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Friday, September 29, 2006EU III
On the one hand, I am so salivating at the thought of Europa Universalis III.
On the other hand, I'm looking at this coverage and thinking: uh oh. For three reasons:
3D? Oh yeah, everything has to be 3D these days. But from what I can tell from the screenshots, this means that the soldiers standing atop your provinces are 3D models instead of sprites. That is to say, no impact on gameplay, and really, why bother.
Two: Random events rather than historical events. In a way, this makes for less predictable gameplay, which is good; but on the other hand, the tie to historicity was, for me, a big part of the draw in EU II (and why, when I fire it up, which I still do from time to time, I almost always use the Alternative General Campaign/Event Exchange Project mod, which adds scads of additional historical events. In other words, what I crave is more historicity, not less; the fact that Paradox games are based on sound research, and that, say, playing Portugal is a hugely different experience from play Austria (let alone the Moghuls) is a big part of the reason I like this game. So going for random events may be a smart decision, I don't know, I assume they have a finger on the pulse of their audience--but it alienates me, the only redeeming feature being that I'm sure the Paradox mod community will quickly get a more historical version together.
Three--it sounds like they're adding a lot of complexity, which is not in itself a good thing. Yes, I understand they feel the need to do a substantial update to II, and that probably means adding some of the features of Victoria and Crusader Kings, modifying as appropriate for the era. But Paradox has a tendency to bite off more than they can chew, ultimately releasing games that aren't really adequately tested or balanced, and I'm worried that this will be the case here, too. Sometimes they recover in the patches--with Crusader Kings, they eventually got a fine game, but with Victoria, it never really became a satisfying product.
If it were me, I'd choose one or two things to update, with 'random' and 'historial' versions, and spend the time polishing gameplay.
But there's still no doubt I'll be buying on the instant of release.
Now, if only I could get them to let us offer their older product, at least. Mutter mutter.
Thursday, September 28, 2006Comments
Mutter mutter.... My comments system, a legacy system no one supports any more and which I rejiggered once before to get it to keep working, seems to have gone definitively pear-shaped. So I've turned on Blogger comments, which is fine, except that all previous comments won't be shown in it. I still have all the comments in text on my server, and will work at getting them back up in my, uh, copious spare time. Which may mean it will take a while. But at least there's a functioning system for new comments.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006MG Out of Beta
Okay... We seem to have smashed the bugs, and have implemented a bunch of graphic and UI tweaks (including icons that easily get you to Mac and Linux content). With a slate of new titles added. So we're officially "live," and are starting on our (modest) PR and marketing campaign.
Another flag down, but a lot farther down the slalom course...
Recent games I like:
My Worst Day WW2: An FPS created by a long-wolf developer (!) with pretty innovative gameplay.
Bullet Candy: First-rate shmup.
The Shivah: Graphic adventure, SCUMM-level production quality, but highly unusual story (you're a rabbi undergoing a crisis of faith while trying to solve a murder mystery).
And it's older, but I'm glad to have Gish in the catalog.
Monday, September 25, 2006Well, That Sucks
John M. Ford apparently died last night.
I first met Mike at a WorldCon in the early 80s, shortly after he'd published Web of Angels, and discovered a mutual interest in RPGs and computers as well as SF. We socialized subsequently mainly at cons, although often had dinner when he was in New York, as he typically was a couple of times a year. He was also a not-infrequent commenter on this blog.
Mike was, I think, one of the best sf/f writers of his generation, but despite many awards, never achieved the stature or success his talents deserved. In part, I think, this was because he was never prolific, and to become a best-seller in genre, you really need to produce a title a year to keep your books on the shelves and your name in front of readers. Part of the reason, I think, was that Mike was easily distracted--one of the smartest men I've ever known, and inclined to pursue his intellectual interests even when getting the next book done would have been in his commercial interests. Doubtless, Eric Goldberg and I did nothing to benefit his career as a writer by getting him to do a Paranoia adventure for us (The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, very likely the funniest RPG adventure ever published), but then, Mike also wrote a fair bit for Traveller and GURPS over the years.
Mike was a long-time diabetic, and had been in ill-health for years, so this isn't all that much of a shock; but still, he was only 49. I'll miss him... and I'll also miss the opportunity to read more of his work.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006Airport Security (and GigaOM)
Okay, I like Ian Bogost's games, and am happy to link to Airport Security.
