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Console makers embrace indie game developers

Microsoft, Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co. have all opened up digital distribution channels to their consoles. The financial risk is low, and it helps console makers keep an eye on up-and-coming talent and ideas. Is also boosts the number of exclusive titles for each machine.
Image: James Silva
Game developer James Silva poses with his video game "Dishwasher" at his home in Utica, N.Y.Mike Groll / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the second grade, James Silva didn't just play "Mario" and "Zelda" on his Nintendo but drew pictures of new levels and cooked up ideas for future games. While other kids dreamed of becoming an astronaut or president, he felt destined to be a video game designer.

Conquering space or politics might have been easier. Besides a good idea, game developers have needed a distribution deal to get their work on consoles like the Xbox or PlayStation. And over the years, the industry has been shrinking to a handful of big players that use large teams of in-house programmers.

But Silva is a one-man game maker for the Xbox 360. He's among a growing number of independents working to distribute their games to Internet-connected consoles with the help of game box makers seeking to meet demand for titles beyond the usual shoot-'em-ups or big-budget sequels.

Microsoft, Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co. have all opened up digital distribution channels to their consoles. The financial risk is low, and it helps console makers keep an eye on up-and-coming talent and ideas. Is also boosts the number of exclusive titles for each machine.

"They understand market dynamics, how platforms work. They see how indies can get in there and disrupt things," said Corey Bridges, a veteran of Netscape's early days who co-founded Multiverse Network Inc., a platform for developing virtual online worlds.

The growth of digital distribution parallels consolidation among video game publishers. It takes many years and millions of dollars to develop a hit franchise like "Grand Theft Auto." With so much invested, companies are reluctant to take risks on new games and rely instead on established franchises and sequels.

This year, Silva, a former restaurant dishwasher who lives in Utica, N.Y., became something of a poster child for Microsoft's developer tool, XNA Game Studio. After winning Microsoft's "Dream-Build-Play" contest last year, Silva's game, "Dishwasher: Dead Samurai" will be published on the company's Xbox Live Arcade network later this year. The action game features a dishwasher who sheds a lot of cartoon blood in a dark, zombie-filled underworld.

Creating a successful game, however, is still a huge undertaking. Silva has been working on "Dishwasher" for more than a year.

"A lot of kids that set out to make games try to make a rival 'Halo,' rival 'Warcraft,' something really ambitious, not realizing that those games are made by hundreds of people," he said. "It's not an era where one person can go out and make the next 'Halo."'

Microsoft, in 2006, was the first console maker to offer a version of is professional development tools for people without a serious background in programming.

XNA Game Studio is free, but to publish a game, developers must pay $99 a year (or $49 for four months) to join Microsoft's Creators Club and have it reviewed by their peers. If a game passes muster, it will be made available to Xbox 360s later this year. Microsoft says there is no way to tell how many games have been created using XNA Game Studio, but it's been downloaded about a million times since its launch.

Silva said the software — which still requires some basic programming skills — "takes care of the ugly, cumbersome stuff" developers need to do to make games.

But while Microsoft is helping game designers, in the end it's still geared toward pushing indies through the company's publishing channel.

"They have seen the barbarians at the gate and they are trying to channel them through the right gate," said Bridges.

While Sony does not offer a light version of its development tools, it has made space for indie developers at its Santa Monica, Calif. studio so they can create games for the PS3. The titles are available through the PlayStation Network, the console's online community.

Nintendo, meanwhile opened its popular Wii system to indie developers with WiiWare in May.

"These days a lot of games at retailers are big budget games that can't have simple graphics," said Sam Kennedy, editorial director at gaming Web site "But gamers are still looking for that. They can't spend $50 or $60 on (such) a game but they'll download it for $5."

Rusty Buchert, a senior producer at Sony's Santa Monica studio, says digital distribution is in some ways winding back the clock in game development by 13 to 15 years. It opens the doors for more risk, more innovation, but without "burning down the company," he said.

Sony, he added, is benefiting from its relationships with indie game creators because it's seeing new approaches to game development and design. Still, there's the image of Sony being "the man," Buchert said.

"But we are showing no no no, we are here to work with you," he said. "They get more freedom compared with (developing) a bigger game. There is not as much money at risk and as such they get a lot more freedom, and this freedom helps makes games better."

Nintendo says WiiWare is to the Wii as indie films are to Hollywood. Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary game designer behind Nintendo's "Mario" and "Zelda," said in an interview earlier this year that, over the years, video game producers have gotten more conservative.

"What I'd like to see is ... those companies give their young designers the creative freedom to create the new and unique ideas of this generation," he said.

Bridges thinks digital distribution will mean the eventual death of game software publishers, which will no longer be needed.

"It's a lot easier pushing bits than pushing atoms," he said.