Thursday, May 23, 2024 May 23, 2024
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Digital Crack

Local company MumboJumbo created a seemingly innocent video game set in ancient Egypt. Little did they know they’d hook soccer moms.
ADDICTED: That’s how Luxor creators Darren Walker (left) and Scott Hansen want you.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Rebekah Harris reads Shakespeare in her free time. She also bowls. And it was at her bowling league in early 2005 that the English professor at Cedar Valley College played next to Scott Hansen, a large man with a goatee and a Dungeons & Dragons forearm tattoo he got years ago while drunk. (“The last time I was drunk,” he likes to say.) Hansen, a friend of Harris’, worked for a video game publisher in Dallas called MumboJumbo, and that night, between frames, he kept asking Harris to try the company’s newest game, Luxor. But she didn’t like video games. Hansen told her his game was different. Women seemed to like it. People of all ages and backgrounds—people, in particular, who had no prior interest in gaming—seemed to like it.

Harris almost didn’t put the disc into her computer. Maybe she shouldn’t have. “The game—I mean, it was one of those things that was very hard to pull away from,” she says.

In Luxor, a series of balls—red, green, blue, yellow, or purple—rolls down a Byzantine path in ancient Egypt. You have a shooter at the bottom of the screen that throws balls onto the path. Shooting, say, a blue ball at three like balls will blow them all up. Your job is to clear the balls before they reach the pyramid at the bottom of the screen. It’s sort of Centipede meets Zuma, with paths doubling back like an ant farm, and the whole thing is accompanied by a musical score borrowed from Raiders of the Lost Ark—if that helps. The game is easy to play but next to impossible to master.

Rebekah Harris found that out the hard way. Luxor became her second job. In no time, she found herself playing three hours a day. “And that’s on work days,” she says. On the weekends it was five hours a day—at least.

The last level, Kufu’s Revenge, drove her crazy. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, months into half a year. And still Kufu’s Revenge bested Harris. Her husband Mitch says, “She came to bed so many times saying, ‘I’m never playing that stupid game again.’ Next day, she’d be at it.”
One night, finally, she beat it. Her roar drove her four kids to her room, sure that their mother had just suffered a violent accident. When Mitch heard she’d beat Luxor, he said, only: “Thank God.”

“The average Luxor player plays Luxor—and this is embarrassing—an hour and a half every day,” says Ron Dimant, the chairman of MumboJumbo. That’s 45 hours a month. Dimant and MumboJumbo CEO Mark Cottam sit in the conference room just down the hall from the office they share, talking about what makes Luxor, MumboJumbo’s 10th title, so successful. A free teaser version of Luxor has been downloaded more than 40 million times since its launch in 2005. Luxor was named the game of the year in the “casual gaming” segment.

It’s all very open door and casual dress at MumboJumbo, in this converted warehouse on Lamar Street, in the heart of the West End, hard against I-35. The joke, of course, is that it’s the sort of place where no serious work gets done. But here, for the company’s 45 employees, fun is serious.

Cottam and Dimant talk a lot about “balanced” game play. For Luxor it meant a progressively tougher game that had, in each level, its own progression, from easy to difficult but also from difficult to slightly less so. That was the key. Bring the player “to the brink of a panic attack,” Cottam says, and then back off; give him (or her) a lightning bolt or a fireball that clears the backlog. Then ratchet up the tension again. It’s the same qualities that make for a good thriller: not every part of the film is thrilling.

Scott Hansen, the tattooed game designer, and Darren Walker, a small, wiry programmer, created Luxor in the fall of 2004. Originally they liked the idea of a game using bugs. They even had a name: Bug Blast. But then they thought better of it. Bugs might disgust some players. Plus, bugs were childish. “Then, somebody said, ‘Hey, what about a game set in ancient Egypt?’” Hansen says. Now they were on to something. Everyone has a passing familiarity with ancient Egypt. Even better, the subject had long fascinated Hansen.

MIND GAMES: It doesn’t look like much, but people can’t stop playing Luxor.

Hansen and Walker put in many hours on Luxor. “Any kind of level balancing is always a touch and feel,” Hansen says. “So I played the game, tons and tons and tons.” Walker programmed in the changes, made sure those changes weren’t too difficult, and made sure the game had an overall “polished play.” Then they gave the game its most important test: The Girlfriend Test.

MumboJumbo doesn’t believe in focus groups. Focus groups are filled with hardcore gamers—mostly men, and mostly younger—who spend hours before the rat-a-tat-tat blue glow of first-person shooters like Halo. Luxor was designed for the other 95 percent of the populace. The reasoning: the hardcore crowd spends $30 billion a year on games, more than Hollywood rakes in. The casual gaming segment, of which MumboJumbo is a part, accounts for only $700 million. But what would happen if you made a blockbuster game for everyone else, for that other 95 percent?

So Hansen and Walker and all the other executives gave the Luxor prototype to their girlfriends, wives, and, in some cases, parents. MumboJumbo wanted to know how to make the game enticing for them. Sometimes the girlfriends or wives hadn’t played anything since Pac-Man. Sometimes they hadn’t played anything at all. That was fine by MumboJumbo. All the more reason to seek their input.

When Luxor came out, in early 2005, the e-mails and calls came in. Eight-year-old girls loved it. Eighty-eight-year-old men said it was all that kept them alive. Grandmothers wrote letters—actual letters using flowery cursive—wondering where they might find more Luxor. Soccer moms became half of Luxor’s playing base.

How has it done for the company? MumboJumbo is privately held and won’t discuss its revenue. But the company says the game has sold roughly 250,000 units in stores and about 350,000 on the Web. At $20 a pop, from just those two sources, that means $12 million in sales. The game also has spawned what amount to B-sides, Luxor: Amun Rising and Luxor: MahJong, for the addict who can’t get enough. And it has been adapted to the PlayStation, the XBox, and the mobile phone. The company has published several successful titles since it launched in 2000, but nothing like Luxor.

“We never knew what the immaculate formula was,” Dimant says. “We still don’t know. In the whole history of casual games, there have only been about five games that have performed at [Luxor’s] level.”

Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities who covers the industry, says, “That’s huge. It’s tough to get 40 million people to do anything.”

In October, MumboJumbo released Luxor 2. There was a lot of internal debate at the company about what the game should be. The designers and execs didn’t want to stray too far from the original, but they wanted to improve it. They decided on more power-ups, more levels, more badges. Balls in your shooter that turn all balls on the path the same color. Daggers in your shooter, at times in place of balls. But the most recognizable difference: a near 3-D experience, the visuals bursting off the screen. A week after its release, Luxor 2 was the most downloaded site on almost every site it launched on.

But I don’t like it. I played Luxor 2 for about an hour. “Research,” I called it. I thought the graphics were too distracting; I often lost track of the balls on the path. And the balls themselves moved too fast.

Call me a purist. But I like the original. No, I need the original. It’s more addictive than the pills in Courtney Love’s purse. The first night, I played Luxor five hours straight. I think I quit blinking. I have since played Luxor when I should have been paying attention to my fiancée (and paid dearly for it). Played Luxor when I should have been returning calls at the office. Played Luxor, in fact, when I should have been writing this story.

Apologies to my editors. But I did get to Stage 5.