Little Games Are Big Business at Armor Games

These guys take 'casual' games very seriously

John Cooney is trying to create the perfect digital image to represent Crush the Castle 2 on Armor Games’ home page. When he is finished, the graphic will be no larger than a penny. He has 10 minutes until the game is scheduled to go live.

The workspace on Cooney’s oversized computer monitor switches from the game, where he grabs screen shots of a trebuchet, to Photoshop, where he manipulates the unrecognizable image, blown up until it’s just a collection of blue and gray pixels. When he zooms back to thumbnail size, the trebuchet—a counterweight siege engine that is a type of catapult—is perfectly poised, its payload of stones ready to, well, crush the castle just offscreen. With a few minutes left, Cooney tilts his head slightly sideways and considers whether the centimeter of sky in the background is blue enough to make the trebuchet’s arm stand out against it.

There is an open screen of Flash coding off to one side on his monitor—short segments of letters and numbers, composed in a seemingly endless digital scroll that will constitute the next game to be released under his handle, jmtb02. He’s ignoring this project for the moment.

Cooney is the head of game development for Armor Games. The Irvine-based company hosts and develops “casual games” that are available for free online. You’ve played them before, like when you were supposed to be working, on any number of websites: Kongregate. Newgrounds. Yahoo. If you’ve played Bejeweled, you’ve played a casual game. If you remember Root Beer Tapper or Pac-Man, then you know the kind of idle, distracting fun these games can be. If you’re obsessed with Farmville, you know how far from casual some of these games can get.

Armor Games isn’t interested in creating sprawling Farmville-like games. The developers here make perfect, self-contained little game experiences that are addicting for a few minutes, but not all-consuming. For now.

The average player on ArmorGames.com stays for 14 minutes. Most of these players are males aged 13 to 18. Cooney is 23 years old. In his workspace, next to his computer, is a framed picture of his wife, Carlie; they were married last September. To the right of Cooney is Joey Betz, also 23, the developer of Crush the Castle 1 and 2. The original was released in April 2009; it’s about 90,000 shy of 18 million plays.

Betz is looking at a comment that was left on his profile on Armor the day before. It was written by a super-fan with the handle Tehlolking:

Ummm, Earth to Armor Games? Half an hour until Saturday right now down under and . . . nothing? Hurry up.

“He didn’t even realize it wasn’t Friday here yet,” says Betz. “He just wants the game.”

Cooney told the Internet the game would go live Friday at noon, and the Internet is waiting.

While Cooney finishes fiddling with the thumbnail image, Betz writes the not-too-grammatical description of the game in the open field just above the “submit game” button on his computer screen:

Even after crushing and capturing Arcturia, the Redvonian King was still longing for more castles to crush. Rumor has it that King Blutias has built sturdier castles in his cluster of islands known as Crushtania the Redvonian King wants them crushed.The King has sent you, his Seige Master, and Halgrim his finest mason, to assemble the greatest minds in the land to destroy Blutias’s empire.

The game is a little more than 10 megabytes in size. It took about four months’ of work, which could be the longest amount of time most of the guys spent developing any game. Cooney created Elephant Rave, featuring his tiny blue pachyderm, during the commercial breaks in a Lakers game because he was bored with the team’s poor performance. The mini-mini-game has been played about 330,000 times.

Four more guys are inside Armor’s small office. Two web developers; an 18-year-old intern from Toronto, Canada; and Daniel McNeely, the creator, owner and only actual businessman in the company. He handles the accounting, the advertising deals, the money. There are three overseas game developers, one dedicated artist (who also makes games) and one part-time administrative assistant.

That’s the entire company. Eleven guys in an office the size of a master bedroom that’s crowded with toys. Each station is equipped with Nerf guns and hacky-sack-sized squishy balls with the same color scheme as the one in Ball Revamped, Cooney’s breakout game.There is a miniature trebuchet made of PVC they built to help them create accurate physics algorithms for the first CTC. Nearly an entire wall is taken up by a long table covered in snacks wrapped in bright packaging and a mini-fridge topped by a coffee machine and a real-life version of the Master Chief helmet from the first-person shooter Halo. There is a backroom that’s about the same size as the one the guys are in. Two child-sized medieval suits of armor guard the open doorway that leads to McNeely’s desk and office space, which he shares with the desk of the assistant, a couch, a flat-screen TV and a half-dozen game consoles: Dreamcast, Wii, PS3, Xbox 360, Super Nintendo and, most important, the original NES, with its modest dual-gray color scheme and clean rectangular lines—the system that brought us Mario Bros.

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