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How SpellTower’s Zach Gage took on Angry Birds, lost the fight, and came out ahead

How SpellTower’s Zach Gage took on Angry Birds, lost the fight, and came out ahead

It has been a crazy month for SpellTower creator Zach Gage. He launched a large update that added support for the iPad 3’s retina display, multiplayer via Bluetooth connection, night colors for playing in the dark, and a mess of other nice additions to the game. SpellTower was also featured in a New York Times story, and Gage had a successful showing at PAX East. All these things worked together to cause a surge in sales months after the game's release. That's interesting news, but the real story is what happened next.

When you see sales spike, you push them higher

It's rare for iOS games to be given a second chance, but SpellTower was in a good position to maximize exposure from the latest update and mainstream exposure. “Most game websites know SpellTower by now and are really happy to post any new information about it,” Gage said. “So because of that, there's been a bit of a buzz going on lately about the update coming out.” The game had also earned its initial sales without the help of Apple, so being featured on the App Store later in the game's life cycle gave another large push. “For a lot of iPad owners, this is the first time they've ever gotten wind of the game,” Gage explained. There were also a few tricks Gage had picked up since launching SpellTower. He redesigned the game’s icon to give the impression of a high-quality word game and added some of the many accolades the game had earned to the last screenshot in the game’s listing. This helped to visually convey the game's content and quality. “Nobody reads the app description text anyway,” he said. All these things combined to take SpellTower from the #297 spot on the sales charts to #6 on the listings for paid iPad apps before the sale began. There were only two games ahead of him: Draw Something and Angry Birds Space. This gave Gage an idea, and a challenge: Would it be possible for a humble word game to take down Draw Something and Angry Birds Space? Gage cut the price of the game to $0.99, and sent information to his friends in the press. He called it the “Holy Crap, I'm Near the Top, This is Crazy! Help an Indie Take On Rovio and Zynga!” sale. Soon everyone was caught up in the struggle of the little guy against the gaming goliaths, and many in the independent gaming scene and games press were writing stories and tweeting about the sale. The buzz was immediate, and effective. The game sold 40,320 copies during the sale, compared to the 61,987 copies it had sold in the five months prior. The low price, the new update, the support from the press and other developers on Twitter and other social networking sites created a perfect storm for success, and the monetary rewards were also great. “11,000 copies a day at half price is way more than 3,000 copies a day, no matter how you slice it,” Gage told the Penny Arcade Report. Here are the effects of the sale:

  • #3 in US Top Paid iPad Apps (up from 6)
  • #10 in US Top Paid iPhone Apps (up from 97)
  • #5 in CA Top Paid iPad Apps (up from 55)
  • #8 in CA Top Paid iPhone Apps (up from 200+)
  • #21 in UK Top Paid iPad Apps (up from 200+)
  • #44 in UK Top Paid iPhone Apps (up from 200+)

SpellTower never beat Angry Birds or Draw Something, but that’s beside the point. The game was flooded with positive reviews, and tens of thousands of gamers learned about the game and enjoyed their time with it. “I've sold things at a dollar before, but I've never sold things at a dollar and gotten good reviews from everyone before. It's a really compelling thing to have happen,” Gage said. He has since been approached by companies interested in porting the game to different platforms, and Gage is interested in trying to interest arcade-based touch screen games to feature SpellTower. This has also convinced him to think about developing more updates to SpellTower while he works on other projects. Other developers can learn from Gage’s achievements. The game’s listing in the App Store was adjusted to try to aid discovery before the sale and, when Gage saw the opportunity to make a large sales push, he jumped in with both feet. The idea of a smaller game taking on two of the largest names in the world of iOS gaming proved to be irresistible; the sale was featured on Destructoid, Wired, TouchArcade, and Gamasutra, among others. There wasn't a single factor that led to the sales spike that inspired the sale, but Gage was nimble enough to go all in at the perfect time and savvy enough to market his efforts in a way that was impossible for the blogs and news organizations to ignore. The positive press and monetary rewards may be great, but of course there’s one more aspect of this story. “It's not just about the money coming from the downloads,” Gage said. “I'm really thrilled that that many people are playing and enjoying the game!”