by Ryan Kearney - February 23, 2006
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The casino is gaudy, like most. Blue palm trees are painted on its pink and purple facade, and a pair of jumbo dice threatens to tumble from the roof. Inside, stepping onto the spongy carpet, I’m bombarded by seizure-inducing lights and the familiar cacophony of slot machines—ringing tones ascending and descending in perfect sine waves, or firing away like toy machine guns, as coins endlessly clatter into metal trays.
Entranced, I settle in with several women in the nearby bingo hall. No one’s talking—they’re just staring at their cards, waiting for their numbers. I’m the first to get a full row and yell “Bingo!” The others sigh.
During the next game, two women strike up a conversation. “My husband died of lung cancer…and he never smoked,” says Peachie.
“Secondhand smoke is worse,” Linda replies. “He wasn’t around it. We never smoked in the house or where he was. It was from asbestos, and chemicals he worked with for years.”
Hoping to lighten up the mood, I yell “Bingo!” again—even though only three numbers have been called. The women don’t find it so funny, and they boo me.
I go exploring and find a table of Pirates Poker, a simple game that involves no discarding; I quickly go up 400, but eventually lose 700. I fare only slightly better at the Texas Hold ’Em table. Craving blackjack—the best odds in the joint—I stroll around the floor, but I can’t find it. I hop in an elevator, only to discover I’m already on the 46th floor. Even stranger, the elevator goes as high as floor 164. I go down instead, stopping at every fifth floor, but can’t seem to find a blackjack table. I do, however, notice something else: With the exception of the dealers and pit bosses, this massive, noisy casino is almost entirely empty.
Panicked, I rush down the elevator and out into the blinding sun, into a lush green park with other grandiose edifices—a “Trivia Tower” modeled on the Space Needle, a London-style “House of Cards,” and so on.
I check my watch. Christ. Nearly two hours have passed in the blink of an eye. I should get back to work.
Two ways to waste time The casino does not exist. Not in any real sense, anyway. You don’t drive there, you don’t gamble with real money, and you don’t get any free drinks.
Instead, it’s one of several buildings in Gamepipe.com’s virtual world. In addition to the casino, which you download onto your computer (PC users only), the Hamden-based outfit offers 23 games on its website, a deadly quicksand of addictive puzzle, arcade, bingo, trivia and card games. Best (or worst) of all: It’s free.
Gamepipe is taking a chance in trying to crack the highly competitive world of online entertainment, but the company believes it has found a niche.
So does New Haven–based Robotube Games, which specializes in mobile-phone games—an industry every bit as hot and cutthroat as online gaming. Unlike Gamepipe, which is accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection, Robotube has struggled with the major cellphone carriers to make its games available. So it has taken the rebellious route, bypassing the carriers by offering mobile-phone games directly to consumers.
Between Robotube’s and Gamepipe’s products, you could waste an entire day. Perhaps an entire life. Gamepipe entices you to kill time at work or at home, while Robotube grabs you at transitory moments—on the bus or train, at the doctor’s office, in the bathroom stall.
The business model is simple: get rich by taking advantage of mankind’s weakness for distraction and procrastination. Consider yourself warned.
Fostering community—or addiction? Gamepipe’s home is in a drab, brick and vinyl-sided office building on Dixwell Avenue. The office is unexceptional—white-walled and carpeted, with padded, free-standing partitions to compartmentalize the company’s handful of employees. An Army-green punch clock clicks away near the receptionist, whose faux-oak desk, though dinged on the corners, still bears its UPC sticker.
There’s no poker game or billiards tables, just one lonely slot machine. It’s a far cry from the festive atmosphere of Gamepipe’s virtual world, but the decor does make some sense. Not that Gamepipe is run by dull folks—not at all; they’re friendly and easygoing. But 38-year-old founder Mark Ross is a pragmatic man who seems singularly focused on growing the business. There’s no time for trifles like wall decorations.
The office is an improvement, anyway, over Ross’ first workspace—a basement in North Haven. Formerly a software programmer for a pharmaceutical company, Ross left his job in 1997 to start Mediasoft, a search-engine optimization firm.
One day he had an epiphany while driving home from Foxwoods Casino with his wife.
“You know, these video poker games are pretty fun,” he told her. “I bet a lot of people would like to play these online.”
So Gamepipe was born. Inspired by Microsoft’s gaming zone, Ross spent a year learning Windows and games programming, then began making online video poker games. “Because the checker and chess games had been exhausted on its own, I figured I’d come out with a virtual play-money casino,” he says. The casino “had its own cult following of about 50,000 users in its first year,” says Ross. But it also had its limits. The games were mostly single-player, and casual gamers don’t want to download anything. “I wanted to reach into a whole suite of video games, multi-player games,” he says.
