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Portland couple rolls the dice on indie video games

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Portland couple rolls the dice on indie video games

PORTLAND — As a low-level villain, your job is to climb the ladder of an evil mega-corporation by peddling weapons, narcotics and cars on the black market.

Buy low, sell high is the name of the game, but you'll also need to develop condos at your island headquarters to attract "junior executives" who can fend police and others away from your pursuit of global domination.

That's the premise of a video game called "Notorious Inc.," and it's coming from Chickadee Games, a Portland studio recently founded by a married couple who hope to show the industry that the city can be the next hub for game development.

The video game industry is virtually non-existent in Maine, much less Portland, with only a few studios around the state, including a small satellite office for Activision-Blizzard, publisher of the popular "Call of Duty" series.

The goal of Adam and Sarah deGrandis is to make good work that gains public traction and shows colleagues that Portland should be their destination, instead of cities like Boston or San Francisco.

"One of the high-level goals of Chickadee is to shine a light on Portland," Adam deGrandis said, "because this is the type of city where tech springs up, but because nobody knows about it, they don't think anything of it."

The couple met at Maine College of Art when they were freshmen in 2001. Adam now teaches there as an adjunct instructor in the school's New Media program, while Sarah sells crafts on online stores like Etsy.com. Adam started working in the game industry after graduating and leaving Maine in 2005.

"Notorious Inc." is due out on smartphone and tablet devices by April. It's the first game the deGrandises have worked on together. The couple moved back to Portland in 2011 for its quality of life after spending a few years gaining experiencing in the game industry.

The impetus for starting Chickadee Games came after Adam had some unexpected financial success with "Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine," a multiplayer heist game he worked on as a freelance artist for the past couple of years.

"Monaco" has been one of the many critically and sometimes financially successful games to come from smaller, independent studios in the past several years. The so-called indie games movement, which has been boosted by popular games like "Minecraft," has now gained enough traction that major companies like Microsoft and Sony have to consider it as part of their business plans.

"A project like 'Monaco' for a freelancer, you can't plan those things out," Adam said. "When they happen, you kind of have to seize those opportunities. If we're going to do this thing, we're going to have jump on this now."

So the couple started work on "Notorious Inc." last November. The idea of the game is "global domination through finance and jokes," Adam said. He added that some of the game's inspiration comes from "The Venture Bros.," a humorous cartoon series about super-heroes and villains who often experience "beautiful sublime failure," as stated by one of its creators. 

"A lot of people say, 'I like Batman because he's flawed,' but he's not even flawed," Adam said. "He's still an unattainable kind of human being. I would say most people are screw-ups, or just broken in a really obvious, stupid way, like, 'you're going to fix this but you're not going to because you're lazy.' I like the idea of having a world where super-villains or heroes are like that."

Even though mobile games like "Angry Birds" have proven that selling games for smartphone and tablet devices can be viable, Adam said the market has since become over-saturated, which can make projects like his a "roll of the dice."

But that doesn't mean the couple has nothing to gain.

"Even if it doesn't sell well, what we gain is a ton of experience doing this, and that was one of the goals of this game," he said, noting that this is the first time Sarah has worked on a game. "... Even if it's a commercial flop, we're still better for it."

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.