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Indie video games get help from a 'big brother'

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In "The Unfinished Swan," players guide a swan escaped from a painting through a surreal world.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sony studios helping to support indie game developers
  • Sony Santa Monica studios scout for developers for incubation program
  • Nontraditional games like "Journey" and "Flower" have been supported
  • In development, "The Unfinished Swan" explores a surreal blank canvas

(CNN) -- Every year, big name video game titles extend their franchise footprint across the gaming landscape with more explosions, deeper storylines or increasingly outrageous gameplay.

But recently, some smaller developers are having an important influence about what games are about, and are getting some help from a big-name "big brother" to take console games in a different direction.

Giant Sparrow is a small group of developers who got behind the vision of Ian Dallas, a graduate of the University of Southern California's game design program. Dallas had the offbeat idea of replacing the often busy landscape of video games with a totally white field and challenging players to explore their surroundings using paintballs to reveal the environment.

He and some of his friends began building the backbone for what would become "The Unfinished Swan," an upcoming game that is based on an "Alice in Wonderland"-styled motif, but features a swan that has escaped from an unfinished painting. Dallas says he wanted to open the minds of gamers and get them thinking about what they're doing as opposed to following an "excruciatingly detailed tutorial."

"This game is about what all of your buttons do," he said. "I wanted to create an experience of a total white space where you don't know anything and you're gradually discovering it on your own in a way that's very player directed."

He posted a trailer online and his game mechanic was featured at an indie gaming event in 2008 called Sense of Wonder, a gathering for new ideas and new talent for the gaming industry. What he didn't know was he was also showing what he could do to talent recruiters at Sony Santa Monica studios.

Dallas said he remembers getting a call from Sony and an offer to meet for coffee. By January 2009, he was fleshing out the rest of his story idea to fully develop his vision with help from Sony, the console-gaming giant.

Shannon Studstill, senior director of product development for Sony Santa Monica, said the studio has an incubation program for young game developers who show great potential and that they understand how the industry works.

She said the studios keep an eye on shows and gatherings for new ideas and fresh talent, then talk with people they like to find out what their thought process is like and what they want to achieve.

"From that, we start talking about the commercial viability of the product, which isn't always the case," she said. "You see what more is going on in that person's head, what is the strength of the idea and how important is it to that person to see that idea realized."

She said Sony Santa Monica gives these fledging teams a base from which to launch their idea and shoulders the burden of some of the more mundane, but necessary, management of game design. This way, the team can focus on developing their idea and not worry about who brought snacks for the day.

Studstill points to the success of thatgamecompany, a development team that produced critically applauded titles like "Journey" and "Flower" while working with Sony Santa Monica.

"We've gotten fan mail from people that have said ('Journey') has changed their lives," she said. "These people are sitting in front of their TVs crying or feeling extremely emotional in that moment. We take a lot of pride in that."

She said Dallas impressed her and Sony talent scouts with the strength of his idea and the conviction he had toward his game mechanic. Studstill said she thinks his game will be a success if they can get just one person to say "Unfinished Swan" has affected them.

"We really believed in where he wanted to take his creative idea," Studstill said. "The opportunity to get in on that and nurture it was pretty obvious early on."

Dallas understands that his game is not typical and is more along the lines of "artsy" video games, like "Journey." But he also wants to carve out his own niche.

"We're looking to try to appeal to two different types of gamers," Dallas said. "We're looking for the people who have played a ton of games and are a little bit jaded and are looking for something that feels kind of different. We're also hoping to appeal to people who don't play a lot of games at all ... and hoping to provide a different kind of experience."

The game is expected to be released later this year on the PlayStation Network.

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