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CSI Files - Anthony E. Zuiker

Anthony E. Zuiker

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at August 23, 2006 - 8:03 PM GMT

Anthony Zuiker

Anthony Zuiker is on top of the world. He is the creator of the show that spawned the franchise which is currently the most popular on the planet. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is the number one drama in the United States, while CSI: Miami was recently crowned the most watched show in the world. Zuiker himself is helming the third show in the series, CSI: New York. The energetic showrunner is quick to note that a mere eight years ago, he was driving a tram in Vegas. What more could someone who has already accomplished so much want?

For most, the answer might be "nothing," but not so for thirty-seven-year old Zuiker. His most recent project, the board game CSI: Senses fulfills a dream he's had since he was a latchkey kid in Las Vegas, home alone for hours in the afternoon and evening.

"I began to roll Craps type dice and cards, [with] pencil and paper, and began to do what I would call little sports games," Zuiker says of his early forays into the gaming world at the age of fifteen.

The only child played against himself, adding a level of realism to the game by mirroring reality. "I liked the sense of having an underdog and a favorite--a good team and a bad team," Zuiker notes. "I began at an early age to weight the numerics of a dice to the gameplay, to where you could actually play the Pittsburg Steelers versus a really bad team like the Cardinals, and it would feel like there was a dominant team, rather than just play where it's even strength."

Just as a writer perfects his craft, Zuiker labored over his games, beginning with a boxing game that involved four dice. Zuiker assigned meaning to each different roll of the dice, from knockouts to blocks to one-two punches. From there, he went on to create games centered around golf, football, hockey and soccer. But, two years ago he found a flaw in his sports games.

"What I didn't realize was that these games were fun maybe as catchy, Mexicali-type dice games, but they really didn't have a lot of what we call in the [gaming] business 'agency,' meaning strategy," Zuiker reveals. "So essentially, if [two people] played those old games together, [they] could be substituted with two rolling machines that roll for [them]. It's the same thing; it's just [a matter of] who was luckier in the moment. That gets a little boring after a while because there's no agency, no extra level."

So Zuiker took his soccer game to the University of Southern California's graduate gaming school and sat back while the students opened the rulebook and started playing. When one of them commented on the absence of a card that would add a variable to the game, Zuiker had a breakthrough. He added thirty cards to the game such as 'goal cards,' which allowed a player to score a goal, and 'save cards' that allowed them to save a goal that would have otherwise gone afoul. Suddenly the game had a level of strategy that it had lacked before.

It is only natural that Zuiker set his sights on creating a game for the franchise he'd masterminded. Specialty Board Games had already created three board games for the franchise after beating out nine other companies for the CSI license. Though Zuiker thought the games were "pretty good," he had some concerns about how they played. "I just felt like the gameplay for SBG without my involvement had way too much reading and the gameplay was way too slow and too long," Zuiker says. "I felt like I needed to get in to revamp the CSI brand and the board game by doing a game from scratch myself. It really put my gaming acumen to the test. That's when I created my first board game which is entitled CSI: Senses."

"It was supposed to be called CSI: The Five Senses," Zuiker reveals, "but we couldn't figure out how to have people go through their refrigerators and start sampling and tasting things--that was a little too weird. And we thought artificial taste factors would be a little funky."

Luckily the rest of Zuiker's plans for the game worked out better. The game's beginnings were humble: "It literally came from having a large piece of cardboard and a Sharpie, and doing what we call paper prototypes--drawing up the board in paper form, using index cards for the cards, and playing and trying to work out the game play, and it began to take on a life of its own," he quips.

Zuiker is quick to note that the game is his from top to bottom. His signature graces the game's box, which is made up to look like a CSI kit. "I also wanted to do the whole George Foreman thing, to put my name on it, to say that this is not a vanity credit. I did this game from scratch, literally, in my hotel room for a year every night."

That means that the six cases the game features are all penned by the CSI creator. "I knew that writing the six stories, I'd have to do great Vegas stories that [could only happen] in Vegas," Zuiker says of the cases. His favorite of the sextet? "All You Can Eat," based on an idea from CSI Associate Producer Corinne Marrinan. "[SBG Marketing Manager] Nicole Daddio, Corinne Marrinan, Dana Postill and I had a lot of late nights together as the creative team," Zuiker reveals. "Corinne said, 'What about a buffet murder?' and that's how 'All You Can Eat' was born. Again, very Vegas."

Zuiker's goal was ultimately to create an interactive board game because he believes "people can't get enough of the hands on experience of trying to see what it's like to be a real CSI, in a fun way." To this end, the game is filled with challenges such as sketching different crime scene-related elements and the interrogation section, which requires players to act and sound out different words for their opponents to guess. The game finishes with a riddle section because, as Zuiker notes, "everybody loves a good riddle."

One part of the game he is especially tickled by is a challenge at the end of the first section that requires players draw a card with a bug on it and then fish around in a bag containing eight rubbery insects and pull out the bug depicted on the card. "We wanted your sense of touch to go inside the bag and [search for it]," Zuiker comments, acknowledging the challenge isn't an easy one. "All the bugs in the bag sort of feel the same. You have to use your smarts and feel around for it."

