In the world of casual games, there are those developers that lead and those that follow. The folks at gamelab definitely fall in the first category.

Whether they are breaking the rules of casual game design (BLiX, Diner Dash, Plantasia) or changing the business model of casual games (see below for more information), gamelab is on the forefront. If you want to look into a crystal ball and see the future of casual games, your first step should be to skip the psychic and talk to Eric Zimmerman. And that’s exactly what Gamezebo has done, in this interview.

How did you come up with the name “gamelab”?

Peter Lee and I founded Gamelab six years ago, in the spring of 2000. We brainstormed a number of names, but we liked Gamelab the best. We always knew that we would have a creatively-driven company with a focus on making new kinds of games. “Gamelab” sounds like a laboratory for game experiments, and that’s in part what the company is today.

What games have you developed that you’re especially fond of?

I think more than any individual game, I am most proud of the company culture and creative process that Peter Lee and I have managed to instill at gamelab. We manage to balance research and experimentation with development rigor, and I think our team and our games are getting better and better. Gamelab is just scratching the surface of the kinds of innovation we want to explore in terms of audience, aesthetics, content, and – especially – gameplay.

What about other developers’ games? Anything new and interesting that has caught your attention recently?

I try to play many different kinds of games. I like indie games, such as the recent trend in re-mixed retro games like Warning Forever and Everyday Shooter. The DS has a lot of excellent titles, including some of the best quick-play multiplayer experiences I have ever had, such as Mario Kart DS or Bomberman DS. Shadow of Colossus was a landmark in retail games for me, and I am eager to get my hands on Oblivion. I hate to say it, but compared to all of that, not much interesting is happening in casual downloadable games. Mind Control’s Oasis was probably the most interesting game design I have seen in our space recently. It doesn’t have to be that way – casual downloadable games can and should be much more groundbreaking than they are.

gamelab’s most commercially successfully casual game title to date has been Diner Dash. It so happens that Diner Dash is one of the most successful casual games ever created (we gave it 5 stars). Can you give us a few insights into the creative process behind the development of Diner Dash?

Thanks for the kind words! I actually wasn’t a lead on the Diner Dash project team (when I work on projects, it’s as a game designer, and Nick Fortugno was the lead game designer for Diner Dash). Diner Dash was our first original downloadable game – we had been doing a lot of web game work before that – and like all of our games, it proceeded with a great deal of prototyping and testing, with changes made throughout the development process. On the other hand, we also worked with PlayFirst on Subway Scramble at the same time, using a similar process and it did not do nearly as well. Every game can’t be a hit!

Diner Dash has spawned numerous casual game clones — oops — I mean inspired a lot of games with similar game play. Do you feel that imitation is the greatest form of flattery? Is this good or bad for the casual games industry . . . does it not matter at all?

From a business point of view, there is an argument to be made for copying existing games. I imagine that it saves considerable development resources not having to try out new ideas, and there are examples of games that that have done well that are very similar to previously existing titles.

That said, making copies of other games is simply not what we do at gamelab and we have passed on many such opportunities over the years. We’re here to explore and expand the medium of games, and we’re not going to do that by aping other titles. I’m not sure I could get our staff to be very motivated to work on projects that didn’t challenge them creatively. I know I wouldn’t be.

While there is considerable me-too activity in retail games and in many if not all forms of popular media, the cloning of successful work is particularly shameless in casual games. But my feeling is that the more similar the competition, the more gamelab games will stand out. Duplicating other developers’ games is not a good long-term strategy. A developer that spends its time copying hits will always be playing catch-up, instead of building intelligence. And I’d rather be starting trends than following them.

You most recently announced that gamelab is becoming a publisher itself and you will be funding games in the same way that movies are funded and developed. How is creating a film similar to developing games? How is it different? What will be the impact of this new model of funding on gamelab’s upcoming titles and the casual games industry as a whole?

