from the definition of "indie"; after all, even though they produce best-sellers and get retail distribution, they operate without the need for publisher financing, and forge their own path.

I also tend to exclude as "independent games" some that others would think are definitely contained within the definition; from my perspective, "casual games'" are a separate, parellel, and pretty much distinct market. But they're selling to a very different audience from the "indie" movement.

I note that the definition of "indie" for other markets is equally nebulous. Miramax is a leader of "independent film"--but it's a Disney subsidiary. New Line is a studio for "independent film," but it's a Time Warner subsidiary. Vertigo publishes "independent comics," but it's a DC imprint.

I don't think a clear definition of "independent game" is particularly necessary or useful, although I think "independent games" do have certain characteristics. They are created by developers that are not owned by publishers, who retain ownership of IP, and are typically distributed primarily in channels other than conventional retail.

I'm reminded of an interview I read sometime ago with Samuel R. Delaney, who decried the impulse to try to define science fiction precisely as "Stalinist." (I'd provide a link, but Google is not my friend at the moment). Indie is something you know when you see it.

Are significant numbers of independent games being made now? If so, by what entities?

Yes, at least the way I look at things, significant numbers of independent games are being made now. We have more than a hundred in our catalog at present, and I fully expect 1000 or more by this time next year.

But again, a lot depends on how you define indie.

First: Offbeat, innovative, creative games created independently of the conventional publishers; we love these, but they are limited in number. Dozens, perhaps.

Second: Games of styles that still have enthusiastic fans, but that the major publishers no longer find worth supporting--adventure games, wargames, shmups, third-person shooters, turn-based fantasy, et al. Hundreds, possibly thousands.

Third: European games that don't get distribution here because they are viewed as too odd for the mass American audience: dozens, perhaps hundreds.

Fourth: Japanese dojin games that achieve conventional distribution neither at home nor here but have an otaku fan base: dozens or hundreds.

Fifth: Niche MMOs that will probably never attract more than a few thousand or tens of thousands of players but are often among the most creative of their field. Dozens at best.

Sixth: Games out of the 'serious games', art games, or educational game movements that are primarily aimed at a non-commercial market but that may well be of interest to gamers....

When you start looking around, there's just an amazing amount of stuff out here.

Your press release offers some pretty harsh criticism of the existing games industry, within which you have worked for a number of years. You write, "Ever-spiraling budgets and ever more risk-adverse publishers have turned what was once the most creative art form on the planet into a morass of stultifying drudgery and sterile imitation." What factors within the current market model have led to "sterile imitation" and in what ways might the model represented by Manifesto Games alter those conditions?

It's quite simple. In 1998, a typical budget for an A-level title was $1.5m, and you could creep into profitability at 100,000 unit sales. Today, a typical budget is $15m, and you need 1m+ unit sales. At those kinds of budgets, and with that need to reach a mass market, publishers are forced to be conservative, to reduce their perceived development risk however they can. Thus number 3 in a series the first two of which sold well will gets funded; something based on a big-budget Hollywood movie, where they can piggyback on the huge studio market spend will also get funded. Occasionally, "original IP," meaning a backstory for a game that hasn't been seen before, will get funded, but only if the game itself slots into an established marketing category and genre that the publisher knows can succeed.

The rise in budgets is a direct corallary of Moore's Law; as processors increase in power, they become capable of displaying better graphics, and therefore, if you want to achieve shelf-space in a market where shelf-space is highly restrictive, you need to provide the better graphics that newer machines can provide. If you don't, your competitors will, and your product will be viewed as dowdy by comparison. Thus budgets ratchet up year by year--and while sales have increased, they have not increased anywhere near to the same degree.

The result is that the offbeat, quirky, and innovative cannot get funded; that genres that can't produce 1m unit sales drop away; and that market considerations, rather than imagination, become paramount.

What we're trying to do--and we're not alone; Steam, Garage Games, and Stardock are all fellow travellers, all trying to break the iron logic of the conventional market in their own ways--is to say that this is absurd, and that there has to be a better way. The drive for ever better selling product is typical of a pre-Internet era; the move to "long tail" markets where niche product can find a home is typical of the modern (or post-modern, if you prefer) era. Even though games are digital in nature, music and books have gotten there before us, but it has to be possible to create a similar dynamic for games.

Do the announcements this summer around the Microsoft 360 give you any optomism

that indie games will thrive on the platforms as well as on the web?

Yes, and no. Clearly, Xbox Live Arena has proven a boon to some developers--I find it both astonishing and heartening that a game like Geometry Wars--a classic shmup, a genre that hasn't been commercially successful for more than a decade--can become commercial successes.

However, there's also a big danger in the way that Microsoft (and Sony and Nintendo) are running their portals. They are, in essence, disintermediating both the retailer and the publisher--but they are the ones in control. If you project the Arena model into the future, and assume that all games are ultimately distributed digitally, then on each platform there is one, single, monopolistic provider that controls the distribution chain wholly: the console manufacturer.

And while Arena is offering a very attractive share of the consumer dollar at present, it's also very clear who holds the market power there: Microsoft. And just as the casual game portals have slowly demanded a larger and larger share of the consumer dollar, I'd expect Microsoft to do so in future as well.

In other words, this distribution channel offers developers short-term opportunities--but in the long term, it offers the opportunity to be screwed by Microsoft rather than EA.