Little Games Are Big Business at Armor Games

These guys take 'casual' games very seriously

At noon exactly, with all the final details taken care of, Betz pushes the “submit game” button. A minute of load time later, CTC2 is live. At 12:05 p.m., it has been played 45 times. When Cooney clicks the refresh button on his browser a second later, the game has been played 75 times.

“It’s hard to say how well it will do,” says Cooney. “But, within the next 24 hours, it could get 100,000 [or] 200,000 views.”

At 12:06 p.m., Betz clicks refresh again, and CTC2 has 562 plays. An Evony banner ad hovers at the top of the screen, urging players to get lost in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that allows them free play forever.

This is the Only Level
Courtesy Armor Games
This is the Only Level
Courtesy Armor Games

Armor Games occupies an unusual space in gaming. Yes, it makes casual games—but it makes them impeccably. Many of them are little pieces of art, in which each element, down to the title screen and mute button, receives special treatment. They don’t fit into the “casual games=bad games” equation many console gamers espouse. Still, fitting with gaming trends as a whole, they are played by the youngest group of players in the gaming world. If Armor wants to grow, it’s going to have to find a new audience. And that just might mean making some gameplay-related compromises the outfit has so far refused to make.

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“A lot of people just a few years ago weren’t expecting the stripped-down casual thing,” says Tom Boellstorff, a professor of anthropology at UC Irvine. “People were saying not so long ago that things were going hyper-realistic, like The Matrix.”

Boellstorff, who also studies human culture in virtual worlds (he keeps a virtual office in Second Life where anyone can meet him to discuss such things), says he’s surprised to see the rise in casual gaming, but he doesn’t think it’s going to dominate.

“It’s not pushing out Call of Duty. People do both of them,” he says. “But there is a reason Tetris was such a big hit. It’s hard to create a really good casual game. It’s like creating a haiku; it can be harder than writing a really good novel.”

Michael Mei has been in the casual-game industry for seven years, primarily with Reflexive Entertainment, which was bought by in 2008. He credits some of Armor’s success to the inherent traits of the people who are attracted to such small-shop design jobs.

“Casual games is a unique industry because it continues to be built on a bunch of hardcore developers, programmers and artists who left the core game space to stop ‘working for the man’ and ‘achieve’ the great American dream of being financially independent,” Mei says.

But it’s “the man” who produces the kinds of console hits for which gamers routinely shell out $60. Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare cost around $50 million to make and earned more than a billion dollars just two months after its release. In contrast, Zynga, the creator of the casual-gaming megahit Farmville, with its micropayment system and social guilt that keeps players plowing plots of digital data on Facebook, made around $300 million last year.

Farmville’s huge success comes from the wallets of a population that isn’t typically associated with gamers. According to the 2007 Casual Games Association’s Casual Games Market Report, 74 percent of that industry’s paying customers are women. Think PopCap games, the company that brought you Bejeweled and Feeding Frenzy. Or games in which you pretend to be a waitress, run a salon, tend a garden. Those are the casual games that make money one download at a time. You liked the demo, so why not buy the full version for a few bucks?

Still, it’s hard to say what, exactly, is next in the world of casual gaming. As the demographics of its players shift, so does the form’s foundation. Adobe’s Flash program is by far the most popular for developers. It’s all over the Internet, letting you watch and play most of the videos and games you see. But during its stint at the top of the online heap, Adobe has failed to keep up with the hardware’s changing demands.

As McNeely says, “Adobe hasn’t done a good job of making it work.”

Flash is notorious for taking up tons of your computer’s CPU power, draining the battery of laptops double-quick and crashing Macs. Apple was once a proponent of Flash, but some of that company’s newer products, such as the iPad, do not support it. Gadgets and mobile devices need a platform that can elegantly handle “touch” applications, one that won’t drain the battery before the day ends. Many developers are looking to HTML5 and other methods to keep their content in the hands of Apple-loving gadget-heads.

“Flash will absolutely die over a few years,” McNeely says. “But it isn’t a big deal to us.” When the time comes, he says, his developers will just start using the more popular program.

McNeely’s biggest concern is attracting more players—specifically, some of the emerging female market that can’t get enough of casual games. They are still a minority on his site, but Cooney’s games are helping to change that. Most of them feature animals cuter than what you saw in the last Pixar flick: elephants and hedgehogs, giraffes and bunnies, emus and llamas. But McNeely wants more.

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