Although: expect long, annoying, and tedious interstitial video as part of Shockwave's "we force you to look at stupid promo video while you wait for the content you actually want" policy, and I have no idea what this stupid promo video is for, nor do I much care--probably some idiot TV show, which is remarkably pointless in my case, as my non-cable connected monitor exists to play videogames and the occasional DVD.
(And, btw, a 3-DVD set of the first couple of seasons of Darkwing Duck is now out. If you don't already know it, Disney was actually doing some pretty amazing animation for TV back in the early 80s, when my kids were young, but this stuff has largely disappeared until now; Darkwing Duck is the Batman of the Carl Barks "Scrooge McDuck" universe. Beware, evildoers! The masked avenger of St. Canard is on the case!)
But anyway, you are apparently a TSA moron expected to click on no-no items from passengers as they step through the gate, with text messages popping up to tell you what's banned (e.g., "PANTS are now a security risk"). Except that the UI is fairly opaque, and I can't play this for more than about 30 seconds without losing. Which maybe makes sense, except that =I= am the petty bureaucrat in control of this situation, and I don't see why I shouldn't be able to inconvenience these idiots however I wish, regardless of the current rules set. Perhaps it will reduce my score, but if I confiscate their iPod in a fit of misplaced zeal, well, would you rather that THE TERRORISTS WIN? I mean, really. Here, I just wnat to run my metal detecting wand repeatedly over your crotch, sugar. We all have to make sacrifices, you know. Unless you want the TERRORISTS TO WIN.
In completely unrelated news, James Au has an article based on an interview with me on GigaOM.
Monday, September 18, 2006Cinema Slacker
So I look at a lot of games to see if they might make sense for us, and was playing Cinema Tycoon, a "tycoon lite" game in which you run a multiplex and do the usual things you'd expect, like upgrading your theater and selecting movies to try to maximize your profit. "Lite" because it's a small downloadable game without the level of graphics you'd expect in a retail release title, but perfectly good for what it is.
But I found myself thinking: Man, this so does not play into my fantasies about what it would be like to run a multiplex. Maximizing profit? Probably the owner cares about that, but.... What I'd really like to be doing is boffing the chickie in the ticket office, and sneaking out back for a joint with the projectionist between reel changes.
Wouldn't be that hard to do as a game, really; a straightforward resource management game, only you'd be trying to maximize the amount of fun your character is having, rather than profits--without getting fired, of course. In fact, maybe there's a whole genre of "Slacker" rather than "Tycoon" games here.
Maybe something for Ian Bogost and crew.
Friday, September 15, 2006Games are Not Fruit (and Why Gametap is Evil)
Fruit goes bad. If you leave fruit on the shelf at the grocer's too long, eventually it turns brown and shrivels up, and you have to throw it away. So maybe as it starts to get ripe you cut the price--99 cents a pound instead of $2.99. It's got a "sell by" date.
The conventional game industry treats games like fruit. A typical game has an on-sale window of 2 weeks, and is going to sell 80% of its volume during that period anyway. So after a month, you discount it from $49.99 to $39.99. And another month later to $29.99. And by the end of the year, it's in the discount bin at $9.99.
The online retailers, by contrast, mostly have a single, fixed price for all titles: $19.99. And it never changes. That's what you pay at Yahoo! Games or RealArcade or Big Fish for everything. Reflexive is a little more flexible; some of their titles are $14.99. But that's it--and it's not dependent on age. Swarm is eight years old, and still retailing for $19.99. (And worth it, in my opinion.)
My belief is that's as it should be. The value of a game has--well, not nothing to to with its age, because, say, there's not a lot of point in buying a game that only runs under DOS today. And I'm not at all sure I'd want to buy the original Civ, at this point, either (though a great game it was); I'd want the most recent version. But in general, a game is a game, and it surely doesn't lose 80% of its value in the course of a year.
The disparity in how the conventional and online markets treat games came home to me as we were constructing the Manifesto site; Flatspace II retails for $24, while eXtinction sells for $10. Flatspace II is not overpriced, btw; it's a game I like a lot. Although if it were up to me instead of the developer, I'd price it at $20, since that's the standard price for downloadable games. And the two are certainly not directly comparable games; Flatspace is an Elite-style title, while eXtinction is a platform shooter. But eXtinction is certainly as good a game as many others available online for $20--and a priori, it's mysterious why it should be priced so low.
