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Despite the odds, indie games and the mainstream meld at E3

Even with other avenues for attention, indie developers need gaming's most mainstream summit to earn mass market exposure and time under the spotlight.

Evan Greenwood, left, from South Africa-based studio Free Lives plays his team's game Broforce with an E3 attendee at Sony's PlayStation booth. Nick Statt/CNET

LOS ANGELES -- Surrounded by the glowing green and waves of indigo that lapped over every inch of Microsoft and Sony's E3 booths here, independent video games are out in full force.

Rubbing shoulders with multimillion-dollar titles, the panoply of quirky, graphically blocky, and creative titles demoed on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles provided mainstream players with a stark contrast to the industry's traditional fare.

And unlike the recent past, when wartime shooters, epic action titles, and gaming's most iconic brands made it all but impossible to have a positive presence at E3, this year provided indie developers an even more sizable chunk of the show floor's stage with which to get the word out. The shift reflects indie games' growing popularity since console makers, like Apple and its iOS App Store, began selling downloadable titles.

But an indie developer's reasoning behind showing up to E3, the industry's largest, loudest convention for traditional video games, may seem murky when you walk the floor. Squeezed into the Los Angeles Convention Center's West Hall is a lesson in sensory overload, with ear-splitting electronic music, glitzy displays, and long lines of people waiting to try the newest demo of Project Morpheus, Sony's virtual reality headset, or Destiny, Bungie's sci-fi shooter, a game with a $500 million budget.

So why travel all the way to Los Angeles, sometimes from Europe, Africa, and Asia, if only to get drowned out by the giants?

"It's still incredibly valuable to be here. What E3 offers us is the audience that's already here," explained Frank Cifaldi, head of business development at Other Ocean, makers of indie game It Draws A Red Box, stylized as IDARB. Microsoft invited Other Ocean to showcase IDARB at E3 on the Xbox One as part of its ID@Xbox program, the company's development and self-publishing platform for indies. "E3 specifically is great because there is such a concentration of people that can help this game succeed."

Games like IDARB would have never been playable at a gaming expo as large as E3 if not for the steady fusing of the indie and mainstream markets. The mini-renaissance in the games industry came about when consumers were able to pay for and download digital titles onto their Xbox 360 and PS3. Thanks to that shift -- and the gaming media rallying behind indies -- players and developers now flock in increasing amounts to popular events with dedicated indie focuses, like the Penny Arcade Expo that showcases four times a year in the US.

Even more important to an indie's success, small studios now self-publish and sell directly to players -- through Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms; Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox Live stores; and Valve's Steam marketplace for PC, Mac, and Linux titles.

Yet while getting your game out there has never been easier, getting it noticed has remained an ever-changing challenge. That's where E3, still the worldwide nexus for the year's most important gaming announcements, comes in.

"It's always been a battle. Even though some of these avenues have opened up, you could still put your game on Xbox Live and never sell it," said James Petruzzi, founder of Discord Games, creator of Chasm, the Kickstarter-funded indie game that was given booth space by Sony to show the title off on PS4. "We don't have a marketing budget. We can't sell ads," he added.

"Consumer shows are better -- PAX, for instance -- but you need to be at the GDC [Game Developers Conference] and E3 to show to journalists and the industry," said Martin Brouard, executive producer at Frima Studios, makers of cooperative game Chariot, another ID@Xbox game given booth space by Microsoft.

For a game like Chariot and Chasm, just attempting to change the mind of gamers who only expect to have fun while playing Call of Duty, Forza, or Uncharted is worth the trip, especially if Sony and Microsoft are willing to set the booth up for you to promote their hardware. "There is a lot of word of mouth here. In the indie space, those are the weapons that you have," Brouard added.

E3 meant for big players, but now more welcoming than ever

E3 is undoubtedly for the biggest, most expensive players in the industry. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo -- alongside publishers like Ubisoft, Activision, and Electronic Arts -- dominate E3, both physically and in terms of the news cycle.

But indies are increasingly present here in key ways, showing up in trailer reels during the big publishers' press conferences more and more each year. Microsoft took time out of its 90-minute event on Monday to announce two indie games -- Inside from celebrated Limbo developer Playdead Studios and Moon Studios' Ori and the Blind Forest.

Sony even invited indie developers onstage, as it did notably with indie veteran Jonathan Blow, whose Xbox Live Arcade title Braid made him an industry celebrity. (Blow was at the unveiling of the PS4 last year to showcase his next game, The Witness.) This year, Sony brought out recent Carnegie Mellon graduates, courted by its new San Mateo Studios, to unveil Entwined, the PS4 exclusive.

Gamers playing Entwined, an indie game produced by Sony's own San Mateo Studios that was given screen time during its Monday press conference. Nick Statt/CNET

The surge in indie focus is not only because these games -- which break conventions and continuously push the medium beyond its tried-and-true formulas -- are now making more money than ever before, but also because they represent a new kind of business model for traditional companies to tap into. Apple recognized that a 30 percent cut of revenue on its App Store was a goldmine for mobile games, which monetize quickly and virally erupt in popularity. Sony and Microsoft operate in a similar landscape.

Because those companies happen to control influential and robust digital marketplaces of their own, they can transform a dormant game put together by five friends in an apartment into an overnight success. Both Sony and Microsoft also know that if they can get their hands into that market by publishing these games or making them platform exclusives, they can reap the benefits of the growing fusion of indie and mainstream gaming. Both have done it to blockbuster success before, Sony with PlayStation's award-winning Journey, for instance, and Microsoft with Limbo and Bastion.

