209: The Death of a Manifesto

The Death of a Manifesto

Greg Costikyan famously called for a revolution in the game industry at the 2005 Game Developers Conference. But when he tried to lead the charge with his own online games portal, he quickly found himself on the sidelines. Jared Newman investigates the closure of Manifesto Games.

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Cool write-up, just the kind of article that would normally end up on Gamasutra instead :)

Any retail space needs to thrive on volume and margins, regardless of the content being shifted. But more than this, I think that there is a fallacy in the thinking on indie gaming. Looking at the movie industry, there must be hundreds of indie movies made at any one moment in time, but only a fraction of those make any money because, by and large, indie movies are intended to be seen by movie "insiders", i.e. those who know the conventions and rules of the artform. To the average (or even highly experienced) movie-goer there just isn't enough entertainment value in the average indie flick because, very often, the "satisfaction" payoff might be missing.

Which comes with the territory of experimental art after all. Some of it works, most of it doesn't.

Funnily enough, it is the "casual gaming" scene that has really offered a break-out for indie titles. Casual games put the focus on accessible gameplay mechanics and short duration games. Indie developers who put effort into design reap the rewards of accessibility, and without the burden of creating several levels of "fun", games can take an iterative approach to expanding gameplay (i.e. sequels).

One might say, then, that there isn't a market for indie games but that there is a market for casual games, and this is what Manifesto should have been chasing. But then again, the history of the internet is littered with dead portals. What's one more?

Come back to boardgames, Greg, we still love you!

domicius:
One might say, then, that there isn't a market for indie games but that there is a market for casual games, and this is what Manifesto should have been chasing. But then again, the history of the internet is littered with dead portals. What's one more?

Except Man!festo was as more an expression of a philosophy, an ideal, that was supposed to happen at the right place and time that it happened to make money as well.

Greg himself postulated in his blog that perhaps he was too early. I thought more along the lines of what Solomon suggested in Jared's article -- a lack of money and a community presence that just didn't gel for whatever reason. However, looking at it now, I think you might actually be more correct about the market for the games that met Man!festo's philosophy are the insiders, the critics (not to be confused with reviewers), and the acacdeme, and the games market just doesn't have very many of those yet. To be honest, the breadth and depth of work simply hasn't been strong enough to attract a sustainable crowd of those kind of folks. So maybe Greg will be proven right eventually, he was simply too early.

When you really think about it, although the technology has made huge leaps and bounds, especially in the realm of graphics and sound, the heart and soul of games has changed very little. It's like we're just getting to Chaplin but we've got HD presentation and Dolby 7.1 surround to put him through. And I don't think there was a huge "indie" scene back then either. Although as the movies started reaching more and more people, the market started to develop for that kind of thing.

Or in other words, Greg was trying to be Cannes before the industry had figured out that it could make the type of things that would go to Cannes.

Edit: side note -- a sequel to Lugaru? Squeeee! There's a game that should get more attention.. just plain fun. I so hope it's multiplayer..

Kwil:
When you really think about it, although the technology has made huge leaps and bounds, especially in the realm of graphics and sound, the heart and soul of games has changed very little. It's like we're just getting to Chaplin but we've got HD presentation and Dolby 7.1 surround to put him through. And I don't think there was a huge "indie" scene back then either. Although as the movies started reaching more and more people, the market started to develop for that kind of thing.

Your point on technology is relevant - because it was the relative portability and cheapness of video camera technology that finally allowed an "independent" movie industry to flourish. From the start of the movie industry there were "insider" movies. Even before Cannes there was the whole European arthouse scene. Importantly, this scene survived on government grants and rich patronage to the exclusion of commercial interests*.

Putting a similar spin on computer games, we finally have cheap games technology (whether Flash or game-creators) and an agreed upon games environment (the browser or a base spec PC). This allows developers to create anything and "throw it to the wall" without investing huge effort in coding complicated game-engines or graphics assets. Heck, half the games out there have either stick figures as heroes or use polygons... and they don't suffer for it.

Kwil:
Or in other words, Greg was trying to be Cannes before the industry had figured out that it could make the type of things that would go to Cannes.

You are right again - Cannes was an effort to commercialize indie movies, but it arose because there were people who felt that there were indie movies that the world WOULD pay to watch. It wasn't just a forum for expression of a philosophy.

These days, digital distribution has allowed indie games to be meet their market without the need for a "special" portal.

