Ben Kuchera / Dabe Alan
SpellTower creator Zach Gage has to deal with a rare challenge in indie games: success
“The moves need to be comfortable. A lot of people forget that,” Zach Gage, the creator of SpellTower, told me at GDC. We discussed how to make touchscreen games that feel good to play, and Gage wiggled his thumb to demonstrate how uncomfortable it was to swipe down to drop pieces in Tetris on iOS devices. “And swiping down is supposed to feel good! Comfort is a big thing,” he explained. I moved my thumb in the same way, and was surprised at how wrong it felt. We sat like that for a moment, wiggling our thumbs at each other. The industry is so comfortable with buttons that we forget that games have been designed around them. Designers know how to speak the vocabulary of buttons, but Zach Gage is interested in touch-based interfaces and how to design games on phones and tablets. His speech on controls at GDC packed the room. This buzz was built on the success of the wonderful word game SpellTower. The game was something of a fluke, as Gage had no love for word games before development began. The game’s development taught him to respect the genre, and his outsider status allowed him to create something that feels obvious in retrospect. People have told me that anyone could have created SpellTower, which is an obnoxious thing to say; once someone shines a light down a path it’s easy to claim that you knew where to go the whole time. “It feels so, so wonderful to make something that made money. And it’s so, so sad to say that,” Gage said. So far SpellTower has made around $45,000. “Which for me is amazing. That’s like two years of my life. So I’m good. I get to work for myself and do what I love. To be able to make money like that… you don’t want money to be validating, but in a way it is.” It’s not the money that’s validating, it’s the fact that Gage has the freedom to make the games he wants to make. This is something I heard from almost every indie developer I talked to: No one cares about being rich, but everyone wants to make enough money to be able to eat and continue to make their own games. Gage wasn’t allowed to play games as a child, although his mother told him he was welcome to make his own. He spent much of his time in high school programming before studying photography in college. He began to see the possibilities of using technology to create interactive art projects, and created Synthpond and released it on PC. It flopped. Then he moved it onto the iPhone, where it was downloaded over 100,000 times. Later, his girlfriend downloaded Tetris for her iPhone, and he realized that touchscreen controls needed to be improved. He knew he could do better and got to work. Two years later, he finally created the game that brought him mainstream recognition. Gage has the air of a hippy who can’t quite bring himself to enjoy the freedom of material success. “Money sucks, but it means that people out there who don’t know me and don’t care about the things I care about, they care about the game. And that’s really cool in a lot of ways,” he explained.
One last chance
Before SpellTower became a hit, Gage had been making games and interactive experiences while teaching. He picked up work creating art installations for advertising companies if he needed cash. He described the projects as having a quick turnaround with good pay. It didn’t sound like a bad life. “But I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” Gage said. He was scared of becoming one of those “art dudes” who create wonderful things that other artists know about and enjoy, but never find a wide audience. SpellTower was the game that was a make or break moment for him. “On a lot of levels, I really needed this to be a success. You can pour love into stuff and have your friends think it’s great and have the press think it's great, but at the end of the day, if that’s not survivable, there’s a lot of stress,” he explained. “I didn’t know this was going to be successful, and it’s been so much more successful than I could have expected, but I did think if [the game] wasn’t successful than I really needed to rethink the direction I was going with this stuff.” Finding success on the app store is not a simple thing, and Gage is only beginning to understand how the system works. “That’s the hard thing, the thing that’s so weird about the iPhone. The people you are marketing to, the people who matter, the people who pay for your product, they’re nowhere close to your community,” he explained. The app store isn’t like Steam, with an engaged audience reading reviews and gaming blogs. Success is harder to create, and word of mouth is incredibly important. Being successful on the iPhone meant grabbing the interest of a wider audience that discovers games by browsing. SpellTower was discussed in positive terms in many publications, but the largest sales spike took place after the game was discussed during one of my Marketplace Tech Report segments. The radio reaches a broad audience, and a show that’s syndicated on local NPR stations is the ideal platform to talk about word games. I apologize in advance for a certain level of stereotyping in that statement. Gage explained the best way to get your game noticed, and it’s counter-intuitive. First, you get the press on your side. Once the positive reviews and coverage spread over the Internet, Apple takes notice. Then, hopefully, Apple will choose to highlight your game on the app store. Then gamers who are just looking for something new to play see it and buy the game, and then maybe they tell their friends about it. This is where name recognition kicks in, but it's with the game, not with the creator: Zach Gage may be known at the Game Developers Conference, but outside of the industry he's anonymous. Tell people a game is from the creator of SpellTower, however, and you’ve got their attention. Even though he seems slightly awed by his success, Zach Gage is working like a beast. He’s finishing up a multiplayer update for SpellTower, as well as an Android version. He wants to get the game working on the Kindle Fire. He’s working on Ridiculous Fishing with Vlambeer, and he’s designing what he referred to as a “Roguelike solitaire” game with a friend. That game can be played as a digital version or with a standard pack of cards. He’s working on a game that's like “a moving Rubik’s cube,” as well as a chess-like game “based around Sodoku rules.” He’s also working on a commission for New York University and has a residency at a new media art institution. It's a schedule that seemed slightly inhuman. He seemed enthusiastic about each project though, and it was clear he was doing the things he wanted to do. This is what success looks like for indie developers. I saw Gage one more time at GDC. He was in the middle of a throng of people in the Independent Games Festival, and there was a crush of bodies vying for his attention. The crowd swirled around him. They asked questions and played whatever he was showing at his station. Gage sat on a stool, smiling at the ceiling. His sandal-clad feet swung in and out like a child waiting for a rollercoaster to begin.