But though the console makers are clearly self-interested in some respects, that doesn't discount the fact that both companies have long been openly courting indie developers without having a financial stake in their success. At E3, it's clear that indies have a place if they're willing to plug Sony or Microsoft's hardware in the process.

It comes back to exposure -- and getting the game in front of the eyes of mainstream players who don't eat and breathe the niche Web forums and indie gaming conventions.

"I think PlayStation and Xbox embracing indies is very good," said Brouard, who happily accepted water to battle the stream of heat pouring into the back end of Microsoft's indie game kiosks, where Chariot was setup. "If you don't know it exists, how are you going to discover it?"

It's also a symbol of a more symbiotic relationship between the bigger companies and the smaller developers. "It's jointly beneficial," Cifaldi said. "We're here to promote their hardware, and they're helping us. They gave us two kiosks. It's free promotion," he added while fiddling with a controller to put up a running demo of IDARB on his second kiosk screen, so that attendees could see it in action as they walked by.

"There would be no way to be here without Sony's help," Petruzzi said, squeezing between a group of three or four players who were eyeing the two screens Chasm was playing on at Sony's booth. When asked if he would still have shown up without Sony, Petruzzi was reticent. "Probably not for us. We can't afford space," he said. Cifaldi said IDARB may have set up in a hotel suite at E3 if Microsoft hadn't invited them.

James Petruzzi of Discord Games at the dedicated Sony booth for Chasm, a game his team successfully funded on Kickstarter last year. Nick Statt/CNET

The ultimate goal is not necessarily to get up there onstage with Sony, like the folks who made Entwined, or to get your title on the schedule for Microsoft's game announcement lineup for its Monday press conference.

"We realize that this has kind of gotten away from what we originally got into games for," Petruzzi said, pointing all around him to the explosions and guns and photo-realistic glimpses from Hollywood-style trailers. "Some people want the fame, but that's not really why we're making games."

Standing out at E3: A lesson in contrast

Standing next to Evan Greenwood, from South African developer Free Lives, at the Sony booth for his game Broforce was a near-perfect illustration of contrast. A trailer for something -- a shooter maybe, or perhaps a $100 million action game -- was blisteringly loud and stretched across Sony's trademark gargantuan screen, a wraparound display that can be see from essentially any point within its show floor booth.

Broforce, on the other hand, is a retro-looking, satirical patriotism "run 'n gun" game in the vein of the classic Metal Slug series. Essentially, it was made to make fun of the very shooters that dominated the environment around it -- and to be a ton of fun.

"A lot of people have a certain taste here, and a lot of it is thrown together," Greenwood said, looking around at the mix of indies and mainstream titles standing side by side. It's Greenwood's first E3, though he's been to PAX East, where getting direct player feedback from people who came to try out indie games is more of the point.

"I think it's tougher here to get people excited. I get the feeling that a lot of console gamers aren't interested in indie games at all," he added. Because he was invited here to show off his game on PS4 hardware, his badge doesn't read Free Lives. It reads Sony.

"Don't get me wrong. Being here, at Sony's booth, is really awesome." But you could tell that, though he had only been set up for a few hours, Greenwood wasn't quite sure E3 was capable of achieving a delicate and mutually beneficial symbiosis between indies and mainstream games.

That's precisely why a chunk of E3's show floor, at the less populated South Hall, is dedicated to indie games not affiliated with either Sony or Microsoft. Called IndieCade, the showcase features 30 games that span all different styles of development and distribution, from physical card games and toys to Ouya titles and free PC games. It was there, away from all the noise, that one could get a sense of how indie developers, beyond marketing and standing out, see the purpose of bringing new experiences to a traditional, mainstream environment.

"I think a lot of the mainstream gamers are not aware," said Asher Vollmer, creator of mobile sensation Threes, which is now on its way to Xbox One. Vollmer is an established fixture at the more indie-friendly gaming events like the Penny Arcade Expo and the Game Developers Conference, but he made his way to E3, via IndieCade, to play test an in-progress title called Close Castles.

"Indie games are very good at making people realize that there's more to this," he added.

Game designer Ziba Scott, co-designer of Elegy for a Dead World -- a side-scrolling game inspired by and themed around British romantic poets -- was at IndieCade for more intangible reasons as well. "Without accolades or articles, people are likely to gloss it over it," he said, explaining that it's more detrimental to him that his art be written off or misunderstood. "It's about getting some validation."

Back at Microsoft's ID@Xbox kiosks, the prospect of standing out was met with mixed reactions. Indie developers understood that their presence there was to gain exposure at all costs, but -- like Greenwood's thoughts on mashing up Broforce with anything and everything else -- there was an air of discontent at having to compete with established franchises placed in the same line of sight.

Frank Cifaldi plays IDARB with E3 attendees at Microsoft's indie games section on the show floor. Nick Statt/CNET

"We can't compete with a Lamborghini," Brouard said, pointing to the mustard-yellow sports car spinning in front of a giant promotional screen for the upcoming Forza Horizon 2.

Cifaldi had a different take, pointing away from his IDARB kiosks. IDARB was on the edge of the ID@Xbox section, meaning triple-A games from established developers were available to play right next to his. He highlighted one demo opposite his for the next installment in the Naruto line of console games, adapted from the popular Japanese anime and manga series. Next to that was a kiosk for the latest World of Tanks, a hugely popular online multiplayer game.

"Naruto looks fantastic," he said. "But I almost think I stand out better here than at an indie-specific showcase...having a weird, dumb game."