Little Games Are Big Business at Armor Games

These guys take 'casual' games very seriously

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If McNeely’s dream is to grow his company into something that will put him on the cover of Newsweek, Fortune or TIME, then he’s going to have to change his name.

To belong to the Billionaires club, he says, “I think your name has to be Mark.”

Left to right: Daniel McNeely, Joey Betz, web developer Larry Root, John Cooney and intern Danny Yaroslavski
John Gilhooley
Left to right: Daniel McNeely, Joey Betz, web developer Larry Root, John Cooney and intern Danny Yaroslavski
Crush the castle 2
Courtesy Armor Games
Crush the castle 2

McNeely is referring to Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, and Mark Pincus, the creator of Zynga. Becoming a billionaire isn’t on his list of goals for 2010—which he has typed out and taped to the wall next to his computer—but maybe it should be. Somewhere after “learn to fly,” but before “play a season of hockey.”

It became clear McNeely was aiming for something big when he put up the cash to co-sponsor an award ceremony in order to be listed among tech companies such as Microsoft BizSpark, Social Gaming Network and Zong Mobile Payments. Armor Games was one of many sponsors of last year’s Crunchies Awards in San Francisco. For the past three years, the awards have been handed out to “recognize and celebrate the most compelling startups, Internet and technology innovations of the year.”

McNeely has pictures from the event, at which he posed next to both Marks. As he calls these up on his computer screen, he grins as widely in person as he does in the photos.

If he aspires to that kind of elite status, it’s not exactly obvious how he plans to get there. Armor Games isn’t going to get to the 11 million subscribers World of Warcraft (WoW), the flagship title of Irvine’s own gaming behemoth Blizzard Entertainment, for example, if it doesn’t create a game that makes players not want to leave their house for weeks at a time.

Then again, WoW isn’t quite Armor Games’ style. All that programming, the unseen offices full of employees constantly writing code, the endless baiting of players, convincing them they need to spend more time and money.

McNeely went to this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), a scene seemingly incongruous with the creator of a casual-game site, as the big console-gaming companies unveiled new hardware and titles with production budgets that rival some movies. When Armor tweeted from E3, someone responded, “Why is Armor even at E3?”

To Michael Mei, the excursion does make sense.

“Because Armor Games touches the online gamers who skew relatively young, [McNeely] is doing the right thing by attending E3 to help address the needs of his ‘aging’ visitor,” he points out.

“Armor Games is a thought leader in the online-games space, and in moving into new mediums and platforms,” Mei declares. “I’m impressed with Daniel’s fluidity.”

McNeely acknowledges that his trip to E3 wasn’t just for fun. “I get e-mails once or twice a week from firms that want to give us money,” he says. It’s the kind of money that could pay for a whole new office building full of game and web developers who could double Armor’s game output overnight. “But I want slower growth. It allows me to handpick. I want to be homegrown and by the bootstraps.”

At the same time, McNeely knows the way to make money in the new, tamer world of casual gaming. He recently hired someone who will work exclusively on getting more Armor Games onto the iPhone app store. And, yes, he’d like to make a Farmville-type game game for Facebook.

“But it’s just not the type of game they’d enjoy making,” he says of his developers.

He explains this while looking at his team through the glass window that separates the office’s two rooms.

“I hire smart people, and I get out of the way,” McNeely says. Even this is subject to planning, however, and he’s playing with the idea of teaming up with another game developer to create a Facebook game that will share the branding with Armor Games.

Which might be the only way because Cooney is not interested.

“I want a game that is simple to learn and simple to pick up,” Cooney says. His favorite is still Doki Doki Panic, a Japanese game from 1987 that was skinned over to create Super Mario Bros 2. He also recognizes the need to draw more of the emerging female-player market into Armor’s fold, but . . .

“We’re just not sure if we want to be Farmville. You know? We create more traditional games,” he says.

Cooney isn’t afraid to get into the one conversation everyone else tries to avoid. It’s hard to talk about the moral value of a game when you know how much money it can make.

“Is Farmville a game or not? . . . It breaks a lot of cognitive processes,” Cooney says. “You feel this need to fix the farm and to work on it constantly. You need to do more and spend money. . . . We’d love to do a Facebook game, but it has to be interesting.”

A.J. Patrick Liszkiewicz, an instructor of media studies at SUNY Buffalo, has been quoted all over the Internet from a speech he gave in honor of Howard Zinn, a day after the famous scholar and activist’s death, about how not to become a cog in the societal wheels we create.

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