What is missing is a community happy to pay for games that they might not enjoy, or which might not be strictly playable, but which will be thought-provoking. But that's art for you; if it's real art, nobody pays for it until after the artist is dead.

Unless Damien Hirst decides to make a computer game**.

*Happy to be proved wrong on this.
**It would involve chainsaws and wild animals, I suspect

Great article, it's the sad story of how one amazing dream slips into a hole and then is buried alive by the big boys.

Reminds me of a joke Steinbeck made about artsy, independently minded people.

Steinbeck was painting a house with a friend. They both got paint all over themselves. When they ran out of paint, Steinbeck handed his friend twenty bucks and asked him to buy more paint. The friend went to the truck and changed into his nice clothes. When he got back, Steinbeck asked him why he wanted to change if he was just going to go buy some paint. The friend replied, "I'd have to be pretty rich to let people see me looking like a bum."

You gotta have a lot of capital backing you up to sell games that don't pander to mainstream audiences. Assuming you want to run a business, that is.

I suppose this sort of puts the lie to the old saying "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door". In this day and age, with all the media saturation we put up with, even the most novel idea needs promotion and "eyeball time" to be successful.

It's a pity that Manifesto Games didn't hit the mark it was looking for. The good news, though, is that that mark is still up there, and it can be hit.

Now I wouldn't call myself an indie fan, in fact I've shuddered at the mere mention of the word for many years, especially in regard to the music scene. But I have been a flash gamer for many years, and I've had more fun playing some flash games than I have some big name console titles. The articles I've been reading in this magazine about indie gaming have really turned me on to the idea of downloading and playing these games. I think, unlike music in many ways, it is also much easier to get your content out there and known to the world, which is a very appealing thought.

The reason I shyed away from the word indie for so long was because of my understanding of the word. Now there are plenty of indie mainstream bands, and it never made sense to me. What exactly are you independent from now? You were indie, but now you're raking in money, touring the world and altering your image to sell more and better. Plus, you know have a plethora of imitations ruining your unique flare that you were signed for, and will be dropped for something younger and newer. This is exactly what indie game developers fear, as this is when the term 'indie' is describing a genre, not a methodology or philosophy.

I've been a little more open to the indie gaming scene thanks to some of the articles here at The Escapist, but my question is, how long until indie games become a genre too?

I'm not a big art fan, and games as art sounds even more distasteful to me. In my oppinion, calling games art is just a way of peddling a confusing, convoluted game with no real solid ground. I'll admit, there are some games that have been called art that are actually quite entertaining and challenging, but calling something an art form and calling it art are two different things. A game is there to be played and enjoyed, not viewed in a way as to try and discover it's meaning, the creators views on the declining state of culture, or the petulence of war. While some games have a message, I don't think the game should be the message. I think that this will lead to the decline of gaming when it becomes a high brow piece, to be viewed by the pretentious.

To me, indie means freedom, freedom from the standards of big budget gaming, freedom of expression, freedom to take risks and freedom to distribute content, and I hope that indie designers don't lose sight of these things.

I hadn't even heard of Manifesto until its closure was announced recently. Based on this article, I missed nothing more than an ideal.

Looking at the state of the games industry today, I agree with Costikyan to an extent; large scale titles all follow the same tried and true formula for success and any originality whatsoever is often considered an "innovation". As with any innovation, there are risks that must be run in order to get the concepts and ideas to work. These risks can be succinctly defined as a chance that the game will be terrible (id est: sell poorly) due to a new, but bad feature.

AAA titles require so much monetary investment that risks are rare; in order for a game to get decent returns, developers resort to pushing out endless sequels because they know that this development strategy guarantees a return. Indie games are small scale and small budget, allowing more risks due to a lessened necessity of generating a return. It is because of this that indie games represent what the industry should be about: creating new and engaging gaming experiences, as opposed to the graphically intensive, but ultimately lacklustre titles that most large mainstream developers and publishers are producing.

I must confess that I have played few indie games and enjoyed even fewer. That said, the ones that I enjoyed were much more engaging than most mainstream games I play. As with any medium of art or entertainment, for every piece that is great and awe-inspiring, we must endure about a hundred that are average at best.

It is sad that a game, such as a sequel to The Shivah, cannot get any distribution due to the presence of complex themes like religion, despite not including any objectionable or derogatory material. It reflects very poorly on the industry as a whole; it demonstrates the fact that the medium cannot evolve or grow into something more than mindless entertainment.

