Many aspiring game makers get their start designing custom content for their favorite titles, and a whole genre of games about making games exists to cater to that creativity.
From The Incredible Machine through to LittleBigPlanet to Roblox, there's an enduring appeal to the promise of a platform that makes building games seem nearly as fun as playing them. There's a sizable audience, too; Roblox alone reported over 100 million (monthly) players and an estimated $100 million in revenue paid to custom content creators last year.
Manticore Games is hoping to capitalize on that demand with its new platform Core. Powered by the Unreal Engine, Core's pitch to players is simple: download the client (Manticore unveiled an alpha version earlier this year) and start playing some of the free multiplayer games on offer, or running around with other players in shared communal worlds.
Maybe you dip your toe into the Create mode and start remixing existing games and assets, or making your own via Core's game creation and publishing tools; Maybe you even stick around and support your favorite games and creators with virtual currency purchased via Core's planned monetization systems.
Even at this early stage, what's intriguing about Core is how accessible the creative tools are to players with no game development experience. Companies like Unity and Unreal have done much to make the once arcane tools of game dev as approachable as games themselves, and Core builds on that by offering players customizable templates for everything from level design to scripting to multiplayer modes.
Making game development more approachable
"Everything about Core is about lowering the barrier to entry for game creation, and creativity in turn," said Manticore cofounder Jordan Maynard in a recent chat with Gamasutra. "Because if you look at the past 15 years of game development, so many interesting things have sort of come from outsiders, from modders. Entire genres. Obviously the entire battle royale genre, the entire MOBA genre came out of mods. But the barrier to entry is so high that a lot of those took ten years to get to commercial success and fruition."
Manticore wants Core to give rise to the next battle royale, the next MOBA, and they're hoping to speed things up by building out a platform where hobbyist game makers can quickly build something, release it for public play, get feedback and update the game accordingly.
It seems much akin to the way Roblox players can build, share, sell, and play games from within Roblox, a holistic approach that seems to be working out well for Roblox Corp. While Core does encourage players to build and collaborate on shared virtual worlds and games, a la Roblox, Descamps says getting there was never Manticore's plan.
"You wouldn't be the first person to compare us to other services out there, of course...this is not at all [how] we started the company, or thinking about Core," said Manticore cofounder Frederic Descamps. "The way Core came about was more like, 'hey let's make a new form of real-time multiplayer game!'"
When Manticore Games was founded in 2016, the San Mateo studio was focused purely on multiplayer games. But Descamps remembers the Manticore team didn't want to be a startup that gets mired in a long development cycle and either endlessly raises investment (though they did manage to raise at least $30 million) or just quietly shuts down.
To minimize risk they tried to figure out how to build a multiplayer experience that was easy to quickly develop, deploy, and modify in response to player feedback. User-generated content was a key concern; at some point player modding tools were on the table, and Descamps says the team started asking "What about if we share all our tools? Not just specific modding tools, but all our tools, with the community? What if we were to allow them to collaborate? What if we allow them to work together on games? What if we allow them to make money, and publish super-fast?"
"And quickly we realized we're not making a game anymore; we're making a service," he continued. "Gaming is still very much an industry that's very insular, and we're trying to change that by allowing a new generation of folks to come in that don't have to be segregated by the roles they choose."
Of course, hobbyist and self-taught game makers have been working their way into the industry for decades, wearing as many hats as they have to in order to ship their games. But there's still real appeal to the promise of a platform that makes game design an approachable drag-and-drop affair, and Descamps says some members of the Manticore team have flexed unexpected design muscles in Core.
"We have folks on the team who are just engineers, who are just UI/UX people, and yet they make some of the best games on Core," said Descamps. "So there is definitely this idea of democratizing creativity in gaming. Before it was other people, the democratization of game development. Here it's really creativity that's being democratized and opened up."
This focus on ease of use may also ensure Core grows into a useful tool for prototyping specific types of games, as well as teaching game design principles. Core is already being used in game design courses at colleges around California, and Manticore is hoping it will grow into a popular tool for students and hobbyists.
