ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
It used to be video game designers learned their trade from other designers. That created a gaming monoculture and gave much of the industry a stale air.
Well, for the last five or 10 years, universities have been offering degree programs in video game design, and now, their graduates are working their way into the system.
Heather Chaplin introduces us to two such graduates from the University of Southern California, who are bringing a little fresh air to the gaming business.
HEATHER CHAPLIN: Kellee Santiago grew up on Nintendo.
Ms. KELLEE SANTIAGO (Video Game Designer): I'd always played video games. I hadn't thought about making them up until that point.
CHAPLIN: She was doing experimental theater in New York before she enrolled at USC.
Ms. SANTIAGO: And then it was when I took the first game studies class we had, taught by Tracy Fullerton, and that really opened my eyes up to, in a way, how video games were sort of the new interactive theater.
CHAPLIN: Jenova Chen was supposed to study computer science. He'd made games as a hobby when he was a teenager, but by the time he got to USC, he was disenchanted with them.
Mr. JENOVA CHEN (Video Game Designer): Even though we grew up with games, at the same time, the gamers are actually outgrowing the games. Very few games have achieved those qualities that would be interesting to an adult.
CHAPLIN: The experimental theater girl from Richmond, Virginia and the computer programmer from Shanghai, China, could only have met at USC's Interactive Media Division.
Their first game together was "Cloud." It's about a little boy who imagines flying out his hospital room window and into the sky, where he make shapes out of the clouds, moving white clouds over dark ones to keep the sky from raining.
(Soundbite of video game, "Cloud")
Mr. JOHN HIGHT (Director of Product Development, Sony Computer Entertainment America): And then you start kind of getting the picture. Oh, I've got to kind of, you know, fly around and move this stuff to make the world a better place.
CHAPLIN: John Hight of Sony stumbled across "Cloud" at a student showcase while scouting games for the PlayStation 3.
Mr. HIGHT: I thought yeah, you know, we need something like that. That's different.
CHAPLIN: Hight's been in the video game business for more than 20 years, and he knew he'd stumbled on something special. The PlayStation 3 boasts games like "Killzone 2," "Street Fighter IV" and "Resident Evil 5." Chen and Santiago were making something totally different. It didn't make his heart race, it made him feel relaxed.
Mr. HIGHT: One of the marketing people asked me, so what genre is it? And I said completely straight-faced, I said, it's Zen. And they kind of looked at me. I said Z-E-N, Zen. And they said, Zen? What the heck is Zen? I said, it's a new category.
CHAPLIN: Zen games certainly weren't the selling point for the Playstation. Hight immediately got on the horn with Santiago and Chen's USC professor, Tracy Fullerton.
Mr. HIGHT: So I called up Tracy. I said, hey, you know, what the hell, Tracy? You know, you have these students that did this really cool prototype and you never told me. And she goes, I kept meaning to, you know, get you in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHAPLIN: By graduation day, Santiago and Chen had formed That Game Company and had a deal with Sony Santa Monica.
(Soundbite of video game, "Flower")
CHAPLIN: Their first game out of school was "Flower." You play as a stream of petals on the wind. You soar past flowers that burst into bloom when you go by and navigate around a landscape of fallen electrical towers. The game is beautiful and evocative, at times serene, at times unsettling.
(Soundbite of video game, "Flower")
CHAPLIN: The game was inspired by Chen's reaction to Southern California after growing up in the dense cityscape of Shanghai.
Mr. CHEN: Having the "Flower" game, it should feel like you have a backyard, a virtual backyard that leads you to the nature, even though you're living in a forest of skyscrapers.
Ms. SANTIAGO: "Flower" we think of as a video game version of a poem, and by that we mean that it presents ideas to the player, but it also asks the player to bring their own experiences to the table, as well.
CHAPLIN: Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen are bringing something into the industry it hasn't had before. They're part of a wave that had come out of an academic program instead of working their way up in a game company.
Professor TRACY FULLERTON (Professor, University of Southern California): And really, the challenge when we started the game programs was to create the next generation of creative leaders.
CHAPLIN: That's Tracy Fullerton, Santiago and Chen's professor and mentor.
According to Fullerton, the program's graduates had precious time to study the creative process, learn how to collaborate and to experiment. She says there are some things the commercial industry just can't provide.
Prof. FULLERTON: The one thing that they're not free to do, now that commercial games cost so much to make and they take so long to make, they're not free to take risks, right? So they're not free to, say, ask a question like, what if we made a game just about an emotion? Right?
CHAPLIN: But with a new generation entering the industry that has been trained to ask such questions, big changes are sure to come. Programs like USC mean more people with diverse backgrounds and diverse inspirations making more diverse kinds of games. Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen are just the beginning.
For NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin.