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[Updated below with winners]

Situated in a far corner of the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle this weekend is a showcase of top-notch game development and design on the Xbox 360. But they aren’t from any of the big game studios. They’re the 21 semifinalists in the latest installment of a Microsoft contest called Dream Build Play, in which independent game developers compete for cash prizes.

Some of the games — including the great Solar 2, pictured above — are already available on Xbox Live’s Indie Games Channel, which features downloadable user-generated games. On the show floor at PAX, we spoke about the contest with Pete Isensee, principal program manager in the Xbox Advanced Technology Group.

Pete Isensee

What’s this all about? The idea is to let independent developers show off innovation … and have a chance to win a prize. The top winners get a combined cash prize of $75,000 — $40,000 for the grand prize, $20,000, $10,000, $5,000. We judge the contest on three different criteria. We’re looking for these games to most of all be fun to play. Secondly are they high-quality, high production values? And are they innovative? Are they creative? Which is generally not a problem with the indie game development community.

What kind of quality are you seeing now in these games? That’s the most amazing thing — year over year, the quality bar is just ratcheting up. It was very difficult to pick this year. We had 250 entrants. A worldwide competition. We’re showing here the top 21 finalists. We had hoped to narrow it down to 20, but there was a tie, it was so competitive. You can see the quality of the games, they really speak for themselves.

Do you consider these professional games? Well, anybody can produce indie games. A lot of these games are created by maybe one or two people.But the quality of the games, particularly the finalists, is approaching professional quality.

Are these available for the general public to play at home? Many of these games, not all of them, but many of them are already published on the Indie Games Channel on Xbox 360, and the winners of the competition all get the opportunity to be considered for an Xbox Live Arcade publishing contract. That’s one of the other benefits of the contest.

More details on the semifinal games available here. The winners will be announced Sunday.

Update, Monday afternoon: Here are those winners, via Microsoft …

  • Guillaume Martin of France earned the grand prize of $40,000 for “Blocks that Matter”, a puzzle/platformer game.
  • Jay Watts of Australia earned the first prize of $20,000 for “Solar 2”, an open-world, sandbox game.
  • Julian Volyn from the U.S. earned the second prize of $10,000 for “TIC: Part 1”, the first in an action-adventure game series.
  • Jason Wishnov from the U.S. earned third prize of $5,000 for “Sequence”, a mash-up between a rhythm game and a RPG.
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