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A Man For All Seasons: gameLab’s Eric Zimmerman Talks Design, Trends, and the Big Apple

Gamasutra sits down with gameLab CEO Eric Zimmerman to talk about creating games, trends in the industry, and the New York games scene.

Eric Zimmerman

New York City, cultural center of the world; here you can find it all... music, the arts, baseball.... basically anything, except - a vibrant video game scene? Enter Eric Zimmerman, who is many things: game designer, academic, businessman. But to many people, and above all else, Eric is a passionate, vocal voice of the New York game development community.

The most obvious representation of Eric's talents and philosophies is gameLab, a game development company which he founded over five years ago, and where he's currently the CEO. It's one of New York City's most successful games developers today, with just fifteen full-time employees, but a concentration on "casual" or web-based games (including the popular Diner Dash and Subway Scramble, as well as a host of earlier web-based games for Lego and innovative early Flash titles like Loop and Blix) which makes its size entirely suitable for its nature. But, to get to the bottom of Zimmerman, we started at the beginning.

Gamasutra: Tell us a little about your background.

Zimmerman: I've been working in the game industry for almost 11 years in a variety of different contexts. Starting off on PC CD-ROM games, I was a freelance consultant, doing education stuff, stuff for entertainment, stuff for adults, stuff for kids.

I was trained as an artist, studying painting as an undergrad, then got an MFA in art and technology. But my whole life I had enjoyed not just playing games but making games. Even as a little kid, I used to make up rules when playing with plastic army men, variations on kick the can for my neighborhood friends to play. I just always enjoyed making games for whatever reason. And I guess it's continued.

Gamasutra: What did you first start working on, game-wise?

Zimmerman: I did two PC titles; one was while I was working for RGA Interactive in New York City called Gearheads, a dueling game about wind-up toys. Another one was an edutainment title called Robot Club.

Gamasutra: When and why was gameLab created?

Zimmerman: I was working freelance, and with Peter Lee [co-founder and current gameLab President] and Michael Sweet [currently running AudioBrain, gameLab's digital audio partner], we all created a game called Blix together on our own. It became a finalist in the 2000 Independent Game Festival in the Game Developers Conference and I realized that if we going to sell the game and negotiate with companies, they would want to negotiate with one and not a bunch of individuals. So we formed gameLab around that time. Then Shockwave.com paid us an advance on royalties for exclusive rights to that game, which allowed us to open our office.

Gamasutra: Was this a first?

Zimmerman: No. That was during the dot com days, so lots of money was being tossed around. People were actually giving you lots of money for an idea which you could just then develop. That's how Loop [gameLab's second game] got started. And the Blix advance allowed us to open our office. But shortly after that, things got tougher; the dot com crash, and then Sept 11 happened, so there were a lot of challenges and it was very hard to stay alive during that time because most of the work that we've done is work for hire.

That's why we really trying to do more downloadable games like Diner Dash and Subway Scramble.

Gamasutra: gameLab has been around for almost five years. How have things changed?"


Blix

Zimmerman: We've steadily grown, taken on bigger and bigger projects, and have been forced to become more disciplined about our process. At any given moment we have three to four games in the middle of or in full blown-development, and another three to four projects that's not, such as consulting work, or just early concepting on a game. Considering that we have just fifteen people and there's more than half that number of things going at once, and that's a lot of stuff to juggle."

One of the main reasons why gameLab is particularly noted its dedication towards pushing the game design envelope, albeit on a smaller scale in terms of personnel or size. Zimmerman's thoughts on the subject has been well documented, with the best example being the book Rules of Play that he co-authored with Katie Salen, which examines game design fundamentals and theories.

Gamasutra: What's a common mistake that most designers make these days?

Zimmerman: I dunno. Game design is such a big field.

Gamasutra: Is there one possible thing that they're doing wrong? A series of things?

Zimmerman: Well, there's plenty to talk about in terms of what wrong with today's games. A lot of people talk about how it's very genre-fied, but that's more of a business crisis than a creative crisis, so i could say designers need to be more experimental, create new forms of play. But that's as much of a business problem as it is a design problem.

