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News . Feature Stories . The Plain Dealer: 2004 Institute Alumni Featured for Game Design

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June 25, 2007

The Plain Dealer: 2004 Institute Alumni Featured for Game Design

Matt Neff and Tony Solary were game for work when they were digital-arts students at the Cleveland Institute of Art. They teamed up on a variety of Web design and digital-animation projects for paying clients and formed Flipline Studios.

Hobby is paying off for makers of games

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tom Feran

Plain Dealer Reporter

Matt Neff and Tony Solary were game for work when they were digital-arts students at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

They teamed up on a variety of Web design and digital-animation projects for paying clients and formed Flipline Studios to continue the work after graduating in 2004.

They were game for games, too, and it turned out they weren't just playing around. Their interest is making them stars in a field that didn't exist five years ago and turning their pastime into a profession.

"All throughout our time in college," Solary said, "we were working together on games on our own, not knowing we could make money off of them. Once we did start the company, we continued to work on games in our free time and found out we could actually make money. It wasn't just time wasted for our own enjoyment."

They found they could make money by building educational games on commission for such clients as the Cleveland Museum of Art.

They also found they were able to make money when people wanted to play their games online.

Their work has been so well received that Flipline is now in a "transition period," Solary said. "We're working on a lot of Web design, animation and visualization, but we're trying to make the turn to just gaming."

The prospects look promising. One of their latest games, the brightly animated "Papa Louie: When Pizzas Attack!," has become one of the most popular on www.kongregate.com, a growing new site that's being called "the YouTube of games" for the way it extends the idea of user-generated content to gaming.

Founded a year ago and launched for public use in late March, Kongregate is similar to such game sites as www.pogo.com and www.newgrounds.com but is seen as the first to be fully open to the interactive features of what's being called Web 2.0.

Aspiring amateur and independent professional game developers can upload their games freely for users to play, rate, tag and comment on. Users can play for free, without registering, although registration is required for comments and chatting. And unlike other social sites supported by advertising, Kongregate shares ad revenue with its contributors, who retain full rights to their games.

"You start making money as soon as people start playing your game," Neff said. "The more popular your game is, the more ads people are seeing and the more money you make off that."

The site is trying to distinguish itself by the depth of its community features, said Jim Greer, game industry entrepreneur who co-founded Kongregate.

"The way I define community for game players is with chat and profiles," he said by phone from San Francisco. "Specifically, part of the reason I play is because the games are fun, and part of the reason is that I'm addicted to the achievement. I want it to be recorded and tracked instead of having nothing to show for it. What's really powerful is taking my accomplishment and exposing it to the community, without the negative side of I crushed you.' We're trying to have a really friendly, engaging place to play."

Players can have their top scores recorded, accumulate points for a developing "rewards" system, build lists of friends for recommendations and multiplayer games and see their comments about games peer-rated for usefulness. Adding to the community, gamers themselves enforce rules against inappropriate language and content.

Developers get feedback about their games through comments and chats, sometimes in real time while games are being played. That's useful for early versions of games -- especially, developers say, because the security of the site prevents games from being pirated.

Ultimately, Neff said, "your success is based on how well your game is received. Games that are well-made get played more. Games that are put together shoddily don't get many game plays."

Although anyone can upload games, Greer recruited Flipline to contribute when he met Neff and Solary at a conference in Seattle last summer.

"We were one of the first companies to submit games to Kongregate," Solary said, "and it's really cool, from our standpoint, watching it grow from a list of three games when it started to a thousand."

He and Neff are getting used to such growth. They originally worked out of their basements in Wickliffe and West Park but moved Flipline a couple of years ago into the Hyacinth Lofts, a campus of arts-oriented entrepreneurs on East 63rd Street in Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood.

They demonstrated the intricacies of "Papa Louie" on one of the monitors in their studio and also showed off "Rock Garden," an absorbing game they're developing for the "casual" market. While younger men dominate online gaming -- 85 percent of Kongregate players are male, and the average age is 19 to 26 -- players of "casual" games are predominantly women, ages 30 to 40 and up.

"It's a whole different flavor of game," Solary said, noting they're more puzzle and problem solving than combative, and -- reflecting the lifestyles of players who can't devote extended time to games -- can be interrupted and resumed easily.

They'll probably put a teaser version of "Rock Garden" on Kongregate, along with a sequel to "Papa Louie" that sets up challenges in a busy pizzeria. Asked if the recurring theme is homage to the food staple of hard-core gamers, they laughed and wouldn't deny it.

"We like pizza," Solary said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

tferan@plaind.com, 216-999-6251

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