Games geniuses play

June 23, 2001
By LAURA FICK, Daily Record Business Writer

Looney Labs opened for production in 1996, and since then, seven games have been released - a number of which have won critical acclaim. Alison Frane, Andrew Looney and Kristin Looney stand here left to right pointing out the fruits of their labor - including Icehouse and Chrononauts: The Card Game of Time Travel.

When Andrew Looney was in college, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. During his first year in school, he was an undecided major and spent his time focusing on subjects in which he thought he could succeed, such as theater and music, only to find that his skills weren't as good as he thought.

"The two things I found I was pretty good at were writing and computer programming," said Looney, 37. "I made a deliberate choice. I could be an English major and starve, or I can be a computer programmer and maybe develop my craft, make some money, and even build up my name and credentials to be able to make writing what I do.

"That basically worked, except I shifted into game design rather than writing," he said.

And now, Looney and his wife, Kristin, 35, are making a name for themselves in the parlor game industry. After a string of smaller, hobby-level companies, Looney Labs opened for production in 1996, and since then, the two have released seven games, a number of which have won critical acclaim.

The Looneys quit their high-paying jobs as computer programmers in 1999 to devote themselves fully to the business and their weekly Web zine. They run the company with the help of one full-time employee, a summer intern and an arsenal of willing friends.

After nearly hitting bottom last year, the couple have pulled the company into the black and landed a major account to sell two of their games at the popular mall retailer The Game Keeper.

" In the last two years, I have built this company into a real company," said Kristin, Looney Labs' president, or "business czar," as she prefers. "I no longer have to borrow money to pay my bills. We have enough money coming in at this point that it's completely supporting us and running the business."

From fiction to enterprise

Looney Labs started with a story Andrew, the company's creative director, wrote some years back in which the characters spent time playing a fictional game with pyramid pieces. A close friend read the story and was so excited by the pyramid game he urged Looney to develop it for actual play.

Kristin - who at this point was still Andrew's co-worker at NASA, not yet his wife or even girlfriend - also was excited by the game and wanted to make a salable product out of it.

Together, they formed Icehouse Games, the hobbyist predecessor to Looney Labs, in 1989 and spent the next few years manufacturing the game, Icehouse, which was composed of 60 handmade pyramids.

"It was a matter of whether we would run out of money before the business was supporting us. And we didn't." - Kristin Looney, President, Looney Labs

"We started building a fan base for this game, but it wasn't available" to a wide enough audience, said Kristin. "We made the games in runs of 100 at a time by hand. But it was a hobby; it wasn't a business. We did it for fun."

"We spent many years - probably more than we needed to - experimenting with Icehouse before saying, 'Let's just let go of that game and work on some others,'" Andrew said.

In 1997, the couple released their biggest hit - Fluxx, a game of ever-changing rules that in 1999 won the Mensa Select Award. They have sold about 50,000 copies of the card game, which retails for $10.

Since that point, they have created many other games, including Chrononauts: The Card Game of Time Travel. Along with Icehouse, this game has been nominated for this year's Origins Awards, given to recognize achievement in the adventure gaming industry.

Bumps along the way

The road has not been easy, especially because the Looneys have funded the business entirely on their own. Prior to quitting their full-time jobs, they refinanced their house - which doubles as an office - and accepted every credit card offer that arrived in the mail.

"We have shunned all venture capital and did it ourselves with the long-term plan of making money in the high-tech industry and using it to fund our business," said Andrew.

"We basically gathered together as much savings and credit and as much money as we could come up with before I quit my job," said Kristin. "Then it was a matter of whether we would run out of money before the business was supporting us. And we didn't."

But it came close last spring. A little more than a year ago, the Looneys were running short on cash, and Andrew thought he might have to go back to work to help supply the monetary support for the business.

He "posted the first update [on the Web site] that was ever-slightly negative as far as indication of money problems," said Kristin. "It wasn't doom and gloom. It was just a little mention of the fact that he was going to stop doing the cartoon and several other things while he concentrated more of his time helping me make sales."

For two or three weeks after that update, sales were booming. According to Kristin, the fans they had gathered did the one thing they could to help save the company: buy games. They generated three months' worth of cash flow in that couple of weeks - enough to get to them to the holiday season.

"We have a very close connection with our fan base," said Kristin. "I think a lot of it is because of the way we started. We were a game company for 10 years making these things and selling them only direct to consumer. It was only in the last year-and-a-half that the games have been in stores.

"So we've built up a lot of fans, and we have a very close personal connection with them," she said. "Instead of having someone who is a fan of a single game, we have people who are fans of our entire company and all of our games, and they go out and promote them."

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