Little Games Are Big Business at Armor Games

These guys take 'casual' games very seriously

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.

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

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.

“The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. It is popular because it entangles users in a web of social obligations,” Liszkiewicz said. “The most important thing to recognize here is that, whether we like it or not, 73 million people are playing Farmville: a boring, repetitive and potentially dangerous activity that barely qualifies as a game. Seventy-three million people are obligated to a company that holds no reciprocal ethical obligation toward those people.”

Dan Frost is a professor in UC Irvine’s new computer-game-science major. He disagrees with the idea that games are dangerous or addictive. Indeed, proposing that casual games such as Farmville may be psychologically addictive seems to be one of his triggers.

“That’s using the language of drugs to describe games,” he says, “and I push back on that.”

Frost argues that games aren’t dangerous, that we’re merely scared of them because they are relatively new technology.

“We’re not scared of novels the way we’re scared of games,” he says. “I imagine some people are ‘addicted’ to romance novels because they read one of those a night. But we don’t see that as dangerous. If people are playing more, it just means they’re making their product better.

“There’s a lot of money in it and a lot of people. And people who play casual games, it tends to be a different market.”

*     *     *

If you look under intern Danny Yaroslavski’s desk at Armor Games, you’ll find the majority of the office’s supply of little orange Nerf darts. Each desk has a gun within easy reach, somewhere near the mouse, and Yaroslavski is the favorite target. It’s how things go when you’re the new kid. After the launch of CTC2, the guys opt for something a little more dramatic to blow off steam. They dump an entire trashcan full of Revamped balls on his head.

When they finish picking up all the balls, the guys get back to work. Cooney has pulled up the window of Flash code. He studies it, modifies it, recompiles, then pulls up the game screen and tests to see how the gameplay changes. He goes back to the code to make more minute changes that no one else will notice until it all adds up to one perfect little game.

“Rinse and repeat,” Cooney cracks.

Betz pulls up a program called SWFStats, which provides analytics for online Flash games. A map shows all the countries in which CTC2 has been played: Russia, China, Angola and Mali are among them.

At 1:57 p.m., two hours after Betz pushed the “submit game” button, CTC2 has been played 40,000 times. If it can get to more than 240,000 plays by the end of the day, it may break the record for the best launch, set in May by Cooney with Exit Path.

It gets close, but no cigar: 232,000 plays.

Betz shouldn’t feel bad; he’s in friendly competition against the developer wunderkind. Cooney has an eye for these games, as well as an imagination that seems to have no absurdity filter. Launch a hedgehog through the center of the Earth? Sure. Rave with elephants? Absolutely. How about a meta-game in which you’re not sure what the game is, but in figuring out the game, you actually are playing the game? Yes, he’s done that, too.

“There’s something magical about game development that makes even the most obscure ideas work. I mean, take Mario . . . plumbers, princesses, mushrooms and turtles formed into the greatest video-game franchise ever made. In the end, it’s really about engaging the player in something new, fun or challenging, something they can fall in love with and keep coming back to.”

Good luck getting back to work.

mbrescini@ocweekly.com

This article appeared in print as "Little Games, Big Business: Irvine's Armor Games take the world of online 'casual games' very seriously. But to keep growing, will it have to make some uncomfortable compromises?"

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