costik's blog

Blog on Blogs

Three blogs I've noticed recently that may be worth your while:

My sometime partner Nathan Solomon has been blogging about games from a business perspective -- he has a background in retail, and thus provides a much different slant on things from the norm.

Richard "Magic" Garfield, with a number of friends, has a game-related blog including both tabletop game reviews and thought-pieces on design.

And at 89, Fred Pohl is blogging at The Way the Future Blogs, a play on the name of his book about the Futurians (The Way the Future Was). Coincidentally, today's Times has a piece reporting that Brooklyn Tech recently awarded him an honorary high school diplomacy -- Pohl dropped out back in the 30s.

Sarinee Speaks

Rewiew with Extreme Prejudice has a long (perhaps overly long) interview with Sarinee Achavanuntakul, doyenne of the abandonware movement, about The Underdogs and abandonware in general. Amusingly, in passing she notes that one of the games she played recently and liked was Time Gentlemen, Please.

Oh, Yeah.

(Via Tigsource via Destructoid.)

Mind you, this is the way capitalism works. Some places you can pick your own apple for free, and others you don't get an apple until you pay a buck. The problem is that we need more and better ways for people who aren't doing triple-A crap to find a market, instead of having no real chance of achieving an audience other than releasing it as freeware.

But yeah, this is good. The critical path to making indie games work is changing the audience mindset ("these games belong on a spinner rack" as one commenter on Manifesto's site put it -- hope you're happy with the Madden model). Screeds like this help. And are entertaining to boot.

Gamestop Indie Contest

So here's the first indie game contest with real money attached, which it's nice to see. It's sponsored by Gamestop (who I imagine put up the money), SMU's Guildhall, and the AIAS. Top two prizes are $100k each, which is substantial.

Some of the other prizes are dubious, IMO. E.g., you get an opportunity to pitch your game to "top publishers" like, say, EA, Ha. Haha. Hahaha. As if. Or you might get a $50k scholarship at Guildhall -- maybe useful, depending on where you are.

Now what I'd really like to see is for Gamestop to commit to distributing your title in boxed form throughout their chain, ideally with front-of-store promotion as "winner" of this award.

Irksome fine print: You have to be a legal US resident (why?), and there's a $100 submission fee (why?). Also you have to submit your game and a "pitch video" (why?) by October 9th. Also your submission must be "10 copies on disc" (why?) and it must include an installer (why?).

Nice that substantial bucks are attached; some of the rest of this seems clueless, though.

Testers Wanted: Philip & Suleiman

I've been working on a game on 16th century conflict in the Mediterranean for several months, and have gotten to the point that I could use a few blindtest groups.

If you're interested in testing it, contact me and let me know.

I'll only be looking for three groups -- managing and getting meaningful results out of blindtesters does take some time and effort, as does making physical copies for them. More below the fold.

Shuttering Manifesto

So as of today, I'm shutting down Manifesto Games.

We started in September 05 because we thought that a combination of trends made it feasible to create a market for independently developed games outside conventional retail. The spread of broadband makes digital distribution even of quite large games feasible; growing disenchantment on the part of developers with the conditions of the mainstream industry mean many are looking for any possible alternative path to market; and the casual game market had already shown that substantial businesses could be built around selling games online -- games with characteristics quite different from those offered by the traditional industry.

Clearly, we haven't succeeded in realizing that vision. There are a host of possible reasons why; perhaps we launched with an excess of naïve optimism, through of course a surfeit of optimism is an entrepreneurial necessity. We did not achieve the critical mass of support by independent developers that we had initially envisioned (some of whom, bizarrely, viewed us as a competitor), though we appreciate the strong and enduring support we received from some. We always knew that the essential problem we were trying to solve was a marketing one, but we never figured out how to crack the marketing nut, at least with the minimal financial resources we had available. We failed to raise substantial venture money, despite engaging with many VCs over time. And of course, the recession doesn't help.

