Friday, February 03, 2006

Manifesto Games and Our Pole Star

Are you familiar with Greg Costikyan's Manifesto Games? It's a new venture he launched in September with his partner, Dr. Johnny L. Wilson.

But Greg's all about video games these days, right? What am I doing talking about this here? Well, those of us who have spent time at The Forge in the past few years ought to appreciate what he's trying to do. He wants to build a strong indie scene for video games.

From 'Designer X's' Scratchware Manifesto:
The machinery of gaming has run amok.

Instead of serving creative vision, it suppresses it. Instead of encouraging innovation, it represses it. Instead of taking its cue from our most imaginative minds, it takes its cue from the latest month's PC Data list. Instead of rewarding those who succeed, it penalizes them with development budgets so high and royalties so low that there can be no reward for creators. Instead of ascribing credit to those who deserve it, it seeks to associate success with the corporate machine.

It is time for revolution.

And from Greg's Gaming Needs an Indy Label:

But we need more. We need a company committed to publishing truly original, offbeat, cool product and building the channel for its distribution--instead of shoveling the same old crap to the same old stores.

Gaming needs an indy label. For the sake of its own health, to act as basic R&D for the entire field, to find new gaming styles that can attract a large audience. Because development costs continue to spiral upward faster than unit sales and we have to find a way to break that iron cycle. But most important, because I'm tired of the same old same old and want to play something really cool and new.

These ideas, I think, mirror what many of us who have participated at The Forge or worked on the games discussed there feel about table-top, pen-and-paper role-playing games. Perhaps attracting a large audience is not at the fore of our thinking (though I doubt we would turn up our noses at one), but the spirit rings true.

So, we've managed, with the help of guys that really broke ground, like Ron, to lay a foundation. We've found ways to make games ourselves without selling our IP to others, to establish the beginnings of a language for discussing what it is that we're doing and trying to do, to get the product out there to people that play, and to begin marketing that product to the people that are open to it.

Clearly it's possible for us to do all of these things better. And maybe there are other things we haven't even begun to address yet. So that's the purpose of this post, to ask the questions: what's next for us as a movement of people that are trying to create and innovate and as people running our own businesses? What do we need to do to improve? How do we market better? How do we distribute our product better?

This is just a brainstorm. Any and all ideas are welcome.


Brennan Taylor said...

I'm trying to use IPR as a tool for a lot of indie game designers to collectively do all of these things.

One of the things I set up is a forum on the IPR site for people wanting to run these games at local cons and game stores to use as a resource. I am working on formalizing this into a amateur demo team.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Blogger seems to be giving Michael Miller trouble leaving a response here, so he made one on his own blog. Here's a link.

Ben said...

Next, for me, is moving to larger sized print-runs and trying to make a salary on gaming. My goal is to make a living on my game design by 2008.


Matt Wilson said...

I think that to reach a bigger audience, RPGs will become simpler and more structured.

You know how some of those "how do you play" texts used to say that a RPG is different than a boardgame? I think there will be RPGs that are boardgames.

I even have an idea for one.

-kat said...

Mike Miller said on his livejournal:

One thing we can do is to design games that actually fit into people's busy, busy lives. Low to no prep time. Provides meaningful play in a few (or a single) sessions. Needs only common stuff (no funky polyhedrals). Addresses imagined content that non-gamers can identify with (i.e., no Lasersharking). Be as clear as possible what each player's options are, and the likely consequence of each option, at each decision point in the game.

I agree that I'm more likely to want to play a game thats not going to be an investment of 6 months of gaming.

I think melding the Boardgame/RPG for is a great idea. I love Boardgames almost as much as RPGs

I myself am neing drawn to see how to apply indie rpg design concepts to LARPs which as I'm coming to know them are a new gaming world.

Do we need an indie gamers business union? Each of us has learned a lot with the support of others, I worry a little how that will pass on to new members in years to come.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Obviously this whole line of thinking depends upon the belief that role-playing can and should be a larger hobby that attracts more people.

If you feel that's not possible or desirable, then this is not a fruitful line of discussion, and everything is about as good as it can be. Afterall, we can make our product, get it out there, and generate enough revenue for a nice profit, even if it's not a living wage.

On the other hand, if we do want to carve out a niche that would allow a handful of small press publishers to actually make a comfortable living off their game designs, I think some things will have to change.

One of the things that I see is the lack of a hobby-wide organ that reaches a broad swathe of the existing addressable audience for games. RPGnet, The Forge, ENWorld, the blogosphere, and cons are not broad enough.

Currently, those are the tools at our disposal to reach a wide audience. But it requires hands-on, direct effort from us. While I think that level of devotion will always be necessary to a degree, every moment spent representing ourselves to the public is a moment not spent working on new games.

Also, currently, our methods of pulling new people into the hobby that have not had their notions set by other games are limited. Mostly, we have to introduce them to gaming ourselves. It's a method that works and is extremely satisfying, but is also very limited in scope. We need a more efficient way to get new people to check out our games.

We need real aggregated sales data. In short, we need an organization that represents us -- either GAMA or something similar -- that actually does what a trade organization is supposed to do: research and statistical analysis of the market, advertising, education, and general advocacy.

