When John Cooney returns home after a busy day of coding and designing at Armor Games, he immediately checks that the curtains are closed. Once he has ensured there are no gaps through which he might be spied, he allows himself to relax for the first time since he left for the office in the morning. It is hard work maintaining a unified appearance, and he sighs with relief as he separates into his constituent parts.
You see, John is not one man. He is an amalgam of five different people who, somehow, are able to reside in the same physical space at the same time. There's Mark, the code wizard, who can concoct a fancy game engine in the time it takes most of us to pop to the shops and back. Tim is the design genius, effortlessly creating beautifully animated sprites and swanky game environments. Bob is the holistic thinker, dreaming up ever more weird and wonderful ideas for games. Then there's 02, a baby elephant with a propensity for raving who is the primary tester for most of John's games. She ensures that the games are fun to play. And finally, there is John himself, who has the task of assembling this disparate group into a single coherent being.
We should point out that we have absolutely no evidence to back up this theory of John's multiplicity. For all intents and purposes, John appears to be a normal, everyday individual person (albeit very talented). But how else to explain the sheer number and variety of games produced by Armor Games' head of game development. Firstly, the numbers. A flick through his gaming portfolio reveals more than 60 games. If these were all short, low quality games, then it would be conceivable that they were created by one man. But many of them are quite sizeable - such as the excellent action platformer Exit Path or the highly polished defend-your-castle-style game Balloon in a Wasteland - and, remember, John does both the design and coding for all his games.
Then there is the enormous variety of the games. While most game developers tend to focus on one type of game (point-and-click, say, or platformers), John effortlessly (perhaps too effortlessly?) flits between gaming genres as if he has been specialising in them all his life. Take his platform masterpiece Achievement Unlocked, a brilliant re-envisioning of the platform puzzler, or Hedgehog Launch, a game that took the launching style of game (where you have to propel an object as far as possible) and blasted it into outer space.
John has even pioneered a few new gaming genres of his own, with unique games like I Love Traffic - a puzzle game where you have to prevent cars crashing by controlling traffic lights (its much more fun than it sounds) - and Treadmillasaurus Rex, perhaps best described as a dinosaur torture game.
Whenever John dabbles in a new gaming genre, he does not simply copy what is already out there, but completely reinvents it. Further evidence of this can be found from games like Knights of Rock, which takes the tired rhythm-genre of gaming (weighed down by a litany of unimaginative Guitar Hero clones) and slickly dresses it up as a slash and dash game. He has even toyed with the notoriously difficult arthouse style of games and come up trumps, as testified by his most recent game Flock Together, which we reviewed here.
This ability to jump between genres, improving and reinventing them as you go, is the mark of a truly virtuoso game artist. Either that, or someone who is able to draw on the talent of five people (well four people and a baby elephant) magically shoehorned into the space of one. We'll leave you to decide on that but before we pass you onto John, we would just like you to dwell on this. John is known online by the moniker jmtb02. Look carefully at those letters. Do they remind you of something? Look again. Okay, let me spell it out: j (John), m (Mark), t (Tim), b (Bob), 02 (02). Spooky, eh.
Whatever the truth about John, we at Casual Girl Gamer love him and his games, and are thrilled that he agreed to answer some questions for us.
You are known online as jmtb02. What does jmtb02 stand for?
In 2002 I made a screen name for AOL instant messenger. I opted for jmtb (John MounTain Bike) since I was big into mountain biking back then, but I had to add the year on since that was taken [Ed: Oh well, that scuppers our theory]. To be honest it's been hard developing under this name. It's been a plague of misspellings.
How did you get into game development?
Growing up I had a lot of fun with Mac painting programs (like Kid Pix) and when I got to high school I got into Flash animation. At that point I wanted to be an animator, but after dabbling in interaction I got hooked on game development. By the end of high school I started publishing, and by college I started getting my work branded to help offset tuition and living expenses. When I graduated I joined Armor Games full-time.
Armor Games sounds like a cool company - certainly, it has produced some of the best Flash games. What is it like working there?
Armor Games is a bit different from other Flash companies. We let our developers pursue their own projects and execute them as they see fit (within reason of course). There's a lot of trust placed in our developers and it's amazing what can happen when that freedom is allowed. Day-to-day it's casual here... flip flops, t-shirts and jeans are the ordinary and a random game of darts in the afternoon is not uncommon.
