"The single most important element? Being able to recognize fun."
- Naomi Clark of Gamelab Naomi Clark has associated with Gamelab, an independent developer headquartered in New York, for the past four years, although she has been working with them in various capacities even before the company was founded. In 2000, she completed with the group one of the first multiplayer browser games, Sissyfight 2000. From there until 2004, the became employed by Lego, yet continued to work with Gamelab as the development house created various games for the toy giant. Since then, she has been employed full time by Gamelab, where she has had her hand in many of there projects, including their newest release, Miss Management. Ms. Clark also teaches a course on multiplayer games and online worlds called Imagined Realms at Parsons School of Design in NYC alongside Margaret Wallace, the head of Rebel Monkey.
Your profile on Gamelab's website mentions that you have been a fan of online games and communities for just about as long as they've been accessible. How has this affected the games you've helped develop?
I love playing and designing single-player games, they're such an interesting and still-emerging medium. But I have to admit my real first love is for multiplayer games of all sorts. I mean, if you look at the history of how humans have designed and played games, for thousands and thousands of years there were barely any single-player games besides a few exceptions like Solitaire. It's just in the last century or so that we've had pinball-type machines, followed by more and more sophisticated digital games. I have always been really interested in how people interact in social situations, and games are a very peculiar example of those, where we all are bound by some sort of artificial rules, either because we agree to play by them, or because we're interacting through a medium that's been programmed.
After my high school and college days when I mostly fooled around with playing, testing, and sometimes contributing to the design of MUDs, the first big game I worked on came about in part because I wouldn't stop talking to my coworkers about the possibilities of online gaming. So we made one of the first multiplayer web-browser games, Sissyfight 2000. At the same time, online games and communities are just inherently messier than the neat, bounded experience of a single-player game; everyone knows this, from players who avoid game services filled with speedhacks and endless bouts of corpse-humping to the designers who deal with massively multiplayer community problems on a grand scale. I've moderated plenty of non-game online communities over the years too, which can also get to be a pain in the neck. I suspect most people who love and work on this kind of thing also feel like online communities drive them crazy, on a regular basis! But like a car accident, it's all too fascinating to look away from, or stop tinkering with.
It mentions also that you're still at it - being a fan of World of Warcraft. Having been involved both in the developer and the player ends of online gaming, what do you think today's heavyweights like Blizzard are doing right? What could they be doing better? Do you think there's something they could learn from the community developed games, such as MUDs, of the 90's?
Whenever I take a look at what Blizzard's been doing with World of Warcraft, I'm mostly just impressed that they're managing to steer a ship that's so large and unwieldy. WoW is so huge, in terms of customer service, game balance, and dealing with problems, that it's difficult in some ways to even compare it to what came before. A large part of what they got right was at the foundation, in the game itself: they finally made a MMOG that a very wide audience could sink their teeth into, and the most striking things for me about that have to do with how forgiving the game is, in terms of stuff like speed of leveling, guiding you through quests, and lack of penalties for dying, compared to other MMOGs. They've definitely made some mistakes with their community -- the whole "gay guild" fiasco [link]
springs to mind -- but it's a constant learning process.
As for learning from MUDs, I actually think that's the main inspiration and source of ideas for the American MMOG industry. I mean, the first time I played Everquest, almost ten years ago, I was shocked at how closely it resembled particular Diku MUDs. And although there have been some awful failures that didn't learn from the example of MUDs and other earlier virtual-world games, by and large the design backbone of the industry are guys like Raph Koster and Mark Jacobs who were making MUDs in the 80s and 90s, and a ton of other people like them. It's interesting because if you look at other parts of the world, particularly Korea, you see a whole different set of design influences that don't come from the legacy of Richard Bartle's theories or debates over the role of PKing. So if anything, the heavyweights of the MMOG world, in the "after-WoW" era following the uber-polished 200-ton gorilla that Blizzard created with its usual attention to detail, may need to start experimenting more and getting further away from that MUD legacy.
As a professor of multiplayer games and online worlds, how do you see students reacting to having such subjects taught in the classroom?
Well I'm not a professor (no degree!) but it is definitely a very interesting subject to teach. There are more and more smart people looking at and investigating virtual worlds -- and the really brilliant ones among them actually play enough to know what they're talking about, too. My approach is to combine game design, player experience, and various kinds of academic analysis. Some of my students definitely picked up the course because they're gamers, and were excited about an elective where they got to play games and go on field trips to Silithus in World of Warcraft. (Perhaps to the disappointment of some of them, I also made them read Baudrillard and talk about political theory and human evolution.) I was surprised at how many of my students don't come from an online gaming background, however -- some were really interested in the social dynamics of online spaces, or wanted to know more about multiplayer interactivity, or had just heard about virtual worlds and were curious. The first year I taught the class, I was fortunate enough to have some advanced geeks who were willing to play with and help the novice gamers learn the ropes.
How have you seen the perception of online communities change over time?
Well, there was definitely a time when "community" was a huge marketing buzzword. Everyone doing business online wanted to add "community" to their websites, and a lot of times it was just ridiculous or half-baked. Looking back, I feel like I spent a lot of time telling people that doing community for real, not just as a token effort, would probably cost them more in terms of development costs and long-term commitment than they were really willing to spend. (Maybe I'm not enough of a huckster.) In the last few years that definitely died down, to the extent that some marketing types were actively reviling "community" as a scam. In games, though, I think there's an understanding that multiplayer is here to stay -- certainly not as the only kind of experience, but as a source of really vibrant, ongoing entertainment, one that can be difficult to grapple with, and difficult for some more traditionally-minded designers to wrap their heads around completely, but overall a really important axis of what makes gaming great.