Manifesto games was a very good idea and i liked the appearance and the way things were written (i even had a "Man!ifesto Games - the best games you never played" banner/link in my blog for some time that linked to their site). However the execution was at best mediocre. It wasn't much of a technology or money thing, but some simple aspects that would have been better - like having a forum for example. Installing some phpBB or MyBB or something similar is a matter of minutes, linking user accounts with forum accounts so people can have 'badges' with the games they bought wouldn't be much harder than a couple of days of work. Making sure the site works and shows perfectly in all browsers - not only IE - would be also a very good idea, especially given the site's attitude.

And beyond the site - who has ever heard about Manifesto? I heard about it at some point at the past accidentally and i'm someone who looks at indie games since most people used the term "shareware" for a subset of them. They did a bad job on promoting the site. The only time someone heard about them in recent time was in GDC.

When i heard about Manifesto's closing, i disliked it but i can't say i didn't expected it. The site was in a downhill since the day i learned about it. It is too bad because there wasn't and still isn't a site like Manifesto anywhere - or if there is, they're doing as much as a bad job as Manifesto did to promote themselves.

Hey, hey there. As someone who majored in Marketing Communication (and then went on to work as a public servant in a job with dangerously high levels of bureaucracy, but that's beside the point) I can say that the 'long tail', as originally stated, does not include the mainstream, just a very wide selection of niches. Essentially, each niche is nowhere as profitable as the mainstream, but several of them are, and (ideally) they are an untapped market. Maybe the system as stated doesn't work, but that's what the word means.

I didn't know much about Manifesto Games, though I did read the manifesto itself way back, and I thought it was a very interesting outlook (despite some flaws, like saying that consoles limit game development because of, amongst other things, their simplist consoles... so you to create a groundbreaking game it has to have RTS levels of complexity? There's another article right now about Spelunky, which plays wonderfully well on my PS style controller...) But I can guess from context that what caused it to fail that it didn't follow the 'comet's tail' format. It didn't serve a wide selection of niches - just one, the highly artistic, experimental game. It definitively doesn't help that several indie games are similar to free indie games, especially to someone who's not keen on the whole art angle of things.

And then there's the point I read on the blog of that guy who did the great Today I Die, which was featured on the Escapist indie game thing some time ago... "Experimental gameplay means you're experimenting, and experimenting means you may fail."

Ah, The Random One, I thought this issue might come up. That's why I saved some evidence in researching the story. See here, and be sure to read the comments at the bottom:

http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2005/10/a_long_tail_gam.html

Indeed, a _publisher_ of niche games can thrive in the long tail alone, but a distributor needs the high volume hits as well. Anderson himself goes on to explain this, albeit indirectly, later in the comment thread. One of the commenters sees a parallel in MP3.com and quotes Anderson as such:

"The problem with MP3.com was that it was only Long Tail. It didn't have license agreements with the labels to offer mainstream fare or much popular commercial music at all. Therefore, there was no familiar point of entry for consumers, no known quantity from which further exploring could begin."

This is the problem that Manifesto ran into, that other sites with bigger hits (Steam) or proprietary offerings (GamersGate) do not.

I'd never heard of Manifesto until reading this article, and now after reading it, I do think that the idea itself is a good idea, as marketing is a real problem with indie games, but the problem with it was that Costikyan was too egotistical about what he thought it would do. As mentioned in the article, you can't simply survive off of sponsorship and promotion of indie games, as they just don't make enough money for a promotional website to survive.

He had a good idea, promotion of creative ideas that didn't get as much publicity as mainstream games that just seem to copy one another, but he just didn't think it through enough. He started to bring back old genres that people don't care about nowadays, the result being people still didn't care much about them when the website was found, so they didn't sell, and Manifesto didn't make money. And then when other sites came across with the same intentions, they succeeded because they offered other stuff as well that would sell, if nothing else did.

Because of this, whilst I understand where Costikyan's coming from, I can not sympathise with him for having a failed idea. His standards were just far too high to be met without compromise or failure.

badsectoracula:
It is too bad because there wasn't and still isn't a site like Manifesto anywhere - or if there is, they're doing as much as a bad job as Manifesto did to promote themselves.

Greenhouse Games -- the company who distributes Penny Arcade's games -- has several low budget games for sale at "cheap enough to risk" prices. They don't have a huge selection, but I've purchased several games from there and have been mostly impressed with them.

 

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