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


June 16, 2005 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2
 

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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Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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