Game designer Eric Zimmerman is a bit like a pit bull, or so fellow colleague Naomi Clark says.
"He gets his mind on an interesting design problem or a challenge that needs to be tackled in a game that he's working on, or when we're trying to come up with a new game," says Clark, a frequent collaborator of Zimmerman's since they met in 1999. "He just clamps on with his mental teeth and sort of shakes it back and forth."
An industry veteran, Zimmerman has spent 20 years working as a designer. "I was trained as an artist, so I studied painting as an undergraduate," he says. "But by the time I graduated, I was doing things that really looked like games."
Zimmerman's first big successes came in the form of SiSSYFiGHT 2000. Developed with Clark and programmer Ranjit Bhatnagar, it was one of the first games to utilize real-time browser-based chat that heavily influenced gameplay. In SiSSYFiGHT, you play as a girl on the playground with her peers; the catch is that you're trying to bring down all of the other girls' self-esteem points by grabbing, scratching, teasing and tattling.
When the game was released in 1999, no one had created a game so reliant on online in-game chat — SiSSYFiGHT is all about forming alliances and backstabbing others as you prepare to make your next move.
For the last five years, though, SiSSYFiGHT has been offline. Since the closure of Zimmerman's studio Gamelab, the game has been in legal limbo. No one has been able to play the groundbreaking title that redefined how we play on the web. Zimmerman hopes to change that.
Returning to the playground
Bringing SiSSYFiGHT back from the dead won't just be a simple re-publishing of the original code. Through a collaboration with Venus Patrol — a site which describes itself as "in search of beautiful things from the world of video games" — and a Kickstarter campaign, the SiSSYFiGHT team plans to re-code and release the game open-source, as well as make it available to play on Venus Patrol's online arcade.
"We're trying to use Kickstarter in an interesting way," says Zimmerman. "We're not making a commercial product there; we're raising money so we can re-code the game from scratch and release the game for free as open-source."
When SiSSYFiGHT 2000 first released on Word.com, it ushered in a new era of web games. "SiSSYFiGHT, as far as I know, may have been the first game that had real-time chat in a browser," says Zimmerman. The game was also about a social conflict that hadn't been talked about in the same way that it is today. "It's not just about little girls on a playground in a social war; it becomes a social war. It is about that backstabbing, forming alliances, deception, bluffing and outsmarting your opponents on a social level."
In essence, it's not just a game about being bullied; sometimes you have to bully others to win. "There are all of these questions about: is what we're doing here OK?" says Clark. "Is it really all right for us to be bullying each other? Is it OK because we're pretending? If I'm saying something nasty about someone, am I actually being mean to the player because we're in an online chat room or is it all just trash talk that's part of the game?"
One look at SiSSYFiGHT and you'll immediately notice that the girls in the game aren't your typical female tropes. As Zimmerman explains, "Representations of women in video games — perhaps it's a little bit less true now, but it certainly was true in the late '90s — were more or less limited to two kinds of characters: you had princesses to be rescued, as the kind of Princess Toadstool; or you had the Lara Croft-style pinup action hero, which was eye candy for a presumed adolescent boy audience.
"There was sort of nothing in between, or at least no deep or rich characters or alternatives in popular games. So what we wanted to do with SiSSYFiGHT was just present a different kind of female gendered character."
In 1999, it was often misunderstood as a game for children, leaving some parents to think that their children were learning how to be bullies. "SiSSYFiGHT is a game about childhood, but it's not for children," Zimmerman says. "It embodies the aspects of play that are transgressive, where it's fun to be naughty and be inappropriate and do and say the wrong things."
"If you write a book or you create a single-player game, that can just sit on a shelf and someone can pull it off to play it or read it again, but an online game is trickier," Clark says.
Zimmerman expresses the same sentiment about the Kickstarter campaign: "It is an opportunity for us to keep this game alive, this important game that we think is interesting in the history of games and the history of the internet and has something to say in contemporary debates and indie games about content and culture and gameplay."
