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Sales of the insanely popular video game "Grand Theft Auto V" passed the billion-dollar mark just three days after its release this month. But not everyone sees mainstream titles as the industry's game changers. When searching for the next big thing, some of the biggest gaming companies actually look to the little guys: indie game developers. And as NPR's Daniel Hajek reports, they're finding them this weekend at a Los Angeles festival that brings out the underground talent.
DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: They call it the Sundance of the video game world. Every year in Culver City, California, an international community of independent video game creators gather at the IndieCade Festival. Tents are up on sidewalks where visitors play the latest games. But don't bother looking for "Assassin's Creed" or the upcoming "Battlefield 4." It's indie games only, and the developers here are some of the best. They're the trendsetters that the mainstream industry follows.
ADAM BOYES: They take more risks. They do more crazy things. They innovate. They roll the dice a lot.
HAJEK: Adam Boyes is the vice president of publisher and developer relations at Sony. He says this is where PlayStation comes to discover fresh talent.
BOYES: We have a group of people that are cruising around with a checkbook ready to sign sort of the next big indie hits. It absolutely could be somebody's big break, yeah.
HAJEK: Damon Baker from Nintendo's licensing department says indie games have an edge that you won't find from big studio productions.
DAMON BAKER: Some of the best rated content on Nintendo platforms comes from our indie developers. So it's really important for this community to know that we embrace it, we cultivate it. It's awesome.
RAMBOD KERMANIZADEH: So here. So if I take the depth off of it completely and...
HAJEK: Mm-hmm. Game developers were slammed this week preparing for IndieCade. Rambod Kermanizadeh, a senior at USC, along with Trevor Rice and John Bair, spent hours putting the finishing touches on their self-produced computer game called "Code."
KERMANIZADEH: Get it up to 15 and you'll go to the next level. But now we got enemies coming in, which you want to avoid because they'll kill you right away.
HAJEK: At IndieCade, they'll have a chance to meet one-on-one with Sony to pitch their game.
KERMANIZADEH: If we do really good and Sony takes it and they love it, you know, that could be essentially a game changer for us.
HAJEK: It could mean a deal and distribution.
MARTY SLIVA: For me, you know, indie games are sort of like the Wild West. It's where there's really no limitation to what you're going to create.
HAJEK: Marty Sliva is an associate editor at IGN.com. He says competition is fierce because almost anyone with a computer and an idea can create a game.
SLIVA: But the big problem is, well, if there's hundreds of games every day, you know, how does yours rise to the top?
HAJEK: Sliva says some developers have given up careers and spent their life savings to produce games that end up flopping. It's a gamble.
SLIVA: There's been many cases of, you know, depression and relationships breaking up and, really, this just eating away at your life, you know? And there've been a lot of people too who you devote years to to a project and afterwards, you know, it's like, well, what do I do now? Like, this is what I did when I woke up until I went to bed. And now, I don't have, like, I have to start at the beginning again.
HAJEK: But for some, earning that coveted spot in the indie gaming world is worth the risk.
SLIVA: Everyone in this office, you know, gravitates towards these indie games and passes them around when they release. And these are the things we get excited for.
HAJEK: Meanwhile at IndieCade, Kermanizadeh says he can finally take a deep breath. He met with Sony, and it was promising.
KERMANIZADEH: We showed them the game, kind of talked about it. They asked us questions, and they played it. There were smiles on their faces, and they really enjoyed it. So it went great, yeah.
HAJEK: Just one step closer to distribution. Developers like Rambod Kermanizadeh may lack the big studio financing, but they're ready to take on the industry's giants. These indie developers are the ones changing the way we game. Daniel Hajek, NPR News, Culver City.
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