Industry is opening doors to upstart developers

The Baltimore Sun

SAN FRANCISCO -- 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 recently. 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 independent 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.

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 at his home.

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.

Gabler, 26, and Ron Carmel, 35, started their own shop, 2D Boy. They refined World of Goo on five-year-old laptops. 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.

Alex Pham writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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