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"Good Business Decisions"
Interview with Zach Gage

Zach Gage is both a conceptual artist, and a game designer from New York City. I talked with him about deciphering the success behind SpellTower, the strategy of avoiding focus and why indies should act like local businesses.

You originally designed and developed your word game SpellTower within two weeks. You constantly kept improving the game after its 1.0 release, implementing feedback from players and slowly gaining momentum this way. That’s a very different model compared to working on an AAA indie game for 3-5 years. Do you see a shift in indie games more towards games as a service, where releasing the game is just the start of the journey?

It’s difficult to say for sure if the model that I used with SpellTower was a good one to emulate. It’s definitely seen success in some other games (most notably Minecraft), but it’s also worth noticing that very few iOS games ever recover from a not-killer first launch, and given that evidence, it seems like this is a bad strategy… and yet we see it from time to time cropping up.

I think the reason this is happening is because even though it isn’t a great strategy for economic reasons, it is a great strategy for learning. For me in particular, I’ve always had problems figuring out how to make my games relatable to the masses. Making strong and successful tutorials is extremely important on iOS, but it’s also extremely difficult. Another issue for me is that I frequently make games in areas in which I don’t have any knowledge in. Putting out games piecemeal and implementing feedback as it comes in is a solution to those problems.

Of course, there is an upside to the slow release, and that’s the community building aspect of it. While that part is really powerful, I think in most cases, the same thing could be done with a development blog, which is a lot safer.

When you’ve released a game, at some point there’s always the question if it’s worth to keep working on it, or if you should focus on the next project. Giving the impressive quantity of works you’ve released, how do you decide where to put your focus on?

Even with 3 works out, I think I have about 5 sitting around in various stages of completeness. I kind of have a strategy that avoids the question. I pretty much work on games only when they’re fun for me to make, so if I’m half way through one and I have a good idea for something else, I’ll go off and work on that. Eventually I end up having a ton of prototypes that are all nearly finished that I can show around to my friends. This takes a lot of the pressure off needing to get something out or find my next ‘big game’.

Once I get excited enough about a prototype that I feel like I can tackle the remaining boring 10% (polish mostly), then I spend two or three weeks pushing it out the door.

You both work on projects by yourself, and collaborate with others as in the case of Ridiculous Fishing. Is this an important balance for you, to be able to follow through with your vision in one project, and to be able to share ideas and refine them together in another project?

I really like collaborating, but its a very tricky thing to do. Collaborative disputes can be very dangerous, and on any project with more people you need to be sure that everyone has respect for everyone else’s ideas and skills. On the other hand, if you can do it successfully you nearly always get stronger products as a result, and you always learn a ton.

I definitely like to do both, but working by myself is definitely a lot easier.

SpellTower didn’t get a feature by Apple until version 3.0 added support for the Retina Display of the then just-released new iPad. Do you feel this was the major reason for the feature?

With Apple it’s usually a lot of little reasons. Retina support was important, but so was multiplayer. I think they also felt that the game deserved a feature in general. They were just waiting for a big update of any kind to promote it a little bit.

When the sales charts for SpellTower raised dramatically from #297 to #6 for paid iPad apps, you reduced the price to 99 cents to “take on Rovio and Zynga”. The sale created an immense buzz, sold you over 20.000 copies, and got covered pretty much everywhere in the gaming press. What did you take away from this whole experience?

I think the biggest thing I learned was that my strength as an indie is being a human who cares about his work. As an indie, one of the hardest things is PR, and while you’re trying to learn how to do PR, there’s a lot of pressure to emulate time-proven methods. But it turns out that those methods are really built around how to promote products that don’t have a face or a human behind them.

As indies, we can do more of a grassroots PR, we can play to our strengths. One of the biggest learning moments for me was when I was going to release an update that targeted literally 8 people who had sent me emails that they were unable to play the game. It was right in the middle of SpellTower’s climb, and I didn’t want to damage the climb because when you release an update Apple nukes all your ratings. Essentially it can look like your app has only been reviewed 5 times instead of the 1000 times its actually been reviewed. It seemed like a bad time to put an update out for so few people. I was sitting at my computer looking at the Reject this update button, and I kept thinking “I should click this, this is a good business decision”, but I just couldn’t do it. It felt totally unfair to those 8 people. So instead, I just explained the situation in the update text and on Twitter. Instead of trying to come up with some sneaky way to get people to do what I wanted (typical corporate PR), I just told people what was going on, and hoped that they would be friendly and help out if they felt like it. By the morning I had close to 600 reviews. It was amazing and humbling.

I used this strategy a few times. It takes a bit more work than traditional PR, and responding to so many emails and tweets is exhausting, but it has always felt like the right thing to do. And this will sound super sappy, but really nothing compares with putting out love into a game and a community and having them send love back.

