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.

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
This is the Only Level
Courtesy Armor Games
This is the Only Level
Sonny
Courtesy Armor Games
Sonny
Head of game development John Cooney has a thing for cute animal characters. His shirt was bought from sircritter.com
John Gilhooley
Head of game development John Cooney has a thing for cute animal characters. His shirt was bought from sircritter.com
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

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.

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.

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.

*     *     *

“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 Amazon.com 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.

*     *     *

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.

“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 Fark.com picked it up. The link drew enough players to jmbt02.com 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.”

*     *     *

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.”

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.

“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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