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Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen

Co-founders, ThatGameCompany

How they’re innovating: For newbie game designers fresh out of USC’s Interactive Media program, things happened pretty fast for Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen. Almost as soon as they’d graduated and formed thatgamecompany in 2006, the games division of Sony Electronics signed them to a three-game deal.

“We’re an external studio,” Santiago explains. “But we’re ‘on the lot’ with Sony in Santa Monica.”

Santiago and Chen cultivated a counterintuitive theory about videogames: that perhaps new opportunities were to be found by breaking out of established genres like swords-and-sorcery or first-person shooters, and by making games accessible to less-experienced players.

A project Chen created at USC, “Flow,” requires no instruction manual or pre-briefing. Players adopt the role of a sea creature that must eat and navigate the ocean to survive and evolve, all to a meditative musical score. The graphics are elegant and minimalist.

Popular on Variety

“Our vision is for games to offer a wide variety of different experiences and attract all kinds of gamers and nongamers,” Chen says.

While the original version of “Flow” was released for free on the Web, Sony put out an enhanced $7.99 version on its PlayStation Network last year.

Santiago says it was the No. 1 downloaded game on PlayStation Network for 2007, and it won a Game Developer Choice Award as best downloadable game.

Thatgamecompany’s second game, “Flower,” looks to be similarly simple and organic — though Chen and Santiago won’t offer details. The company now has eight employees, six of them USC alums.

“We think that games can be a valid medium for artistic expression,” Santiago says, observing that so much of the games industry has become dominated by sequels and knock-offs.

Take: “We believe in the snowball effect,” Chen says. “If we keep making these games, more and more gamers will want to see stuff like this. It’s not about killing each other, and that could change the world’s perception that videogames are just about teenage boys and violence.”

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