In January, Stephanie Barish took her son to a birthday party and made the fortuitous choice to wear a T-shirt with the logo for Indiecade, a festival she runs that is dedicated to independently made, artistic video games.
While there, she met a fellow parent, Scott Malsin, who was then the mayor of Culver City. He asked what the T-shirt meant and was immediately intrigued.
"I wasn't aware of that world at all, but as we spoke it immediately appealed to me, and I asked her if she would think about holding it in Culver City," said Malsin, who's now on the City Council. "I thought it would be terrific from the standpoint of our art scene."
Nine months later, the third annual Indiecade is set to open in Culver City today. The four-day event features video games made by small teams and individuals, along with artist talks, panels, public demos and a keynote speech by the Sims creator Will Wright.
"The video game industry started out as a kind of garage industry, and there has always been an underlying, independent group of people," said Barish, who previously worked as an interactive media designer.
Artists and major publishers are starting to coalesce around the idea that there's commercial and creative potential in video games made outside the traditional system that creates blockbusters such as Madden NFL and the military-themed Call of Duty.
Unlike those big-budget games, indie titles typically have budgets well below $1 million and sometimes require nothing more than a few computers and some talented developers willing to devote their time.
All three major console manufacturers, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, now offer downloadable video games, as do a number of services for PCs. That has helped enable several independently produced games that would never find a spot on the shelves of Best Buy -- titles such as Braid, Flower and World of Goo -- to become hits in the last year.
Just as Hollywood studios took notice of movies like "sex, lies, and videotape" in the late '80s, several major video game publishers are picking up indie titles for distribution.
"We're willing to go out on a ledge with these unique experiences because they differentiate us and they are where we find future talent," said Rusty Buchert, a senior producer at Sony Computer Entertainment.
Creative Artists Agency, traditionally known for representing A-list actors and directors, now handles a number of indie game creators.
The movement is driven by people such as Keiko and Lucas Pope. The married couple, 31 and 32, respectively, met six years ago while working as programmers at a video game development studio.
Last year, tired of only implementing other people's visions, they decided to make something of their own and spent six months working on a game called Mightier in their two-bedroom apartment in Sherman Oaks.
"Every day after work, we would grab food and work on the game for six hours, then spend all day on the weekends," said Lucas Pope.
Mightier features a series of barren maps in which stars float in the air. Players use laminated paper and a marker to sketch a character and a series of hills that can be climbed to reach and collect the stars.
They then use a Web camera to scan the sketches, which appear on-screen and are instantly playable.
"We always knew the game is not that marketable," Pope said of Mightier, which has been downloaded free about 50,000 times. "What motivated us are the festivals and the websites focused on games like these."
Mightier was one of 30 titles selected, out of 258 entries, as a finalist in competition at Indiecade. Though some were made by developers with day jobs, others come from students and from artists whose work is typically shown at museums.
There are also several alternative interactive experiences outside the competition, such as a Twitter game and an urban scavenger hunt.
The goal, Barish says, is to create an equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival for video games. While the Game Developers Conference, an annual gathering for professional game makers, hosts the Independent Games Festival, and the Slamdance Film Festival used to feature a video games competition, Indiecade is the only event focused exclusively on the indies.
After starting the festival two years ago as part of the E3 trade show, Barish and her small team of volunteers last year spun it off as an independent event in Bellevue, Wash., focused on a narrowly defined audience of game makers.
This year's Indiecade has been designed for a general audience. While those who want to attend every panel meant for aspiring creators and industry insiders can pay as much as $290, general tickets to check out the titles are $20 per day.
"We hope we can highlight what is happening at the edge of the industry and draw people from the public and the industry to see it," Barish said.
It's an opportunity for game makers who spend their days behind computers and measure reactions by downloads and Web comments to interact with the people who enjoy their handiwork. It's not a role that comes naturally to them.
"We're really nervous because we're programmers, so by nature we're pretty reclusive," said Lucas Pope.
His wife, Keiko, put the matter more succinctly: "We're nerdy."
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Leading the outsider pack
A sampling of Indiecade finalist games:
Eliss: Players use their
fingers in this iPhone
game, created by a single Spanish developer, to manipulate planets to a musical theme.
Everybody Dies: As old-fashioned as video
games get: Players use written commands only
in this illustrated text adventure about the act of dying.
The Path: A terrifying twist on the Little Red Riding Hood tale in which six sisters try to resist the temptations of the forest on the way to Grandmother's house.
Train: An experimental board game created by a college professor that uses an abstract method of gameplay to make players think about the Holocaust in a new way.
-- Ben Fritz