Interview : Greg Costikyan, CEO of Manifesto Games

Welcome. This is e-mail Interview with Greg Costikyan, CEO of Manifesto Games.

Korean version of this Interview.

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1. 'Manifesto Games' is very unique & important store for Indie Game scene, but not many Korean knows about that until now. Please introduce your store briefly, and CEO yourself.

Manifesto Games's purpose is to build a market online for independently developed games. We're long-time gamers and game industry professionals, and we feel that the conventional, retail market for games has become too focused on best-sellers, on franchise titles (e.g., number six in a series), and on movie licenses. What was once the most creative popular artform has increasingly become dominated by games that don't innovate, and that don't create new forms of gameplay. And also, many kinds of games that still have enthusiastic fans--like graphic adventures and computer wargames--have disappeared from the shelves, because they don't generate the million-plus unit sales that the conventional publishers want to see.

We think the best way to sustain innovation and creativity in the game industry is to build for games what the independent music and independent film movements create for their own artforms--an alternative path to market for games that may never sell at the same levels as big-budget titles, but that have some artistic merit, and appeal to smaller but passionate fans.

I've been thinking about these issues for years--I wrote an article for Game Developer magazine back in 1999 calling for an "indie game publisher," but until recently, I didn't see a way to make a viable business from the idea. Three things changed my mind: First, the spread of broadband means that it's now possible to distribute even large games over the Internet (which wasn't true in the dial-up era). Second, the success of the casual game market provides a viable business model for online game distribution. And third, I spoke at the Game Developers Conference in 2005 on the lack of creativity in the industry and the conservatism of the major publishers, and got a standing ovation--meaning that it's clear that game developers are eager to see something like this happen, too.

2. There are MANY Casual Game portals already, but very few Non-Casual Indie Game stores. How come to start Non-Casual Indie Game store?
Precisely because there are many casual game portals already, I didn't see the point of starting another one--nor do I really want to have to compete with companies like Yahoo! and Real, who have deep pockets. Anyway, casual games are succeeding in reaching a market, and I'm more interested in trying to do the same with games that are more hard-core.

Our basic idea is that the casual game market has proven the viability of selling games via direct download with a "try before you buy" offer, and that it should be possible to build a similar but parallel market by appealing to a different demographic--gamers, in essence.

3. How to choice games which you sell in store? You might not accept every proposal, as I think, and there might be some basis about that. Please let us know about that.

We look for games that fall into one of three categories:

1. Games that cater to an existing audience of enthusiasts that the conventional publishers no longer (or no longer often) address--particularly graphic adventures, computer wargames, turn-based strategy, space shoot-em-ups, and RPGs.

2. What we term "cool indie games"--games that are quite innovative in terms either of gameplay or subject matter.

3. Games that appeal to audiences, many of whom may not think of themselves by gamers, but who share an interest in a particular subject that the game addresses. (For example, we carry a scuba diving sim.) In other words, niche audiences that the major publishers are not likely to address. Our belief is that gaming is now a common cultural thing, and just as people interested in a topic can be persuaded to read a book or watch a move on that topic, they can be induced to play a game on the topic as well.

4. Casual Game Portals are famous for their best sellers & high profit, but not sure about Non-Casual game store yet, because there were not many news we could read. Could you please let us know your business size?

We're still quite small, and have a long way to go--keep in mind that we've build Manifesto with a very small investment of capital so far, and our growth has been organic, rather than spurred by major advertising and promotion. Our best sellers are in the hundreds of units sold, rather than thousands (or millions), but the numbers do seem to be improving month by month.

5. 'Manifesto Games' must do some Marketing, not just for Games but also for Store itself. For example, I read a news about [Shivah] at CNN internet, which was press-released by Manifesto Games. Please let us know more about your Marketing - Press release like that.

Because our financial resources are limited at present, public relations is the key to our current marketing efforts (one of our core team is a highly experienced publicist). We try to reach both the core game media, and also larger publications, both in the US and elsewhere--and for games of interest to particular groups, media devoted to their interests. (For example, The Shivah, whose protagonist is a Rabbi, was also picked up by The Jerusalem Post.) Of course, we can't always predict who will pick up on a particular item, and were quite surprised (and happy, of course) when (and Reuters) ran the story on The Shivah.

6. There are not many stores, which carries 'Detailed Review done by seller', but Manifesto Games does it for every games. Please let us know about that, as How much time you spend for each review - Who writes them (All by yourself, or some worker hired dedicated to that.) - Customer feedback about such detailed reviews - etc.

