How Scott Reismanis gave a big voice to small-time game developers.
Scott Reismanis is changing the way developers find and reach their fans, and he may be the future of the game industry. He's been at the forefront of game distribution for the past decade, almost singlehandedly building Desura — a Steam for indies — and running websites where game developers big and small can share their projects with their peers, gain feedback and build an audience.
"The best thing that we do is we don't have an editorial gateway team, and so the strength of our site is the content the developers are writing," Reismanis says. Anyone can sign up, post some news and drum up attention. "[On other sites, game developers are] at the mercy of editors to pick up their press release and write about it," he explains, "whereas with us if they want to take five minutes to write a good article they can end up on the front page."
In 2002 Reismanis created ModDB, a website dedicated to mods — essentially, games like Counter-Strike or DayZ that are made from the engines, and sometimes also assets, of existing commercial titles — after being frustrated at the difficulty of finding good mods. It started small, but now boasts a million members and attracts close to 200,000 visitors a day — the recent release of Half-Life remake mod Black Mesa drove a record 300,000 people to the site.
Desura, an indie-focused digital distribution service, followed in 2009, with developer-driven indie games database IndieDB in 2010. Reismanis also collaborated with IndieGames.com on the Indie Royale game bundle website. Business is thriving for his small Melbourne-based company DesuraNET, which just launched a new website for mobile games called SlideDB. The journey to this point was a long one, though, and it hasn't always been smooth sailing.
The road to ModDB
Reismanis started coding when he was around 15 years old. His high school math class required use of a TI-83 calculator, on which he wrote a program called CompSquare to output step-by-step solutions to quadratic equations. CompSquare became so widespread across Melbourne schools that authorities enforced compulsory wiping of calculator memory to prevent students using it to cheat on exams.
Around the same time, Reismanis took up web development as a hobby. He crafted a website dedicated to his passion: video games. After getting his feet wet with GamerZoned and GameinZone, Reismanis decided to go big and create his own network. He bought his own domain, ChaosRealm.com, and chased hits by posting Counter-Strike cheats and top 10 lists. The Realm Network grew to host more than 20 websites — most notably ModDB's predecessor ModRealm — before it fell apart in late 2001.
A Bible site snapped up the ChaosRealm domain before Reismanis realized it had expired, then hosting provider Playnet went bankrupt — giving just a week's notice that the entire Realm Network would be shut down. Now at university and faced with the prospect of starting over, Reismanis wanted his next website to grow itself. He had been producing most of the content alone, but he hated writing. "I detested English in high school," he confesses. "I was a math student."
"That sort of stuff didn't exist in games — that's why Counter-Strike just killed it."
Inspiration came from his hobbies. Reismanis was hooked on modding culture. "We'd go to LANs and just load up every single mod we could find and play through them," he says. His passion for mods started with War in Europe, a Half-Life multiplayer mod, which was novel in that it rewarded players with better guns as they killed more opponents.
Reismanis and ModDB/IndieDB editor Dave Traeger speak with genuine fondness about the scene, reminiscing about their favorite mods from the late 90s and early 2000s. They cite team and squad-based multiplayer modes and other features that mods introduced at a time when commercial games focused on single-player modes. "Mods were innovating," Reismanis explains. "That sort of stuff didn't exist in games — that's why Counter-Strike just killed it." Mods stayed ahead of the curve, he argues, in a similar manner to indies today — with fresh ideas and new mechanics.
The problem was finding them. "I was trying to play mods on a LAN," Reismanis says, "and it was just so goddamn hard to find them." He couldn't go to Twitter or Facebook because they didn't exist. Broadband was just catching on, Steam was a gas made by heating water and Google was still a few years away from becoming a verb — the dominant search engine was AltaVista.
What did exist, though, was IMDb — the Internet Movie Database. "AltaVista was keyword search, and the worst part was that you would find mods ... but they weren't released," Reismanis recalls. So he decided to create something structured. "IMDb's really good for movies; I'll make ModDB for games."
Success breeds more success
It worked. Reismanis and his small army of volunteers ran the site in their spare time, and the audience grew at a tremendous rate. At the end of the first year, ModDB had a little over 5,000 members and 535 mods. Membership quintupled in the second year, while the number of mods tripled. Despite frequent downtime, both numbers tripled again in the third year, as ModDB debuted its second major redesign.
For all of ModDB's success, however, Reismanis had never seriously considered doing it as a job. He worked for Accenture, a huge global IT consulting firm, where he consulted on big Australian websites such as AFL.com and Telstra Online Billing. ModDB remained a hobby, just as it had always been.
Then a call came out of the blue. "In 2006, IGN's FilePlanet division called me up and said, 'We're interested in buying your site,'" Reismanis says. Still wet behind the ears and excited at the prospect of a free flight halfway across the world from his home in Australia to IGN headquarters in California, he jumped into the discussions. "They basically wanted it for nothing," he recalls, "So I said, 'Nah, screw you guys. This is crap.'"
