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So, you think you can make a video game?

The “Pitch Your Game” contest at the PAX game convention loosely follows an “American Idol” style of tryout and snap judgment. Wanna-be game designers had just 45 seconds to impress the judges — and the raucous audience of hardcore gamers.
Got a great game idea? The "American Idol"-style "Pitch Your Game Idea" forum is a fun (and very public) way to get some instant feedback. But be warned: This is one tough audience.
Got a great game idea? The "American Idol"-style "Pitch Your Game Idea" forum is a fun (and very public) way to get some instant feedback. But be warned: This is one tough audience. Francisco Villasenor

In the end, the winning game concept was as simple as “Pong.”

Kairi Schotter, a 24 year-old programmer from Estonia, pitched an idea of a game that starts out with basic graphics that get more sophisticated as the gamer progresses. That was it. But that was enough to impress the three-judge panel and the assembled audience of 400 at the “Pitch Your Game Idea” session at the PAX conference last weekend.

The conference, organized by the guys who draw and write the Penny Arcade Web comic, is a pilgrimage of sorts. Die-hard gamers from all over the world made the trek to Seattle last week for the three-day festival, which included an exposition, game tournaments, nerd movies and more.

The “Pitch Your Game” contest, which loosely follows an “American Idol” style of tryout and snap judgment, netted plenty of ideas. Some were goofy, some were smart. Someone pitched a rhythm game centered around the Michael Jackson song, “Thriller.” And then there was the “Final Fantasy”-meets football idea. But Schotter’s pitch was the unanimous choice of the judges.

“I’m so excited, I’m physically shaking,” said the magenta-haired Schotter as she clutched her grand prize, a Nintendo Wii.

Schotter bested 50 other prospective game designers at the session. Hopefuls had 45 seconds to sell the judges  — and the raucous audience  — on their idea.

And this was a tough crowd. The panel was held at 10:30 in the morning — the crack of dawn for showgoers that had likely gone into the wee hours listening to nerdcore bands or watching a “Battlefield 2” tourney. If you were looking for an easy pass on your “Starcraft”-meets-dungeons dream, you weren’t going to find it here.

“Sit down!” yelled the heavyset post-pubescent male to the cute blond who pitched a real-time strategy game set in a schoolyard. “That game’s been done! It’s called ‘Bully!’”

The judges were only slightly kinder. An idea for a game with “plenty of porn” earned an eye roll and a chiding “I think the ESRB is going to love that” from judge Greg "Porkfry" Hjertager, who’s a tester with Microsoft Game Studios.

(MSNBC is a joint Microsoft - NBC Universal venture.)

About one-third of those who braved the public scorn made it to the semi-finals. And the game ideas were all over the map: There was the game where players raised bugs in a sandbox. There was the rhythm game where you play a strip-club DJ (this received a big ovation from the crowd). There was the action-adventure game played from the perspective of a toddler.

And oddly — or perhaps not, given the gender makeup of the audience and panel — every single woman who pitched a game advanced to the next level.

“To be honest, we’re very interested in the effect that women can have on gaming.” said judge Ken Lobb, creative director for Microsoft Game Studios. “I think it’s good that there were several women here. I was kind of surprised.”

Only three finalists could emerge victorious, so the judges were tougher on the second pitch, often turning to the audience to make the call. The game about politicians battling it out in spandex, so funny on the first go-round, ended up on the trash heap. So too did the Sim Mafia game that earned an ovation just 20 minutes earlier.

Schotter’s fellow finalists were Charles Simmons of Vancouver, B.C., who pitched a side-scrolling DS game called “Spud the Potato” and Eric Wahlquist of Bremerton, Wash., who came up with his “evil cooking game” on the way to the conference.

“I would play the evil cooking game,” said Warren McKenzie, an audience-member from Redmond, Wash. “It sounds disturbing and hilarious.”

The forum, which began at the first PAX four years ago, has always been one of the highlights of the conference, says Penny Arcade’s Jeff Kalles. As far as he knows, none of the contestants has ever nabbed a contract or a multi-million dollar game deal. And the judges warned that any idea pitched to the open forum was fair game for stealing.

“We make clear that this is not for any real gaming contract — it’s just a good opportunity to get feedback and a little bit of insights,” he says. “It’s mostly to have fun and be entertained by everyone’s creativity.”

Lobb says he was surprised by the quality of pitches he heard — and he hears hundreds every year. 

“My expectation when I came here was that it was going to be a fun trip to PAX, and not necessarily that I was going to hear anything interesting,” he said.

Schotter walked away with a business card from Lobb — but it’s unlikely his group will actually make her game. He says he’s more interested in hiring her.

“We’re always looking for talented programmers, and I more prefer a talented programmer who’s got some creativity.”