ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. In the 1980s, films such as Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" and "Blood Simple" by the Coen Brothers inspired a new era of independent film making. Over the next decade, Indie films won a larger share of the box office and more influence over the art of making movies. Now, we may be witnessing a similar transition in the world of independent video games. NPR's Laura Sydell introduces us to one example, a firm called Sanzaru.
LAURA SYDELL: Sanzaru has its 25 employees squeezed into a one big room in an office park in Silicon Valley. Glen Egan, one of the company's founders, prefers this to the days when he was one of thousands of employees at the plush offices of Activision, one of the largest video game publishers and developers.
Mr. GLEN EGAN (CEO, Sanzaru): The more people that you have involved, the more time it takes to make sure that their opinion has been taken into account and so on and so forth, which just slows the whole thing down.
SYDELL: Egan says, in the two years he's been running Sanzaru, he's had more creative freedom.
Mr. EGAN: Yeah. We have an idea for a feature. I go talk to a couple guys in here at their desk and - bang - the feature's done.
SYDELL: Egan shows off a game Sanzaru currently has in development.
(Soundbite of video game "Piranha")
Mr. EGAN: This is Butch, the Piranha (unintelligible).
SYDELL: Piranha is the working title of the game. In it, a player is a piranha that sets out to build a piranha army. They pulled this demo together in just seven weeks. It's based on an idea that Sanzaru's creative director had one day. Tin Guerrero is from Peru, where there are lots of piranhas, and he liked the idea of a game about them that took place in the Amazon waters. Guerrero says his idea would likely have died at a big game company, where everything has to fit into marketing research.
Mr. TIN GUERRERO (Creative Director, Sanzaru): We need one of this genre and one of this type and one game just like that one, whereas we have the flexibility as an independent to kind of explore our own creative thoughts and go for it. Whether it's successful or not is another thing.
SYDELL: The next step for Sanzaru is to find a publisher for the game. That is a company to do the business side - packaging, marketing and distribution. They could go to someone like Mike Wilson, CEO of Gamecock, a company that specializes in publishing independent games. Wilson says that, in the early days of the industry, there were mostly small companies filled with people who loved gaming. Games were cheaper to make. Nowadays, it can take upwards of $50 million to develop one.
Mr. MIKE WILSON (CEO, Gamecock): And it's like most entertainment industries now are run by people who have very little affinity for what they actually are building. Its people that play golf, not video games.
SYDELL: Wilson says he wants to help foster the creativity of game makers.
Mr. WILSON: We don't sort of manage them to death, and we've been able to sort of say, OK, we'll be the good guy publishers, the white knight publishers, and we'll just give everybody a good deal and give them creative freedom. And unfortunately, that's such an unusual thing in our business, that it's a kind of a niche for us.
SYDELL: Wilson says, now, just like at the movie studios, many of the big companies are more comfortable making sequels to popular games. Wilson's two-year-old company is willing to take a chance on ideas that are often a little quirky. They are about to release "Mushroom Men."
(Soundbite of video game "Mushroom Men")
SYDELL: The game revolves around a group of fungus trying to take over the Earth from humans. The player is a 3-inch mushroom. Gamecock also released "Hail to the Chimp" this summer, a political satire game in which chimps and other animals compete for political power.
(Soundbite of video game "Hail to the Chimp")
SYDELL: The world of independent games is where serious topics like politics can be taken on in creative and often fun ways, says Tracy Fullerton, a professor of interactive media at the USC. She cites past titles like "Darfur is Dying," which was meant to increase awareness of the genocide there.
Prof. TRACY FULLERTON (School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California): In the same way that the independent film market can feed into the commercial industries some of its better, more interesting, more mainstream titles, I think you have that same opportunity now in independent games.
SYDELL: Fullerton believes the quality and quantity of independent games is growing. She says it's being fed by colleges and universities that now have degrees in game design. There is also a generation of adults who grew up playing them and are looking for more than just kids' stuff. Fullerton believes that independent game makers are poised to influence their industry in the same way that independent film makers have changed theirs. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
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