Game Changers


Game ChangersThe people behind Flying Monkey Interactive aren’t just playing games.

By Chris K. Davidson

Photography by Beau Gustafson

 

Cute little virtual creatures became the jumping-off point for an Internet gaming company that has taken off like, well, flying monkeys.

The Birmingham-based team of Candace Sargent and Cameron Holt hatched the plan for their breedable pet application after a few years of interacting with each other through Second Life, an online virtual world website launched by Linden Lab in June 2003 that allows user to create an avatar, buy land, interact with other users and even develop their own business. Sargent formerly worked in glass art and had also run a virtual jewelry business for Second Life avatars. For 15 years, Holt participated in coding for several websites, despite being legally blind.

“I do wear dark glasses 24/7 and sit fairly close to my monitors,” Holt said. “It’s natural to me. I don’t even look at it as a disability. We all have something to deal with. Mine is visual.”

Sargent and Holt launched the first version of their application, a virtual rabbit breeding game called Ozimals, in January 2010 after testing it and giving it away to several users to generate interest and foster a strong community.

“Right out of the gate, it was really successful and profitable,” Holt said. “We were a two-person team that was overwhelmed by the whole thing. In the first nine months, we made almost a million dollars. It was really successful with a lot of people playing the game. It spawned a whole new genre of games in Second Life.”

The duo focused on bringing genetics into the basic pet application, allowing users limitless options of dominant and recessive genes in creating the perfect animal. Ozimals was the beginning, followed by Pufflings, and then the newest venture, Strangelings, launched earlier this spring. While the first two programs focused on realism, Strangelings delved more into creating exotic creatures tailored to the imagination of the users. A fox face is the base, but one can add rhino hooves, lion paws, unicorn horns, scorpion tails or bird wings, along with a variety of nontraditional colors. Such breeding presents ever more unique possibilities.

“One of the compelling things about this game is the players are the ones who breed the animals together, and they have a lot of control over what they come up with,” Sargent said. “It’s a real interactive game and people get into it and make very specific genetic combinations.”

Chris Collins, a San Francisco resident formerly of Linden Lab and Second Life as well as a developer of virtual worlds for military and educational simulation, approached Sargent and Holt about bringing their concept to a larger audience.

“For people who play casual mobile games, it is around 300 million people, so it was a logical step to take it from 60,000 people in Second Life to 300 million people [through a mobile application],” Sargent said. “That’s the basic story. It took a little while with Chris just to figure out what we wanted to do and how we wanted to approach things, so we started in 2012 developing Strangelings.”

“We’ve been using the platform, Unity, to build [Strangelings], and we’ve been able to do a lot more than what we originally were able to do in Second Life,” Holt added. “We’ve been able to do custom animations and interactions where people can touch the screen and interact with the animal. We’ve been able to do augmented reality. With the technology we had at the time, we wouldn’t have been able to do in Second Life. I’d definitely say it’s a large expansion and upgrade to what we did, but the concept of the breedable animal is still ingrained in there.”

Adding the California-based Ben Rohr as Chief Financial Officer and the New York-based Hamilton Hitchings as Chief Technology Officer, the group melded in Flying Monkey Interactive, a name based on Sargent’s love of the Oz book series. The “sim,” the virtual island that hosted the Ozimal store in Second Life, featured several Wizard of Oz landmarks redesigned by Sargent and Holt, including the witch’s castle, Dorothy’s house, and the recognizable yellow brick road. The team meets once a week to discuss progress, brainstorm and address any problems or questions that arose during the previous week.

A monetary aspect exists in Strangelings that is not seen in most games of its type, an auction house for users to buy and sell their Strangelings. Several auctions are scheduled throughout any given day with a live auctioneer dedicated to running the event. The profits from the auction are sent straight to the user’s Paypal account.

“My brother called me the other day from the gas station and told me that he had filled up his tank playing Strangelings,” Holt said. “People have the ability to make money off it, depending on the amount of time you put in, but it’s very unique. We honestly feel that it’s game-changing for the game market. We feel like these companies should give gamers the ability to make money or pay for what they’re doing while at the same time, being profitable to pay the people who work at these companies.”

The application is available for iPad and browsers that support the Unity software.

“Unity comes default with Google Chrome now,” Holt said. “The auctions can be on anything because it’s just a web page. To play the game, you need an iPad or web browser. We have a large crowd looking for an Android port, so it’s definitely on our radar.”

The team constantly makes updates for an easier user experience and constructs features for the animals such as new colors, traits and abilities. Sargent even mentioned that they want to develop a “battle” element to the application.

Sargent and Holt are grateful for their initial success, but they know that in an Internet-driven world flooded with all types of applications, their work is still cut out for them.

“We’re doing updates all the time and meeting people,” Sargent said. “The biggest thing about having an app on the app store is that it’s a much bigger market. Our biggest problem is building awareness because there’s just so many. You can’t rely on just searching the app store. You have to do a lot of guerilla marketing.”

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