From my perspective, too, it's not good that it's priced so low, because I look at things very differently from a conventional publisher. A conventional publisher looks at a title like that and says, "It's old, if I can get even ten bucks for it, great."
I look at it and say, "It's a 50MB installer. If I have a conversion rate of 1%, I've got 5 gigs of data traffic, which costs me a buck, per sale. At ten bucks, that's a big chunk of my margin."
Flatspace II is a 10 meg installer. Guess which one I'd rather push?
Back last winter, when I first embarked on this venture, I went to Finland for what's likely to be the last time in a while. When I had still been at Nokia, I'd agreed to lecture at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. While I was there, I met with Kai Backman, the creator of Short Hike, a space station simulator (and a 2004 IGF finalist--he's now decided to turn it into an open source project). He's been selling versions of Short Hike online for years, and told me that every month, he got sales off versions of the demo that were three or more years old.
The point is: The lifetime of a game online is vastly longer than the conventional market is used to, because the conventional market has been peculiarly warped by the dynamics of retail.
Why is eXtinction $10 and Flatspace II $24? Because eXtinction was published by Merscom, which is primarily a conventional retail publisher, dealing with us mainly in hope of finding some aftermarket for a title that they think is past its sell-by date. For them, $10 is gravy off something that's old, and not going to generate much, if any, revenue from here on in. Flatspace II is by Cornutopia, a classic indie developer used to an online environment. They know that games are not fruit. They see no reason to drop the price--because there is none, in their retail framework.
Now mind you, Merscom is probably selling boxes of eXtinction in stores somewhere (more probably the UK than the US--I don't think it ever got a US retail release, although I could be wrong). And they're probably selling them for six quid or something. And it would be absurd to charge more online for the game than the price for the game in a box. (This is all hypothetical, on my part--for all I know, we're the only source for the game remaining today.)
In general, I look at the prices set by our partners who are steeped in the conventional retail culture--Merscom and Strategy First, mainly (and I'm not criticizing them, I'm glad to have their product and support)--and say: I understand why you are pricing games this way.
But as you move to an online retail environment, you have to learn that the rules are different.
Games are not fruit; they do not spoil.
The conventional market pricing for games is absurd; $60 is too damn high. For anything. I do buy games at retail for $40 and up--but only when I am absotively posilutely convinced that I (or one of my kids) will adore it. Something by Sid Meier, or Paradox works for me; a high-profile Japanese RPG, or a Zelda title, and I know my daughters will eat it up. But at those prices, I take no chances.
$20. This is a good price. Twenty bucks I don't spend without thinking, but if I like something, it's not going to deter me either.
Ten bucks? In general, that is not good pricing. If someone wants a game, they will pay twenty. (And if they do not, they will pay nothing.) If you price it at ten, you are gambling that you will sell more than double the units you'll sell at twenty--but games are not fungible products. It's not like buying flour, where it's basically all the same, and you might as well go for the cheaper brand. These are not impulse sales. If it's worth ten bucks, it's worth twenty.
Now, there are exceptions. We're selling The Shivah for $5. It is very retro in graphical style--and Dave Gilbert was offering it as freeware up until recently. True, the version we offer, unlike the freeware one, has music and professional voice acting--but still, it was freeware, so there's a limit to how much you can charge. I understand why he went for five. I think that's too low, actually--but I wouldn't want to price it at twenty.
The point is this, though. As game sales move online, we have to stop thinking of games like fruit.
Games don't spoil.
I was about to end the post here, but I think I won't. I'll go off on a diatribe. Milder than my usual sort, I hope. But not likely to make me any friends either. Doubtless I should learn to hold my tongue.
Let us consider GameTap. And similar ventures, like the reincarnation of Infinium.
For $9.95, GameTap offers you free, unlimited play, of its entire catalog of games.
This is a good deal, by the way. Go and sign up for it, while it lasts, if you have any interest in playing games more than a year or two old.
But. It is a VERY. BAD. MODEL.
If this model triumphs, we are ALL DOOMED.
Not just my venture; any hope of a creative and vital game industry in the years to come.
How do the publishers and developers of the games that GameTap offer make any money? Well, GameTap takes some portion of the subscription revenue they receive, and they apportion it to the providers of the games they offer on the basis of usage.
So if, say, you are a GameTap subscriber, and spend a dozen hours in a month playing Civ III or something, Firaxis gets some money from you, indirectly. A few cents, I imagine.
