Go to college. Make a video game. And just like that, your work could wind up on a PlayStation.
Does that sound too good to be true? Tell that to some young developers in Japan and California, and they'll tell you you're wrong.
The conventional wisdom is that modern gaming is a land shaped only by giants. Top games cost millions to make. Corporate mammoths Sony and Microsoft dictate which games make it to large chain stores where a lowly gamer can go to get their fix. The innovative upstart in the scene, Nintendo, is a company with several billion dollars in the bank.
Yet in the shadows of these colossal companies are some defiant glimmers. It turns out that the days of the garage game designer — the era of the scrappy hopeful programming a first-person shooter or man-versus-ape arcade game with a few helping hands and changing the world — are not quite over.
Look for proof in a game shipping this week. It's not "Gears of War" — the Mack truck of an Xbox 360 title getting toasted with magazine covers, TV specials and the expectations of millions of copies sold — though its lead designer did start developing as a teenager. Better evidence will emerge this week on Sony's PSP in the form of "Every Extend Extra," a techno-music-charged shoot-'em-up based on a game crafted by a Japanese college student. And by the end of the year, a second piece of proof will arrive on, of all things, the mighty PlayStation 3 in the form of "flOw," a game made by a grad student in California for his thesis project.
This isn't supposed to happen, definitely not twice in two months. The gaming industry is supposed to be fed by sequels, leashed by marketing and bounded by corporate giants unwilling to let some college kids squeak through the games they made for homework.
But the gaming world isn't that cruel — yet. So if you're in school and dream of people playing a game you don't need to mortgage a private island to develop, consider the path of "Every Extend Extra."
The first version of the game was called "Every Extend" and was created a couple of years ago by a Japanese developer known as Omega, who released the title on the Web for free. Omega's personal Web site doesn't include many words in English, but among the few it does are a quick summary (" 'Suicidal explosion' game with new feelings") and a one-line instruction manual ("Blow up self to involve enemies!"). That about sums it up. It's much more abstract than it sounds — not so much a rendition of Middle East violence as it is an abstract cousin of "Asteroids," in which the only available firepower is the self-destruct button. Explosions in crowded areas set off chain reactions, scoring points that are cashed in as extra ships to self-detonate.
As a free online game, "Every Extend" was a cult favorite. It was small, simple and addictive. That last factor was key, according to Reo Yonaga, a game director at Q Entertainment, a Tokyo game development studio. "I was waiting for one of my friends to turn in an assignment that was overdue," he said. "When I called him to ask about the status and he told me that he was hooked on this one game called 'Every Extend.' So I asked him to forward it to me and the next thing you know, I was hooked on it too."
Yonaga decided that Q should do something with "Every Extend" — like bring it to Sony's PSP — but first he had to convince Omega. "I e-mailed him soon after seeing the game, but I think he thought it was some kind of scam," he said. "He thought we weren't serious. So after a few e-mail exchanges, I went to Nagoya [Japan], where he lives, and communicated my ideas to him. ... We got to work right away." The result is "Every Extend Extra," which adds flashy new graphics, some gameplay twists and a techno rave soundtrack.
Omega wasn't even trying, and now his game is in the major leagues. Build the game, and people do indeed come, as the people behind "flOw" can also attest. "FlOw" is a simple 2-D game about a snake-like creature that swirls through a pool of cellular foes. It was created by Jenova Chen, the USC grad student whose other celebrated creation, "Cloud," was featured in the 2005 student showcase at the Independent Games Festival. "Cloud" and "flOw" were both released for free on the Web.
Recently Chen and classmate Kellee Santiago teamed up to form a development group called ThatGameCompany and hoped to shop the games around. "We had the confidence of students, I guess, to say, 'Hey, sure we can do this,' " Santiago recently told MTV News. She was showcasing "flOw" on the PS3 at an event late last month in San Francisco, the happy result of Sony reaching out to Chen and Santiago and inviting them to bring a game to the new PlayStation as one of the system's first downloadable games.
By the end of the year, "flOw" will be playable for PS3 owners, a showcase for the snaking movements made possible by the motion sensors in the controller for Sony's new system. Santiago is helming the "flOw" PS3 team, all but two of whom are current or recent students. At the PS3 event, where most of the other game makers showcasing games for PS3 were backed by millions of dollars and in charge of teams dozens strong, Santiago seemed like a high school phenom crashing the NBA. She's young. Her team's young. Around Sony, she said, "We're nicknamed 'The High-Schoolers.' "
"Every Extend Extra" might not outsell "Gears of War." And "flOw" might not be downloaded as many times as the old "Mario" games Nintendo makes available for online purchase through its retro service on the Wii. But these two games at the twilight of 2006 show there's room for the little guys. Sometimes a game is just too addictive. Sometimes young minds are just too dynamic to dismiss. Two indie developers just got their shot at the big time. Who will be third to make this a trend? It could be you.
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