The Creators Project: How did you first become involved in the world of game design?
Peter Lee: This sounds cliché, but my partner Eric Zimmerman and I created GameLab simply because we wanted to make games. After my workday at the job I was doing at the time, I would meet up with Eric at a coffee shop with a laptop. We started working on BLiX, our very first game. I took on the design and the encoding, and Eric designed the game levels. Luckily for us, BLiX won an award from iD magazine in 1999 and was purchased by a content company. With that money we were able to create GameLab.
At the time, things were very different, especially economically, for start-up companies such as yours. What were the high and low points?
Around 2000, due to the internet boom, we had a lot of investors who wanted to fund our company. However, we didn’t think it was the right path to take and wanted to continue developing more games that showed our potential rather than selling our ideas right away. But after the internet boom died, we experienced a lot of hardship that tempted us to create things that weren’t games with the simple goal of earning money. We gave 120 percent effort every time there was an opportunity, building our portfolio and strengthening our brand. Eventually, our company was small but well known for having quality games. In the beginning it was difficult—it was just the two of us and we had no marketing team. Then, slowly we grew to five people, and so on. We currently have 40 working for us.
Was there a particular game that changed everything?
In 2005 we made Diner Dash, and it reached number one in the US casual game market. Through that game we were able to become an original game-developing company, instead of just an agency. After that, we were able to create any game we wanted. We tried to make Diner Dash entertaining no matter its genre or how serious it was. The player can tell right away if a game’s a real game or just another way to convey education. Our games have always contained educational and social aspects, but the main focus is also always that “a game has to be a game,” meaning that its primary purpose is to be fun.
You can think of the Institute as a place to play games, but it’s not like a design school or a place where students just play games all day. It actually teaches students game design like a vocational school. It’s a place where they can learn the models and results of games by experiencing them for themselves. Unlike traditional schools that negatively emphasize failure, Quest to Learn does not discourage through failure, but instead encourages our students to just try again. Secondly, learning by gaming gives a concrete goal. For example, in a game, bad guys kidnap the princess. The clear goal is then to rescue the princess. Most students despise midterms and finals, but with Quest to Learn’s concept of a “boss level” the player feels the need to overcome that level as a personal challenge. It's a place for students to experience failure and how to overcome it with clear goals and rewards to help theme acquire the skills to achieve on their own when they go back to school.