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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?"
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.