"We're seeing great penetration in some of the game jams; we were part of a game jam where we saw 30 percent penetration of Core among a group of students making games," said Descamps. "I think it's something we're going to see going forward, because of the ease of use and all the power you have in this one 'box'...you don't have to worry about hey I have to work with my engineering friends for backend stuff or multiplayer stuff or integration stuff, right. Your pipeline is Core...the people who use Core natively, from the get-go, for better or for worse, they will never know what a traditional game development pipeline is."
Helping creators find an audience and get paid for their work
As it grows, the Core team is trying to work out how to set up discoverability and monetization systems that drive revenue for both Manticore and Core creators. Both are going to be thorny issues if Core does take off: as more and more people make games, more games will flood the market; how will Core creators get their games noticed, and make money from their work?
The answers are a mix of algorithms, curation by the Core team, and payout models based on player spending and engagement. Manticore hopes Core games will chiefly spread by social networking; players will be able to see what their friends are playing and jump into games together, or get tipped off to a new Core game while watching their favorite streamer.
Like Steam and YouTube, Core will also algorithmically recommend games to players based on their behavior. In an effort to keep creators from gaming the algorithms, the Core team says they'll also have people working to find and highlight "cool, interesting games" that might otherwise not get any attention.
"We want to help creators, and ensure that not only the top, top creators get discovered," said chief product officer Arash Nia. "We want to make sure all the mid-tier and even lower-tier creators can be easily discovered as well. So to do that we're going to be featuring them, making sure cool, interesting games are surfaced up."
There will also be a human element monitoring the content and quality of games and assets shared on Core, a critial concern given the platform is completely free and aimed at young creators.
"We're not naive; we know this is an important problem," he said. "We already have a big creator relations and community management and moderation team that's looking at everything, and of course we're relying on the community. But we are being very proactive with systems, and probably with more as we go."
As work continues on Core, the team aims to eventually roll out a set of monetization options much akin to those available on platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Players will buy virtual currency and have options to spend it in the games, in the Core client (on custom cosmetics like mounts and emotes), on battle passes and other common multiplayer offerings, or as monthly subscribers who pay creators to unlock rewards like cross-game cosmetics.
Manticore also plans to pay creators based on how well players engage with their games, though the team was reluctant to discuss the specifics and said they're currently being ironed out. The goal, ultimately, is to start paying out some portion of Core's revenue to a select portion of games that are performing well on the platform, based on metrics that the Core team say they haven't finalized yet but are "very typical game industry-based metrics" for "defining engagement and fun."
"The players will decide, with their hands and eyeballs and game time, which ones are the best games based on, you know, traffic and engagement," said Descamps. "Right now we think it's better to align all the incentives around quality, around engagement, fun, as defined by engagement- and traffic-based metrics."
These metrics make more sense for Core than they might for a marketplace like Steam, which is full of short, single-player experiences whose hours played and concurrent usercounts would pale next to a popular shooter. Since Core is focused primarily on multiplayer experiences (though object animations and other tools to facilitate single-player game creation are in the works), rewarding creators for player engagement fits with Manticore's ambition to ride the next big wave of user-generated content in games.
If Manticore succeeds at building out Core into a robust, well-supported platform it's easy to see how it could one day be a common tool for prototyping and teaching game design fundamentals. It's also clear that there's a lot of room for creativity to flourish. Core's game creation toolset is effectively drag-and-drop (you can pull together a game from templates, tweak the details and have it playable online in under an hour, without every touching a line of code), and players can download copies of games and assets that they can then build on and remix.
It's less easy to see how Core players who discover a passion for making games might transition off the platform to pursue a broader career in game development. It's a notable concern given Manticore's efforts to push Core's use as a tool for teaching game dev, one Maynard waves away by arguing for a future where a controlled, free-to-play game creation platform is a game development standard instead of a niche.
"I can imagine a future where not only do people not want to leave to go on to 'bigger and better things' because they're making a fine living on Core, every month, but they can't even imagine when there was a time when people made games a different way," concluded Maynard.
"It might seem archaic, just like the thought of programming a game in assembly language seems archaic today, right; nobody would subject themselves to that. There might be game developers in the future who go 'wait, you had to use ten different tools in a pipeline? That sounds horrible!'"