Joysticks and Easy Riders

The indie game movement echoes the personal cinema of the 1970s

In sharp contrast to many of this year's big budget videogames, which feature an array of weaponry and complex plots, game designer Jenova Chen likes to keep things simple. His games don't have scores, levels are amorphous, and the gameplay is uncomplicated, often requiring only the movement of the character.

Mr. Chen's first major game, Cloud, based in part on his childhood daydreams, focuses on a young hospital patient who soars in his mind despite being trapped indoors. After reading the work of Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on "flow theory," which concerns how human mental states operate, he designed Flow, a game that has players control a microscopic organism exploring the depths of a vast prehistoric sea.

[Videogame designer Jenova Chen] Max S. Gerber for The Wall Street Journal

Designer Jenova Chen makes videogames that focus on emotions, not scores.

Sony liked his graduate work so much that it signed Mr. Chen, his classmate Kellee Santiago and their newly created studio, Thatgamecompany, to a three-game deal and moved the five-person team to its offices in Santa Monica. Mr. Chen is now polishing his newest opus, Flower, to be released early next year.

Mr. Chen is at the top end of a growing experimental and independent videogame community. Videogame makers working out of their basements and lofts are taking advantage of new forms of distribution and new technologies. Similar to the "New Hollywood" movement of the 1970s that gave rise to film directors such as George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, this gaming culture is launching its own stars who are both challenging the industry's traditions and working with larger publishers. The Independent Games Festival, known by some as the Sundance Film Festival of videogame events, has seen entries nearly double in the last few years.

Members of the new wave of videogame designers have yet to receive the attention and success garnered by their filmmaking forebearers. But they are creating fresh ways to deliver stories and explore facets of their medium. Living on $14,000 a year in upstate New York, Jason Rohrer makes minimalist works to "push games out of the cultural ghetto," he says. They may seem simple at first blush, but his games like Passage ask weighty questions about things like coping with relationships and loss.

"The thing about the indie gaming community -- it's truly experimental. It's about trying new gaming mechanics and embracing new platforms," says Robert Nashak, a vice president for Electronic Arts. "As new platforms emerge, it'll be indie game teams that take advantage of them."

Alongside the spate of conferences where they can show off their wares, smaller game developers have new digital distribution channels, on consoles such as Nintendo's WiiWare and Sony's PlayStation Network, to bring their products to the market. There are also online portals, including PC game maker Valve Software's Steam platform and the user-generated game site Kongregate. And game makers now have access to cheaper tools that let them produce products at lower costs and experiment with different types of games.

Videogame publishers hungry for new content have been snapping up work from the independent world. Valve Software hired a group of students who created a game called Narbuncular Drop as their class project; it became one of last year's biggest titles, Portal. After spending more than $180,000 of his own money to create the puzzle platform game Braid, designer Jonathan Blow released it through Microsoft, and it has become one of the best-selling games for Xbox's Live Arcade, surpassing efforts from larger publishers.

Sony Computer Entertainment America

A scene from the game Flow.

Scenes from Mr. Chen's games Flow
Scenes from Mr. Chen's games Flow


Try out Jenova Chen's games:

Publishers are now attempting to foster independent work from the ground up. Microsoft launched a community games program last month to target hobby developers and help them build new titles. Last year, Electronic Arts put together a small internal team to create prototypes that became Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure, which is being marketed as "indie-inspired."

"The next Shigeru Miyamoto [creator of Super Mario Bros.] is going to come out of independent games and not through the traditional route," says Rusty Buchert, senior producer for Sony's Santa Monica studios. "Working on big teams is just lather, rinse, repeat. It sucks the creativity."

Mr. Buchert and others at Sony have high hopes for Mr. Chen. Originally from Shanghai, as a child Mr. Chen was obsessed with videogames. He traded homework time for playtime with his father, who worked in the software industry. Even Mr. Chen's English name reflects his first love. Jenova -- a name he adopted in addition to his Chinese name -- is an antagonist in the popular action role-playing game Final Fantasy VII, one of the first Japanese games he saw that had emotional capabilities.

In 2003, he came to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in interactive media from the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. Electronic Arts had recently given more than $8 million dollars to the program in hopes of creating an innovation incubator for the company and the rest of the industry. In the first days of orientation, he met Kellee Santiago, a former experimental-theater producer from New York, and they started working together.

Quiet, but with a strong sense of game design, Mr. Chen was trained as both a programmer and an artist, so he was able to paint ideas on his digital canvas before entering any code. He excelled at the school's "play-centric design" atmosphere that had him mocking up ideas on paper first based on an emotion or theme such as love or hope.

Sony Computer Entertainment America

A scene from Mr. Chen's game Flower.

Scenes from Mr. Chen's game Flower
Scenes from Mr. Chen's game Flower

"He seemed to really question in his own mind, 'Why do you want to make games?' " says Tracie Fullerton, an associate professor who worked closely with Mr. Chen.

Many game designers pick a genre first and then attempt to build a game around that initial classification. Mr. Chen, however, doesn't try to fit his games into conventional categories.

His newest project, Flower, is based on the imaginary dream life of a houseplant in the city. It was inspired by the windmill farms of California that Mr. Chen saw during his first cross-country road trip. Players control a flock of petals moving through a grassy field. The joy in Flower comes simply from interacting with the plants in the field and navigating. You can't die, and the objectives are loose. Many mainstream games require users to memorize numerous button combinations in order to play. But Flower relies on simplicity -- there's only one button to press to make the petals move.

After winning an innovation grant to create their first game Cloud, Mr. Chen and his team took their work to the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. While they were at lunch, John Hight, Sony's former director of external production, wandered by the game's empty booth, intrigued by the concept. "There wasn't anybody there to tell me about Cloud," Mr. Hight remembers. "But I was immediately impressed." A few weeks later, Mr. Chen and Ms. Santiago were demonstrating their concepts for Mr. Hight and they quickly signed a three-game deal with Sony. Rather than hire them outright, Mr. Hight pushed to have them incubated in his offices.

The success of Mr. Chen's small team thus far could signal new interest in some quarters of the videogame industry in nurturing offbeat talent internally. In the early 1980s, when videogames began to take off, most games were created by one- and two-man teams for systems like the Atari 2600. The flood of different consoles gave independent developers a lot of opportunities to experiment. But after several videogame companies folded in the early '80s, Nintendo seized the reins and only officially sanctioned titles were distributed to consumers to play.

With the advent of the Xbox Live Arcade, which targeted smaller games, and the arrival of a number of other downloadable programs, independent developers have gotten a second chance to reach wider audiences. Digital distribution helps smaller developers who don't have the resources to build blockbuster titles or to deal with the perils of the retail market. Mr. Chen's games retail for about $10; there are free online versions available as well.

For publishers, the appeal of smaller titles is lower risk. "The risk is getting higher and higher [for big titles] and what it means is a lot of products may not have the funding or distribution," says Tom Prata, a senior director for product development at Nintendo.

As videogame audiences continue to grow (overall sales are expected to be up about 20% in 2008 from last year), Mr. Chen says that fans are looking for something that caters to their interests, and he sees an opportunity. "A teenager can find lots of games but that's not necessarily true for adults over 30," he says. "As you get older, you desire more intellectual, emotional experiences. If you look at film, there's many different genres. No matter how old you are, you can find the type of movie you like. That's a sign of a mature medium."

Write to Jamin Brophy-Warren at

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