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

We will develop for open platforms, not proprietary consoles. We will work in the white-hot ferment of our own imaginations, striving to produce games of enduring merit, games so fine that generations to come will point to them and say, this, this was important in the creation of the great artistic form we know as games.

We will strive for innovation over imitation, originality over the tried and true.

We will explore the enormous plasticity of what is "the game," the fantastic flexibility of code, seeking new game styles and new approaches to the form.

We will create games we know gamers will want to play, because we ARE gamers, not MBAs or assholes from Hollywood or marketing dweebs whose last gig was selling Tide.

We will work in small, committed teams, sharing a unified vision, striving to perfect that vision without fear, favor, or interference.

We will find our market not by bribing retailers to stock our product, but on the public Internet, reaching our audience through the excellence of our own product, through guerilla marketing and rabble-rousing manifestoes, by nurturing a community of people passionate about and committed to games.

We will create, through sheer force of will, an independent games revolution, an audience and market and body of work that will ultimately redound to the benefit of the whole field, providing a venue for creative work, as independent cinema does for film, as independent labels do for music.

We will turn this industry on its head.

-- Designer X, The Scratchware Manifesto

Designer X (better known as Greg Costikyan) doesn't mince words. He says what other designers are thinking but are afraid to say -- though they weren't afraid to give him a standing ovation at the Games Developers Conference in 2005 when he denounced the contemporary mainstream games industry and vowed to create an alternative model for how games can be produced and distributed.

Manifesto Games, the company he created with Johnny Wilson, a long time trade press reporter and games critic. Both Costikyan and Wilson are tired of talking about what's wrong with the games industry. We heard some of their analysis of the problems here last time. They are working to change the infrastructure to make it easier for creative game designers to work outside of the major games publishers, do innovative work, and get it into the marketplace and also to allow discriminating, engaged consumers to find the best work to emerge from the indie games movement. Something of the mixture of ideological and business motivations behind the venture can be seen at Manifesto's home page, which combines what they see as a utopian vision statement with a more pragmatic description of their business plan. They hope to exploit the current moment of digital distribution of games content and web 2.0 strategies to expand the public's access to innovative game content. All of this is spelled out in Manifesto's, er, manifesto.

Go to their website and you can already seen a broad range of independent games content as well as space for critical commentary and for community members to share their own impressions of what works and doesn't work about individual titles. The group is taking on itself some of the challenges of educating the public about the diversity that is emerging from independent game designers as well as to provide a portal which allows interested designers and curious consumers to interact.

I am sure there will be plenty written down the line about what works or doesn't work in this approach. For the moment, I simply want to let people here Costikyan's arguments for themselves and decide whether this represents one potential direction for the future of games culture.

What factors have led you to step out of the world of major games publishers and create Manifesto?

I don't know that this is an accurate characterisation--almost everything I've done has been in one niche market or another: tabletop, online (mostly pre-Internet, and certainly before EQ proved the market), and mobile... Rather, I think that, as with online and mobile, I've identified an emerging market that has great potential. The difference is that I'm doing it this time as a distributor instead of a developer--but I think that's where we can make the most difference at present.

You describe Manifesto Games as a "Long Tail play." Can you explain how this effort has been informed by the "Long Tail" theory? Companies like EA clearly aim for the mass market end of the tail. What evidence do we have that niche game products might succeed?

Back in the late-80s and early 90s, companies like Talonsoft were profitable on the basis of 15,000 unit sales. Companies like Codemasters were happy with 25,000 unit sales.

The problem is that today, you just will not get retail distribution if that's all you can project. Thousands of games are published every year, a typical game store has maybe 200 facings, and if your game doesn't sell well within the first two weeks, they take it off the shelf to make room for a new release that might.

Why shouldn't it be possible to recreate, online, a retail environment that recreates the conditions of the game market overall in the late 80s and early 90s? There are vastly more gamers now--and their seems to be a palpable feeling of ennui with the prevailing industry's attachment to franchise and licensed titles.

What evidence is there that niche product can succeed? Well, Stardock has sold over 100,000 copies of Galactic Civilizations. Garage Games has sold over a million copies of Marble Blast (which, admittedly, by my definition is "casual" rather than truly indie). Those are outliers, but they imply the promise.

You seem to associate a kind of entrepreneurial or artisan based mode of production with a range of aesthetic virtues, including innovation and diversity. What makes you think an entrepreneur is more likely to embrace these virtues than a larger studio?

Well, it may be a romantic failing on my part. However, I'll point out, the single thing you can point to as an example of dramatic creativity on the part of the larger industry today is Spore, which is largely the product of the vision of a single creator, who happens to be one of the very few people in the field with the track-record and clout to force his vision through. Novels and symphonies are not written by committees, and while other media, such as film, involve the participation of many talents, we still generally ascribe the artistic success of movies to one or a handful of people.

Still, film demonstrates that "larger studios" can succeed in creating interesting and innovative work; but film, unlike games, has also embraced the "cult of celebrity" (for better or worse), with the consequence that some individuals in Hollywood can force their vision through. In games, you can count the people with that kind of clout on the fingers of one hand, and the hand of a toon at that: Will Wright, Shigero Miyamota, Peter Molyneux.

