Interview: SpellTower developer on competing with the big guys

Interview updated at 3:00pm, May 4, 2012 with follow-up questions.

Can a lone software developer with a good idea create a game capable of surpassing Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Draw Something in the iTunes sales rankings? That’s what indie developer Zach Gage tried to do last month when he cut the price of his critically acclaimed iOS game SpellTower in a last-ditch attempt to boost it to #1 on the Top 10 iPad Apps sales chart.

Despite being released at the end of 2011 to critical acclaim, SpellTower never managed to climb past #297 on the App Store sales charts. But then, five months after its release, SpellTower was featured on the front page of the iTunes App Store. Unsurprisingly, this helped catapult the game to #6 on the charts.

SpellTower is great fun, but not exactly loaded with personality.

Gage saw an opportunity to push his game sales even higher and announced a 24-hour “Holy Crap, I’m Near the Top, This is Crazy! Help an Indie Developer Take On Rovio And Zynga!” sale. He made a Herculean effort to advertise the sale, positioning himself as an indie-developer David going toe-to-toe with big-name Goliaths in the mobile gaming marketplace. He reached out to friends and fans via Twitter and Facebook, conducted countless interviews (including this one) and even skipped a shower to spend a day answering questions from fans on Reddit.

It didn't quite work: SpellTower failed to claim the top spot on the iTunes app charts. Gage ended the sale after 48 hours, published a heartfelt letter of appreciation on the SpellTower website and went back to the business of coding. I contacted Gage to figure out what he learned from the experience.

Alex Wawro: What is SpellTower, and why did you make it? What did you hope to accomplish, and what were your influences?

Zach Gage: SpellTower is a word game that challenges strategy and word smarts in equal parts. I made it because I had made a word game prototype that I hated, but all my friends loved. I've never liked word games, but in the past I've always found working in areas I hate to be incredibly interesting. So I took the opportunity of having a prototype I didn't understand the appeal of to learn why people like word games, why I don't enjoy them, and how to rectify that.

Who did you develop SpellTower for?

At first SpellTower was really built for my roommate Jess, who loves word games, and my writer friend Rob, who also enjoys them. Those two were the ones that were into my prototype enough to get me to make it. I balanced the difficulty around them.

Later though, like all of my projects, I ended up making SpellTower for myself. I wanted to know what it took to make a word game that would appeal to normal gamers, and not just word gamers. Scrabble has always had an appeal across genres, and it felt like that appeal came from it's not just requiring word smarts, but also strategy. Scrabble is a good -game- beyond it's inclusion of spelling as a mechanic. I wanted SpellTower to have a similar structure.

Through all of this SpellTower became a game for everyone. For normal gamers, it's a chance to engage in spelling as a mechanic for interaction. For Word Gamers, it's a chance to engage with a game thats really a -game-, and not just an exercise in how many words you can find in a minute, or how many anagrams you can make.

Given the big sale push, let's talk numbers: how did slashing the price affect sales of your app? How had SpellTower sold before the sale vs. during the sale vs. after the sale? Why did you slash the price in the first place?

The sale was a huge success. SpellTower sold 40,000+ copies in about four days. Previously, it had sold about 62,000 copies in 5 months. SpellTower also managed to get to:

  • #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+)

It's been slowly falling since the sale, but it's still in the iPad Top 100 Paid Apps, and has just today left the corresponding iPhone Top 100 chart. For a game that's not actively featured by Apple or promoted by constant press attention, it’s a pretty good position to be in.

I slashed the price because I had a lot of positive reactions from friends on my Twitter stream to the slow progress up the charts that SpellTower made while it was featured. Someone suggested on the last day of the feature that I cut the price and try to go for a better spot. I did, and it went way better than I ever anticipated.

Why develop SpellTower for iOS over other platforms? Do you have any plans to publish SpellTower on other services (Android, Steam, XBLA etc.)?

I like developing for iOS because it is easy. I can go from an idea in my mind to a product in a store with the least amount of work. As an artist, this really appeals to me. I don't like the business side of things; I want to be creative and push out work. Developing for iOS lets me do that and provides a ton of control over how that work will be received.

SpellTower is coming to Android soon; I'm investigating other platforms.

You created SpellTower alone in less than two weeks. What advantages do you think that gives you over a traditional game development team? What disadvantages?

There are tons of advantages. I don't need to push out a certain number of things in a year. I can work mostly when I'm motivated, and if I have a great idea in the middle of working on another idea, I'm free to put one down and pick up another. I can be extremely risky in concept and extremely rigid in moral values, since I have nobody to answer to.

The big disadvantage is that it's difficult to coordinate a large PR push, updating old titles is hard, and I can't publish my work on tons of platforms simultaneously

What are you working on now, and what's next?

Now I'm working on some art pieces for Eyebeam, a new media artist residency spot in New York City, a game for No Quarter, an annual exhibition of commissioned games at NYU, and two games; Radical Fishing with Vlambeer, and Scoundrel, a solitaire sort of rogue-like that is digital but can also be played with a normal set of cards. I’m working on Scoundrel with my friend Kurt Bieg.

Next up, I have this role-playing game that I’m tinkering on...

[Follow-up questions added 3:00pm, May 4, 2102]

Why do you find it easier to develop games for iOS? What (if anything) does Apple do to facilitate your creative process?

Apple does a few things: for one, they provide really accessible frameworks for testing ideas and new technology like GPS, synchronous or asynchronous gaming via Game Center, gyroscopic input, etc. More importantly, they tend to provide these frameworks in advance of everyone else. So I get to play with new technologies that nobody has ever really used for gaming easily and as soon as possible. Not only that, but their iOS upgrade penetration is good enough that most people have the newest version of the OS or can upgrade easily.

The other thing Apple does is make intelligent decisions about hardware that take a lot of the engineering out of making games. It's pretty easy to support two devices with similar processing powers at 2 resolutions a piece.

Compare all this to Android, where you have hundreds of devices on essentially random OS versions with different screensizes, graphics chips, resolutions, and hardware components. Unless you're a very qualified engineer, it's a complete nightmare to make a game for that space. Especially when you compare it to how plug-and-play iOS is.

The easiest way to think about it is making a game for iOS is like developing for a console with the best dev kit imaginable. Making a game for Android is like making a game for Windows, but if Windows was an embedded system. At least, thats how it feels to me.

Regarding this whole experience: What did you learn from this? How will your experience creating and selling SpellTower (not to mention the extra profit from all the positive attention) affect your creative process going forward?

The biggest thing I learned from all this was what a lot of other indie developers have been saying for some time in different ways:

The strength of being an indie, at least when it comes to release time, is that its easy to show the human side of game development. This is something that larger studios either can't or don't do. Customers are used to being screwed over by faceless corporations online, but if you treat them like friends, they'll treat you like one back.

So many times when I was struggling with a marketing question, the correct answer wasn't to imagine something that would trick or encourage consumers into behaving a certain way, it was just being honest and explaining the situation so they could make the call for themselves.

Obviously you shouldn't around begging people for things all the time, but theres a way to be both professional and honest, and I think that was really important to discover.

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