Indies start to make their mark

Times Staff Writer

James Silva is one of the amateurs changing how the $40-billion video game industry defines fun.

The 26-year-old from Utica, N.Y., paid his way through college by scrubbing dishes at a diner. That job might help him become the Quentin Tarantino of video games: He used it as inspiration for “The Dishwasher,” in which the title character becomes a ninja and slashes his way out of a kitchen overrun by villains.

Microsoft Corp. agreed to publish his stylized action game on the Xbox 360 console and highlighted it at the Game Developers Conference here last week. More than 16,000 people, many of them novices with similar ambitions, attended the show.


“This has been my dream since forever,” Silva said in an interview. “It sounds cliche, but I actually have to pinch myself just to make sure I’m really awake.”

He’s not alone. Much as YouTube is giving unknown video auteurs a chance to find audiences, the video-game industry is opening its doors to upstart developers. Major companies including Microsoft and Sony Corp. are starting to snap up and promote games by amateurs and indie developers as an antidote to the soaring budgets of mainstream games.

Highlighting the shift, the conference’s Game of the Year award went to “Portal,” which was developed by a team of students from the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash. The puzzler beat out big-budget industry franchises such as “Super Mario Galaxy,” “Rock Band,” “Bioshock” and “Call of Duty 4.”

“The lines between the professional developer and the community are beginning to shimmer,” said Jamil Moledina, the conference’s executive director.

It’s bringing the games industry back to its early days, when two or three people could team up and make a hit game.

A few years ago, aspiring programmers such as Silva wouldn’t have stood a chance. The games business has adopted the movie-industry approach of spending big in search of huge hits. Creating a single new game can require tens of millions of dollars and more than 100 developers working several years.

But a recent proliferation of easy-to-use and cheap or free software has made it possible for a programmer with a good idea to make games out of his bedroom.

There’s a market for those games now. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo Co. have built online stores where millions of players can buy and download games via Internet-connected consoles, bypassing traditional retailers that refuse to stock anything but blockbuster titles.

Take Kyle Gabler. In 2005, he created the prototype for a game called “World of Goo” in four days on the floor of his unheated apartment while he was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.

He graduated and went to work at Electronic Arts Inc., the world’s largest game development company, where he and friend Ron Carmel sought to make their own title rather than work on other people’s ideas. But the two quickly realized that they would have to wait years for that chance inside EA.

“I wanted to make my own game on my own schedule,” said Carmel, adding with a wink, “I also have problems with authority.”

So Gabler, 26, and Carmel, 35, quit and started their own shop, 2D Boy. They refined “World of Goo” on 5-year-old laptops while living off of their savings. The result, a wacky cartoon world where players make structures out of goop to solve puzzles, won awards for technical excellence and design innovation at last week’s conference. Nintendo has signed the game to sell through its Wii Ware online store.

Games such as “World of Goo” lack the pixels and polish of big-studio titles. But they make up for that with style, quirkiness and humor that oozes, unfiltered, from the minds of their idiosyncratic creators.

“Indie games are the new form of self-expression for the motivated misfit,” Gabler said.

Many of these games don’t fit into the tidy genres that publishers rely on to sell their wares, such as action, racing or role-playing.

Even experienced developers have taken advantage of the indie vibe to launch quirky pet projects.

“JellyCar,” made by a one-man operation called Walaber Studios, is just what it sounds like: Players maneuver a vehicle with gelatinous wheels around oddly shaped obstacle courses.

“Imagine trying to pitch that,” said Chris Satchell, who heads up Microsoft’s Game Developer Group. “You’re a car made out of jelly. There’s no story, no fancy graphics, no racing. It’s just that jelly thing.”

Satchell’s group is working hard to scoop up these kinds of games to showcase on its Xbox Live online marketplace, giving independent developers a way to put their titles in front of 10 million players.

Microsoft is one of several companies to release free software tools that cut the tedium and complexity of traditional programming. It’s the game industry’s equivalent of putting video cameras and editing software in the hands of aspiring movie directors.

EA is taking simplicity one step further. At last week’s conference, the Redwood City, Calif.-based company unveiled “The Sims Carnival.” This version of the popular virtual-world franchise lets players create their own games from scratch without having to write a line of code. Instead, they use a drag-and-drop menu.

The game publisher hopes to unleash a wave of player-created content and become a YouTube for games, unlocking new business models in the process.

Like YouTube parent Google Inc., which hasn’t yet made much money from the video-sharing service, game companies are trying to figure out how to make money from amateur work.

Some games will be sold as downloads on consoles for $5 to $25, with developers getting roughly 70% of the revenue. Others will be given away for free and surrounded by ads on websites such MTV Networks’ Addicting Games.

But for now, game companies are content to see if the masses can add creativity to an industry that some say has fallen into a rut of predictable and tired franchises.

“The whole idea is to broaden the kinds of people who could make games,” said Rod Humble, head of the Sims Studio at EA. “We asked ourselves, ‘What would it be like if my mom could make a game?’ ”