In other words, I don't think the critical factor in supporting innovation is necessarily the size of the operation, but in the ability of creative people to control the process. Development at internal studios is marketing-driven rather than driven by creators; and while independent studios operating in the conventional market theoretically have a bit more freedom, the need to pass through the (broken) green-light process drastically diminishes that freedom.

Part of the interest of independent cinema is that the film express alternative perspectives -- political, cultural, sexual, what have you -- which would not otherwise gain broader circulation. Is the same likely to be true for independent games? Would this require a greater focus on what the game is about rather than simply the play mechanics? What relationship are you positing between indie games and art games or serious games?

I hope so, albeit we have relatively few examples to hold up at present. Although I'll note that one of our best-sellers at present is The Shivah, an old-school graphic adventure about a Rabbi having a crisis of faith. I'd love to have more games that strike off in odd directions--from a crass commercial perspective, The Shivah is far more promotable for us, far easier to interest people in than another shmup or third-person shooter.

To date, most games that do "express alternative perspectives" (e.g., Escape from Woomera, the Columbine game, Disaffected!) have been freeware--perhaps because the creators don't really see a path to market. If we can demonstrate a market, however....

Your focus on creator-controlled games seems to parallel the creator-owned comics movement of the past few decades. What, if any, inspiration have you taken from this? What will you learn from the successes or limits of that movement?

Hm... Well, there's a risk in trying to hew too closely to independent comics model--e.g., there's a feeling on the part of many independent comic creators that doing anything other than self-publishing and distributing yourself is selling out. Part of the reason this is feasible in comics is that there are a handful of important distributors, and it's quite feasible for an independent creator to contact them all, and get distribution. We are dealing in a different retail environment here--online is a different beast...

But in general, I think independent comics really is a good example of how, if you create an environment where independent creators can find an audience and live an adequate middle-class living, you open the floodgates of creativity--and help to reinvigorate the mainstream. Remember that not too long ago, both Marvel and DC viewed themselves as primarily licensing companies, with the merits of the actual content they published hardly considered by management. I think that's less so today...

Do you see the primary goal as to publicize existing indie games or to provide incentive for their production?

I don't think there's a contradiction between the two goals. I believe there are many excellent indie games today that haven't gotten the exposure they deserve, and to the degree that we can expose them to a new audience, that's great.

Contrariwise, I know there are a great many highly creative people in this field who feel constrained and unhappy by the circumstances of market reality--and I know that if we can prove that independent games can achieve adequate distribution and sales, and reach an adequate market, I'm positive that the floodgates will open, and we'll see a dramatic florescence of creativity.

As an example, consider Eric Zimmerman. He's found a viable niche doing casual games, and his company, GameLab, does some excellent ones. But Eric is a -gamer- at heart, and while I imagine he's happy enough developing games for an audience (middle-aged women) that prizes games of types very different from those he himself loves, I'm sure he'd much prefer to be developing games of greater cultural significance and intellectual merit. In other words, if he could make as much money doing a game that appeals to people who have a passion for games, rather than for those who view them as light entertainment, I'm sure he'd be happy to. But he also has a payroll to make, and there's demonstrable money in casual games, and indie games are pretty much unproven as a market.

How is the digital distribution of games going to change the ability of indie publishers to get their content in front of the general public? Clearly part of what you hope will work here is a web-based model for the delivery of content and a web 2.0 model for users assessing and evaluating the content which is offered.

Well, we're back into "long tail" theory here. The problem with brick-and-mortar retail is that you're either on the shelf, or not. And if you're on the shelf for an extended time, you can sell in huge quantity--but if you're not, you've got nothing. In a web environment, at least in theory, things are different; you might not have huge sales velocity out of the gate, but word-of-mouth might lead you to substantial sales over time.

In essence, the conventional market leads to a sales curve the looks like a parabola until it reaches some point and suddenly declines to zero. But online, there's no shelf space, and games can continue to be stocked, and instead of a precipitous decline to zero, you can have a slow gradual decline, or even an increase if the game gets good word of mouth. And games in that long tail can still be profitable, if they are developed for less than the conventional market demands.

But making that works means recognizing the differences between conventional retail and online retail, too; it astonishes me that most of the conventional portals use the best-sellers list as the main, in some cases only, view into content. They make it actively hard to find a game that the herd may not like, but you might. Amazon, by contrast, doesn't push best-sellers in your face; rather, it pushes books your previous interests suggest you might like. We need to get away from recreating the constraints of the conventional market in an online environment, and learning from ecommerce best practice.

What criteria should we use to measure the success of Manifesto games?

Heh. Well, survival for a start. But ultimately, my goal is to establish 'indie games' as a category that people talk about in the same way they talk about mobile and casual games today: as a large, emerging market with lots of opportunity. In some ways, I'll view it as a victory when we attract real competition, because that means the indie market is being taken seriously.