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Guest Column: Zach Gage Takes Us Behind The Scenes Of App Development

Lately I’ve been experimenting with how I develop my games. When the App Store first showed up and everyone was new to it, there was a bit of a rush to get things to the store as fast as possible. Everyone briefly flirted with the model of releasing something early, and then if it proved popular, releasing a lot of updates to get it even to 1.0 functionality. In short, there were a lot of beta apps. In a lot of ways, this was awful for the consumer, but one thing that came out of it that was really exciting was that if you were following particular app developers, it was like peering into their sketchbooks. Now that I get to go to conferences and meet other indies and see what they’re working on, and then see how long it takes for anything at all to come out, I’m starting to really appreciate the value of that early time in the App Store.

Lately it feels like I have more and more work stockpiling under me that’s not getting released because to put something in the App Store requires such a huge amount of polish these days. That’s been really frustrating, so I’m trying two new strategies to deal with that. One is working with other people. In a number of my projects I’m working with other coders, game designers, musicians and artists. This means I can work on, and polish, upwards of four games at a time.

The other strategy is just to figure out how to make games faster, and that’s what I did with SpellTower.

SpellTower Trailer from zach gage on Vimeo.

1. Quick Development Time

I developed SpellTower in 13 days, two and a half of which included attending a conference and not working super hard, and two were days I had to teach my class at Parsons. Although these 13 days didn’t include the very first prototype–a simplified version of rush mode with no difficulty ramp–they did include creating all the sounds, all the graphics, and the entire design of the game, as well as coming up with all four modes, writing the tutorial, inventing mechanics to allow for a difficulty ramp, and doing and reacting to extensive (for the timeframe) play testing.

All in all, it was a pretty crazy experience. Even though I never worked for more than ten hours straight on the game, SpellTower was always on my brain, and because of that I didn’t get to spend very much time at all with my friends, girlfriend or relatives during those 13 days (outside of playtesting).

In retrospect, it wasn’t nearly as hard as I would have expected it to be at the outset. Being really excited about both the project and the short timeframe experiment kept me focused, and I benefitted a lot from having playtesters around me who were excited about every new build.

There was one other thing that really helped keep me focused, and that was :

2. A New Genre For Me

When I first started working on apps a few years back, I made something called synthPond. It was a musical instrument for visual people. I made it because I wanted to be able to compose music, but I’m highly visually oriented and don’t understand notation. It was a really exciting piece of software to develop because I didn’t know how to make a musical instrument and I knew very little music theory. This turned what would normally be a droll development process (which is why it’s taken me so long to develop it for the iPad), into a really exciting one, filled with learning.

A screenshot from Unify.

The next game I made was Unify, which is a block dropping puzzle game…except I hated block dropping puzzle games at the time. I didn’t know how to make games at all, and I really didn’t know how to make puzzle games. I had to reach out to friends who loved playing these games for help, asking them to show me their favorite titles, and explain why they were good. Next I had to get good at those games myself. Figuring out how to tune the difficulty in Unify was all about learning what makes puzzle games work, both in [terms of] the games, and in [terms of] the players. I came out the other side loving the genre. I had a new game, and a new appreciation.

After that, I made a few games in genres that I like: action, music, strategy, and so on. These games have not all been released yet. While this was fun, the development process was slower. So for SpellTower, I decided to go back to my old style of working, and make something that I’d never done before, something that I didn’t enjoy playing: a word game.

And what a learning experience it was. Now I have to admit, I’ve still only spent a few days with this stuff, so none of this should be taken as strictly factual; these are just some observations that I used to guide my way through SpellTower development.

Play in word games is typically very different than play in any other genre. Word game players are, on the whole, vastly more proficient at their particular skill set than any other players I’ve ever seen.

A screenshot from Bit Pilot.

The Thing About Word Game Players Is…

For example, most Halo players do not play on legendary difficulty, but most Scrabble players know all the two-letter words. Essentially, having a huge vocabulary and facility with anagrams isn’t just a nice thing to have when you play word games, it’s a borderline requirement. Fortunately, words are very useful in all walks of life, so it’s a skill that is honed outside of the games where it’s needed.

