A deceptively simple video game called "flOw," in which players control the feeding and evolution of an aquatic organism, is making waves in the $30 billion market better known for fictional blood and bullets.
The game forsakes typical testosterone-fueled activities of killing, racing and blowing stuff up. Inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory, which holds that people are happy and fulfilled when they are fully immersed in what they are doing, "flOw" is pure Zen.
For many game makers, the unconventional and back-to-basics project signals a way forward for the business, which is maturing from a bastion for nerds and anti-establishment radicals to an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood clone, favoring sequels and gargantuan titles with budgets well over $20 million.
As developers look to make their mark, or simply to abandon big, multi-year projects for more rewarding work, they talk about spending $500,000 or less and popping off quick hits that fall somewhere between addictive puzzle games such as "Solitaire" or "Tetris" and blockbuster productions such as "Grand Theft Auto" or "World of Warcraft."
Attendees at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco said that "flOw" may be the first downloadable hit on Sony's (SNE) online network for its new PlayStation 3 and that the time is right for programmers to take risks.
"Fail fast and often. Be a rebel," said Vander Caballero, design director at Electronic Arts Inc.'s (ERTS) Montreal studio.
Caballero, who has been charged with fostering innovation at the studio, urged developers — including those working at the biggest shops — to rethink the game creation process and get their rough ideas down without worrying about graphics and other technical issues.
"You're either going to come to something great, or it's going to explode," he said.
Xinghan "Jenova" Chen, the creator of "flOw," is a living example of just that.
The 25-year-old game maker produced another game called "Cloud" that was not a commercial success despite winning accolades from developers. He now runs an independent company from Sony's offices in Los Angeles.
FREE THE RADICALS
Gamers and financial analysts bemoan the "sequelitis" that has helped video game publishers ride out the uncertainty of the recent move to new video game consoles in relative safety.
Technological advances have also increased pressure on developers large and small as they grapple with the rapidly inflating cost of making games for Sony's PS3 and Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) year-old Xbox 360.
Activision Inc. (ATVI) said its forthcoming "Spider-Man 3" game cost more than $35 million to develop.
"It raises huge barriers to entry," said Josh Resnick, president of Pandemic Studios.
Stormfront Studios Chief Executive Don Daglow, who has weathered each of the industry's console wars during his more than 30-year career, said the end of the last console cycle was accompanied by a "lament of the lack of the innovative."
The silver lining is that during the first few years of a console war, which is where the industry now finds itself, is the best time for maverick developers to launch new games, Daglow said.
The success of Microsoft Corp.'s console-connected Xbox Live Arcade download service, of Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s Wii motion-sensing console controller and of new online information-sharing and game distribution technologies have emboldened game makers to stretch their wings.
Torpex Games founders Bill Dugan and Jamie Fristrom, who helped lead work on the "Spider-Man 2" console games before striking out on their own, plan to debut their new game "Schizoid" on Xbox Live Arcade before year-end.
Matt Wolf, an independent developer in Los Angeles, said opportunities abound for nimble, small-budget game makers who can turn out the equivalent of break-out films such as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" or "Saw."
"There is a lot of room for a middle ground. The first person to figure that out is going to win big," Wolf said.