(Adds Microsoft, Sony comments, context)
By Scott Hillis
SAN FRANCISCO Feb 20 Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) and Nintendo Co Ltd 7974.OS unveiled on Wednesday new online services for their video game consoles to showcase games by independent developers, part of a push by the companies to tap enthusiasm for so-called casual games.
The $18 billion U.S. game industry, increasingly dominated by sequels and licensed properties, is turning to independent developers for inspiration much as the movie industry uses festivals like Sundance for fresh ideas and to discover new film-making talent.
Microsoft said trial versions of the first independent games, with titles such as "JellyCar" and "The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai," were available immediately, and it expected hundreds of games to hit the service by the end of the year.
Microsoft used its keynote at the Game Developers Conference to officially launch the service for its Xbox 360, underscoring the importance it expects such simpler games to play in broadening the appeal of that machine.
"Now we have another entry point, which is games made by people in their bedrooms," John Schappert, vice president of the Xbox Live online platform, said in an interview.
Microsoft, playing to its traditional strengths in software development for personal computers, began offering game production tools to amateurs and hobbyists about 18 months ago under an initiative dubbed "XNA".
"We've seen the democratization of game development, but it will also take something new, the democratization of game distribution," Schappert told the conference.
Nintendo said its WiiWare service, to launch in the United States in May for its Wii console, would help lower the cost and risk of creating new games.
Sony also has been pushing independent games through its PlayStation Network, using the service to spotlight games like "Flow" and "Everyday Shooter", made by teams of just one or two people.
"It certainly makes the whole device a friendlier thing, because there are games for everybody," said John Hight, director of production development at Sony's Santa Monica games studio.
"It's easy to experiment. If it only takes a year to go from an initial idea to your home, then we can try a lot more things. This is the closest we've ever been to our customer," Hight said.
The efforts are unlikely in and of themselves to boost console sales, which are mainly driven by expensive A-list games. But they help create the perception the companies are addressing concerns about the rising cost of game development, which can run into the tens of millions of dollars for a typical blockbuster.
"It's good PR. They are encouraging and investing in independent developers. Developers need it because the big guys are now coming into the casual business," said IDC analyst Billy Pidgeon. "These kind of indie quirky games give them a little more cachet. You want some indie cred."
The Xbox Live service has 10 million users worldwide.
Chris Satchell, general manager of XNA, said the tools would also let developers make one game that could run on the Xbox, a Windows-based computer, or Microsoft's Zune media player. Apple Inc's iPod devices already support games.
Satchell said Zune games could tap the built-in wireless capability to allow multiplayer action.
Satchell said Microsoft will not control the games that make it on to the service, relying instead on a peer-review process that will make sure violence and other controversial content is properly labeled.
"I'm not going to be the arbiter of what the community does," Satchell told the conference. "We are not saying don't have these things, we're saying be honest about it, tell people what's in the game." (Reporting by Scott Hillis; Editing by Marguerita Choy)