I think that many games fail on the very fundamental of design interactivity. Meaning, the game isn't communicating the state well to the player. The player took and action and isn't sure what happened and why.

Gamasutra: Would you say your challenge as a game designer is independent of the technology?"

Zimmerman: For me, the fundamentals of game design is not about technology. I think of it being part of the history design play which is thousands of years old. Though obviously, the medium in which you're working is incredibly important when doing the actual design and development of the game.

Gamasutra: One thing which gameLab is well known for during the development of any game is play-testing. How important is this process? At what point does it kick in?

Zimmerman: Play-testing is more important the more experimental the game is. If you're doing a copy of an existing game, playtest is less important, because you already have models of what works and what doesn't work. The more you deviate from an existing title or genre, the more important it is to playtest due to design uncertainties; Is the core mechanic fun? How does the player learn about this? What elements should come before others?

Our rule of thumb is that we'd like to have a working prototype 20% of the way into the project. So one month into a five month game, we're playing the game, though that's a maximum; we'd like to have it sooner than that. The prototypes are usually very ugly and they don't represent the final experience, but they begin to test the game rules and interactivity. And hopefully address the things that are the biggest questions marks, and that's "Is this basic idea of gameplay fun?"

Gamasutra: Do you playtest among yourselves or friends and colleagues?

Zimmerman: We are the initial playtesters, and as the development proceeds, the circle widens.

Gamasutra: Is there such a thing as too much play-testing?

Zimmerman: There can be. Gearheads was the first title I worked on. Frank Lantz [gameLab's senior game designer] and I were the two game designers on the title, and we played that game so much that we kept on tweaking up the difficulty so that it would challenge us, but the game ended up being too hard.

But like anything, you can do it well, or do it poorly like Frank and I did, by not including other people in the play-testing. Again it also depends on the kind of audience that you're designing it for. If you're designing a game for little kids, you need little kids playing the game. You can't bring in an adult play-tester and expect them to have the same kinds of challenges and question a little kid would have. in terms of game skills and even physical skills, depending on the age. Same thing when you're designing a game for a casual audience; you want to try and find testers who are not hardcore gamers.

Another thing that we feel is really important at gameLab is just playing games. Peter and I are always encouraging our staff to play board games at work. We also have a console area set-up... That's part of the greater idea of integrating research into game design development. When making games, probably the most important form of research you can do is playing games.

Gamasutra: What do you think makes a game work, in terms of playability?

Zimmerman: There is no one thing that makes a game work. That's like asking what's the one thing that makes a movie work? There's many correct answers to that question. Different games have different aims and succeed or fail at those aims. The point of the game might be to tell a story, to communicate a political message, it might be to have a certain type of social interaction...

Gamasutra: How different is a board game from a video game? Just the form?

Zimmerman: The fundamentals are similar. Both kinds of games have rules and goals that put players in situations where they have to make meaningful choices. It just depends on your point of view... from a game design point of view, they're fundamentally linked, and game designers have a lot to learn from the broader scope of things that's followed the rubric of play.


Gamasutra: What's you opinion of game academia today? Especially since video games is such a hot topic at colleges across the nation.


Diner Dash

Zimmerman: I did an event called RePlay about four, five years ago. I was just re-reading the introduction I wrote to the book that came out of that conference, and it's funny because it's says "If you want to be an architect, you can study architecture, there's books and journals on architecture", and at the time there wasn't anything on games. And now just a few years later, there's been a huge explosion in the last five years of universities offering courses on games, both scholarly and critical, as well as game design developmental courses. In addition, there's also a growing number of people that are studying games... sociologists, law and policy people.... everything you can imagine, almost every academic discipline... neuroscience, psychology, media studies.