Obviously, this stuff has to be part of a long-range plan. It doesn't happen overnight. That's why I want to start thinking about this stuff now.

I think a good first step would be putting our support behind the creation of communities, like Nerdnyc, which I have seen grow from a handful of people to a large group of dedicated friends and gamers that regularly brings a handful of new people into the hobby.

luke said...

Ok, finally, I can post!

Hey Ben, that's one hell of a non-constructive post. Care to reread the thread topic and think it through?

See, the hitch is, our circle is doing quite well for itself in toto and individually, but none of us have reached the volume/income necessary to sustain an living income in the States. It's seriously doubtful that we can acheive this at all using the methods that have brought us this far.

In order to have a reasonable income, we're going to have sell a hell of a lot more books. And to sell those books, we're going to have to reach out to a much broader audience. Not just via our cool design, but by real outreach campaigns.

It is my personal view that our best bet is an organized play model similar to the Living Greyhawk stuff that WotC fostered. Before anyone derails the topic -- Yes, I know how bad that all is. I'm interested in the model of organized play, not writing crappy adventures. I want legions of kids playing regularly scheduled games of Polaris and Mortal Coil and then heading to the interweb to compare results and talk shop.

Setting up such a structure starts virally -- one person playing regularly hooking another person, etc. Community activism a la Nerdnyc is another good bet. But there's another level. Something more. Infrastructure, perhaps. If we can figure out what that is, we just may change the face of the industry/art/hobby. If not, then maybe we are doomed to our niche.


Keith said...


I am so glad you commented in your comments about the statistical analysis and trade ogranizations. We need that really fucking bad. In order for us to maximize our potential, we need a clear understanding as to what works, what doesn't, and how these things affect not only sales, but general exposure and the nature of this exposure. I am constantly scrambling for more information about the few people I have made contact with via the game, but it is never enough.

Like Luke said, if this is ever going to be a possible single revnue stream for those of us living in the states, we need to have a clear understanding of every aspect of our audience and how they interact with the material, otherwise we become no different than the game store owner who lives hand to mouth.

Luke also hit on two things I think need to be taken seriously and addressed by all of us that design indie games:

NERDNYC needs to be exported to other cities. It is a great model on how to build a community that embraces both games and othet activities. It isn't just about RPGs or board games, but building friendships and maintaining a strong sense of community.

Now ten years ago I would have dove headfirst into it for Chi-town, but have neither the time or the energy. That said, I think it is our responsibility to help someone who does have that time and energy foster the creation of that type of community.

Organized play is also a must, but the trick is you must already have a community to support it. Luke has that with BW, but I think he missed a key element. One of the success stories of X-Box Live is the element of competition between people. It tracks you wins, losses and all sorts of other achievements for all to see. That I think is a key element to keeping people involved in organized play.

We should be looking to the model of fantasy sports for this too. Even though people may not have money involved, they enter into thousands of Yahoo Leagues. What keeps them coming back? The statistics and trash talk, which in particular is fun.

So Luke, don't discount the adventure end of things. Imagine a site which tracks how you did, who your character was, what you accomplished, and so on for a series of adventures. Cause the key to this working is a level playing field as a base-line, which pre-created adventures provide.

I got so many ideas I would love to try for this and so many thoughts on the matter that my brain hurts...

luke said...

I'm right with you on all points. I just wanted to acknowledge that our style of play is going to require a different format of dissemination. Preprinted adventures with boxed text to read from is not going to work for us. But replayable scenarios like the ones you, Mike Miller, Tony and I run at cons, with advice for getting groups to play them, are a step in the right direction.

Setting up an infrastructure to support the groups who play and to connect them is the next big step.


Troy_Costisick said...


Obviously this whole line of thinking depends upon the belief that role-playing can and should be a larger hobby that attracts more people.

As many of us are also businessmen to some degree, the view that more people should be buying and playing RPGs is a sensible one IMO. :)

It is my personal view that our best bet is an organized play model similar to the Living Greyhawk stuff that WotC fostered...NERDNYC needs to be exported to other cities.

Yes, yes yes! to both of you. Community is very important and for the style of business practices that Indie-RPGs use, viral/word of mouth transfer is the best way to do it. It's all about actual play for us. That's what needs to spread throughout gamerdom.

It's going to have to come in steps, tho. The first step was setting up the Forge. Then came the Forge Booth at GenCon. Now the Forge Diaspora. The next step may not be visible yet or it could very well be the Livin GreyHawk idea. What will bring us to that next step? A person with the balls to start it and another with the balls to follow.



Ben said...

Hey, Luke

In a business no one is coming close to making a living, going out there and saying "this is my primary income" is significant. Frankly: do we need crazy outreach shit? Yeah, sure. I hear about that a lot.

A commitment to run a business as a career is a commitment to these things.


chris said...

"It's a new venture he launched in September with his partner, Dr. Johnny L. Wilson."

Incidentally, I read this as his life partner, but you mean business partner, right?

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hi Chris,

Yes, I meant his business partner. Sorry for the confusion.