Obviously you can’t ask users to do things for you all the time (much like you can’t ask your close friends to), but consumers/friends will step up to the plate when it counts.

Before SpellTower you developed and released five different apps on the App Store, including the games Halcyon, Bit Pilot and Unify. What did you learn from making and releasing these games?

Man, that’s a hard question. I learned SO many things. I really had no idea how to make video games before those releases, so nearly everything I know is from them.

I guess the biggest stuff is how to prototype quickly and how to develop a game idea from the initial prototype to something more fleshed out. Bit Pilot took a full six months from the day I made the prototype to the final version and that’s pretty shocking when you look at what the original prototype had (the exact ship and control scheme that is in there now, and you flew around dodging asteroids until you got hit). I just didn’t really know how to turn tiny things into full fledged tiny games.

Another big thing I learned was how to make tutorials. I think that was probably the hardest thing since it’s never something I paid attention to when I was growing up playing video games. I don’t think I ever really made a game with a good tutorial until SpellTower, and even that took a lot of post-release iteration.

You have a very modern, beautiful website for SpellTower that was done by Chris Driscoll and a great trailer by Kert Gartner. Many indie developers do these things themselves as they are on a limited budget. Why did you decide to outsource this?

Thanks! Those two guys are amazingly talented, and I was really lucky to get to work with them. The biggest part of that decision was that SpellTower had done fairly well on its initial release without an Apple feature (≈50k USD), and I decided that since I had a little money and thought the game should be doing a lot better than it was, in preparation for the big multiplayer update I was just going to go all the way with everything. So that meant getting the trailer in place, agreeing to Chris’ generous offer to do the website, making a strong icon and screenshots for the App Store, and really being on the ball with trying to drum up press and respond to emails. In the end I think that trailer and website didn’t individually make SpellTower a hit, but they certainly made a big difference. One thing I never really realized about hits is that it’s not one gigantic thing going right, it’s tons and tons of little things going right. Having a great website and a great trailer were really instrumental in that happening for SpellTower.

During an email discussion between indie developers you stated that one key lesson from your career is to “Treat consumers like friends, and they’ll treat you like a friend.” Can you talk a bit more about that?

Totally. There’s a lot of pressure as an indie to try and market yourself like big PR companies do. Its not that anyone is specifically telling you to do this, but everyone is telling you to market yourself, and there really aren’t very many models to look at for how to do this properly. The problem is that really this whole indie explosion is very new, and even the indies that have found great success are still deciphering exactly what happened and how they got there.

I think one trend that is very common amongst successful indies though is being friendly with customers. This obviously isn’t true across the board, but it’s something that Vlambeer, Mikengreg, Penny Arcade, and Mojang have in common… and it makes sense, indies shouldn’t be fighting with AAA companies in marketing dollars, we should be doing the stuff that those huge companies can’t do. And one thing they absolutely can’t do is let consumers put a face to the game. They can’t let consumers be friends with their developers. Even if they could somehow pull it off, their audience is just too large. Indies don’t have this problem. We don’t need to sell 500 million copies of our game. We can act like a local business where you know all the people who come in, but one that’s local to the internet.

In your Thank-You letter for people who bought SpellTower you wrote “We make games to make people happy. We make games because it makes us happy.” How would you describe the thing in games that have the potential to make both players and it’s creators happy?

That’s another tough question! I think for me, I enjoy exploring the systems that games let us find. I think what’s so magical and so difficult about games (and all forms of art really), is that they are a medium where we can make something that’s so much more than it is. You can, in an afternoon, come up with a game that someone could play their entire life, and never truly understand, that thousands of people play their whole lives and never understand. And not only that, but even in creating it, you don’t totally understand what’s going on. It’s a collaboration with the universe. That’s amazing! To work towards something so dynamic and lively that it could engender people in all walks of life to be curious and explore it. What’s not to be happy about?

*Did anyone ever get mad at you for losing personal files by playing lose/lose

Not a single person. There were a few instances of hate mail, but nobody who ever tried it complained.

What’s your advice for someone who’d like to get started with making their own games?

This one’s easy. Get started right now and make games. It doesn’t matter if they’re in GameMaker or HyperCard or drawings on a piece of paper with marker that you just describe what the game is. Whatever you can do, do it. And just keep doing it, trying to make it closer and closer to the thing you’re dreaming about.

Don’t worry about if it’s good or not, what program to use, what language to learn, or how it’s ‘best’ to get started. The best way to get started is to get started. Whatever language or framework you pick will be correct. It’s not that it’ll be the thing you use forever, but even wrong choices are valuable. Just make games.

Also, (common, but if you haven’t heard it yet) listen to Ira Glass on creativity and failure.