Around 2001, Ross hired his first programmer to help develop games to play on Gamepipe.com itself—“a lot of college games,” like spades, setback, hearts and mini golf. The site went beta with a half-dozen games in 2004 (like Gmail at the moment, it was online but still being ironed out) and was fully launched last November.
Gamepipe now has a dozen full- and part-time employees, and it’s almost entirely ad-driven. “We basically stick ads in front of their faces and drive them crazy,” says Ross. Both its flash games and its casino are surrounded by boxes with promises of love, weight loss and instant cash. Thirty-second ads also interrupt casino games from time to time, or appear in more subtle ways: In Gamepipe’s virtual park, a passing blimp advertises the Gold Door Casino, a bona fide gambling website. Casino players who can’t stand the ads can pay to avoid them; 7,500 people have done so. The flash games don’t have the disruptive ads yet, but Gamepipe expects to add them (and the pay-to-kill option) soon.
But first, Ross wants to get people addicted. Many of them are. More than 250,000 have signed in at the website—a requirement to play—and at any given time around 1,500-2,500 players are online.
Who are they? A typical user “is a woman in her fifties,” says Ross.
Gamepipe isn’t a gambling site, but there are payouts. Players accumulate game points when they win, and 500,000 points earns them a spin of a prize wheel that includes electronics, jewelry and a trip to Las Vegas. “That gives people incentive to continue playing our games,” he says.
No wonder the average user spends two and a half hours a day on Gamepipe.com.
They keep coming back because of the sense of community the site fosters, a sense that is aided by chat rooms in every game, says Ross. “We have regulars that come back every night,” he says, “people that are online 24 hours a day, people who celebrate birthdays online.”
On a recent night, Mark was watching the chat window in the bingo hall—the same place I overheard Linda and Peachie—“and some lady said, ‘I can’t stay here any longer. My husband’s been waiting for dinner for the last hour.’ “I think that sums up a pretty good mentality of our average users,” he says.
Pushing Buttons Occupying the third-floor of a century-old brick building in Wooster Square, Robotube’s office is closer to what you’d expect from new-economy entrepreneurs: a sparsely decorated but eclectic loft space (with creaky hardwood floors, of course). A punching bag hangs in the center of the room, where HDTVs and iMacs share space with a vintage Galaxy II handheld console, a Space Invaders slot machine, a Foosball table and, alone in a far corner, a Street Fighter II arcade game. Another room is decorated with gratuitously oversized armchairs and a paint-splattered wooden table—with a half-gone bottle of Jose Cuervo in the middle.
Most significant, though, is the general lack of interior walls; most desks sit out in the open. It’s indicative of how Robotube and its partner, Heavybag Media, operate. Ideas flow freely here, and the light bulbs go off not in organized meetings, but over six-packs of Elm City Lager.
“We love what we do and we do it our way,” says Robotube’s 30-year-old founder, Jason Cirillo. “If people from IBM came in, they’d be horrified.”
Dressed in corduroys and a weathered Street Fighter II t-shirt, Cirillo is sporting a three-day beard and blinks with the force of someone who has stared at a computer screen for too many years.
A self-taught programmer, Cirillo began Robotubegames.com in 1999, then moved to Japan with his future wife, Rika, a graphic designer. For about a year, while Rika worked for a tech company, he stayed in their tiny apartment and cranked out flash games for the website.
“I didn’t get paid for any of it, but it was all 100-percent absolutely worth it,” he says. “I actually used my time well, which was sort of a feat for me.”
Not long after he moved back to New Haven, he met Dennis Peters, CEO of Heavybag, the internet marketing firm. Peters, 49, was interested in branded entertainment, and Cirillo had a cache of puzzle and arcade-style games that attracted between 150,000 and 200,000 visitors a month. It was a natural fit.
Heavybag and Robotube became partners and initially built promotional games for companies like Dannon and M&M’s. Peters, a B-movie cinematographer in L.A. for 15 years, had wanted to make branded entertainment films, but there was no money for it. “The games were so much more inexpensive and accessible,” he says. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is a great way to do online marketing.’
“Within a year, things moved so quickly, it went to mobile,” he continues. “We skipped over the online part and saw, ‘Wait a minute, the real opportunity here is in mobile marketing, in mobile entertainment.’”
Then they hit a roadblock: the “walled garden” of the cellphone carriers.
“Basically, this [mobile games] business hit them so fast that they didn’t really have anyone internally to deal with it,” says Peters, “and a few very large companies jumped in quickly and owned it.”
Slowly but surely, that’s changing. The carriers made deals with the major game companies, then put a few games on each phone, free of charge. That hurt the market, teaching users to expect free games—plus, carriers weren’t making a penny. Mike Goodman, a mobile entertainment analyst at the Yankee Group, says most cellphone carriers no longer offer free games. As a result, “you see fewer people playing games on their phones, but more importantly, the people who are playing them are paying for them.”
