How Sonny Became 2008’s Big Flash Game Hit

sonny-2He’s a zombie commando with a British accent and a sensitive side, and he’s one of gaming’s biggest (if relatively unheralded) heroes of 2008. He’s Sonny, lead character in a Flash game of the same name, and when Armor Games published the title last December, it quickly became this year’s Desktop Tower Defense — in other words, a casual web game that’s attracted a huge, passionate following.

Armor CEO Daniel McNeely estimates that Sonny has been played 20 million times by 12 million unique players. On the casual game platform Kongregate, it’s by far the community’s highest-ranked, most-played title. Amid much geeky celebration, the sequel, cleverly dubbed Sonny 2, went online last Friday. It’s already been played over 700,000 times. Why the enthusiasm?

Probably because most casual games are, well, too casual — simplistic time killers that are quickly forgotten. The Sonny games, by contrast, have an involving story, polished production values, and best of all, strategic gameplay that’s easy to learn but difficult to master. As casual game startups struggle to stand out among their competitors in these recessionary times, it’s the kind of franchise we’re more likely to see.

The first game was created by a small, full-time team over a period of two months. Since then, lead developer Krin Juangbhanich went back to finishing a degree in film production, which slowed completion on the sequel. (Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of movie references in Sonny, and an ironic cheesiness to the storyline. “I like to rope-walk on the line between tragically serious Aristotelian melodrama and just plain Chaplin slapstick comedy,” Juangbhanich told me via email.)

Creating the combat system took a lot of trial and error, he told me, balancing disparate strategic elements in order to create a challenging but not impossible experience. From the server side, the chief difficulty was hosting a Flash game containing lots of dialog and original music; over 70 percent of the Sonny games are sound files. As a result, the first game is 10 megs, the second, 20 megs; huge by casual gaming standards. “And some people don’t even turn on the sound,” noted Juangbhanich.

Still, it’s elements like these which contribute to Sonny’s popularity. “When creating a more in-depth game, it is about engaging the players,” he said.

So far, McNeely estimates that both Sonny games have brought in $30,000-$50,000 in advertising revenue so far, from a production budget of $15,000 and $25,000, respectively. But they’re just getting started. “We also have big plans for Sonny,” he told me via email, “so the first two games are small pieces in a much bigger puzzle.”

While historically viewed as a recession-proof industry, the economic downturn has even been felt in gaming in recent months, most recently with a thousand laid off from Electronic Arts. As a result, many recently unemployed developers will probably try their hand at making indie web-based titles like Sonny.

If so, Juangbhanich advises them not to emulate the big budget video games they may be used to. “Flash games have a style of their own,” he said, “and that should be cherished and used. Good luck!”

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