Last month, 21-year-old Blade Olson took the stage of a darkened USC auditorium dressed in a three-piece “Saturday Night Fever”-style suit complete with spread collar. As disco music pounded through the speakers and a crew of disheveled technicians hunched over computers in the wings, Olson tried out a couple of dorky dance moves in front of several dozen video game fanatics, but the real action unfolded on the big overhead screen. There, two fingers performed like legs, sliding, tapping and hopping across the surface of an iPad.
The annual GamePipe demo day, hosted by USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, usually showcases student work modeled on big-budget video games that boast the production values of a Hollywood feature film. But Dance Pad is cheap to make and easy to master. As Olson and his team demonstrated, the virtual dance floor allows couch-surfers to record “moves” and share the resulting videos on YouTube with like-minded hoofers.
Olson, a recent graduate from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Program, says he and his Dance Pad partners cranked out a completed iPad app in just 10 months. By contrast, he says, “It can take three to five years to make a big-budget 3-D game with maybe 200 people working on it. You get one bad review and that might mean $23 million down the drain. To make what we made, you don’t need much time or money. You just churn it out and if the game does bad, OK. We didn’t waste that much money. But if it’s huge, you make tons of money like an Angry Birds.”
Olson refers to the addictive Finnish iPhone game that pits wingless birds against green pigs. Created by a tiny team of Rovio Mobile designers and priced at 99 cents, Birds has been downloaded more than 100 million times, establishing a new paradigm for DIY tech wizards. Instead of trying to find fresh spins on elaborate, console-based shoot-’em ups targeted to young male gamers, independent-minded digital artists are embracing iPhone, iPad and other lightweight devices as platforms that expand gaming well beyond the confines of boy-centric virtual violence.
Anticipating the emergence of “lite” gaming back in 2007, Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab introduced a course in Facebook apps. In Los Angeles, Otis College of Art and Design is following suit by launching its first class in mobile game development this fall. Otis Digital Media chairman Harry Mott says: “Students flocked to the course in droves. We didn’t have a course description, but the class filled up immediately.”
Eddo Stern, director of UCLA’s Game Lab, agrees that apps have become a “huge” topic among students in his school’s Design-Media Arts department. However, he worries that young designers may overlook artistic substance in pursuit of immersive brain candy. Stern says, “I’m interested in games that have a point of view and go beyond the time-waste, or ‘casual gaming’ as the industry calls it. To me, there’s a big question: Is it possible to make games meaningful and closer to other media in their potential to reflect the complexities of life rather than smashing zombies all day?”
Media artists such as Alex Braidwood, 32, are in fact harnessing smart devices as the means to a more aesthetically nuanced end. The Art Center College of Design graduate programmed the iPhone’s built-in camera to function as a sensor that detects blue, red and yellow tones. The Synesthetic Din program then translates the colors into an ever-shifting electronic composition that plays into a user’s ear buds as he or she walks down the street.
“To me the most interesting things about smart phones and iPads is that they have all these capabilities that are just waiting to be glued together in new ways,” says Braidwood. “I like turning these devices into little performance machines.”
Braidwood, who last month earned his master of fine arts in Media Design, notes, “Most apps are commodities that people get either because it helps them do something or it’s some kind of novelty game. But there’s this space in the middle where it’s not about guiding you to the best sushi restaurant in town but more about helping you wander around and discover something new that you did not see or hear before.”
Art Center graduate Scott Liao has similarly toyed with the innards of iPad tablets to create what he calls “enriched narrative.” His Anonymous Triangle piece allows viewers to aim a sensor-rigged iPad at projected short films to trigger back-story texts about the various characters. “With current tablet technologies,” says Liao, 27, “we have the chance to change our viewing behavior from passive to active.”
Spectrum, produced by a five-student Computer Science team from USC, hews to the “quest” conventions common to many games but takes a kinder, gentler and more cinematic tack than most. Artist George Nelson scanned in archival images of Aztec ruins and combined them with original photography to create scenic backdrops. “I wanted to draw upon this rich cultural heritage for the visuals,” explains Nelson, 28. In place of violent missions, Spectrum challenges the user to steer its heroine through a black and white landscape. Her mission: Bring colors back into the world.
For artists armed with high-end computing skills, conventional game structures can serve as an entry point to more ambitious experiments. Consider When Pigs Fly, produced by 29-year-old Nisha Pan. Six months ago, Pan had never played a game in her life but needed a project to complete her master’s in science degree at USC. “I went to the farmers market and saw this guy selling a trinket pig with propeller wings. My friend said, ‘Oh, look, when pigs fly.’ I thought, ‘That’s a great idea, I should make a game about that.’”
Pan took a self-administered cram course in mobile game playing, then with two colleagues created a pixilated platoon of flatulence-powered hogs that load up cans of pork and beans to smash enemy birds. High art? Hardly. But Pigs got Pan thinking about new ways of stretching the medium. “Apps attract people who are not into desktop games, which I feel are geared toward teenage boys who like to shoot things. But everybody has an iPhone, so people who are not into that kind of genre can develop creative ways of interacting with their phones.”
Catering to this broader gaming market, more than 300,000 apps now vie for consumers’ attention on Apple’s App Store, which is vetted by a review team that tests games for content and functionality. Google’s rival Android store offers thousands of other options. Dozens of how-to books in the “Apps for Dummies” vein target do-it-yourselfers eager to enter the app creation business.
While competition to create a hit app has become ferocious, those who craft a winning formula reap rich benefits. Silicon Valley start-up Zynga, for example, earned a $10-billion valuation by cranking out mass-appeal Facebook games like Farmville, which charges users to decorate acreage with virtual cows and other rustic accoutrements.
Still, only a handful of established artists have tried using apps for art’s sake. David Hockney produces most of his paintings these days on an iPad screen using the Brushes digital paint app. John Baldessari designed his own download, In Still Life, which enables users to simulate the style of 17th-century Dutch painters.
Pan cites classmate Noorussaad Armar’s Cosmopolis game as artistic evidence that “contemplative” and “mobile phone game” need not be mutually exclusive concepts. “You propel yourself through the universe a little bit at a time as you absorb matter and anti-matter. It’s really slow, visually stunning and totally different from traditional game play. To me, that’s exciting.”
UCLA’s Stern views smart phone platforms as a wide-open medium for creative types willing to embrace the limitations of a small-screen experience. “Apps are a total rewrite for the industry. Students no longer think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go intern for Sony Entertainment.’ The most positive effect that apps have had is to inspire people with this idea of being more independent-minded. If they don’t want to be one of those hundreds of people responsible for one leaf on one tree on one level of a big video game, they can say, ‘I’m going to make something for iPad or iPhone and we’ll see what happens.’ Now they can really get their own visions across.”
— Hugh Hart, Special to the Los Angeles Times
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