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.

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