But of course, things have changed since SiSSYFiGHT first entered the gaming scene, the rise of freemium games — free games that are based on in-game purchases to advance the story or acquire equipment — being an example. Clark stresses that the SiSSYFiGHT revival is solely for the fans: "We just want it to be there as a gift for the web. So many web games these days are kind of like a strip mall — you're going from shop to shop and everyone is trying to sell you something with their own little micro-transaction currency — and I think we would like to make SiSSYFiGHT more like a public park with a statue that says 'Created in 1999, back in the early days of web games.'"
Creating new cultural forms
Zimmerman began working as a designer in 1993 at R/GA, a New York City-based developer known for the game Gearheads — a variation on chess and checkers where you play as toys — and left to start freelancing in 1996. In 1999, he created SiSSYFiGHT 2000 with Clark and Bhatnagar, and following its success, Zimmerman went on to found his own studio, Gamelab, with Peter Lee, friend and fellow game designer.
Gamelab went on to create a variety of games including properties for Lego, as well as monster hits like Diner Dash. Zimmerman believes the studio helped create the popularity of casual games before its untimely closure in 2009 — but more on that later.
Today, Zimmerman is a full-time professor at New York University's Game Center, as well as a member of a variety of game designer collectives, such as Local No. 12, the creators of the Metagame, a card-based debate game about video games.
"I'm super into the aesthetics of games and game storytelling and things like that, but really experimental gameplay is my modus operandi, that's what's exciting to me," he says.
SiSSYFiGHT, as well as many of Zimmerman's other games, are based on this concept of experimental gameplay. As the editor in chief of Word.com noted, he is a man who thinks seriously about game design, as well as games in culture. "I remember Marisa Bowe, the executive producer [of Word.com from 1995 to 2000], telling me that she was happy to find someone who understood the craft of games," he says. "[That I] had been making games, [that I] understood interactive design and game logic and the rules of games, but I also thought about games culturally."
Zimmerman has always been keen to pass on his knowledge and love of games to those around him, says Clark. When SiSSYFiGHT was first created, Clark was relatively new to the industry. She credits much of her knowledge about game design to Zimmerman. "He was one of the people who taught me the most about games and how to design games back when there were virtually no academic programs," says Clark. "You couldn't really find a program to learn about games in most places.
"I have osmosed so much from him over the years about how to think about games, how to approach coming up with a new game, how to find the fun when you're trying to come up with a game idea. I consider him one of my foremost teachers."
Zimmerman's creativity and ability to see different types of play goes back to his childhood. "I was one of these kids who just spent a lot of time making games. I used to make up board games," he says. "I made up little rules for army men for playing on the basement floor.
"While part of my motivation for being a game designer was this modernist drive to make new forms of culture that no one had ever made before, it also was returning to a childhood passion."
This drive to create new cultural forms is what led Zimmerman to open Gamelab. "I really wanted to create a context where I could work on original, experimental, innovative games," he says.
"I didn't want to do big, heavy, 3D mainstream games; I didn't want to do this kind of client-based adver-gaming work; I wanted to do small-scale games and I ended up creating a [puzzle] game called BLiX with Peter Lee and [game music composer] Michael Sweet." In 2000, BLiX won the award for Best Audio at the Independent Games Festival.
BLiX was a browser game built using the Adobe Shockwave plugin. With the success of BLiX, Zimmerman and Lee made an agreement with Shockwave.com and licensed the game. "The initial down payment on that allowed us to open an office and we kind of rolled forward from there," says Zimmerman.
Gamelab was born.
Gamelab began as a small studio, focused on independent game development at a time when it was relatively uncommon. "I really can't emphasize this enough because we often forget — 'indie games' just seems like an obvious term that people have been using for forever — but when Gamelab opened in 2000, we used to say in our press materials 'We are an independent filmmaker of games' and it sounded weird, but that was the way to phrase it so that people got a sense of what we meant," Zimmerman says.
The studio quickly began to gain momentum and in a few short years grew to a team of 30 people. Gamelab became known for creating a variety of games, from experimental games like Arcadia, where players had to play four Atari-style games at once on a split screen, to educational software like Gamestar Mechanic, which taught younger players concepts of game design, to the monumental casual game hit, Diner Dash, where the player works as diner waitress Flo fulfilling customer orders. Since its creation, Diner Dash has spawned five sequels and a variety of clones. The studio also acquired SiSSYFiGHT 2000 after Word.com closed its doors in August 2000. These sorts of ventures go to show how influential Zimmerman's mantra of experimental gameplay was at the studio.