In other words, GameTap is a venture based on the premise that games are fruit. Publishers are willing to license older product to them, because they view that product as having no real value otherwise. They are licensing games that are past their sell-by date. Anything they can make past that date is gravy. A few cents is okay.
This is great for gamers--today. But not so great if this becomes the prevailing model.
For PC games in particular, I believe, ESD is the future. Gamestop says that 6% of their sales derive from PC games. Shelf space devoted to PC games is declining year by year. If PC games are to survive, they are going to have to move online.
Today, there are, in essence, two competing models for how they are going to do so. One is the application sale model, which we are of course pursuing--and so are the casual game portals, and so is Steam, and so is Direct2Drive, all with our different takes on what that means and how it should happen. And whichever one of us has the better idea doesn't really matter, from the perspective of the health of the PC game market; someone is going to build a viable path to market for PC games independent of brick-and-mortar retail, and developers are going to be able to make reasonable livings developing games for PCs, if any one of us (or some smarter competitor) makes it happen.
But if brick-and-mortar retail for PC games evaporates, as I think it will, and all PC game developers are left with is GameTap--then all you can make is pennies.
I don't actually think that will happen; I think GameTap is fundamentally screwed, because they are dependent on PC game publishers continuing to treat games like fruit--and the only reason to do so is if your primary channel is conventional retail.
But that's why I look at GameTap and think "bad idea." Not necessarily bad business idea--but a bad idea, if you're concerned about the health of developers, and the market as a whole.
Games do have value. And games are not fruit.
People should pay for games. Not outrageously, and yes, I think $60 is outrageous. But some reasonable sum. Like, say... Twenty bucks.
Ten dollars a month for everything?
Idunno. I don't see how you can make that work for developers. And if you can't make it work for developers, you don't have a sustainable value chain.
Monday, September 11, 2006Ideas 2 Mack Ur Game Better
Thursday, September 07, 2006Making the Business Case
Manifesto Games is in part a wild-eyed, radical and utopian attempt to transform the game industry by recapturing the creative vigor, willingness to experiment, and exciting potential of its youth--and in part a sober, carefully planned ecommerce venture.
Building a Viable Path to Market for Independent Games
For years, we've been looking for ways to break free of the constraints of the conventional market and create for the game industry what independent music and independent film create for their own fields: a way for individual creative vision to reach a market, and for the field as a whole to be able to innovate and take risks at lower costs than conventional game development now demands.
In essence, we, like many developers, have become increasingly frustrated with the contraints forced on gaming by ever-spiralling budgets. Massive bureaucratic teams make it hard to sustain creative vision; risk averse publishers become less and less willing to risk experimentation; and independent developers find it harder and harder to get to the point of being self-sustaining, because at current budgets it takes a miracle for a game to sell well enough to generate actual royalties.
Over the years, we started on multiple business plans, trying different approaches to finding an alternative distribution channel for games, but could never quite convince ourselves that we had a viable answer.
Until two things happened: the spread of broadband, and the success of the casual downloable game market.
The Spread of Broadband
In 1993, 15 million copies of Doom were downloaded over the Internet. As JC Herz wrote a few years later:
"Down the line, you can see a point where videogames will be sold in electronic form and jettison their bodies entirely. Doom points the way. Doom is a fulcrum.
It didn't happen like that, for one simple reason; CD-ROMs. Instead of delivering games a few megabytes in size on floppies, we suddenly had games that were hundreds of megabytes in size. While modem speeds increased modestly, they just could not keep up. Within a few years, it was no longer practical to distribute games via download.
Today, the tables have turned. Fewer and fewer people are on dial-up, and gamers in particular have flocked to broadband. It's increasingly feasible to deliver games online, even ones that are multiple hundreds of megabytes in size. The stage has been set; it's possible again to imagine a success like Doom.
The Casual Downloadable Market
Back in the dot-com era, a whole series of operations including Yahoo! Games, the MSN Gaming Zone, and Uproar, built businesss that offered free online play of classic card and board games--advertising supported, of course. Other companies, like Shockwave.com and RealArcade, offered free play of arcade-y games, also ad-supported. And both sorts of operations got huge usage--tens of millions of unique visitors, in some cases.
After the dot-com bust, their ad revenues dropped precipitously. Searching for just about any other way to make money, they hit on a model that worked for them: offer original downloadable games that appealed to their demographic (middle aged women, typically) with a 'try before you buy' offer and a purchase required to unlock the game and permit unlimited play therearfter.