Is it great? Well it's like any new field that's highly inter-disciplinary; most of the work is not that interesting, but it's exciting that it's happening. So I try very much to stay in tune with what's going on there. Academic studies of games is important for a lot of reasons, in terms of gaining cultural legitimacy, which helps against the constant tide of people wanting to regulate game differently than other media.

It's also important because there are great huge, unsolved problems in games. In other words, the subject matter that we see depicted in games is relatively narrow. Scott McCloud talks about what he thinks about what comics could depict or could do as a medium and what they have done, and he sees it like we've seen a little narrow slice and there's this whole huge world, and I think it's even more true about games.

Comics have this interesting history of alternative and underground comics, and there isn't much of that sort of things in games. But I think that there's another area where academic studies can help. There are these fundamental game design problems and if people can learn these some of these basics, some of these common mistakes, and learn what it means to design a game earlier, than not everyone will have to bang their heads on the same problems. That's what Rule of Play was about, of creating a possible set of notions of what games are and how they function, and to help educate people who will either study games or make games.

It's not for everyone. There are plenty of great practitioners of game design and development that turn their noses up and that's fine too. It takes all kinds of approaches.

Gamasutra: What do you think the reason for that is?

Zimmerman: There may be personal reasons, also cultural reasons; some people have a sort of innate resentment of book learning as opposed to doing. Then there's also the fact that academic work has not caught up with the actual games being made. Plus there's lots of academics that are trying to write things about games that are really not that insightful to be honest. On the other hand, academic work on games shouldn't have to justify its existence by being useful to game designers and developers. The sociologist who's studying player interactions, that person's work should be foremost useful to the disciple of sociology, not to game design and development. It's interesting to me, but I don't want those academics to feel justified and they often do to connect their work with the subject matter.

Gamasutra: Do you feel that some game design schools might not be properly preparing students for the rigors of game design?

Zimmerman: Well, they're better equipped than someone who didn't go to the program. Quality of education varies considerably, as with any field. Also, people look for different things; here at gameLab, we're very small, and every staff member is going to be doing different things. Every staff member is going to be generating ideas,and giving feedback on user experience. And with the kind of work we do, which is very collaborative, and very alternative, it's important that people are also culturally sophisticated, and have interesting lives and interests outside of the company.

We don't want grunt workers who only can do one thing really well, like just work on programming or just 3D texture really, really well, or just Q&A and nothing else. But on a game like Final Fantasy, with 300 people working on a game, you need very specialized skills.

Gamasutra: With the scope of games growing to such a massive scale, people used to do a bit of everything, now it's very compartmentalized. Is this a negative or just the evolution of things?

Zimmerman: I think that disciplinary specialization is important. I don't think it's bad or different, but just how the field is evolving.

Gamasutra: Any gaming trends that are exciting or bothersome?

Zimmerman: Well, I could talk about the increasing homogenization of the field of commercial games. That's sort of an old song, but I still think it's true. If you go to E3 where Sony and Nintendo have their booths and stand everywhere, you can see hundreds of screens at once, and they almost all look exactly the same in the sense that they're all 3D spaces with a horizontal plane in the middle and an object in the lower center of the screen. It might be the barrel of a gun, a vehicle, a person running. And it's amazing, considering how with today's technology we can really put almost anything on-screen, that there's such a structural homogeneity, both terms on aesthetics and in terms of content, but especially in the structure of the gameplay... it's shocking. But it's also hard to innovate. And as I said, that's both a business dilemma and a creative or design dilemma.

As for what's exciting? I'm kind of excited by the rise and growth of alternative business models. In other words, we've been in web games for five years, and finally there's something that seems to work which is downloadable games as a business model. I thought that it might lead to more innovation, a whole renaissance in game design of people creating weird, strange things. But in a funny way, the major online game portals are just as conservative in terms of what they're looking for as the retail publishers. That's something that both excites and frustrates me at the same time.

Gamasutra: So what is it like to create games in New York City? Is there a "scene"?

