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Small Video Game Startup Takes On Gaming Giants at E3

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Online virtual worlds are a thriving business but they take substantial effort to get off the ground. Even the extremely successful online game, World of Warcraft, took four and a half years to complete despite its $63 million dollar backing for initial development.

In the face of such figures, the unlikely duo of a freelance web developer and a DJ defied convention by creating an online virtual world of their own: one programmer, one artist, and a shoestring budget.

“When we talked about creating this kind of game with just the two of us, we’d get these weird looks,” said Ian Kinsey, the game’s programmer. “We didn’t let it sway us and after years of hard work, the game is in testing and it’ll be released later this year.”

The game, Ensemble Online, is described by the two as a browser-based, online, city-building game. Players explore a massive desert, gathering resources, and constructing cities with friends. More brazen players can even beef up their characters and raise armies to take those cities by force.

“In a lot of ways, developing Ensemble was significantly more complicated than building a typical online virtual world,” said the other half of the duo and the game’s artist, Jesse Martinez. “Plus, those guys have armies of developers, all we had was lots of late nights under our belt. If you’re clever and diligent, anything really is possible.”

That battlecry rings true for a lot of small development teams. These independent game developers, often called “indies”, toil for years at the hope of creating something worthwhile.

The hard work typically culminates at one of the indie-friendly conventions for game developers: Game Developers Conference, Penny Arcade Expo or, the more targeted, Independent Games Festival. However, the industry’s biggest attention earner: E3, held each year at the Los Angeles Convention Center, is notoriously hard for indies to get into.

“It’s almost unheard of, an indie game developer having an actual booth at E3. Most of us can’t even attend,” explained Martinez. “It’s an exclusive event, meant only for gaming’s elite. We’re getting a booth this year to challenge that and sort of shatter the glass ceiling for other indies.”

Kinsey, typically very reserved, added some revealing details: “We’ve come a long way since our all-nighters at Denny’s. We finally have some resources at our disposal, but we still have to scrimp and save. I’ll have to sell my car for us to afford even one of the smallest booths at E3. It says a lot about how much the industry favors the big guys: if you don’t have money, you don’t get in.”

The boys of Ensemble say one of their biggest drives has been a campaign they’ve started called “Indies Crash E3.” Affectionately called ICE by the two, the contest lets fans tell the world who they think the most deserving indie game developer is. The submission with the most votes will take home hotel, airfare, and passes to E3 for the nominator and the indie team they nominated.

Martinez and Kinsey want to give other indie game developers a chance to get the word out about their games at E3. They hope that if the movement gains traction, it’ll draw attention to the elitism of the video game industry, making it easier for indies.

To find out more about Indies Crash E3 or submit your own nomination, visit www.IndiesCrashE3.com. For more information on Ensemble Online or to sign up to play, visit www.PlayEnsemble.com. The Ensemble Online team will be at E3 booth 5650, June 11 through the 13th.

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The unlikely duo of a freelance web developer and a DJ defied convention by creating an online virtual world of their own: one programmer, one artist, and a shoestring budget