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GameLab in the New York Times

New York Times - Technology section.  Featuring ITP Alum, Peter Lee.  Also, many ITP alums and students work at GameLab.

June 27, 2005

On Screens, but Not Store Shelves: Casual Games
By MICHEL MARRIOTT

Far from the bloody streets of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," and light years from the deep space, run-and-gun menace of "Halo 2," lives Flo.

She is the cartoon-cute stockbroker who chucked it all to operate a modest diner that is the centerpiece of a highly successful yet relatively low-budget video game called "Diner Dash."

The game is not found on the shelves of video game or consumer electronic stores. Nor is it sold on the DVD's that deliver interactive 3-D fantasies to millions of PlayStation 2 and Xbox game consoles.

This game, sold exclusively on the Internet and downloaded onto players' personal computers, is challenging many of the conventions of video gaming. Such simple games - often called casual games - are growing more prominent in the ever-broadening game marketplace, becoming big sellers on a small budget.

"Diner Dash does not have a single end goal," said Eric Zimmerman, co-founder and chief executive of GameLab, the New York game development company that created it. "You are into it for the play."

The premise is simple: The mounting challenge is to seat, serve and collect from diners, tasks that bring to mind the "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy is overwhelmed by the increasing demands of a candy factory's conveyor belt.

Since the release of "Diner Dash" late last year, the hand-painted, drag-and-drop game quickly became the most requested item on major online game sites, including Yahoo Games, Real Arcade and Shockwave.com . Peter Seung-Taek Lee, co-founder and president of GameLab, said "Diner Dash" remained in the top five best sellers of downloadable games, showing considerable shelf life for a video game that never existed on a shelf.

"We wanted something that people can easily relate to," Mr. Lee said. "There is something about very simple play that gives pleasure. You can just click on it and enjoy the game."

John Welch, president and chief executive of PlayFirst, a publisher of casual games, including "Diner Dash," said the $20 game had sold more than 50,000 copies and continued to sell about 1,000 a day.

And games like "Diner Dash" have become big business. Casual games - generally simple-to-play, short-duration games that are graphically unsophisticated - will represent about $250 million a year in sales, Mr. Welch estimated. They are a small but growing sector of the overall United States game industry, which is expected to generate $8.4 billion in sales in 2005, according to a forecast by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"It's huge in the way millions of people are playing them," said Chris Sherman, executive director of the first Casual Game Conference, scheduled for July 19 and 20 in Seattle.

He said the games' simplicity also made them ready candidates to be adapted for the increasingly attractive market of cellphones and other mobile devices.

At GameLab, which was founded five years ago, about 20 artists, programmers, animators and game designers work in closely arranged workstations in a long, narrow space carved out of an aging industrial building near Chinatown in Lower Manhattan. At one point, GameLab veterans say, the workspace looked more like a bowling alley.

Mr. Zimmerman, the chief executive, says his team generally works on three to four projects at once, taking about five to six months to complete a game. GameLab is a private company and its executives would not disclose detailed financial data, but they did say that "Diner Dash" cost between $100,000 and $200,000 to make. It sells for about 40 percent of the price of a major video game title that could cost more than $10 million to produce.

"Our modus operandi is to really create innovative games, new ways for people to play," he said as he recently walked through GameLab's studio, pointing out its museum-quality collection of vintage video game consoles, toys and stacks of traditional board games.
"For us, the company culture and the process, is really important," he said, adding that GameLab employees are given a $50 a month to spend on whatever game-related materials they want. He said they were encouraged to bring what they buy to the office. Video games, he said, must be considered within the larger category of play, a field that requires research and experimentation.

"I think part of the problem with the game industry is that there are these big projects, that people work sweatshop hours and that there's no sense of research and experimentation," Mr. Zimmerman said. "It's hard to do that. I'm not saying that we are doing it successfully, but at least we are trying to get there."

Mr. Lee, the company's president, said "Diner Dash" was designed to look and feel warmer and friendlier than expensive 3-D counterparts aimed at hard-core gamers.

"We wanted it to have a particular look," he said, noting the rich colors of the interface. "Console games look very cool and futuristic, but cold."

Yet "Diner Dash," which its makers say is quite popular among women, is not a simple "pop game," as Mr. Zimmerman refers to popular downloadable games like "Collapse" and "Bejeweled" that are descendants of Tetris and other animated puzzle games.

Mr. Welch of PlayFirst said he was drawn to GameLab's penchant for smart experimentation. His company, based in San Francisco, plays a role much like that of a record label: It fields pitches from game developers and finances the ones that seem to show the most promise.
"There is a good market opportunity while everybody is trying to figure out where the next killer app is going to be," he said.