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Zach Gage Tackles A Genre He Hates With  SpellTower
Zach Gage Tackles A Genre He Hates With SpellTower Exclusive
November 17, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Success on the App Store is far from a science. Even independent designers lauded by awards committees like the Independent Games Festival and experienced in developing for Apple's iPhone and iPad have plenty to learn in that changeable and high-stakes environment. Yet for indie designer Zach Gage, the challenge is what's appealing.

Today, Gage launches SpellTower, on iPad, his first-ever endeavor into word puzzle games on the App Store. Although he arrived at the title partially "by accident," as he tells Gamasutra, he has learned a number of valuable lessons along the way.

"I'm trying to change the way I'm developing games," he tells us. "When I first started developing for the App Store, it was a very different period -- everyone was just making stuff and putting it out as fast as possible."

Although that was an exciting proving ground for game designers, many of whom got to enjoy the sense of participating in one another's prototypes, it "sucked for consumers," as Gage describes. "You'd buy something, and it'd be like, a beta."

"In retrospect, you really got to look into the sketchbooks of the developers you were interested in," he enthuses. "Back then, you got to see a lot of experiments. Now, you have to polish and polish on the App Store. The whole community has changed."

For Gage, this creates a complex proposition, as he feels there are a lot of ideas kicking around his mind at various stages of completion -- yet without the optimal polish time, he knows they have no shot on the App Store. Intuitively, his design mind migrated toward a potential solution to precisely this type of problem: How do you compete among the App Store's higher standards, yet develop a game at the same light-speed at which a concept formulates in the designer's mind?

"I was working on IGF games," explains Gage. "It was literally... the IGF deadline had happened, so I had a little bit of a break. Basically, I only had until last week until I had to get back to the other work I had committed to."

With less than two weeks to execute upon what was at the time only a fledgling idea, Gage pulled something of a coup with SpellTower, ultimately a sort of hybrid between Tetris and Boggle, the concept for which he had inadvertently stumbled upon after hearing a friend's report out of IndieCade -- turns out her description of a "Tetris-meets-Boggle" experience she had seen there was quite different than what Gage had pictured in his mind. That imaginary game was the root of his idea, he tells us.

The Halcyon designer, accustomed to working with music and abstract imagery, didn't necessarily have a particular yearning to try mainstream-oriented word puzzle games. But in his constant tinkering, he says he came to learn that working in genres that he disliked as a player would yield fascinating learning opportunities as a designer.

"I really hated word games, but I had this idea people seemed to be interested in," he says. "Making a game in a genre you hate is actually one of the most interesting experiences ever."

A relative lack of familiarity with the genre challenged Gage to learn some key takeaways about the audience for word puzzle games. One interesting lesson is that the average player of a word game is "way better" than the average player in mainstream video games. For example, says Gage, most people don't play Halo on Legendary difficulty -- but most people who make a hobby out of Scrabble play on a pretty expert level. Word games require appreciable skills, and players can be adept with wordplay without ever having picked up a video game per se, versus standard gaming genres whereby the only way to excel is through practice at that particular game.

Another thing word puzzle players seem to like to do, in Gage's experience, is to demonstrate their knowledge -- "and that's all they want to do," he says. "They don't want the game to get in the way; if they know a word, they want to be able to spell it."

In popular word games, the player with the biggest vocabulary is generally likely to win, Gage has observed -- although Scrabble "kind of fails," in that it can reward the player with the best strategy, the player who has memorized certain types of word moves, even if that player isn't the most flexible verbal acrobat in his or her daily life.

Fortunately, Gage's roommate is something of a word fetishist, and made the ideal playtester for SpellTower -- and for Gage's time-constrained endeavor to find the ideal balance between strategy experience and wordsmith show-offing. He remained efficient and dedicated throughout, for the most part.

"A lot of it had to do with being excited about what I was working on, and working really hard, and also being really careful about what I was and wasn't going to cut," he says. "It was probably 10 to 14 hours of work every day."

Then, he had some time-sensitive decisions to make: Did the game really require music, and the seeking-out of friends who would be willing to do the music to a high quality extent within two weeks? Does a word puzzle really need an "option" screen? "I cut achievements because I don't have time to make them work," says Gage. "It would be cool if I had an iPhone version, but I didn't have time... if it does well [on iPad], I'll do an iPhone version."

The App Store is now a fundamentally different frontier that requires a focus on a high degree of polish early on and then broader functionality later -- as opposed to the store's earliest frontier, which was almost the reverse, in Gage's view. The fast ramp-up in polish on the store has been "totally astonishing," he says.

"It's a much more competitive, difficult environment now," he says.

And becoming a "featured" App is key to success, he suggests: award-winning Halcyon has never been a "featured" app on the store. Thus it "has done okay, but hasn't done anywhere close to a tenth of what other games that have gotten awards and also gotten feature have done."

"You can have people all over the internet talk about something, but if Apple doesn't feature it it can be basically dead in the water," Gage describes. "Xbox Live Indie Games people complain all the time about the exposure, but Apple isn't that much better... if you're not in the top 10 new and noteworthy games, you're screwed."

"I've tried to make mass appeal puzzle games, but... this one is a little easier because it's a word game, so there's a little less impetus on the graphics," says Gage. "I also have plans to localize it to a couple other languages -- that's another thing I've never done. We'll see after that."

In an environment where extreme polish and fortunate exposure is practically a sink or swim proposition, designers like Gage thrive on giving themselves new challenges, working within time constraints and in unfamiliar genres.

(Photo by Jeriaska)

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Bart Stewart
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Excellent and useful article/interview.

Also a great point about making a game in a genre you don't personally care for. Working in a genre you know well can lead to the use of stale conventions -- it's just faster and easier to pull from a familiar lexicon.

In a genre you don't already appreciate, though, you not only get to learn some new things for future games in your preferred genre, you have a chance to bring some fresh ideas of your own to a genre that probably has its own conventions that need exploding.

Good info in this interview all around.

Brian Wane
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I'm just wondering how this is different from Bookworm?

Zach Gage
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So I haven't played a lot of Bookworm (obviously, this whole genre is new to me :) ), but from my conversations with people who have, Bookworm appears to be mostly about farming letters for bonus'. You of course *can* lose because of the fire tiles, but it's very hard to. Bookworm games are more focused on making words than avoiding losing. They also tend to go on for a very long time.

SpellTower isn't really a game about farming points. Theres a bit of that to it for sure (you can drop letters towards eachother), but on the whole, SpellTower is a game about survival. Most of the strategy in spelling words isn't how to spell the words to earn the most points, but how to spell the right words in the right places so that you won't lose.

Although this could be seen as a small mechanical difference, I think its actually pretty substantial when you're playing the game. Of course though, I made it, so I'm biased. Theres some mention and comparison to bookworm in this review:
wer , that might help a little bit, or I'd encourage you to check out the trailer on I think (hope!) you'll see how different it is for yourself :)

Joe McGinn
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Interesting article. Never really liked kart racers, but I learned so much making one, there's no doubt it left me a better designer.