Your new release, Miss Management, is being independently published, but that has not been the case with most of your games, correct? What are the differences between developing a game that Gamelab plans to publish itself and one which you publish through a third party?
Gamelab is one of the larger game developers in the New York area, but that's not saying a whole lot -- we're a small, plucky company and we're steadfastly devoted to bringing new ideas to gaming, one way or another. We've been lucky enough to have publishing partners who have helped a lot of our games get made, and a good relationship with a publisher can help a game in all sorts of ways -- not just the business deals and financing. A good publisher provides a sounding board for ideas and an external "stakeholder" -- a kind of framework you have to work in to keep your ideas solid and your process structured. Of course, developers and publishers don't always agree on what the best thing is for a game, but the best publishers know when to be hands-off and when they need to say something. It definitely has been very different for us to start self-publishing, since we have to provide that feedback and external structure ourselves.
Gamelab has also grown a lot in the last couple years, to the point where we're working on four or five projects at a time, and where some of our staff spend a lot of time thinking about larger process and management issues. At some point we grew beyond the size where everyone knew everything that was going on with every project -- which in some ways is good when you're self-publishing, because you can call in some very smart people who sit on the other side of the room and haven't had a close look at your game, to play that role of sounding board and critic. So far, Miss Management has been incredibly well received, in online reviews as well as by customers of online game portals... so self-publishing seems to be working for us so far! What inspired the decision to publish this particular title yourselves?
We have a lot of concepts in the early stages of development and brainstorming at any given time, some of which have been floating around for years. Sometimes we've sat down with a potential publisher and found one that we're both really interested in pursuing. Miss Management was an idea that we felt very strongly about, that we'd worked on prototyping without outside involvement. At the same time, we were also looking into other ways of funding games, outside of traditional publishing relationships. With some input from friends who have experience in the film industry, we decided to pursue a different model: talking to investors who might be interested in backing a single creative project, which is how a lot of independent films get made. It was an interesting process since a lot of film investors aren't that familiar with how games are made and sold -- especially with online try-before-you-buy distribution, which is what we do. Eventually the stars lined up, we secured funding, and the game got made!
Is this a change of direction for the group or do you plan on continuing to work with outside publishers for other projects?
We're very excited to be self-publishing and would definitely like to do it again. We think it's important for independent developers to have ownership of our own intellectual property, and we're keen on developing our own internal process so that we can perform the roles of developer and publisher for ourselves. At the same time, we're definitely still talking with publishers about other projects. We have good relationships with folks that we've worked with, and are always open to starting new partnerships too, so it's likely that the future might have a mixture of both.
Does Gamelab have some a guideline it follows when developing a game? Are there certain things that you always make a note to avoid or perhaps try to include in all your games?
I don't know that we stick to any hard-and-fast rules, but we do always try to innovate in some way -- as much for ourselves as for the success of the game. That doesn't always mean a completely unique form of gameplay that's unlike anything that's been seen before; it could also mean doing something new or unusual in the style of artwork that we use, or an interface, or in how we incorporate narrative elements into the gameplay. Beyond that, we have a lot of guidelines and themes in our work, but mostly we try to think a lot about who the audience of the game is, what they're going to find usable or challenging, what kind of experience they might expect. For instance, a lot of our games are intended for the "casual games" market -- a crowd that's generally a little older, a little more female, and a little less familiar with hardcore gaming conventions. So one think you see in a lot of our games is that they're mouse-driven, with one click. No keyboard controls (unless they're optional) or right-clicking, etc. However, we'd definitely do something different (and have) when making games for an audience that's more steeped in gaming culture, or for online multiplayer play, on a console or handheld, etc.
Also, for some reason the word "stroganoff" keeps appearing in our games lately, and we're not sure why. If that becomes a trend, I might be a little disturbed.
How does the performance of a game affect the development of future titles? Do you make an active effort to learn from the successes and failures of past games or is each treated as more of a clean slate?
Well, every game concept is different and demands slightly different treatment; we don't want our games to necessarily look and feel and play the same, they've got to have their own distinctive personality. But we most definitely have done post-mortems of games, looked back at them and thought, oh yeah, it's a little easier to see in retrospect what we might have done differently, what the crucial problems were, and what ended up really working or making a big difference. We're constantly evolving our creative method and our production process too, and our experiences with every game, as well as how they're received by the rest of the world, go into that evolution.
The original Diner Dash, which was developed by Gamelab, was a great success, but it's several sequels were developed by the game's publisher, Play First. What involvement, if any, does Gamelab still have with the series? What has the reaction around the office been to the move of the series to the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP?
PlayFirst has asked us for feedback on some of the subsequent Diner Dash titles, but for the most part we haven't been involved. We were excited to hear about the DS and PSP ports, although I don't know if anyone's played the PSP version yet. It's always fun to see how a game changes when another team ports your design; there's always a mixture of "oh, that's clever!" and some speculation and conversation about changes that were made--usually because of technological differences between platforms, different screen resolutions, etc. It can be a little jarring to see your game shrunk down to the size of a cellphone screen, which was the case with the first port of Diner Dash and some of our other early games! But it's also really neat to see how the porting developers managed it. Overall, it's really exciting to see the ideas and characters we came up with going to new places.
What do you think is the most important element of game design?
The single most important element? Being able to recognize fun. That might sound obvious, but you have to be able to do it in a lot of ways -- at the earliest stages, when you're just talking about concepts, all the way to external testing, when you have to let go of your own frustrations or attachments with the game and try to see that fun in other people's eyes. It's a mixture of instinct and careful observation.