Little Games Are Big Business at Armor Games

These guys take 'casual' games very seriously

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A few short years ago, it was easier to discredit casual games. Back then, it felt like everything was a re-imagined Tetris or a tower-defense game. Most websites weren’t creating their own content. Places such as Miniclip, AddictingGames, CoffeeBreakArcade and FreeOnlineGames were, for the most part, only hosting games made by independent developers in their homes or dorm rooms. As far as those types of sites go, not much has changed. Developers submit games to a site, and they get a small amount of money in exchange for letting the site host it. There is little branding in this method—besides the site slapping its logo on the title screen—and no reason to go to one site over the other. No little blue elephants to draw you back over and over again. Each site feels like the last and with the same games.

In 2004, when Cooney was at UC Davis working on his technocultural-studies degree, his games would sell for $25 apiece.

Head of game development John Cooney has a thing for cute animal characters. His shirt was bought from
John Gilhooley
Head of game development John Cooney has a thing for cute animal characters. His shirt was bought from
Senior web developer Ian Douglas shows off the team's weapon of choice: a Nerf gun
John Gilhooley
Senior web developer Ian Douglas shows off the team's weapon of choice: a Nerf gun

“Flash development and Flash games were the Wild West for a while,” Cooney says.

The first game he made was Ball Revamped. You control a ball that you try to pass from one point to another without hitting the walls. He put it on his own website, but then picked it up. The link drew enough players to to crash his site.

“It was really bad for me! And expensive,” Cooney says. “I pay for my own hosting, so I had to take it offline, and I had other people host it.” He eventually sold hosting rights to Kongregate, where you can still play it, along with its four sequels (which are the most frustrating games ever made).

He started working with McNeely around then, after they met on Newgrounds—a site that functions as a community for developers. McNeely saw how playable Cooney’s games were and wanted to provide a way for him to make game development more than just a hobby. He asked Cooney if he could host his games on his new site, Games of Gondor. Soon, McNeely was paying Cooney to do some custom development during his free time between classes.

All the games for McNeely’s site followed a Lord of the Rings theme. That simple idea—a theme—was novel at the time and set Armor Games apart from other casual-game sites. McNeely got the idea after spending a few years working in advertising. Every month, he’d mail off checks to a 16-year-old boy who ran a site that hosted the kind of games he loved to play. He was only with the company for two and a half years because McNeely is the kind of guy who hears platitudes and takes them to heart.

“Do what you love, and the money will come,” McNeely says. And, just as important, “content is king. I wanted to create a theme website. I wanted to establish a niche.”

Games of Gondor’s first branded game was Save the Ring. Twelve Lord of the Rings-themed games later, a copyright lawyer issued a stern cease-and-desist warning. And thus, Armor Games was born.

After Cooney graduated from college, McNeely asked if he wanted to move down to Orange County and work full-time as Armor’s head of game development. The office came shortly after that. McNeely began filling the office with employees. Pageviews and gameplay picked up. The two of them were doing what they loved, and the money, though McNeely won’t say how much, came. (He will nod his head and intone, “We’re doing well.”)

Some of Armor’s games can now be found at Yahoo’s casual-play site. There are iPhone apps, too. Shift can be downloaded for $1. It has been purchased more than a million times, making Apple’s top 10 list of iPhone apps. (Since Flash doesn’t work on iPhones, Armor rewrote the game in Objective C.) Crush the Castle sold approximately 375,000 copies before it was made free for a few days. Since the sequel came out, it’s been priced at 99 cents. McNeely has signed deals to make Armor’s games available through the console version of casual-game sites, downloadable through Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Network.

“Yes,” he says. “We’re doing well.”

Armor Games is in the process of moving into an office space upstairs from the current one. Twice the size, it has a conference room, even though McNeely hates meetings and promises to never have them. It has a kitchen and space for more desks. McNeely will have his own office.

The building formerly housed a mortgage firm. McNeely says that company spent a million dollars refurbishing it with super-spy trappings and finished just before the housing bubble burst. The company moved out and started renting the office spaces. Armor Games’ new front door has a pad that reads your fingerprint, which, McNeely says, he doesn’t mind. When he stops to have his print scanned, he smiles just a little bit. “It makes us feel we are a cutting-edge technology company,” he says, “even though we aren’t in Silicon Valley.”

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