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
You originally designed and developed your word game SpellTower
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
*Did anyone ever get mad at you for losing personal files by playing
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.