In the years since we started the company, there have been hopeful changes in the independent games market; Steam has become a profitable and viable channel for some developers, XBLA and WiiWare for others, and the iPhone for still others. In addition, the casual game market has started to experiment with a small handful of titles that break the inordinately restrictive genre mold of that form. Attention paid to independent games by the games media has grown (though why is it that the Independent Film Channel covers the AIAS awards, and not the IGF awards?)

These are all positive signs, but they are dangerous ones, too; Apple, Microsoft, and Nintendo have complete, monopolistic control over distribution through their proprietary channels, and while they may, today, generously grant a high revenue share to developers who sell through them, developers are in the final analysis utterly at their mercy. There's no question in my mind that ultimately the channel owners will someday use their total control to demand an increasingly onerous share of revenues -- a pattern we've already seen in the casual game market, and through channels like IPlay/Oberon. The same is true, perhaps to a somewhat lesser degree, of Steam.

In short, if a viable business ecosystem for independent games is to be established, it needs to be established on the basis of open systems and open markets, not proprietary channels. And that, I think, is inevitable; the whole history of the Internet shows that open systems and open channels rule.

Perhaps we didn't figure out the right way to crack this nut; and perhaps we were simply too early. "Being too early" is, in fact, much of the story of my career; I designed the single most successful online game for its time -- in 1989; and founded one of the first North American mobile game companies -- in 2000. In both cases, four years later would have made a world of difference.

I suspect (and hope) that this will be true of independent games as well -- that within four years, it will be a large, fast-growing, and highly successful segment of the game industry. In other words, Manifesto may be dead, but in many ways this is an excellent time to be an independent game developer, and the potential we saw when we founded the company remains.

I am grateful to all of the many people who helped us over the tumultuous years of our existence, but in particular to the people who worked directly with me -- Bill Folsom, Nathan Solomon, Eleanor Lang, and Johnny Wilson, each of whom contributed literally thousands of hours, almost all of then unpaid, to the venture. And also to Eric Goldberg and Kathy Schoback, both of whom were generous in sharing contacts and advice; and to our lawyer, Don Karl at Perkins Coie, who took us on knowing we were an unfunded and highly chancy venture and stood by us stalwartly.

To those who cheered for us and shared our vision of a thriving game market that rewards creative vision instead of licensed drivel and repetitive 'franchise' remakes, a place for exploratory design to uncover the true capabilities of the ars ludorum, a commercial channel where imaginative game creators can make a reasonable living on a far smaller scale than the conventional market, a future for more than the handful of genres the major publishers deem worth funding -- don't give up the faith. It will happen. One company's loss won't change that. The creative heritage of games will endure.

N.B.: Play This Thing! will continue; and at least for now, the Manifesto site will remain up. Payment functionality has been turned off, however, and all demo download and buy now links lead to the developers or other places the games on the site can be found.

The Spam Game

Spam seems to be as susceptible to fashion as anything else. I don't get as many offers to increase the size of either my tits or my pecker as I used to, and instead receive a great many opportunities to purchase knockoffs of expensive watches (my cellphone tells me the time, thanks), as well as requests to upgrade my copy of Outlook with malware (I don't use Outlook -- someday I'll resign myself to the fact that no one is still supporting Eudora and have to switch to something else, but possibly I'll wait for Google Wave.)

But this has made me wonder what happened to the viral memes of yesteryear. Like chain letters. How come they haven't mutated into the Web 2.0 world?

Games for Change 09

I was hardly at the Games for Change conference this year, largely because my sweetie, Karen Sideman, was one of the organizers, and had to be there pretty much for the duration, so I was tasked with getting Simona to and from school, and taking care of her in the evenings.

So this report isn't comprehensive by any means, but snippets of my experiences.

On Wednesday, I was among the judges of the Games for Change 101 pitches. "G4C 101" was essentially a day-long intensive workshop, aimed primarily at people from not-for-profits, to educate them about creating, distributing, and promoting games with social messages; at the end, they broke into groups and worked to come up with a pitch for a game idea. The "judges" wandered about and offered advice to different groups. Each group was given six minutes to pitch the judges, and we then voted on the "best".