Well, actually, our reviews run the range from a paragaph or two to several thousand detailed words. The short pieces are normally written by me, after playing the game for some time. The longer reviews are written either by my partner Johnny Wilson, or by someone from whom we commission the review.

We feel that we need to provide more than a place to buy independent games--we need to try to say something interesting about each we carry. The idea is to motivate people to come back to the site frequently to see what's new.

7. You might have some Opinion about 'Indie Games', as 'I think Indie Games are better than Major Games, because...' or 'I prefer Indie Games, because...' or something else. Please share some.

Ahem. "Corporate games suck. Indie games rock. Tell all your friends."

That's simplistic, of course. The conventional publishers do produce some excellent games, and many indie games are mediocre. However, the mainstream industry has become so conservative that it's very unusual to be surprised and excited by a new mainstream game any more--the gameplay is almost always something you've seen before, and even on the (rare) occasions that they publish what they call "original IP"--meaning a game that isn't based on an older on, or on a movie license--they simply create a game of an existing type (racing game, sports game, RTS, RPG, whatever) with little if any real innovation.

Indie games are often rough around the edges, but individual creators and small teams are much better positioned to do something interesting and different--and that's what's exciting about the field.

8. Please pick 5 good games & explain about that.

Well, my favorite indie games at the moment are (not necessarily in order):

The Shivah: At its heart, The Shivah is an old-school adventure game like those that LucasArts used to publish. The graphics are quite retro--it looks as if it might have been published in the late 80s--but the topic and approach is masterly. The story deals with a Jewish rabbi having a crisis of faith--certainly a topic no conventional publisher would touch--and both the writing and the voice acting is excellent.

PeaceMaker: Created by a mixed US/Israeli/Palestinian team, PeaceMaker puts you in the role of either the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian president, and as such, you need to both satisfy the demands of your own people and try to come to some kind of agreement with the other side. It's a frustrating and difficult game, as you might expect, since it's about a frustrating and difficult problem. And that, really, is the virtue of this game: To demonstrate that games can cast light on thorny, real-world issues, that games can be more than mere entertainment.

Kudos: Kudos is a curiously compelling "life simulation," in which you play a recent graduate with few skills, trying to survive as a waiter while developing skills and connections to get a better job---while socializing enough to stay sane and reasonably happy. While it's mostly carried in text, it has a strong narrative draw, pulling you on to see what happens next and try to guide your character to a more fulfilling life.

DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold:  DROD is a "thinking man's dungeon." While it takes place in an underground fantasy dungeon, it's nothing like the sort of hack-and-slash games that typically take place in that kind of environment. '"DROD" stands for "Deadly Rooms of Death," and each room in the dungeon is a puzzle. It's turn-based, and each step you take, monsters move in response, in predictable ways--so to get through a room, you must carefully plan every move, and one mis-step means death. In other words, this is unique gameplay, not found in any other title.

Ninjastarmageddon!: Ninjastarmageddon! is an Elite-style space trading game. That is, you control a starship, travelling the universe and trading goods, fighting pirates or becoming one, performing missions for  one of the two sides that is fighting a war around you, and upgrading your ship with new equipment and capabilities over time. Where Ninjastarmageddon! is different and interesting is in its humorous, over-the-top approach. The graphics look like they're from a comic book; and your 'starship' looks like a car, in which you tool around space. The goods you trade are things like kittens and cheese, and the ongoing war is between Ninjas and Zombies.

9. Have you played some Korean game, or experienced or even heard about Korean Gaming Scene & Market? If so, please share your opinion about that.

Oh, yes.... Some years ago, I spent some time downloading and playing Korean games because a friend of mine was thinking about trying to bring some to the States. I don't speak Korean, of course, which makes it difficult--but my daughter attends a local high school with a substantial number of Asian students, and so I hired a Korean-American student to play them with me, so I could at least tell what people where saying and what the menus meant.

I found it quite interesting, particularly the diversity of MMOs in the Korean market--although things are changing here, most MMOs in the states are still fantasy in theme. However, there's also an important cultural difference that, I think, makes it hard for many Korean MMOs to find a market here, and vice versa. In the US, most player prefer to avoid player-versus-player combat, at least most of the time, so games are built primarily on character advancement and quests. In Korea, grouping together and fighting battles against other groups seems to be the main point of most MMOs. So what's a minority taste here is the majority interest in Korea, and vice versa.

10. Please leave some message for Pig-Min readers.
(Didn't answer it yet. If he answers later, will edit it again.)

Korean version of this Interview.
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