For the Love of the Game
Joe Devlin and Emily Berk
Life is not all fun and games to Bob and Debbie Thomson. They wish it were, though. About five years ago, Bob introduced Debbie to play-by-mail strategy games and it quickly became part of their shared experience. 1994 saw the birth of their daughter, Alison, and the first game from their company Llucky Llama Games.
Every other Wednesday, hundreds of players distributed across the globe make their moves by submitting them to Llucky Llama Games of Half Moon Bay. It makes Wednesdays late nights for Bob and Debbie. All the moves are fed into Llama's computers, which calculate how each move influences each game and spit out new game scenarios which are then emailed or mailed to each player the following morning.
"It takes thought and planning to be good at this sort of game," Bob warns. "That's because you are not only playing against the game, but also against the twenty or thirty other people who are playing the game along with you. These are not the sort of games that provide easy formulas for success. One game I remember had been going on for a couple of years. It had resolved itself down into a battle between two groups of five players. My group spent several months on a secret plan to weaken the defenses of a strategic castle by throwing wave after wave of spells to weaken one of its defenses. It worked and we were able to worm our way into the castle and take control of a key resource we thought would win us the game. But our enemies got wind of what we were doing. They used the castle's weakness against us and defeated us by worming their way into our stronghold using the back door we had created. We defeated ourselves with our own clever ploy. These sorts of turns of events keep these games fresh."
One of the advantages of running a play-by-mail company is that you can work anywhere. "We started Llama on my desk in my apartment in Pacifica," recalls Bob. "We first came to Half Moon Bay to talk to Bruce Marion, a well-known graphics wiz whom we had hired to create the Llama logo. One day while visiting Bruce we saw signs for an open house up the street from his studio. We stopped in and fell in love with the house, the view, and Half Moon Bay. The first piece of new furniture we bought for the new house was a second desk for Debbie to work on."
One of the problems with this sort of game is that it's much harder to find great moderators than to find good game designers. The first game Bob wrote, a strategy game called 'You Rule!', was very successful. Four years later, it still runs both on their server in Half Moon Bay and on servers moderated by others in England. It didn't take long before gaming magazines began showering kudos on Llucky Llama. But to their surprise, Bob and Debbie gained as much acclaim for the way they moderated games as from the games themselves. Other game designers began asking them to moderate their games as well. So, Llucky Llama began hosting other people's games.
When they first started Llucky Llama, Deb and Bob hoped the company would grow into an entity that could sustain their growing family. It hasn't exactly worked as planned. First, the steady growth of the Internet changed the rules of the game business — games like Doom allow multiple players to challenge each other without moderators. Such games don't require the same sort of long-term strategic thinking that Llucky Llama games do. That makes them a lot less interesting to the Thomsons, but mass audiences find them much easier to understand. The masses also have come to expect flashy graphics, something that games like Doom provide and Llucky Llama games don't.
Second, the Thomsons began Llucky Llama assuming they would keep on taking on PIC database consulting jobs until Llama supported them in the style they had come to appreciate. "The fact is," Bob realizes, "my database consulting business has grown at a much faster pace than my game business. We will continue to host a couple hundred players each month. The game magazines still rank us as one of the best game companies—and that continues to bring in new customers. But we have stopped actively promoting our game business, and I have warned my players that my busy schedule may force me to send out game results a little late once in a while." For the next while, the Thomsons' strategy will be to apply their diligent efforts and keen intelligence to the expansion of their PIC consulting business. But, while their lives will for a while no longer be ALL fun and games, they are determined that Llucky Llama Games will go on. All for the love of the game.
You can reach Llucky Llama Games ("Hot games by cool people") at 650-712-0283, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.