Four years ago, Greg Costikyan stood before a packed room at the Game Developers Conference and delivered a speech that earned a standing ovation. The industry veteran decried all that was wrong with the videogame establishment, calling for an end to developer crunch time and wondering why, two decades after the advent of Pole Position, developers were spending 80-hour weeks making essentially the same game.
Those weren’t empty words. A year later, Costikyan founded Manifesto Games, a distribution portal that proclaimed to host the kinds of ideas no one else would. Costikyan was poised to lead an indie uprising. But while the revolution happened, Manifesto only watched from the sidelines.
Costikyan is something of a legend in game design circles, having literally been around since before games were written in computer code. His ludography includes notable roleplaying games like the Paranoia series, but nowadays Costikyan is known as much for the fire he occasionally spits at the games industry as the work he’s contributed to it. In 2000, he revealed himself as one of the anonymous authors of The Scratchware Manifesto, a rambling screed railing against the oppressive nature of AAA game development. Later, he penned a two-part series for The Escapist under the title “Death to the Games Industry (Long Live Games).”
Then, of course, there was his GDC rant from 2005. Here’s my favorite part:
“My friends, we are fucked. We are well and truly fucked. The bar, in terms of graphics and glitz, has been raised and raised and raised until no one can any longer afford to risk anything at all. The sheer labor involved in creating a game has increased exponentially, until our only choice is permanent crunch and mandatory 80-hour weeks – at least until all our jobs are out-sourced to Asia. … I say – enough. The time has come for revolution.”
Understand that, at the time, indie gaming hadn’t blown up yet. Steam and Xbox Live Arcade would only begin hosting independent games later that year. YouTube, which has since helped market countless indie creations, was just getting off the ground. Big Fish and PlayFirst were tapping the casual games market, but they weren’t offering the innovation Costikyan sought. He saw both a problem and an opportunity, and out of that opportunity, Costikyan’s own online game store was born.
Manifesto Games was supposed to fill the hardcore-indie niche, a difficult subset of tastes to pin down. The trick for Manifesto, Costikyan believed, was in the marketing. In a February 2006 conversation, he argued that few independent developers had the expertise to promote their material. Manifesto would put their work on an easily-accessible pedestal, essentially creating the market for them. Revolution would fall to the community, whose user reviews and recommendations would build the site.
Yet Costikyan’s “fire and brimstone” public persona is hard to connect with his vision for Manifesto. His GDC rant blasted the industry’s penchant for endless imitation, but instead of hosting games that defied genres, at Manifesto he sought to revive old ones like adventure games and turn-based strategy. He denounced casual games, but conceded to hosting some as long as they weren’t solitaire clones or other “match three” titles.
When the site launched in December of 2006, it was underwhelming. There were only a handful of games to choose from and no more than a few that seemed worthy of any currency. Some top-notch indie games were making their way out into the wild, but Manifesto wasn’t hosting them. Darwinia was sold on Steam. Braid, which Costikyan once cited as the kind of game he wanted to host, went to Xbox Live – but not for another two years. The publisher of Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space, a turn-based space strategy game, locked up the distribution rights, forcing Manifesto to host the game’s predecessor instead.
Still, Manifesto Games had a couple of real keepers at launch, including The Shivah, a Monkey Island-style murder mystery starring a New York City rabbi. It was the quintessential indie creation, with a taboo topic (religion), an outdated but cherished genre (point-and-click adventure) and an obscure developer at the helm (Dave Gilbert, who converted his amateur creation into a commercial product on press buzz alone).
Manifesto launched Gilbert’s career. “My games did very well through Manifesto, always in the top ten,” he says, “and they really gave The Shivah the initial push that it needed, so I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Aside from the buzz around The Shivah and some press on Manifesto’s launch, the site didn’t make a huge splash. In the intervening three and a half years, he and his band of merry revolutionaries were often seen, hat in hand, looking for spare capital to help get the word out.
Then, earlier this year, Manifesto went dark. Phone calls and emails stopped being returned. Something was afoot. John Graham of Wolfire Games, whose rabbit ninja fighter Lugaru was a Manifesto launch title, hinted that Manifesto wouldn’t host the upcoming sequel Overgrowth due to a lack of acquisitions funds, but that was all he knew. Then Costikyan himself broke the silence:
“Since I’m currently in the process of shutting the company down, I can’t say I’m all that eager to talk,” he wrote in response to an email requesting comment.
Fortunately, Manifesto’s President, Nathan Solomon, was able to explain in more detail. “My own perspective would be that Manifesto needed both the expertise and contacts that [Business Developer Bill Folsom] and Greg brought to it, plus either money or significant technology resources to achieve its potential,” he says. “And it never had the second half of that equation.”
Building a community was supposed to be critical to Manifesto’s growth, but from the beginning it wasn’t clear how that would be accomplished. Solomon noticed this when he joined the company in mid-2007. After launch, competitors such as browser game hub Kongregate built better followings. There, users earned achievements, chatted while playing and “tipped” developers for their efforts. Manifesto wanted to relaunch with more social media features like Kongregate’s, but doing so would require considerable resources.
Redesigning Manifesto Games couldn’t be accomplished with the site’s revenue alone because there simply wasn’t enough of it, and Solomon says Manifesto couldn’t get outside financial backing either. In March 2008, VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi reported that Manifesto was seeking roughly $3 million in venture capital, calling the effort “a long shot.”
Eventually, it became clear to Solomon that Manifesto would have trouble getting out of its rut. He’s not sure exactly when Costikyan decided to kill the site, but says it’s been running on “low effort and low returns” for the last few months. Solomon is working with Costikyan on other projects now, but another Manifesto isn’t among them.
If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from Manifesto’s downfall, it might be that indie games will never have the same marketing muscle as AAA titles. Smaller games mean smaller budgets and less money for advertising. Press and viral buzz can work, but only if the stars align behind a particular idea. The real trick to promoting indie games, I think, isn’t in more marketing, but in selling something else.
Look at all the portals that are successful. There’s Steam, Direct2Drive, GamersGate, Xbox Live, WiiWare and the PlayStation Network, and all of them sell something besides indie games, whether its big-budget titles, casual games or in-house projects. Costikyan once told me that Manifesto would utilize the “long tail,” a business model coined by Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson that asserts businesses can reap significant profits from selling small volumes of a wide variety of niche products. But Costikyan’s interpretation – that a site could thrive off niche markets alone – misinterprets the idea.
To successfully tap into the long tail, distributors need to offer both the high-volume hits and a wide selection of obscurities. Manifesto offered neither. It didn’t have the funds or the desire to sell AAA titles, and it never secured a big enough library of indie games to become the definitive source of those titles. And because Manifesto Games didn’t fund any game development projects or host any exclusives, there was little reason to buy from the site except sympathy for the cause.
That’s not to say the idea didn’t have merit. Speaking with Gilbert, his conflict becomes clear. PlayFirst pays him well to design point-and-click adventures for a casual audience. Periodically, he mulls a sequel to The Shivah, but it’s just not feasible. The portals he sells through want to avoid religion, and to successfully launch through Steam or similar outlets he’d have to spend time and effort on marketing. No distributor but Manifesto would champion Gilbert’s work as a pillar of independent thinking.
Which means, at the moment, none will. In Greg Costikyan’s terms, we may be well and truly fucked.
Jared Newman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. He last covered indie doom and gloom for The Escapist in “The Short Shelf Life of EGP Apparel.”