"At this stage, the site was getting a ton of visitors but earning nothing — about 40 bucks a month," he says. "I thought, 'If they're willing to buy it and try to copy it, perhaps I should focus on it and try to make a business.' So I quit Accenture and formed DesuraNET, and started doing it full time."
Know your audience
A place for indies
DesuraNET introduced its Desura digital distribution service, which tied directly into ModDB, in December 2009, in response to the community's growing desire to sell indie games and mods through a service like Steam. IndieDB followed in April 2010. "The indie games just kinda snuck in," says Traeger. "They just showed up, then we built the functionality for them."
"We've always [been reactionary], almost to the point where I think we've missed the boat on some things," Traeger explains. They realize that Desura could never seriously compete against Steam; that IndieDB may never be as popular as ModDB, despite the indie scene being arguably bigger; and that the just-launched SlideDB for mobile games is late to the party. But they spend too much time talking about trends and not enough acting on them.
"Every time you add an extra step of five seconds, I reckon you've got about a 20 percent chance the customer's not gonna buy your game."
"If you turn around to me and say we should start a Kickstarter before it exists," Reismanis jokes, "I'll take you up on the offer."
Rather than dwell on his mistakes, Reismanis remains a man on a mission. "If you watch [indie] developers these days," he laments, "they'll work for two years on a game — two years in silence — and then they'll release it. The entire two years — the profit on that game — is dependent on the press that they get in the next four days."
That's ridiculous, he argues, because "it's so freaking hard to succeed today." People are familiar enough with Gears of War to consider buying it because they've seen it advertised at the movies and their friends are talking about it. "With indie games, people walk into the store and see something they don't know," Reismanis observes. "Nobody's ever going to buy something they don't know, so the people at that point either have to read about the game or watch a video and then decide to buy.
"Every time you add an extra step of five seconds, I reckon you've got about a 20 percent chance the customer's not gonna buy your game. If they already know about your game from a Rock, Paper, Shotgun article — even if they just glanced and didn't read the article, they've already heard about it — it reinforces a little bit of confidence."
Reismanis hopes his websites can help developers get over this hurdle. Both he and Traeger give frequent advice to indies, encouraging them to publish more blog posts and videos and to publicly document their development. Traeger even edits developer-posted news updates to be more presentable and interesting. The pair like to contact developers with cool games to suggest they sell pre-release copies through alpha funding.
"Alpha funding is something that we identified is good for us and good for developers," Reismanis says. Project Zomboid, Desura's most successful game, became their test case thanks to some lucky timing. "We saw that PayPal closed them out and said, 'How can we help?'" Desura stepped in to handle payments and distribution, saving developer The Indie Stone from a logistical nightmare.
An uncertain future
With Windows 8's app store and Steam's new Greenlight and Community features threatening to cannibalize their audience, Reismanis is worried about the future. "[They] do basically what we've always done — developer-driven communities," he says. "Now the developers of these games can add profiles for their games and promote them to their fans and get comments. That's actually what we've been doing forever."
Many developers use Desura and IndieDB — and even ModDB — as a means of building exposure before the big push to get their game on Steam. I Shall Remain, Cute Things Dying Violently and many others leveraged their popularity on Desura to Kickstart or pay for their Greenlight campaigns (to varying degrees of success). Of the 31 games successfully Greenlit, seven — Project Zomboid, Towns, Gnomoria, Black Mesa, Neotokyo°, Kenshi and The Stanley Parable — have huge prior success on ModDB or Desura, while only a few have no presence on these sites at all.
Cute Things Dying Violently
Reismanis checks the ModDB servers.
Reismanis isn't bothered about developers seeking greener pastures elsewhere. "We're realistic; we're a really good stepping platform," he says. Traeger echoes this idea: "I think it's enough to make it easier for them to get started. When they've got the feedback, they can start putting the effort into the places they want."
DesuraNET's business is now helping developers. "There are a lot of things changing, and I hope that we are able to keep doing it because I think we're great for the indies that we do help," Reismanis says. They claim to answer every email and go out of their way to give advice to newcomers. The goals have realigned over the years, but one thing remains constant — a community-focused website dedicated to giving a voice and a support network to game developers of all ilks. Every game, every mod and every developer is welcome, no matter how big or small.
As for his own journey, Reismanis is bemused about his early choices: "When I look back over 10 years, I'm like, 'why the hell did I choose mods?' I could have chosen anything back in 2002." But he has no regrets. "It takes a long time to learn those lessons that you've stumbled on something good — you're fortunate.
"It's bloody hard to get something that works, so just be happy and embrace it."