The Independent Games Movement (Part Five): Interview with Eric Zimmerman

A while back, I ran a series of interviews with Manifesto Games's Greg Costikyan (Part One, Part Two) and Indiecade's Stephanie Barish (Part One, Part Two) talking about the current efforts to spark an independent games movement. Both of them offered some unique perspectives about what independent games are, why they matter, how they fit within the current games culture, and what steps need to be taken to promote more experimentation and innovation in game design. I plan to continue this series from time to time with other interviews which showcase innovators, experimentors, and entrepreneurs who are helping to build the independent games movement. Eric Zimmerman was the person who introduced me to the concept of an independent game some years ago and his work for GameLab consistently embodies for me the experimental mindset I associate with this particular category of cultural production. I run into Zimmerman four or five times a year at various conferences and consistently find him an engaging personality and a lively thinker. As long as I have known him, Zimmerman is someone who has consistently pushed us to broaden our definition of what games can do and who has proceeded to prototype, build, and market games that expand our conception of this still emerging medium. Eric Zimmerman would rank high on anyone's list of the top game theorists -- Rules of Play remains probably the best book written to date about game design and is rapidly emerging as perhaps the most widely taught text in the emerging field of games studies. What gives his ideas about game design such credability is the ways he has put them into action, working with his smart team of fellow designers, through projects like Arcadia, Diner Dash, Loop, Blix, and Sisyfight 2000, among other Game Lab titles. Every Gamelab game has a point -- as we discuss here -- an underlying theoretical question which drives the design process. Each one contributes something vital to our understanding of the medium as well as illustrating that there are a whole lot more different kinds of play and fun that the marketing department of Electronic Arts might care to imagine. The GameLab titles are the best case I can imagine for the value of producing and distributing games outside of the major studios. I will be running this interview over the next two days. The first part deals mostly with the issue of independent games and with the ways GameLab approaches its business. The second part digs deeper into the Game Designer project which Zimmerman is developing with Katie Salen and James Paul Gee -- which promises to be a significant part of the new Digital Learning and Youth project recently launched by the McArthur Foundation.

You have been a longtime advocate of the independent games movement. How do you

define independent games and what do they bring to games culture?

The idea of "independent games" is a slippery but important concept. I think there are a number of ways to consider what they are - I like to use the notion of independent film as a way of thinking through what indie games might be.

On the one hand, it's possible to think about independent film as something which is small-scale in terms of scope of production - a homemade film project on a shoestring budget, as opposed to a major studio release. Related to this is another definition of independent film, which refers to the ways that a movie is funded and distributed - perhaps funded through an arts grant, and distributed via festivals, instead of more mainstream means. Lastly, an independent film might be seen as something which questions the conventions of mainstream cinema through its form or content - from avant-garde experiments to political documentary.

There are other ways of conceiving of independent cinema as well, but these three (production, business, & design) help describe some of the challenges of creating independent games. The game industry is a cultural field that is currently dominated by large-scale games that cost $10 to $20 million or more to create, games that are funded by large corporations, distributed through the bottlenecks of retail, and are largely genre-generic titles. At Gamelab (a company I founded in 2000 with Peter Lee), we try and address these questions, making small-scale experimental games that are still commercially viable.

To me it is less important to define exactly what independent games are and instead figure out how to create innovative games that expand the boundaries of digital games, a form of culture that is only a few decades old and still has vast spaces for experimentation and invention.

What do you see as the major factors enabling or hindering the emergence of the

independent games movement at the present time?

We are more or less stuck in the middle.

It is certainly possible to create new kinds of games through traditional big-money funding and major studio production - Will Wright and his very large team at Maxis are doing some fantastic work along those lines. On the other hand, there are plenty of players and amateur designers creating levels and mods, and games as a form are great at engendering this kind of productive fan culture.

But at my company Gamelab we've chosen a middle route. For our purposes, as a studio with a staff of 35, we need to figure out how to make independent games that are in the middle between huge retail titles and freeware fan culture and still be commercially viable. To solve this problem, we've been attacking it from all the angles I mentioned in my response to the first question - how to keep games small but something that will still generate revenue; how to get these games funded and distributed; and how to explore new kinds of content, aesthetics, and gameplay.

There aren't any easy answers. For example, some look to the business model of downloadable games. [Sometimes called "casual games" - although I personally despise that term, as what musician would say that she creates "casual music"?!] The model of downloadable games seems promising - at first. It allows smaller games to be distributed to a very large audience over the internet. However, the major game portals are surprisingly conservative about what they will put up on their sites. And as a whole, downloadable games are generally quite generic and often shameless clones of other games - hardly a burgeoning sector full of gameplay innovation and cultural insight. Right now there aren't any perfect contexts for independent games.

On your website, you suggest that project-based funding may be a key economic

model for the independent games movement. Explain. What does this mean and how

does it change the way games get made?

Well, at least it sounds good on paper!

Generally, a game development company like Gamelab does not have the money to pay for its own games to be created. The most traditional route for finding this money would be for us to work with a publisher, who funds our games, and then also markets and distributes them. Because of the nature of most game publishing contracts, it is difficult for developers to earn healthy royalties from this kind of deal, even if a game is successful.

