Greg Costikyan is the designer of more than 30 published board, role playing, computer, online, and mobile games. He is also the author of the influential essay, I Have No Words & I Must Design, and in October 2005 co-founded Manifesto Games with former Computer Gaming World editor Johnny Wilson.
The company was started with the aim of becoming “the dominant e-commerce retailer of downloadable PC games aimed at self-identified gamers”, and over the past year has penned deals to add 100 games to the site.
With the company about to reach the one year mark and its site's preliminary August launch, Gamasutra caught up with Costikyan via email to discuss Manifesto Games, independent gaming and how an online business model can mean better long term profits for developers.
Firstly, how are things at Manifesto Games, in a general sense?
Doing about what we expected so far. Keep in mind that we have yet to embark on our promotion and marketing campaign. We're happy with the response so far, but we expect to be gearing up quickly over the next few months.
When the company was formed, one of the aims was to use the "highly scalable business model" used by casual games sites - can you explain what this is, and how successfully you feel it has been implemented by Manifesto Games?
"Scalable" is VC speak, basically - they like to see businesses where expenses are not directly related to revenues and in which increases in volume produce rising profits rather than larger organizations. In general, a business that sells by direct download is inherently scalable, assuming your back-end is architected reasonably intelligently, because as your sales grow, you may need to add some additional servers, and perhaps hire some additional customer service people, but you don't have to become a large organization.
In terms of our success in implementing it - I have a feature wishlist as long as my arm, and view the current site as work in progress rather than the final word. I'm proud that we've accomplished what we have, on very scant capital, by the way, but there's a lot still to be done.
What was the market you aimed for while setting the company up, and is this the market you feel you have attracted?
Okay, so the casual downloadable market is growing rapidly, by selling games to people who have not historically bought a lot of games - middle aged women being the stereotype. Our thought was: how much easier would it be to sell games to people who historically have bought a lot of games? Eight-ten years ago, CGW's reader surveys said that their readers typically bought 12-18 titles annually. And sure, people who actually read a PC games magazine are presumably the hardest of the hard core. But if we can attract a hundred thousand people with those kinds of buying habits, we can do very nicely indeed.
We have a lot of work to do to get the word out, however, and part of the issue we face is that we're trying to sell an idea that gamers haven't necessarily adopted yet. In film and music, there are plenty of people who prize individual creative vision and works that are far from mainstream or mass-market, who consider themselves indie music or indie film fans. While there's an independent games movement, it's so far primarily at the developer level, because developers are quite eager to break free of the noxious constraints of the conventional game market. But to grow the market to the size we want to see, we need also to establish the meme among gamers. To some degree, I think we're pushing at an open door; plenty of people are complaining about the sameness of games today, and the prevalence of franchise and licensed products. But that's really the greatest risk we face: can we persuade enough people that what we're doing is cool and interesting?
You said back in 1999 that gaming needed an indie label - after a year of Manifesto, how close do you feel you are to being that label?
Well, I think in essence we are - but we're still very early stage. We have years of work ahead of us to really achieve our ambitions.
How do you feel indie gaming has changed over that time?
Hm, well. How do you define "indie gaming?" In 1999, there basically wasn't anything resembling today's independent game movement. There were some people doing shareware, but there wasn't the sense that games created and marketed independently from the retail channel were anything more than second-rate stuff that couldn’t get a “real” publishing deal. And there were still a great many third-party developers selling primarily to the publishers who could still get funding for products that were at least somewhat offbeat. That's pretty much (not entirely, of course) gone away.
Now technically, any developer that isn't owned by a publisher is an independent developer; id is an independent developer, so is BioWare. So you could say that between 1999 and 2005, independent developers have suffered greatly, and many have shut the doors or sold out to publishers. Or you could say that independent games have sprung into existence, with increasingly artistically ambitious games being designed across the world. Both statements would be true.
Even though Manifesto was started with the aim of widening the retail channel, how much of a challenge is it to get product out there without over saturating the market?
I don't believe there's such a thing as "over-saturating the market." There are millions of books in print; is publishing "over saturated?" Games are not fungible products, like flour; people buy a game because they want that game, not because they want a game and maybe this has a better price.
They point is that we look at things very different from the conventional market. In the conventional market, the only question is: Can we sell a million copies of this? We instead think: Someone will like this game. How do we position it so that the people who like it will find it, and people who won't like it won't waste their time and our bandwidth downloading a demo for something they don't like? Our purpose is to match games with the right people. Sure, we'd love to have a million-unit seller, but we're happy to have a game in the catalog that will sell just a few hundred copies to a few hundred customers who love it.
You've recently commented that game's prices should not be dropping as quickly as they are shortly after release - do you think this it's possible that retail publishers could start leaving prices at a reasonable level for longer?
No. Two week on sale window, remember? The only way that will happen is if an aftermarket for sale online becomes large enough that midlist and older product migrates there, and thus is no longer affected by the problems of brick-and-mortar retail.
Why do you think the retail market is yet to fully realise the actual lifespan of games, and how do you believe this can be changed?
Because a typical game store has maybe 200 facings, thousands of titles are released each year, each square foot of shelf space is precious, and anything that doesn't blow out in 2 weeks is not going to last long, it needs to go away to make room for the new stuff. There's really only two ways to increase the lifespan of games: one is by moving to larger stores (and I'm surprised that there isn't a "big box" game retailer, the equivalent of a book or record superstore). The other is by moving online, where shelf space is not an issue. Keep in mind that at present, of our top ten sellers, eight are 2 or more years old--because we're introducing them to an audience that hasn't seen them before.
Why does GameTap worry you so much, and why do you believe they are bad for the market as a whole?
They don't worry me, particularly; I'm sceptical that their business model is sustainable. But basically, my argument is that they can afford to offer so large a number of titles for a $10/month fee largely because the major publishers view older games as worthless, since they cannot be sold through conventional retail any longer, so they're willing to accept a small share of rental revenue. But I also believe that PC games, in particular, are going to move online in a big way over the next few years and will eventually disappear from game stores - PC games are responsible for just 6% of their revenues, and take up a lot more shelf space than that justifies. If the primary market for PC games becomes small amounts of subscription revenue, then I don't think PC game development is sustainable—never mind at big publisher levels, even at an indie level.
Do you think GameTap are already successful enough that it should be a real concern to developers that the model could become more widespread?
Finally, where is Manifesto Games headed in the next year of its existence?
The next year is basically going to be about building our customer base - doing as much marketing and promotion as we can, trying to build our membership and establish the idea that if you're bored with what you're seeing on the shelves, there's someplace where you can still find novel and innovative games, and games of types that the conventional publishers no longer provide.