Small game developers get on fast track

Movies and music from small, independent creators push the pop-culture envelope with fresh ideas. Now, game developers are set to do the same with a wave of low-priced — and often offbeat — titles on the new online video-game system networks from Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony.

This blossoming "indie" movement will be evident at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo starting here Tuesday. Alongside the big-budget sci-fi sequel Gears of War 2, Microsoft will be touting two indie games available via its five½ -year-old Xbox Live later this year: an art-house take on Mario-style games called Braid, and a comic animated battle game, Castle Crashers. On the way for the newest online network, Nintendo's WiiWare, via its Shopping Channel: the whimsical puzzle game World of Goo.

But the show stealer may be Flower, a PS3 game for Sony's PlayStation Network. In the game, "you play as the wind, flowing across the field, picking up flower petals," says Kellee Santiago, a co-founder of thatgamecompany, a seven-person Santa Monica developer. "You are changing the environment as you go, trying to create a harmony between the elements of the urban and the natural."

Flower, due later this year for the PlayStation Network, is the second downloadable game from thatgamecompany. Its surrealistic underwater predecessor, Flow, "was the first indie game that really made you sit back and say, 'Wow, this is just so different.' Flow was the kind of game that could have been designed by Will Wright (The Sims) or (Mario creator) Shigeru Miyamoto," says Geoff Keighley, host of cable channel Spike's GameTrailersTV.

Sony followed that with a successful string of indie games that included the one-man creation Everyday Shooter and continued with the M.C. Escher-esque echochrome and the 2D Pufnstuf-flavored PixelJunk Monsters.

"There is a combination of fresh new talent and experience," says Deborah Mars, a senior producer at Sony's Santa Monica Studios, which oversaw the production of those games. "I think we are finally seeing — I really hate to use this expression — a brave new world with the opportunity that downloadable content allows us to … give (small developers) a forum to create and really try out some of these more innovative indie-type games. There is always going to be the big Hollywood blockbusters like Hancock, but there has got to be a place for the Little Miss Sunshines."

As the game industry marches into an expected $21 billion in sales this year (compared with last year's record-setting $17.8 billion), conditions are ripe for an indie-game breakthrough. Combined, the Xbox 360, Wii and PS3 are in 25 million U.S. homes, and each console can connect to the Net. Xbox Live is the largest network with about 12 million users.

For their networks, all three console companies are nourishing the creation of bite-sized games that can be made more quickly and at less cost than blockbusters like Halo and Grand Theft Auto— in months and for hundreds of thousands of dollars, as opposed to years and tens of millions of dollars. The games are less intimidating to players and cost from $5 to $10, compared to $40 to $60 or more for major titles.

"This is kind of like the YouTube of games, with low barriers to entry," says Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter. He estimates that the indie game market could reach $1 billion in the U.S. in several years.

Microsoft began courting small developers last year with the release of its low-cost XNA Game Studio development tools ($99) and Dream-Build-Play competition. Last year's winner, James Silva, is fine-tuning his game The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai for release on Microsoft's Xbox Live network later this year as part of the Community Games project. "Traditionally, you have to have a studio, some funding and recognition and be able to put together a business proposal. I am terrible at that kind of stuff. But that shouldn't prevent a game that has potential from reaching people," says Silva, 27, a former dishwasher and State University of New York student.

Microsoft's support and online network is "sort of like what MySpace did to help indie music," he says.

Other indie games released on Xbox Live include Cloning Clyde and Alien Hominid. On the way and on display at E3 is the 2D fighting game Castle Crashers, with a cell animation look, from The Behemoth, which made Alien. There will also be the impressionistic Donkey Kong descendent Braid from former Game Developer columnist Jonathan Blow.

Microsoft's director of digitally distributed games Scott Austin says that more than 25 independent studios worldwide are working on games for Xbox Live Arcade. The network, he says, "is giving smaller developers the opportunity to reach millions of players around the world."

Several indie games, including bubble-popping game Pop and adventurer Lost Winds ($7 and $10 respectively), were among the selections when Nintendo opened up its WiiWare channel in May. The game download service "is going to enable game developers of any size to invent any games," says Nintendo's Cammie Dunaway.

At Australia-based Nnooo Games (Pop), creative director Nic Watt sees the Wii's online distribution network as an inexpensive way to reach an audience. "If we were to make a disc-based game, not only would the costs be higher but we would have to project how many units to print and distribute. Online there are no inventory worries. If only five people want our game, we sell to five and we have no spare copies to destroy. If suddenly five million would like it then they too can download it," he says.

And downloadable games may suit the growing gamer audience, he says. "They are inherently smaller in size and scope and should be much more 'pick up and play'-oriented. For most people the thought of spending $40 on a game regularly is too much, it has to be something amaezing to justify that expense. Wheras selling Pop at $7 — people look at that as a pocket-money expense and are less likely to debate about it."

David Braben, founder of U.K. developer Frontier Developments, agrees. "It reduces those stakes and therefore should enable people to take risks they otherwise wouldn't have taken," he says."So, in effect, online is ultimately to the benefit of gamers, as they will be able to choose from an increasing number of fresh, original ideas which might not have seen the light of day otherwise."

With a trio of popular console systems and more than half (55%) of U.S. homes equipped with high-speed Net connections, "the opportunity for independent and individual developers is massively there," says Patrick Pugh, analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Because the consoles are there, the broadband is there and the social acceptance of digital distribution and interactivity is there."

The consulting firm sees indie games grabbing a growing portion of the online games market, which is set to grow from an estimated $8 billion globally this year and to $14.4 billion in 2012. Just as independent directors and musicians may move onto bigger things, so will some game developers.

"To me the small and indie games movement is at its best when it's seen as a training camp for the next great game design gods. What excites me is that kids are coming out of college, founding companies, creating small independent games and getting publishing deals with big companies like Sony," says Keighley. "More and more it seems like the indie game scene is where you'll find the maverick pioneers poised to become the next legends of game design."