The game has some trivia questions in that first section, but Zuiker, not a fan of trivia, didn't want the game to be weighed down by too many of these types of questions. "It's not overly trivia-based, which I don't like because I'm not very good at trivia. So I tried to have a nice gamey salad if you will, with a lot of different challenges to accommodate the average consumer. My whole push in the business is to be as commercial and simple as possible for the masses," he says, adding, "It's a challenging game, but I think if you're either a casual fan or a hardcore fan, there's something for everybody." Anthony Zuiker

Zuiker points out the appeal to collectors, in the form of game pieces that represent each of the characters from CSI. "[Some people will say,] 'I don't even care about the game--I just want those pawns for my desk!' So right away the collectables became an interesting novelty for the game," Zuiker comments, taking note of the work that went into creating each piece."I'm really happy with the likenesses of all of the pawns. They were a lot of work, and we're still perfecting those. What was amazing to me is that I would be giving notes on the pawns--make Catherine prettier, make Grissom handsomer, put some grey in his hair, that type of thing--and then two weeks ago I received pictures from China of the workers that sit with thousands and thousands of blank pawns in front of them with dishes of paint, and they handpaint every one of those. I was completely floored; I thought [the pawns came] out of a machine. It's not; they come completely white. They paint [all of the colors], they detail the hair, the brows--they make [the pawns] come alive one at a time, all day long. Just the man hours alone on all eight pawns is endless. And it really hit me that this game stuff and this CSI stuff really is global."

Ultimately, Zuiker is extremely pleased with the game overall, and anxious as to how fans of the show and their friends will like it. "I think within this world of customization, in this world of people coming home after 9/11 to play more board games and doing things interactively together, I felt like the closet way to make you feel like you are a real CSI is to play the game, because you get to use the UV lights for the answers, you get to be Grissom with the bugs and you get to utilize all those sensory experiences, like a real CSI would as you play the game. And it's written and created by the person who created the franchise," he says.

And he's not stopping there. Next up is a booster set containing six additional stories, and a pawn that Zuiker is extremely excited about. "It's an Anthony Zuiker pawn!" he exclaims. Work has already begun on a CSI: Miami version of the game, and just as the CSI one is all about Vegas, the Miami version will take into account that show's unique feel and setting. "Instead of a bag of insects, you'll have a body bag. You'll be putting your hand in sand and pulling out body parts, which is a lot of fun," he reveals. "There will be a clay challenge for the art department using clay. There will also be [a challenge] where you put on [David] Caruso's glasses and you're trying to pick out six things that are different on two pictures and then to be extra cool, the pawn for David Caruso will have a moving right arm because he'll be able to take his glasses off. Brought to you by Anthony Zuiker! That will be out fall of 07." Zuiker will also be writing all six Miami cases, which will feature titles like "Foreverglades."

Grateful for the opportunity to make the game, Zuiker is quick to point out the freedom SBG allotted him in designing it. "I'm truly indebted to Mark Sutcliffe and Jeff Colthorpe at SBG for literally giving me as much time and money as possible to create my dream with no questions asked," he says. "If I was to go to a Mattel or a Hasbro, I'm not sure they would be as receptive to the power I have with these games, and I have that at SBG. So I'm very fortunate and lucky to be able to do that. I'm able to have complete autonomy over the game and therefore I feel like you're getting an excellent product from top to bottom." Zuiker's sports games won't be left by the wayside, either: "I'll be launching a toy company in the spring that deals with sports board games," he points out.

Amid all of these gaming ventures, it's something of a wonder that Zuiker still has time to devote to the show he runs, CSI: New York. New York devotees need not worry that their show is being neglected though: Zuiker has already completed his first script for the show's third season with Ken Solarz entitled "Oedipus Hex." The episode features the murder of a Suicide Girl, a member of a group of women Zuiker describes as "a collection of modern day pin up girls. They're the Bettie Pages of this generation. They're extremely gorgeous, with multiple tattoos and piercings. They all take the last name 'Suicide.' It has nothing to do with committing suicide. These are young girls that have a hardcore freedom of expression. They exude confidence and strength as a woman." After seeing a special on the Suicide Girls on Real Sex HBO and G4, Zuiker contacted the group's founder, Missy Suicide about being involved with an episode of the show and found her very receptive to the idea.

The episode, the fifth of the season, will also present an interesting dilemma for Anna Belknap's character Lindsay Monroe. "There will be a big character arc for Anna Belknap and Gary Sinise (Mac Taylor) because in episode five you'll see that Anna's character, Lindsay Monroe, has a problem dealing with mothers," Zuiker reveals. The problem will rear its head again in episode twelve of the season, when Lindsay pulls herself off a case involving the murder of three children. After being inspired by a different case, Lindsay will go to Mac Taylor at the end of the episode and tell him why she removed herself from the case, only to discover he already knows the reason. "[Mac] in a very empowering way gives her a pat with one hand and a push with the other," Zuiker promises.