Still though, word-skill takes a lot of work and time to master, and because of that, word game players don’t generally want to ’play’ word games in the traditional sense. They mostly just want to demonstrate their skills–or, at least, this is what you would be led to believe by most other word games out there. Boggle, Wurdle, Bookworm, word searches, crosswords, Taboo…all of these games are about demonstrating a large vocabulary, and the player with the best one wins. There’s not really a lot of what I would call “gameplay” in these games. More so, they have just a few rules around the idea of vocabulary demonstration. And this seems to work. Talking to a lot of Bookworm players, I learned that people will essentially play a single game of Bookworm for weeks, slowly farming out bonus tiles to create the largest word possible. Crossword puzzles are notable here too because they provide substantial gameplay that consists entirely of what you know. Although there is generally a ‘hint’ and a ‘puzzle’ in New York Times crosswords, the dominant factor of whether you can complete a specific puzzle or not is usually the day it was published, Mondays being the easiest and Sundays being the hardest. And if you can’t do it, you simply can’t do it.

Word game players don’t like to be cornered or pressured by forces aside from the limits of their own knowledge. This is the opposite of most other types of games (except casual games). Scrabble is of course the exception to this rule, and potentially why it’s so popular. It’s one of the few word games that manages to pull in some outside force to exert control over your word-making abilities. The claim that Scrabble makes to us as players is that if we are strategic with our words, we can win over someone with a better vocabulary. On the other hand, if we have an incredible vocabulary, we can win over someone who is only passably strategic. Scrabble pits these two forces against each other, and that makes it compelling. Of course, the downside of Scrabble is that you don’t need a great vocabulary–only a knowledge of all the two letter words–to make the game hell for the other player.

So that leads me back to SpellTower. I first developed it as a game with a timer, what is now essentially Rush Mode. It didn’t take long to discover that this didn’t jive with a lot of word gamers out there. Many were immediately uncomfortable with the idea of things piling up. Having to act fast while they were still learning the system was scary and frustrating. Essentially, I was trying to create a system with two difficulty vectors, like Scrabble. SpellTower’s vectors were vocabulary and speed. But speed was making people uncomfortable.

I immediately set out towards making a newer, slower mode, one whose second vector would be strategy instead of speed. This turned into Puzzle Mode. In SpellTower’s Puzzle Mode, new rows of letters are only added each time you make a word, so as long as you can keep making large words, you won’t lose.

Initially I thought this would provide suitable difficulty, but I quickly learned that my housemate could play for literally three hours without losing. Since I was adding a row every time a word was created, there was no finer granularity there to ramp up the difficulty with. I couldn’t just increase the minimum word length so that longer words would be possible, as three-letter words are basically required for manipulating the board. I had to come up with a way of increasing difficulty that was built into the system.

My solution was tile-based length requirements. For example, a ‘P’ with a ‘5’ in the corner could only be able to be used in a word at least five letters long. What this meant was that I could slowly introduce these tiles over the course of the game, starting with 4’s and moving all the way to 6’s. This gave me the two difficulty vectors I was looking for.

It made the game appealing to any player demographic (hopefully): A novice player will bow out of the game early, since he can’t find enough five-letter words to keep the tower from piling up. He’ll only encounter the strategy vector in passing, probably when some letters conveniently drop together. The strategic elements will be a fun experience, and players will enjoy demonstrating their vocabulary to the game.

A screenshot from SpellTower.

A reasonable player will get to the required letter tiles, and the 4s and 5s will eventually block up her board. She will have to start to think about strategy when the 4s show up, and when she loses, it will be because she backed herself into a corner, without pressure from the game.

An expert player will make it all the way to the 6s before getting blocked off. On successive playthroughs, an expert will improve her strategy, since vocabulary is already maxed out, and will hopefully become engrossed with the more intense strategic vector of SpellTower, potentially having a new experience (many word game players do not play non-casual video games). Later on, the expert player will move to Extreme Puzzle Mode (where the 6s are prevalent and strategy is paramount), or Rush Mode (with their newfound confidence).

All in all, it was a 13 days I would do again, and I don’t think I would have attempted to make a word game with such a focus on strategy if I had known what I was doing when I started. Now, I’m not saying that’s true for everyone, but for me, it was only by virtue of being an outsider that I stumbled upon that possibility.

I have yet to see how SpellTower does in the AppStore, but so far people seem to like what it’s offering, and I’m glad I could get it out there. I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I enjoyed making it.

Zach Gage is a designer, programmer, educator and conceptual artist from New York City. His work explores the increasingly blurring line between the physical and the digital. He has exhibited internationally at venues like the Venice Biennale, the Giant Robot/Scion Space in Los Angeles and the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. His work has been featured in several online and printed publications, including Rhizome.org, Neural Magazine, New York Magazine, and Das Spiel. He is available to give talks and workshops and sort of available to work on exciting projects.

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