Thus was born the casual downloadable game market, which is expected to hit $300m in sales domestically in 2006.
Broadband gives us a distribution mechanism; the casual game market pioneered a business model that works.
The Long Tail
The third part of the equation is Chris Anderson's conception of "the Long Tail."
Chris points out that in every medium, there's far more content available than will fit into a retail store. As a result, every brick-and-mortar retailer sells "the short tail," the handful of products that sell best and fit on the shelves. But online retailers like Amazon and the music sites have learned that a substantial portion of their sales lie in the long tail, the many products they can offer because there are no shelf-space limits online. Individual titles may sell relatively few copies, but in aggregate, there are substantial revenues to be captured here.
Back in the early 90s, Talonsoft (a computer wargame publisher) made money producing games that sold as few as 15,000 copies.
These days, budgets are so high that publishers want to see a million or more unit sales.
In other words, spiralling budgets have forced publishers to concentrate on a narrower and narrower slice of the short tail. Not only are they forgoing the revenues inherent in the long tail for any medium--but the long tail has gotten LONGER in recent years.
In other words, publishers have abandoned the many genres that still have enthusiastic fans, but not enough of them to generate a million unit sales: graphic adventures, flight sims, wargames, turn-based strategy, even (increasingly) RPGs.
And because 1m unit sales is a LOT, they've focussed more and more on cross-platform games, released simultaneously on multiple consoles, with PCs as an afterthought--abandoning PC-specific development (except for MMOs, which so far work almost exclusively on PCs).
PC game sales at retail have declined from $2 billion annually in 1998 to $1 billion today, even as overall game sales have soared. The conventional explanation for this is that gamers have flocked to consoles.
The conventional explanation is wrong. Over the same period, household penetration for PCs has increased, and almost everyone who has a PC plays some kind of game on it from time to time. There's absolutely no reason to believe that, absent other market trends, PC game sales shouldn't have increased.
The real explanation is this: The decline in PC sales is a direct consequence of the abandonment of PC-only publication, and of many of the game styles that PC gamers love.
In other words, the short tail has narrowed so much that the publishers are abandoning a cool billion dollars of revenue on the PC side.
We're not talking about a few sales here and there for an obscure band, as in music, or a few purchases of a book that will never sell more than a thousand copies.
In games, we believe, there's an obvious billion dollar gap to fill--a huge opportunity for us to explore.
Duty Now for the Future
So. Broadband gives us a distribution channel. Casual games give us a business model. The Long Tail gives us a market.
How do we take advantage of this?
Do What's Proven to Work in Long-Tail Environments
That comes down to: connecting users with "the game for me," not "the current best-seller." Providing the kinds of tools that Amazon provides to let people uncover what they want--tools as simple as "purchasers of X also bought Y" and "recommended for you." (We don't have this yet, note, but it's where we're going.)
Have a depth of inventory. (We're over 100 titles today, and expect to be over 1000 within a year.)
Don't just provide a link--provide a depth of information about each title, so people can make informed judgments.
Do What's Proven to Work in the Casual Space
Try before you buy. Application sale. This is not rocket science.
Target People Proven to Buy Games
In our materials, I used to say "the core gamer demographic (males 25-40)", but Johnny (quite rightly) took me to task on that. "Core gamer" is a psychographic, not a demographic--and we're seeing a surprising number of female users.
The point is this: Back in the 90s, CGW's surveys used to show that their typical subscriber purchased 12-18 PC game titles annually. That's our target. We want gamers who consider themselves gamers, who like to keep abreast of what's cool and new, and (unlike the casual game demographic) have a long and proven history of purchasing games, and lots of them.
Where Do We Find the Product?
In the short term, we've done the obvious thing: Go after indie games, and games from smaller publishers that haven't had a lot of retail exposure, and games from Europe that haven't seen a lot of exposure in the US.
Ultimately, however, we need to be in a position to provide development funding, for two reasons. First, because (as Warren Spector says), today there is nothing between the gaming equivalent of a student film, and the gaming equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. That's not entirely true, as our catalog shows: excellent independent developers, on scant funding, are doing good work, and managing to survive, and we love that and want to support them. But we think there are all kinds of games and audiences that can be profitably exploited at development budgets in the $250k to $500k range. And too, our existing catalog can be cloned--for a sustainable competitive advantage, we will ultimately need "Manifesto exclusives," and it's not reasonable or right to ask for any kind of exclusivity if we aren't putting up money.
