It’s 1995 and seven-year-old Julian Kantor ’11 has a great idea. He writes a letter to the executives of a company responsible for the video game Pit Fighter, suggesting they introduce a character wearing a chicken suit. Nothing happens.
Fourteen years later, having swapped his Sega Genesis for an Xbox, Julian has arrived in a decade more receptive to amateur innovation. After spending the summer of 2008 learning to program, he created a game called “Groov,” and posted it on the Xbox Live Indiegames Marketplace, downloadable for a dollar. Ten months later, Groov has climbed to rank seven out of six hundred, Julian’s cut of the profits summing more than $8,000. That’s four times what he earned last summer clocking 40-hour weeks at Border’s.
I visit Julian’s suite to check Groov out. Sitting on his couch, waiting for the TV to flick on, I’m worried I’m not savvy enough to understand the action, but Groov isn’t very complicated. There is a box. Outside the box is outer space. Inside the box is triangular you and a lot of swimming enemy shapes that need to be — three guesses here — shot at.
The groovy part of Groov is that shooting the bad guys (geometric forms Julian says are inspired by Gothic architecture, of all things) generates music. Different enemy shapes correspond to different instrumental sounds — guitar, drums, bass, trumpet — that play against a synth backdrop. Best is the rapper, who when hit, says “yeah, yo, what, yo, uh,” but most audibly, “CA’MON” (I’m told the inclusion of the “a” is crucial). His voice is Julian’s.
Each level ups the tempo toward Groov’s promise of a full-on “intergalactic jazz fusion orchestra,” until the enemies thin to a last cluster of trumpets — a natural outro.
Next week, Julian will fly cross-country to attend the Inside Gaming Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., where Groov has been nominated for “Best Indie Game.” The awards, in their first year, will be hosted in the Red Bull Headquarters and streamed online for tens of thousands on the “Inside Gaming” channel. Groov faces formidable competition from “I MAED A GAM3 W1TH ZOMBIES INIT!!!1,” and Julian’s user votes (anyone with a computer can influence the Gamer’s Choice category) are falling behind.
“Groov is more abstract,” he concedes. “And people are obsessed with zombies.”
But Groov’s fans are vocal on the X-Box discussion boards. Curious Sofa writes, “The music is just … entrancing” [ellipsis his]. ThreeCardMonte counts on Groov for “a good cathartic release after a long day of lectures.” You’d expect slang and type-slop from guys like WastedNRG415, but most everyone on the userboards is polite, thorough, and surprisingly grammatical. Some ask for help; some give it. “Sometimes I want to turn around quickly because an enemy spawns in front of me, but I can’t,” Pandapadawan confesses. PrintMatic to the rescue: “To the guy having issues with spawns … Make the game more about finding a route to survive instead of finding ways to kill everything.”
From iPhone application profits to YouTube stardom, this decade has offered up new populist platforms for self-promotion and entrepreneurship. And perhaps the people in the subcultures — fangirls, conspiracy theorists, gamers — have put the blogs and the tweets and the user forums to the best use of them all. Julian plans to do a little networking in Santa Monica — he’s pursuing a Computing and the Arts major at Yale and wants to make music or video games after graduation — but his future might not depend on it. He’s already created something popular without having to pen a second letter to executives.
Under Julian’s tutelage, I give the game a go. I try to push a button that can’t be pushed; I forget what geometric shape I am; I make monotonic music punctuated by brief successful blurts. Quicker than you can say “CA’MON”— in truth, before I even encounter the intergalactic abstraction of a rap artist that would grant this opportunity — I am outspawned. Julian compliments me on my attempt and kindly takes the controller from my hands.