"I'm proud of a lot of stuff at Gamelab," says Zimmerman. "I think Gamelab's importance isn't just in the games we made and helping invent casual games, but also helping to define what an independent studio was and also in helping create the local game scene."
"Many, many people passed through Gamelab as interns and staff, as partners and freelancers, as employees, and those people are now running a lot of the studios in New York City," he continues.
"It was probably the worst investment climate in the history of 21st century. Literally, that's what people were telling us."
However, looking back, Zimmerman discusses some of the struggles the studio had. "We were trying to experiment with games, but also were trying to stay alive as a business. When you reach 30 people, that's a big overhead to be making little games for."
To try and stay afloat, Gamelab decided to change its direction in September 2008. The company decided to focus on one of its educational properties, Gamestar Mechanic, which teaches kids ages 8-14 principles of game design through play. With a new objective in mind, Gamelab went through some restructuring. "Now, unfortunately, literally a week after we made that change to the company — we kind of rearranged our staff and decided to focus the company on this multiplayer game — the stock market crash happens," says Zimmerman.
Not much has been written about the closure of Gamelab, which came about as a result of the financial crisis of 2008. "It really hit our company hard and in the end we went on for about five more months, but we had to close our doors," says Zimmerman. "We weren't finding investment; we weren't finding new clients; we weren't finding the business we needed to survive.
"It was probably the worst investment climate in the history of 21st century. Literally, that's what people were telling us. Because of the huge stock market collapse, no one was investing in new games or new ideas or anything like that for a couple of years."
Gamelab closed its doors in April 2009. Even during those tenuous final months, Zimmerman recalls how the staff discussed how much they had loved working there. "In our exit interviews for Gamelab, many people told us that it was really the highlight of their professional career — in other words, it was a genuinely collaborative, creative space where people felt like they could flex their creative muscles, but in a rigorous, design-oriented environment."
"It was hard to let the company go, but I will also tell you as someone who is passionate in game design and not business, I am in many ways happy to be [working as an] independent again," he says.
"That's the great thing about working with someone for a long time, is that you know each other's quirks, you know what each other's strengths and weaknesses are," Clark says.
"I've really come to appreciate over the years the fact that [Zimmerman] does care deeply about being good to people around him and doing the right thing," says Clark. "I think to people that don't know him very well, or who don't have a chance to collaborate with him, he seems like a dynamo steam engine rushing around yelling his opinions about this or that and promoting his latest project and you see the sort of exterior pit bull locomotive of his persona.
"But underneath all that he really does have a heart of gold, and that's what I try to tell people."
In 2009, shortly after Gamelab closed, Zimmerman began working as an adjunct professor at NYU's Game Center. A year later, he began working as a full-time professor. Teaching students about game design has seemed like a natural fit. When passing on his knowledge to others, he offers some tips: "It's really about understanding how iteration happens, how collaboration happens; it's about how to be critical of your own work as it's evolving.
"The starting place where you begin with a project is not going to resemble the ending space, and being a good designer means being open to the kind of improvisation that happens through the act of design and playtesting and iteration," he says.
Being an independent designer again has been mostly beneficial for Zimmerman. However, that's not to say that there aren't new challenges in his life as a freelancer. "I think finding the balances can be more challenging; the balance of my personal life, my academic life, my life as an educator, my creative life as a game designer and collaborator with my colleagues and co-workers on all these projects. That can also be worrisome," he says. "Don't ask my girlfriend about whether or not I'm a workaholic because you imagine the answer that she gives. But I really, really love what I do."
Looking forward, Zimmerman says exploring the ways people play and inventing new types of play are what's exciting to him. "Games are an ancient cultural form, but digital games are still so new there's still so much left for us to explore, and I feel as someone working in games I should be trying to find new forms of play."
This goes back to his days at Gamelab and his goal of creating experimental games.
"Making games helps my life to be more meaningful and rich and in that sense I'm really happy to be doing what I'm doing."