Another possibility would be getting venture capital investment, in which individuals or organizations invest in the company, and then own a piece of it. The hope of the investors is that the company will go public (which is unlikely for a game developer) or be purchased by a large publisher or other company (somewhat more likely). We have resisted this scenario so far because our independence is important to us - becoming the kept studio of a large publisher would curtail the kind of experiments we want to explore.

So working with Ruth Charny, an independent film producer, we cooked up a third option, which is project-based financing, a funding model borrowed from the film industry. In project-based financing, investors invest only in one project, or possibly a slate of projects, rather than in Gamelab as a whole. They earn back their money (and hopefully some profits) directly from the revenue the games generate. Gamelab in this scenario is acting like the publisher, marketing and distributing the games.

We have gotten three downloadable games funded in this manner, each with a different partner. We are working with NYC-based animation studio Curious Pictures to create Out of Your Mind, a game about little creatures inside everyone's heads; an individual investor funded a game called Work, a parody of office life; and we partnered with LEGO to create an original, somewhat psychedelic game called LEGO Fever.

Luckily, the process of distributing downloadable games is much easier than distributing them through retail, so it is something that Gamelab can manage on its own - although we will also be working with partners to get the games on cell phones and in retail boxes. It has been difficult to find project-based investors, however. My feeling is that in 10 or 15 years, when there are enough wealthy people that believe games are an important cultural form, we'll see a boom in independent games. Right now, however, the people that invest in independent film aren't gamers and don't see the glamour or importance of games.

We recently participated in an online forum discussing whether games are art.

You offered an interesting response, distinguishing between design and art.

What do you see as the value of understanding games as a field of design? Why

do you resist the concept that games might be considered art?

Henry, Henry, Henry...! I don't resist the concept that games might be considered art. I resist the naïve way that most game developers themselves conceive of the concept of "Art." I recently attended a think tank-style weekend gathering that included many amazing game developers. As we discussed the future of game design, a common note in the conversations was a lamentation of the eternal, oppositional relationship between art and commerce.

Even a little study of art history reveals that for the past 500 years (at least!), the creation of culture has been intimately intertwined with economics. Although today's game developers work with cutting-edge technologies, they cling to a pre-Modern, Romantic idea of cultural production, one that I believe hampers the creation of games that are more relevant to our contemporary times. Games don't have to be self-contained Renaissance windows into coherent narrative universes. In fact, play is always already self-referential and metacommunicative (referencing Gregory Bateson).

For me "design" (instead of "Art") is a way of thinking about game creation that sidesteps these thorny issues. Design in my mind is associated with problem solving rather than with the expression of the artist's inner life. It is also a mode of cultural production that acknowledges the importance of integrated research and an iterative, playtesting-based process. The naïve version of "Art" too often implies a solitary visionary being internally inspired, something at odds with a healthy game development process.

But ultimately the distinction between art and design is more of a tactical one for me than a definitional one. I want to see game developers creating games that can speak to our times, and I don't think that will happen as easily when they are operating from outmoded cultural models.

Most of your games seem to emerge, in part, from your group's interest in experimenting with the basic building blocks of games. Walk us through some of the thinking behind your most recent games --Plantasia and Egg vs. Chicken. What ideas drove this design process?

I'll do even better and talk about a couple of games that we are about to launch - Arcadia Remix and Out of Your Mind (a game I mentioned earlier). You are definitely right that often our design focus at Gamelab has to do with investigating the "core mechanic" of a game - the repeated action that forms the heart of the interactivity. That's in part due to the fact that because of the downloadable business model, we make small-scale games that need to "hook" players with an addictive play mechanic.

Arcadia Remix , published by VH-1, is a redesign of a small game we did a few years ago, Arcadia. (Henry, I believe you've actually written about Arcadia.) Arcadia Remix is made up a series of tiny, very simple games that are all played at the same time. The mini-games are incredibly straightforward - actually bordering on boring - but playing several of them simultaneously becomes quickly challenging. The play emerges as the player manages her own attention to the different games, with strange, syncopated rhythms evolving from the overlapping play patterns. It's also an interesting game because the mini-games are all parodies of classic Atari-era games, and so we're appropriating our own history as the cultural and formal building blocks for the experience.

Out of Your Mind is a somewhat perverse and silly game in which the player works in a brain spa, removing nasty little creatures called Nega-Tics that live in our minds and cause bad behavior. In this case, the gameplay involves drawing lines with the mouse to spear the creatures and remove "brain gunk" by looping around sections of the playfield. The interaction consists of making quick and elegant gestures with the mouse, as the player's cursor swoops and loops through the space. Again, this kind of play pattern is something we haven't seen in other games.

There are many ways to innovate on the level of game experience. Often, game developers try to create new kinds of stories, content, and aesthetics for their games. In addition to these vectors for innovation, we try at Gamelab to invent new ways to play, which means focusing on new kinds of play mechanics, game logics, and interactions. Both of the games I mentioned will be available for play by the end of January.