Describe a typical working day as head of game development at Armor Games?
Busy! I still have my own projects to finish while checking in on other developers and guiding development in other areas such as iPhone ports. Luckily a good portion of my time is still dedicated to game development. The morning is filled with code, caffeine and secret-agent music and the afternoon is a mix of eclectic pop music, more coding, and a Dr. Pepper. We have a "no meetings unless we have to" policy here so rarely do I get sucked into a meeting longer than a few minutes here or there.
You are one of the most prolific game developers out there. What is the secret to your productivity?
To be honest I think it's simply setting a deadline and milestones. A lot of developers create giant open-ended projects with no deadline in-sight... which works for some (brilliantly even) but I focus on setting daily goals and trying to reach them. My graphics are typically fairly simple as well, I go for simplicity over complexity in most projects.
Many of your games - Achievement Unlocked and Knights of Rock, for example - creatively reinvent existing genres. Where do you get your inspiration for such games?
Inspiration comes from strange places. The idea behind traffic management game I Love Traffic was conceived during a long wait at a busy intersection... "what if I could control the traffic lights, how would I make traffic faster?" That game was built shortly afterward and did very well. These sorts of games have a lot of risk taking and with that I've seen both success and failures, but either way it's rewarding to experiment.
Are there any gaming genres that you have not yet touched. Have you got any plans for them?
I would love to make a board game... a real one. Then I want to port it to Flash so others could play it online.
What game are you working on at present? Is there anything you can tell us about it?
I'm working on a project with the working name "Corporation Inc". It's a time/resource management game that mixes SimTower with corporate culture. Your workers work at a push-button factory pushing buttons, and your job is to make sure they do their work as efficiently as possible.
Your latest game, Flocked Together, is a bit more arty than many of your others. Can we expect more arty games from you?
Arty games are fun because I used to want to be an animator. It's hard for me to think of arty games though. I am incredibly focused on gameplay and art usually takes a second place to that.
Do you think games can be considered to be art?
Over the course of the past few decades video games have grown to share many common attributes with film and interactive-media. In this sense, yes, I think games can be defined as art... but really this question is about dictionary definitions, isn't it? Does it fit into the art category or not? My answer: it just doesn't matter. Labeling something as being "art" or "not art" is offensive to people for some reason, as if saying something is good or bad. I enjoy playing a good game regardless of what labels we decide to give it.
Which of your games are you most proud of?
While not statistically my most successful game, I think Exit Path is probably the project I feel most proud of. It was the first project I programmed to be multiplayer. I was very nervous launching my first multiplayer game, to the point that I could barely watch the matches without feeling sick and getting incredibly nervous that everything would work properly. After seeing things work out I definitely felt accomplished. The game went on to do fairly well on Armor Games.
What do you consider your most successful game?
One of my first games actually, Ball Revamped 2. It was the game that finally got my work noticed. After a television feature and my website bandwidth destroyed I finally had enough courage to pursue a career in game development.
Do you do both the art and programming for your games. Which of these two disciplines do you prefer?
I'll be honest here... programming is not my favourite thing. Making things work properly can be frustrating and difficult. I feel like art is a bit more freeform and relaxing than poring over lines of code... it's a nice break from typing and debugging glitches.
Is it possible to make a good living out of developing casual games?
I think so, but there is a lot of time to put in before you can take off the training wheels. I had to hold down full-time jobs outside of Flash games for quite a while before jumping into it full-time. There's a lot of experience to build and mistakes to be made before doing this professionally.
Are their any game developers whose work you particularly admire?
Outside of the awesome guys at Armor Games, there's an artist named NinjaDoodle who makes these wonderful mouse/one-button based games. They are so simple yet so enjoyable. I admire his quality of gaming and style he brings to it. I also had the privilege of working with an artist named BoMToons on a couple projects, I love his art style and attention to things such as epic boss battles.
What is your favourite casual game by another developer?
Robot Unicorn Attack. I cannot get enough rainbows and unicorns.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope to explore more multiplayer gaming. It's fun playing with others and I would like to see what I can do with it. And in real-life I'm pushing myself to train to run a marathon next year so that's a big goal for me as well.