Zimmerman: In New York, there never was a major game developer that made good, which is what's required to get a scene going. Austin had Origin, and over the past 20 years people could go work for five, ten years, leave, and start their own companies... but they had all this experience. That's what it takes for a city to be a center of game development. And there just hasn't been a successful, long-lived, robust New York developer. Cross Over Technologies, which then became Unplugged Games, was it for a while, Hyperspace Cowgirls was doing pretty well... but those companies don't exist anymore.

New York is a cultural center, and I think there's an interesting opportunity for a game scene to come out that's different than the California culture. There's a different sensibility, a different kind of pretentiousness here.

We've been looking for programmers recently and it's incredibly hard to find experienced game programmers in New York City, Either it's people who worked in the industry and moved out to New York and are too expensive for us, or people right out of school and who don't have any real experience. It's challenging in that respect, but on the other hand there's tons of people who are incredibly enthusiastic about wanting to get into the industry. I think when I was in junior high we all fantasized about making comic books as a dream career... I also used to think about designing amusement park rides or pinball machines [chuckles]... but I think now, creative, maybe slightly geeky kids are really into wanting to be game developers as a career choice.

But it's like that around the world; I was talking with someone recently who runs a company in Chile . He has a studio with about a dozen people; they do a lot of outsourcing, 3D work and animation, and I'm like "Wow, you must the hottest game company in Chile" and he says "We're the only game company in Chile". So I don't want to take it for granted... yeah, it's a struggle here, but there's lots of possibilities, and it's even harder in other places.

Gamasutra: A common sentiment around here is: I know I want to do games, so I have to move out of New York.

Zimmerman: That's the best advice you can give somebody who wants to do games in New York City. Someone getting out of school should get some experience in the industry first.

Gamasutra: So what about the game development scene around here then? Is there one?

Zimmerman: Oh yeah, there definitely is one. And I think it's growing bit by bit and gameLab does what we can to support it. We do events, have panels and conferences, and our game nights every month or two. We also try to really support the programs; Peter & I encourage our staff to teach at places like Parsons, NYU and SVA, be visiting critics when they need people to critique student work.

Most of the people in New York are doing web-based games, cell phone games, which is good... business models are starting to arrive. I used to think, even after we started gameLab for first two or three years "okay we're doing web games, but we're not going to be a real developmental company until we're doing retail games. And then, it was two GDCs ago, I think, and it was just so bleak for retail games. That was the year Warren Spector, who he's a good friend of mine so I'm not knocking him, gave a talk on the game design keynote which was on licensed titles and said "Hey, stop whining, licenses titles can be great, I'd love to work on a Scooby Doo game.

It was controversial, as it was intended to be, but people were really up in arms. And I thought to myself, the possibilities for experimentation, creating new kinds of gameplay, content, and esthetics, are so much more in the realm that we're working, where the budgets are smaller, there's room to spin off side projects quickly... even though we can't work on problems that are as large as retail games, there's some amazing opportunities are. So I had this realization that we were a real game company, and in some ways in a better spot than many others. There's all these amazing, talented, interesting people stuck at retail companies working on another sports franchise game, so I'm totally happy where we are.

And I'm happy that New York is focused on web games since there's a lot of potential there. I'd love to see retail developers start here too, but I don't know if that's going to happen. It's not about rent... people sometimes say it's too expensive here, but it's just as expensive in L.A. or San Francisco . There just isn't a critical mass of experienced talent to help better mentor others.

Gamasutra: Considering how far games have come today, and all that has passed, is there enough room, space, or time to making new leaps in games? Or are games so refined to the point that achievements will always be somewhat more incremental from this point on?

Zimmerman: I think the next gigantic leap that needs to happen is not in design, but in business and economics that will allow for the emergence of new forms of experimental game design. Whether that means universities setting up research groups, or an alternative scene that's commercially viable, like independent film, or game foundations and festivals, or something else. I don't know.

I don't see it happening anywhere very well right now, and that's because the problems are pretty big right now. That's the big challenge right now: what are the models, funding sources, and institutional relationships that will allow such experimentation to occur. And gameLab is our attempt to do that.



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