This is, of course, one reason we're going out for capital.
So our strategy is: Short-term win by aggregating as much cool indie product as possible. Next, develop new games to demonstrate that there are large market segments the current system isn't addressing. And ultimately, prove to developers that they can break free of the rigid constraints of the conventional market, and make decent livings following their bliss and developing the games they want to develop--just as many developers have found that they can make reasonable livings in the casual market--thus spurring an increasing and self-sustaining independent games market.
How Do We Persuade Gamers?
The basic pitch is simple: If you are bored with the repetitive franchise titles and Hollywood licenses that the conventional market is offering you, come see what else is out there. It's here.
And then reinforce that with: You are so cool and hip, because you value individual creative vision over glitz. Indie games are our field's equivalent to indie music and indie film. If you are truly hardcore, this is where you need to be.
And compound that with a feeling of being a part of a vital community, and movement.
And believe in that movement, and participate in that community, because people can smell bullshit a mile away.
Which is, in fact, one of our competitive advantages. We do.
Where Are We Now?
In less than a year, and with less than $100k in funding, and with a technical team consisting largely of too-busy veterans who believe in our mission and hard-working students who've learned on the way, we've built a functioning ecommerce site with still too many ragged edges, but that fundamentally works.
And with a staff of people going without salary and working for equity and air, we've signed over 100 titles, and created a perceptible buzz in the field.
Where Are We Going?
Here's what we need to do, in approximate order of importance:
1. File off the rough edges from the site, and make our formal launch.
2. Make as much noise as possible, and start generating noticeable revenues.
3. Keep on finding the coolest and most interesting titles we can, and signing them up for distribution.
4. Build the reputation we need to establish: as the single place to find the stuff the conventional market can't carry.
5. Land substantial venture capital, to build out the 'long tail' technical infrastructure we know we need for ultimate success, and embark on a larger marketing program to attract the critical base of users we need.
6. Start selling enough units of individual titles that developers sit up and take notice, and think about developing for the indie market instead of others.
7. See real competition arise, so that we know that "independent games" as a market rather than a movement has actually arrived.
8. Achieve our financial objects.
9. Make our investors happy, sell out, and watch our successors destroy the company through sheer incompetence and failure to comprehend the nature of this delicate market.
10. And not give a rat's ass, because "independent games" is now a vital and successful market in its own right, and our ultimate objectives are obtained.
Friday, September 01, 2006The Missing Billion Dollars
It was doubtless naive of me to assume that I could mention the site here without others taking notice--and while I was ready for people to help test the site, I wasn't really ready for prime time. A lot of niggling details need to be solved. In fact, maybe I'll open the kimono a bit and list them here (this from a developer issue post):
1. Fix images/image gallery
2. Need RSS on word & central committee (and links to allow users to subscribe). Feedburner support nice but not essential
3. Google adwords tracking
4. The Word archive functionality
5. It was a mistake to have this diversity of newsletters. We should kill them and revert to a single site-wide newsletter. The registration page should have a checkbox allowing users to subscribe; ideally, during the checkout process, users should also be given that option.
6. I think it would be a good idea to replace "All" on the Genre dropdown with "More Genres"....
8. Get registration working more smoothly
9. Get rid of "under construction" stuff.
10. Change age check to check birthdate rather than "18 or older", get rid of checkbox
11. Karen's banner graphics on the word/events/forums/central committee pages
12. "A user mentioned to me that he was not prompted to register when he tried to create a new topic while unregistered. Makes sense to me to display a message/link to register when unregistered users attempt same."
13. circular go button on genre menu (like the one for search)
14. As many of Karen's graphic tweaks as feasible
...and this is only the 'critical' list.
My guess is that in 1-2 weeks, we'll be ready to make the 'formal' announcement, at which point we begin a publicity campaign, along with some limited marketing spend on, say, adwords. Plus some co-marketing arrangements we've negotiated previously.
In the meantime, we have a bit of a breather, since site traffic has slacked off. Some critical bugs uncovered and smashed, which was the point; we're also over 1500 registered users, which is more than I'd anticipated at this point, with some (if small) actual revenues to trumpet to potential investors. There seem to be a couple of intermittent bugs--the hardest kind to track down--that we need to solve before any formal announcement, so if a) you registered but never received an acknowledgement email, or b) have attempted to purchase via credit card but received an error message, please let me know. (I hasten to note that these affect a small proprotion of users--but even a small proportion is unacceptable for such critical functionality.)
