One of the most anticipated games of the year is made by a company practically no one's heard of.
Alongside industry giants like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, there's a small British company called Hello Games. In 2014, the company, then only 10 people strong, announced a space exploration title called No Man's Sky that became one of the most highly decorated games of the video game industry's biggest trade show last year.
On Monday night, Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray stood in front of a crowd during a Sony press event at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and showed off a universe with 18 quintillion -- with a Q -- worlds to explore that would take billions of real-world years to see, even if you spent just one second on each.
The video game industry is going through a rapid transformation. The popularity of smartphones, tablets and virtual reality goggles has forced game developers to rethink the way they make and sell games. Some of the top video game makers in the world -- like Supercell, maker of the hit Clash of Clans strategy game -- didn't exist a decade ago.
It's also led video game console makers to rethink how games for their devices are made and who makes them.
"You're missing something if you don't have a No Man's Sky," said Jonathan Blow, a game designer currently creating a puzzle game called The Witness. "Right now, the higher-end indie games are what you want to have."
Parade of the indie developers
Console makers' increased focus on indies can be traced back five years, when publishers like Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft and Take-Two Interactive were whittling the number of games they produced. Electronic Arts, for example, went from making 67 games per year in 2008 to 10 last year.
When Microsoft and Sony began offering customers a way to buy and download games over the Internet, it wasn't terribly exciting. The titles being offered were oldies-but-goodies like Ms. Pac-Man, the puzzle game Bejeweled and the action adventure game Sonic The Hedgehog.
Spurred by the popularity of app stores for PCs, smartphones and tablets, independent developers were starting to gain prominence. They were creatingmade by teams often no bigger than a dozen people. A watershed moment came in 2008 when Blow's puzzle game Braid was released for the Xbox. More titles followed, including the exploration game Limbo from Playdead and the puzzle game Fez from Polytron.
Now, in 2015, Sony and Microsoft are shifting their efforts to supporting these game developers more than ever before. Part of the reason is that they offer a robust library of games to customers, filling in the gaps left after large game makers cut down on their lineups.
"The entire landscape of game development has changed, and the console makers had to adapt," said Greg Kasavin, a writer and designer at Supergiant Games, an 11-person game development company based in San Jose, Calif. As a result, he added, they began paying much more attention to small game makers.
Large game makers join in
When Sony held its press conference at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Los Angeles three years ago, the company barely showed any games by independent studios. In 2013, it devoted about nine minutes of its 1 hour, 47 minute presentation to showing games from independent developers. On Monday, it was 14 minutes.
"Our goal is to have the best of everything," Adam Boyes, who heads up Sony's relationships with outside game developers, said in a separate interview.
Since joining Sony three years ago, Boyes has tried to make it easier for developers to create titles for the company's PlayStation devices. He's cut down on paperwork, for example, and he's made it easier for developers to get special PlayStation 4 devices used to develop games.
The upshot is that Sony may stumble upon a hit game from a small development team. It also helps give the company credit among gaming enthusiasts who enjoy the often quirky nature of games made by these small teams.
"We help become the purveyor of new and different games and that is something that is really important to our company," he added. Sony has gone to great lengths to assure the public of its commitment to indie developers, including bringing Blow onstage to talk about The Witness at the global unveiling of the PlayStation 4 back in February 2013.
Notably, Blow is developing The Witness exclusively for the PlayStation 4, and SuperGiant Games jumped ship from the Xbox to make its latest game, Transistor, for Sony's platform.
Microsoft has followed a similar tack, trying to re-establish its reputation with indies after losing big name developers to eager Sony. Chris Charla, who manages the Xbox indie games business, loosened the restrictions on the way games can be released for the Xbox in March. The company is also trying to sell small developers on Windows 10, its newest software to power PCs, due out July 29. A key new feature will let developers more easily make games for both the Xbox and the PC.
"There are 1.5 billion PCs in the world running Windows," said Shannon Loftis, Microsoft's head of studio publishing. "That has to be super appealing to indie developers."
Even EA is joining in. On Monday, the company, which makes some of the industry's biggest games like the war simulation game Battlefield, announced plans to publish a new adventure game called Unravel, made by a 14-person team in Sweden called Coldwood Interactive.
Andrew Wilson, EA's CEO, said the company was inspired to work with Coldwood because its game offered an experience different from what it normally made. That's not an easy thing to do, he added, as demands for visual sophistication and Internet services drive up game development costs.
"When I got into this industry, three to four people could get in a garage and build a game," Wilson said. "There's a place for these other games to get made and a place for them to get played."
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