Another episode that Zuiker is fired up about is the fourth outting, penned by Zachary Reiter. An integral key to the murder mystery in that episode revolves around a T-shirt with a hidden code in it. That all ties in with a concept Zuiker is extremely enthusiastic about: multi-platforming. "Jordan Weisman was in charge of Steven Spielberg's internet campaign for AI. He was the man who invented the 'I love bees' campaign. So when you watched the trailer in the theater, it would give you a little blip of 'I love bees.' What happened was people who decided to try ilovebees.com at home would jump into this wormhole on the internet and it would turn into a whole separate narrative," Zuiker explains. "So this inspired me to do the 'aresanob' stunt. At the end of ["Run Silent, Run Deep"] the statue was 'Bonasera' spelled backwards. So [Jordan] was the one who said don't tell people there's a website here. Let them figure out themselves. So when they typed in aresanob.com at home. We had 150,000 hits on the site, and that's the power of the online community. By not telling them that was there, we allowed people to find it themselves and forward it to a friend and take ownership of the find. That was a smart move, and that was really Jordan guiding me to do that."

Zuiker was eager to repay the favor, and also to encorporate another such element in a New York episode. "To thank him, I thought it would be nice to treat our audience to his wife's company called edoclaundry.com. Edoc means code backwards. What his wife's company in Seattle does is that they make t-shirts, with hidden codes inside the t-shirts," Zuiker reveals. "So she makes a season of shirts, maybe 24-30 across the board. When you buy those t-shirts without any instructions, you're able to decode them and get a phrase. You take that [phrase] and input it in edoclaundry.com and it opens up a separate narrative."

One of these shirts will factor into that fourth episode. "There's a shirt with a long piece of blood splatter that has notches in it. No one tells you what those notches are, but people that are astute will recognize [what] those notches represent. Then they start lining up the slats and it begins to spell things. There are no instructions [at the site]--you need to figure it out or your online community needs to walk you through it," Zuiker says.

He also makes note of the fact that this upcoming season will be a big one for Gary Sinise's character Mac Taylor. The first scene in the first episode of the season features Mac in bed with Peyton Driscoll, played by actress Claire Forlani. "We felt like Gary Sinise in particular needed to have a real big game plan this season, meaning he needed a love interest and he needed a nemesis, and we're working on both of those right now," he reveals. "Gary had some reservations about the opening scene, and I said to him, 'Gary, you are the star of the show and you are stud, and your character needs to sleep with this woman. Period.' We need to shock the audience and give them a slap across the face and say, 'Hey, there's a lot more to Mac Taylor than you know. Please stay tuned.'

As for the reason New York is venturing into a romantic story line after avoiding them in the past, Zuiker says he feels he now has the freedom to explore those avenues. "I feel like CSI: New York got to a place where I feel like we needed to spice things up a little bit more. People wanted to know more about our characters. Obviously we don't want to come out of the box with a brand new CSI show and jump into relationships. We did the complete opposite--we jumped into the darkness, which was not the smartest thing to do."

Zuiker also acknowledges the show made a misstep in its second season by putting both new CSIs Lindsay Monroe and ME-turned-investigator Sheldon Hawkes (Hill Harper) into the field at the same time. "The mistake we made in season two was that we put Anna in the field at the same time we moved Hawkes in the field, and that was a little confusing," he acknowledges. "In retrospect we could have kept Hawkes in the lab longer, set Anna Belknap up and then moved Hawkes out, or vice versa. But we had to deal with replacing Vanessa Ferlito first. We should have moved Hawkes into the field halfway through the season. It's a mistake we made and I talked to Nina [Tassler] at CBS and she said, 'Yeah, I think you're right.'"

But Zuiker sees the third season as a turning point for the show, the season in which CSI: New York will be hitting its stride. "Season two was just about fixing the show," he says. "I think we have all of our ducks in a row now. We have no more network issues, dark issues, tone issues--everything has been fixed. We're colorful, we're light, we have all brand new sets, we have great New York story lines, we have definite game plans for the characters--we have all the things that a normal show [has]. I feel like we finally found it. Sometimes it takes a while. Nobody remembers, [but] we had the same issues in the previous two shows. Although the shows for CSI were great in the first two seasons, we were still finding it. And the same thing with CSI: Miami. That first year was a complete disaster until Ann Donahue went over and fixed that show relatively quickly. And she got to her groove in season two and three. So I think we're right on par. We're all in a position now where I can do what I do--being creative--with the show, with the scripts, with the vision of the show, with the actors, multi-platform, and then my partner-in-crime, Pam Veasey can definitely run the day-to-day and be a great partner with me. I feel like we have the same dynamic as Carol [Mendelsohn, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation showrunner] and I did at Vegas, where she tamed the wild kid and the magic happened from script to script."

There's simply no question that life is good for Anthony Zuiker. "I'm having a really great year. The business has really been good to me on all levels. Not just financially because of the show, but the people I've met, but the experiences I've had and the things I can accomplish. You know, it's funny when your dreams come true. It's unbelievable."

Discuss this interviews at Talk CSI!

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.