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GDC: Dashing for Independence: Gamelab CEO Eric Zimmerman on the Importance of Self-Publishing


March 20, 2006
 

Introduction

On the eve of the 2006 Game Developers Conference, casual game developer Gamelab has announced ambitious plans for the near future, most predominantly of which being its switch from developer to publisher.

"We'll be financing and distributing our own work," Gamelab CEO Eric Zimmerman said in the recent press release. "For a creatively-driven company, this is an important and necessary step in our evolution: there are new audiences to reach, new stories to tell, and new forms of gameplay to explore."

In addition to self funding, the developer of last year's PlayFirst-published Diner Dash has also announced an initiative to develop games based on an independent funding model, as in the film industry; a mostly unheard-of business model for the video game industry.

In this exclusive interview, Zimmerman discusses the developer's future in some detail, its publishing philosophy, and the growing need for independent content.

Self-Funded Creativity

"As you know, traditionally games are funded by publishers, kind of like a record label model, or a book publisher, with book authors," said Zimmerman. "The publisher provides money and then game developer creates the game on that budget, and then the publisher does the marketing and distribution of the game. And then another model is to get venture capital, where another company acquires part of you. You see that in the retail world, and in our world too."

This model, says Zimmerman, is one specifically designed to inspire creativity in game design; something that, despite criticism he says is a profitable business, due to the vastly unexplored population of potential gamers.

"There are huge untapped audiences for games. And not just exclusively girl games or something. The casual games industry is growing more rapidly than the hardcore industry, though it's still quite small in terms of business compared to retail. And there are all sorts of people who fall in-between hardcore gamers and the 40-something female audience of casual games."

"Our feeling is that no one is really creating games for those audiences. People in their 20s and 30s who maybe want to do something more than mahjong or solitaire but maybe don't want to be an elf for 30 hours a week."

The Struggle for Partners and the Need for Self-Publishing

"I think we have something else to offer," said Zimmerman, "and we've decided that it's hard finding partners that share this kind of vision and that want to take the risks that we're talking about to really create new sorts of games. And additionally we're working in a field right now of online games with a downloadable distribution model, which means that we can self-publish. It's relatively straightforward for a small company to publish."

"The funding model is similar to film, in which an investor invests in a project or in a group of projects, and the investor's not a publisher, so they're not themselves going to distribute and market the game, and they're also not a venture capitalist, so they're not going to end up owning a piece of Gamelab as a result of their investment. And what's interesting is that it gives us much more control over the kind of games that we do. And as I said, I think that there are, from a business point of view as well as creative, so many unexplored kinds of games to make. And that's what we're doing with this kind of investment."

Thus far, Gamelab has three titles to be self-published in the pipeline: the first is an independently-funded game based on working in an office environment. The second is an original IP developed in partnership with Curious Pictures, the New York-based animation studio responsible for creating such shows as Sheep in the Big City and Operation: Kids Next Door. And the third is in partnership with The LEGO Corporation, based around their brand of toy building blocks.

 



Gamelab-developed Diner Dash

 

Downloadable Vs. Retail

"These downloadable games are relatively inexpensive to make compared to retail games. So I think some of the problems that people have had persuing this model at a retail level is the cost. You can invest several millions on a single title, or you can invest in dozens of downloadable games, essentially spreading your risk. And while downloadable games don't do as well in gross, if they're successful they can still generate many many times their revenue, so that if you do a slate of several games and a few are hits, you're talking about a very strong return on investment."

And that, says Zimmerman, is good reason for self-funding from a business perspective. But there are also, he says, creative benefits, which are arguably even more important:

"Many publishers are great about expanding boundaries of games industry, but it's no news to you that the most common complaint is that there's a creative crisis, publishers are risk-adverse, not willing to fund new ideas...so project-based investment is one possible answer to this problem. If you have a vision, and you can distribute yourself as we do with our sorts of games, there's a really interesting opportunity for independent games to be made and distributed. I've written and spoken about this many times, but one of the problems with the industry is that it's all center and no margins, like Hollywood cinema with no independent films. There are some beginnings of things, like the Independent Games Festival, but it's difficult to find ways to do experimental work but still sustain an independent studio. Whereas in film and music, it's not easy, but it's possible."

Interestingly, Zimmerman himself does not believe that the games industry is suffering from a creative crisis. "I would never myself say there's a lack of creativity," he said. "That's not the problem. If you talk to other people, they'll call it a creative crisis, but I wouldn't. I think it's really a multi-level dilemma."

"I'm not saying that we have the answer, but to me it's really exciting that we're actually exploring new funding models for games. It's possible that what we're doing is not totally unique, I think that there may be some big funds set up in Europe, in England or Germany, with funds people invest in while others decide what games that money goes to, but I don't think it happens in the U.S., and certainly not on a by-project basis."

"There are so many new subject matters to explore beyond fantasy and war. We're gamers, I love games and I love that people are making those, but our modus operandi is to look beyond them, and that's really what Gamelab is all about."

 

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