OK. Here’s the scoop. gamelab will be self-publishing its own work – we don’t have any plans to publish other developers’ titles for the foreseeable future. Some of the games we will be publishing come from partnerships, such as our titles with Curious Pictures and LEGO. Others come from the project-based financing model you mentioned.

We’re starting to self-publish because a company of our size (about 25 staff) has the resources to self-publish. It’s been great working with PlayFirst, iWin, VH-1, and other publishers. Ultimately, however, publishing downloadable games is far more straightforward than publishing retail games, and it makes good business sense for us to move in that direction. In the short term, we’ll be doing a mix of work that we are publishing and that partners are publishing. But our goal is to self-publish all of our titles before too long.

A primary obstacle to self-publishing has always been financing development, of course, and we have begun to find investors who are willing to invest in projects. I call this similar to film, because it is unlike a developer-publisher relationship, in which the publisher “invests” in the game and also markets and distributes it, and it is different than a venture capital investment, in which the investor is purchasing a portion of the company. Instead, a project-based investor is investing in a single project or slate of projects, and receives a return on investment from the proceeds of the games and their derivatives. The details of film investing are quite different and really it’s only similar to film financing in a very general way.

It’s not clear to me that this funding model will catch on – at least not in the short term. As with film, it requires investors who find a bit of glamour and cultural importance in investing in creative media, in addition to possible financial returns. It will probably be another 10-15 years before there is a critical mass of wealthy grownup gamers interested in funding games on a large scale. When that happens, there just may be an explosion in independent games, as there was in the 70s in America when independent film financing came into its own.

Ten years from now (God willing), I’m playing a gamelab game. What will this game experience be like?

I really don’t know. I’m not much for future-forecasting punditry. But I sincerely hope that it is something that I couldn’t even tell you about now. If we’re not making games that surprise us, we’re not really doing good work.

Who do you think is the ideal player of gamelab games? Do you believe this will change in the future?

For us, the stereotypical casual game audience (the 40something female, the so-called “Midwestern housewife”) is not the most important market segment. While we do need to make games that can potentially appeal to women in their 30s and 40s, there is a vast untapped market that lies between young male hardcore gamers and the traditional casual games audience. As much emerging market research is pointing out, non-hardcore game players in their 20s and 30s are a much more ripe audience for gaming than any other group. These are the people that grew up with the Atari 2600 and Super Nintendo, and they see games as part of their leisure media landscape. But they don’t want to play Mahjongg, and they don’t want to be a magic elf or a space marine for 20-30 hours each week. These are the people that made The Sims the bestselling game of all time. Our newest games are meant to bridge the gap between the casual game player and these younger game players. We’ll see how well we do.

What are your plans (if any) to develop gamelab multiplayer game in the future?

It is definitely in the works. Multiplayer games are a much better use of the internet as a medium than singleplayer games, and while the cost of making such games is certainly higher than a small downloadable game, the potential revenues are also much greater. They also pose some wonderfully juicy design challenges. We hope to make some announcements soon about gamelab multiplayer games.

Can you give us any hints of your upcoming games?

In the near future, expect a very funny game that we created with iWin as the publisher, and two pop culture themed games with VH-1. One of the VH-1 games was sneak-previewed at the GDC Experimental Gameplay Workshop – it’s called downbeat, and it is our attempt to bring a puzzle gameplay mechanic to a music rhythm-action game. In the months to follow, we’ll release our retro-nostalgia game LEGO Fever, Brenda’s Brain with Curious Pictures, and a game set in an office workplace. By the end of 2006, we’ll have 8 downloadable games in the market. We’ve been busy – consider that Diner Dash, our first downloadable game, was launched only a little over a year ago.

And we have other things in the works, like our MacArthur grant-funded research project. But maybe that’s best left for another interview.

Finally, any closing words for your fans out there?

Thanks for playing our games! Many more games to come. If you really are a fan of gamelab, look forward to our new site, coming out this summer. It should be a very different take on what a developer game portal can be like.