In the U.S., most games are still bought through carriers, but Robotube, which values itself at a little under $1 million, is blazing a trail that’s well-worn in Europe in Asia: The company sells its games through its website. Enter your number and Robotube will send you a text message with a link to a website, which you access on your phone to buy games like Championship Horseshoes, the Tetris-like Bloktonik and a range of arcade games modeled after Space Invaders. The $3.99 charge appears on your cellphone bill.
In the U.S., Robotube’s games are available to Cingular users, and the company has also inked deals with carriers in India and China. While the company is only reaching an infinitesimal percentage of the 1.5 billion cellphone users worldwide, the potential is enormous. Last year, 17 percent of cellphone users in the U.S. played games on their phone, spending $292 million. That’s nothing compared to the $10 billion video game industry, but Goodman predicts that, by 2009, mobile-phone games will be a billion-dollar business.
As with online games, mobile-phone gamers are not who you’d necessarily expect them to be. According to Goodman, 64 percent are women. Many of them may be Gamepipe users, too. But whereas online games are “sticky”—that is, they suck you in for long periods of time—analysts call mobile-phone games a “digital snack” because they’re usually played for only a few minutes. It’s essential, then, that the games be simple and intuitive, with minimal button-pushing. “It’s a time killer,” says Peters. “The key at this point in the mobile world is to have a game where you don’t have to read the instructions, because if it takes more than a minute to figure out how to play, you’re done—the time has passed.”
That’s one reason Tetris and Jamdat Bowling remain top sellers, even while popular console games like Gran Turismo 4 are licensed for mobile phones. Another reason: Cellphones have limited processing speed, capacity and graphics. The hope is that as the phones improve, more male gamers will hop on board.
Still, success is slow going, and working in the nascent mobile games industry can be frustrating. Last fall, Nokia put three Robotube games in their “media mall,” but Robotube has no idea whether the games are selling because Nokia won’t tell them. “I was like, ‘This is crazy. You have to give us sales reports,’” says Cirillo.
“And money,” adds Peters.
Advancing to the next level I’m sitting at the Pollock-inspired table in Robotube’s Chapel Street office, and the company’s creative team—Jason and Rika Cirillo, Dennis and Jackie Peters—is holding a meeting. It’s 5:30 and they’ve just cracked a few beers; perhaps “in-house happy hour” is a more accurate description than “meeting.”
We’re all admiring Rika Cirillo’s paper model of Robotube’s logo: a squat, wide-eyed adolescent robot. It’s a spot-on 3D representation, which the graphic designer made from a single piece of paper. A do-it-yourself version is one of several items they’re putting in “the envelope”—a pitch to a candy company, in the hopes of landing a deal.
“We need to use this to get the call—to get them to accept the call,” says Peters. “It’s hard to get people on the phone. And then you identify yourself, and it’s twice as hard.”
Robotube’s braintrust also discusses pitches to a sandwich chain, a sneaker company and a financial firm with college students as clients. Near the end of the meeting, Peters, the fatherly voice of reason, says, “I think we should prioritize. We just threw out a year’s worth of work.”
It’s easy to get carried away. Besides their boundless creativity—one week it’s a paper model, another week a giddy, homemade movie they’ve posted online—the Robotube crew knows that deals are critical to their success. That’s why the company spends so much of its energy on marketing. The business model has been established, the product is up and running: They just need others to buy into it.
Likewise, Gamepipe. The site needs more traffic, true, but corporate partnerships are the key to ramping up the cash flow. Gamepipe is hoping a real casino, near or far, will license their virtual casino for in-room gaming or tutorials for novice gamers. “The concept is, let the casinos use our software so people can learn how to play craps in their bathrobes in their hotel rooms,” says Ross, “and then the theory is they go downstairs and play for real money.”
Other plans are in the works. The cherries and gold bars on the slot machine reels could become Viagra pills and cans of Coke. A pizza chain could pay to put a button on the screen that allows gamblers to order online. And the mall in Gamepipe’s virtual park could start leasing space. “It would be great, in two years, when this website is a Top 100 site, to have Amazon.com lease a site in the mall,” says Ross. Gamepipe’s clients would then go shopping with their hard-earned game points.
Money is essential to these plans’ coming to pass, but it’s not the only thing holding Gamepipe and Robotube back. Talent is also hard to come by.
“There’s so much talent in New Haven,” says Peters, “but for reasons—some I understand, and some I don’t—it’s very underground. There may be a great group of people here we should be working with.”
Then again, adds Peters, Robotube is pretty underground, too.
“Nobody knows we’re here,” he says.
That’s about to change.