Looneys working through the serious business of fun
Nov. 22, 2002
C. Benjamin Ford * Staff Writer


Andrew and Kristin Looney pose with their company's card games in their College Park office. Looney Labs Inc. has doubled its revenues to $250,000 since last year.

Kristin Looney has discovered that running a small company is not all fun and games, even when it is about fun and games.

Kristin Looney, who goes by the title Business Czar of Looney Labs Inc. of College Park, said her company has the cash flow problems and distribution issues typical of any small business.

She and her husband Andrew Looney, the game designer, formed Looney Labs in 1996 to go into the game design and publishing business full-time. The two had met at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; she was a computer engineer designing computer chips, and he was a software programmer.

The three-person business, which employs the two Looneys and Alison Frane, the artistic adviser, has grown from $125,000 in revenues last year to nearly $250,000 this year.

Like a laboratory experiment gone awry, Andrew Looney became a game designer by accident.

Looney, who helped write software to repair the Hubble space telescope, wrote a short science-fiction novel and created a game involving pyramid-shaped figures as a plot device.

"People who read the book said it was OK, but they were really interested in the game I described," he said.

He and a friend poured resin in Looney's apartment, a malodorous, time-consuming process. They made 100 sets of the game Icehouse for gaming enthusiasts and angered his landlord in the process.

"I almost got kicked out for it," Looney said. "The stench was unbearable."

From that humble beginning, he and his wife decided to begin a gaming company.

Andrew Looney designed the card game Fluxx, a family game where the rules change depending on the card drawn. The card game won an award from American Mensa Ltd., the high IQ society.

The game was licensed to Iron Crown Enterprises, a mid-sized company that ran into financial troubles and eventually declared bankruptcy.

The Looneys' rights to their game reverted back to them and they decided to go into the gaming business full-time. Andrew Looney invented other games and Kristin Looney handled the business end.

In their third year of operation, Kristin Looney quit her day job to run the business full-time.

"It was scary," she said. "We went from very comfortable engineering incomes to wondering how we were going to pay the bills."

Andrew Looney also quit his other job to spend more time designing games. Chrononauts, a card game that allows players to change history, received an U.S. patent recently for its unique design in simulating time travel. It is Andrew Looney's third patent.

Mark Easterday, vice president for game distributor Alliance Games Distributors Inc. headquartered in Baltimore, said that Looney Labs is one of the better known and enduring gaming companies.

"A lot of publishers come and go," Easterday said. "They come in and if the first couple of products don't take off, they disappear. Looney Labs makes pretty good games."

Fluxx, Chrononauts and Nanofictionary are three of the best-selling games in hobby and game shops, Easterday said. The games retail from $10 for Fluxx to $20 for Chrononauts -- typical prices for specialty card games by independent publishers, he said.

"They're basically beer-and-pretzel games," he said. "They're fun games where it does not take a long time to learn the rules when they get together, but they're fun enough to keep people going back to play them again and again." * *