For my part, I've spent the week revising investor materials--the pursuit of capital was deferred for the last several months, because I felt getting the site up first was critical. The financials are now vastly simpler, and vastly more connected to reality--makes me wonder what I was thinking back last winter, but of course, it does help to have some actual numbers to work with now. Eric G., a company advisor, said "the first thing you must do is a revised Powerpoint," which is correct, inasmuch as that's the single critical thing you need to have to show investors--but of course, I also need numbers I find plausible to plug into it, and I tend to think in prose, not Powerpoint, so my actual workflow was more like financials>executive summary>presentation. Although now that I have a presentation, I realize that the compelling proposition we have to offer investors is not at all what's in my executive summary. But that's okay, we re-engineer the business plan to suit our sales pitch, and all is okay, so long as we have a clear vision of what the hell we are trying to accomplish, which we have had from the inception.
For those interested, my current pitch is based on a line from Trip Hawkins, back when he was pitching 3D0--my analysis has nothing to do with his then, but it was a great line then, and it's a great line still.
"Where's the missing billion dollars?"
In our case, 1998 PC game revenues: $1.9b. 2005 PC game revenues: $950m.
A billion dollars are indeed missing.
I think I know why, and I think I know where it is to be found. In the markets, in essence, that the conventional publishers no longer find it worthwhile to address.
What was it we're trying to do again?
Oh. Yeah, that's right.
(Crossposting from my blog on the Manifesto site).
Update: Registration no longer required for demo downloads.
So it appears that we've nailed the most horrendous of the bugs, at any event--the SSL is working, people can download demoes consistently, and UK users can use Paypal. So over the next week, our efforts will be devoted to important but not oh-my-god critical issues. Most importantly, ensuring that forum navigation doesn't suck, that registration is smoother, and that a whole slew of graphic and cosmetic fixes we know we need to get in place do.
For those who have contributed suggestions and comments in the forums, thanks, and we've taken many to heart. You may already have noticed a number of little changes--like the fact that the middle navigation area now calls what used to be "Central Committee" Editors' Blogs (which will probably change to Staff Blogs, as not all of us are editors)--and Forums has replaced Voice of the Masses. We were persuaded that clarity trumps cleverness; we may have the old names appear as titles on the target pages, but the navigation will remain more direct.
Perhaps the biggest criticism we've received--less here than in posts elsewhere--has been on our policy of requiring users to register before downloading demoes. We had two reasons for doing this: First, a fear that the bandwidth costs of providing demoes would be too large otherwise; and second, a desire to get as many registered users as possible, because "how many users do you have?" is a question we're going to get constantly, from both press and investors.
However, so far at least, it appears that our bandwidth fears were excessive; the games people are downloading the most are ones with modest-sized installers, rather than the ESD versions of commercial-release software we carry, which tend to have much larger installers. (And good for you--file size has no relationship to merit.) And as for user numbers--well, okay, big deal.
So I'm convinced, and we'll be moving to allowing downloads by anyone, whether or not registered--[update: done].
It's been enlightening to see actual sales patterns to date--which are at a modest level, of course, as our marketing efforts haven't begun, and we're still in beta. Our first sale was to an old friend who purchased Aveyond--and it was a bit of a kick to be able to look at that and say, oh, excellent, that game is right up John's alley, he'll like that. We don't know most of you that well, but we like to think there's some chance you'll have that kind of experience, too.
The surprise so far has been Oasis, which isn't featured on the front page or on any genre page (although it does show up under Cool Indie Games). It's sold better than some of the games we do have on the front page. It's a surprise not because it isn't a great game (it is), but because it's been around for a while, and I assumed most people had been exposed to it. Of course, it was marketed through the casual game portals--and while it may be a simple enough game to work in that environment, it's a strategy game as its core, and quite possibly someplace like the Manifesto site is a better environment for it.
In general, it's been an intense weekend, with not a lot of sleep for our core team, but it's nice to look up at the end of it and say, yeah, things don't suck, and they're getting better.
In general, thanks to everyone who posted in the forums with bug reports and suggestions; thanks to the brave souls who persisted to the point of actually buying games during this rocky initiation; and thanks to everyone who's stopped by, for your interest and support.
The Revolution has a long way to go, but we're on the move.