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Building a better game

In a world chock full of game developers, Santa Monica-based LavaMind stands out, simply by being the kind of company that doesn’t think about new shoot-’em-ups or sexier secret agents. (After all, how many other developers work to make interest rates seem like fun game fodder?) Co-founder Steven Hoffman chats about fantasy worlds, gaming, and how to become a gazillionaire.

What got you interested in game development?

I love games and designing gaming systems and worlds. I’ve been creating games my entire life. I completed my first original computer game at age 14 and had my entire computer class hooked on it. Unfortunately, some people failed because they played it a bit too much.

How did LavaMind get started?

My wife, Naomi Kokubo, and I were determined to produce our own games. We wanted to develop titles that were non-violent and engaging for both adults and kids. The idea was to create games that could teach someone how to run a business without falling into the textbook trap. Our goal was to take elements of Monopoly and combine them with a sophisticated business simulation model and a rich fantasy world.

What was the first game you developed?

My wife was a financial analyst for Morgan Stanley and I’m a programmer and game designer, so together we crafted what we felt was a unique setting in which the business sims take place. We started by releasing the game, Gazillionaire, as shareware on the Internet. Sales shot up as schools around the country started using them in classrooms, and the game magazines gave them top reviews for their entertainment value. The end result was that a large publisher picked it up, and put in on store shelves nationwide.

Why do you feel there’s a need for what you’re developing?

There are so many action and fighting games out there that we saw the need for something different–something that wasn’t overtly educational but could help people with their lives. Our games teach people the basic principles of running a successful businessÑsupply and demand, interest rates, debt management, advertising, expansion, profit margins, and so on.

What kind of development challenges do you face?

Creating the content was a huge challenge. These games were entirely self-funded, which meant we had to gamble our life savings to complete them. We couldn’t afford a large staff, so we hired contractors and had to manage every element of the game production with an eye to saving money. We also had to master many of the tools ourselves, to save time. For nine months we worked 14-hour days, seven days a week, until we finished our first title. Then we prayed it would sell. Fortunately, it did.

Why do you think the gaming industry is so hot these days?

Games have become an integral part of people’s lives. It is no longer the geeks who play, but everybody. The vast majority of teenagers prefer spending time playing games than going to the movies. And games are no longer just for guys. Of the 145 million American gamers, about 43 percent are women.

What do you like best about what you do?

I like being creative and collaborating on new ideas. The most exciting part about creating our games was developing the rich fantasy world in which they reside. Our games are not just business simulations but entire worlds packed with histories, characters, and economies, all intertwined and waiting to be explored.

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