GameFile: Little Games That Could, ‘Red Steel,’ ‘Gears Of War’ And More

Some of this year's biggest games were college students' homework.

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.

More from the world of video games:

For some people, the wait to learn the Wii’s secrets is intolerable. It’s even hard for fake people. On “South Park” last week, Cartman was so excited about the upcoming release of the Wii that he decided to freeze himself in ice until the Nintendo system’s November 19 release. A follow-up episode airs this week. Among the questions vexing some gamers is how tolerable motion-sensitive controls will be for long-term Wii sessions. One game under significant scrutiny has been Ubisoft’s Wii launch game, “Red Steel.” The game features first-person shooting and first-person swordplay, both of which felt uncomfortable in the hands of many critics who played an early build of the game last May at E3. Ubisoft promised to polish the controls and brought a new build by the MTV offices last week. Swordplay involves two hands — the right slashing a long blade and the left parrying with a short one — all of it mapped to sharp, satisfying gestures. The gun controls have been tweaked to let the user choose how broad a motion they want to make with their arm to aim their virtual pistol. This allows for a smooth experience. Controls that once garnered attention because they were rough are now so smooth, they’re easy to forget about. That provokes a new Wii question: Does Nintendo want the controls for its unique new controller to really be so smooth that players don’t even think about them? …

One of the least-discussed innovations of Nintendo’s Wii is the speaker in the system’s controller. Most games demonstrated on the system over the last six months have either not used the speaker at all, or used it for obvious purposes, like broadcasting the sound effects of a gun being reloaded. But developers can — and will — do better than that. A Ubisoft rep who recently demonstrated “Red Steel” for GameFile said the speaker will emit a cell phone ring when the lead character is getting a phone call. An idea set up for one of the game’s four-player split-screen modes sounds even better: Each player will have a Wii controller, but during a competitive match, only one player’s controller will buzz. If the player puts the Wii remote up to their ear, they’ll hear some secret instructions about where to go in a level, giving them a jump on their fellow gamers. …

Last year “Gears of War” designer Cliff Bleszinski promised that his game would feature something many games do not: “Water-cooler moments,” he said. “Resident Evil 4” gained much of its critical success because of them, he said. He wanted to build some of his own. With “Gears” shipping to game stores this week, Cliff’s intentions will be tested soon. One moment early in the game that could provoke such talk involves a rampaging, nearly un-harmable enemy. Another involves, of all things, a nighttime drive and an ultra-violet spotlight. If moments like those create buzz, then one of Bleszinski’s missions will soon be accomplished. …

One of the many things that makes November the biggest month in video games is the almost-annual Machinima Festival. This year’s event honoring movies created with video-game graphics was held at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. The year’s best-picture winner was the French screwball military comedy “The Adventures of Bill and John: Danger Attacks at Dawn” from KBS Productions, viewable at GameVideos.com/video/id/6928. For the rest of the winners, visit Festival.Machinima.org.

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