John Sharp and I adopted a group working on an environmentally-related title; we thought the concept was excellent, and as the pitches began, John said to me, "We win." We didn't; the idea was good, but the pitch was not. The winner was an idea for a Flash game portraying the problems of waste water treatment during rainstorms, implemented as a time-management title; it was the best -defined- and presented game idea, but by no means the one capable of producing the greatest impact. One possible flaw of this framework: the presenters were mainly non-game people, and the judges primarily game geeks. Naturally, they gravitated to the clearest game conception, rather than the most potentially impactful idea.

On Thursday, the highlight was the "Iron G4C Designer," a takeoff on Iron Chef, of course. Three teams, each wearing headbands of a different color, were asked to design a game on a topic chosen by the audience (in this case, torture), using a "secret ingredient" supplied by the emcees (Karen Sideman and Eric Zimmerman), in this case a t-shirt.

The team led by Brenda Brathwaite chose to try to get across the humiliation of torture by dressing three non-volunteers (Jesper Juul, Mary Flanagan, and myself) in t-shirts, and asking the audience to submit humiliating statements by email, then writing those statements on the t-shirts. Thus, I was shortly standing before the audience wearing a t-shirt saying "I am a big geek poser" (true, sadly). The magic of the Magic Circle protected me, however, and I didn't feel particularly humiliated.

The middle team tried to do somethingorother with a torture victim in a t-shirt and interrogators with scissors, which didn't seem to make a lot of sense, and the third team, led by Frank Lantz, came up with euphemisms for torture techniques (e.g., waterboarding is "water massage for relaxation and open information exchange"). The judges selected them as winners of the challenge.

All good fun, but a fairly incoherent experiment, IMO.

Following was a tedious panel by industry suits on the subject of "Money and Meaning," which, as is typical for panels by industry suits, tended toward the anodyne and upbeat. Sort of "money comes from lots of places! It's all good! All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds!" You know the drill.

The last bit of the day was an "expo" at which a slew of social action games were displayed, some of which I'll be reviewing over the next week or two. At the same time, attendees played a conference game called "Card Sharp," designed by Karen and Eric Z, which involved asking questions of people, collecting business cards for those who answered positively, and putting stickers on the back. By this time, I was on my bike downtown to pick up Simona, however.

On Friday, I didn't clock in until after noon, at which point Frank Lantz and Karen were talking about non-game but game-like stuff of interest and potential starting points for advocacy games (including, oddly enough, 4Chan and the fiction of Terry Pratchett). Following them was Lucy Bradshaw of Maxis, once the industry's most creative studio and now a mechanism for EA to exploit and extend three of its brands, who said obvious things (gamers aren't geeks anymore! games have something to do with play! etc.) at great and upbeat length, which was for me enormously tedious but may have had some utility for the bulk of the audience.

While I was not there, the Knight News Game Award was given to Play the News (more of a prediction market than an actual game, but developed by Impact Games of Peacemaker fame). A "lifetime achievement award" was granted to Gonzalo Frasca's September 12th. Honorable mentions to Tempest in Crescent City and Budget Maze.

Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning

This book, to which I contributed a chapter (on Europa Universalis), is now out; the editor is Drew Davidson of Carnegie Mellon.

    "What makes a game good? or bad? or better?

    "Video games can be 'well played' in two senses. On the one hand, well played is to games as well read is to books. On the other hand, well played as in well done.

    "This book is full of in-depth close readings of video games that parse out the various meanings to be found in the experience of playing a game. 22 contributors (developers, scholars, reviewers and bloggers) look at video games through both senses of 'well played.'

    "The goal is to help develop and define a literacy of games as well as a sense of their value as an experience. Video games are a complex medium that merits careful interpretation and insightful analysis."

More about the book.

You can read it:

  • on the Web
  • As a free plain text download; or
  • By buying a print copy

"Game Suggestion" Changes

I've made a minor change to game suggestions that I hope will make them more useful. The default list is now by creation date, so the most recent suggestions are listed first (rather than, as before "In Progress" ones followed by "Published" then "Suggested" then "Won't Do".) So you can more easily see what's been suggested recently. They're still sortable by status, and title, and so on, of course (click the relevant column headers).

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