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Originally published Monday, March 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Self-taught programmer from Shoreline now cutting-edge game developer

Your chances of seeing the gorgeous new video game "Flower" are probably slim, because it's available only on Sony's PlayStation 3 console...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Your chances of seeing the gorgeous new video game "Flower" are probably slim, because it's available only on Sony's PlayStation 3 console.

That's too bad, because it's fantastic — a kaleidoscopic blast of spring after a long, dark winter of zombies, aliens and mobsters in gameland.

Instead of pretending to be an armed warrior, you play as a flower petal.

Riding gusts of wind, you swoop through flowers, collecting a whirling tail of petals spreading color across a landscape that starts out looking like Kittitas County in the dry season.

The progression is familiar to gamers. You complete tasks that unlock the next level, working toward a grand finale.

It gets challenging, but "Flower" is easy to learn. There are no button sequences to remember; you navigate by tilting and twisting the motion-sensitive controller.

The game, which debuted Feb. 12 as a $10 download from the PlayStation Network, suggests even small game-development shops are getting the hang of the PS3's exotic Cell processor.

It's also a victory for independent game developers — at least the artistic ones concerned about the dearth of new concepts in mainstream games.

But the best part of "Flower" may be that it was engineered by a 24-year-old who taught himself to program in the Shorewood High School library.

John Edwards is now lead programmer at That Game Company, an artsy Santa Monica, Calif., studio started by a group of film students.

Edwards studied physics at Grinnell College then moved back to his parents' house in Shoreline.

That's where he was holed up in 2006 when That Game Company landed a three-game publishing deal with Sony and began looking for a programmer.

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The call came from a mutual friend who organizes indie game events, where Edwards had long been showing games he built with a group of friends in Shoreline who started making board and card games in elementary school.

"It was just something we did — go outside, throw around the football, then come inside and make games," he said.

In high school, Edwards arranged to spend a period each day teaching himself the C++ programming language, but it almost didn't happen.

"The administration was very leery of letting him do any programming because they were afraid what he might do to the computers, but he proved to be a very conscientious and trustworthy kid," recalled Sue Mautz, Shorewood computer technician.

Edwards learned the language and wrote a game — a shooter called "Flea X" — but what Mautz remembers most was a mind-boggling documentary he did on quantum physics.

One of seven

Now Edwards is among seven employees at That Game Company who work out of borrowed space in Sony's Santa Monica studio.

The setup is technically an incubation. Sony provided equipment and mentors who helped Edwards and the team get up to speed on the PS3's powerful but notoriously challenging multicore Cell processor.

Developers are still learning how to use the Cell more effectively, said Jared Noftle, technical director at Airtight Games in Redmond, where a group of mostly ex-Microsoft developers are building games for the PS3 and Xbox 360.

"It's been a slow process. It's incrementally getting better," he said. "The next round of games — I wouldn't say in the next year but in the next two years — you're going to start seeing some of the lessons being learned and applied in good fashion."

Breakthrough

Edwards said the "Flower" team had a breakthrough one day while joking about the ballyhooed processor.

They were struggling to capture the emotion outlined by "Flower's" creative director, Jenova Chen, who inspired the team by showing them reverential flower pictures posted on Flickr.com.

Edwards saw a deep respect for nature that reminded him of growing up in the Northwest, in a house in the woods. The challenge was getting that feeling into a game.

"From the technology end, what I was getting obsessed with was that feeling — green, verdancy — because that's what I grew up with," he said. "That's how it was in Shoreline — the trees and the grass and the moss. Everywhere you look it's green."

The team decided to have lots of grass. Edwards spent a long time reading papers on how to render grass and trying different techniques but it wasn't working out.

"As a joke, someone said, 'Well, with the power of the PS3, why don't we just render every single blade of grass,' " he recalled.

That turned out to be the solution, and a way to do something unique on the PS3.

"One of the reasons grass made a lot of sense was that each individual blade takes quite a bit of processing going on because we have this wind simulation going on and a lot of other magic," he said.

"Flower" renders 200,000 individual blades of grass at a time, while also rendering 100,000 other objects, such as circles and glowing dots that appear above the grass.

The goal was to make the landscape feel alive, "like a character, like it's responding to you, like you can play with it."

"It was actually surprisingly simple," Edwards said, explaining how the load is spread to multiple "synergistic processing units" in the Cell. "We realized that grass was a very parallizable system, so the process of making it work was pretty much write the code, put it on the SPUs and boom."

Broader application

Although the PS3 is unique, Edwards believes he'll be able to apply his learning to other platforms.

That's especially valuable as multicore processors are becoming standard on all sorts of computers, pushing programmers to learn new approaches to make the most of the hardware for all sorts of applications besides games.

"We've certainly learned a lot about multicore programming, which is the future of programming, by working with the Cell," he said. "It's been a great teacher for us, a trial by fire at times, but we're coming out stronger as a result of it."

The Cell's complexity has limited the number of games for the PS3, which has lagged other current generation consoles since it was launched in 2006. Through January, Sony sold 7 million PS3s, compared with 14.2 million Xbox 360s and 18.2 million Wiis, according to NPD research.

Edwards acknowledged there are fewer machines that can run "Flower" but said there are benefits to having only one platform to worry about.

Cutting edge

Regardless of the platform, he's enthusiastic about exploring new territory.

"We're seeing the first generation of people who were completely surrounded by games their entire lives. The NES generation is entering the work force; some of those kids are becoming adults who made games," he said.

"So the focus on what games can do has evolved, and it's sort of trying to touch on more emotions than just anger and conquest and victory, trying to sort of examine more about just what life is like not as just an adolescent kid but as an adult, a person, a human."

In other words, they're finally putting the petal to the metal.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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