At the end of last year, Zach Gage released his word puzzler SpellTower for the iPad, kindly documenting the development process in an article he wrote for us where he talked about how he creates the game in the short time period of 13 days and what it taught him.
Since its release, this addictive word game has gone on to get great reviews from all the big blogs and newspapers, and rose from #297 on the charts to what Gage considered impossible when he started out—it’s now sitting in the top ten at #6 in the iTunes iPad paid for chart (in the US anyway), behind Angry Birds Space and Draw Something.
This means that one man and his independently produced game have taken on the might of developers Rovio and Zynga, proving that there’s hope for anyone out there looking to develop an app, while showing that the democratization that technology enables isn’t just limited to certain industries or platforms.
While #6 is good, it’s not #1, and that’s what Gage is aiming for. If you want to help him on his quest, you can get the game here for about one American buck in a limited 24-hour sale.
We fired off some email questions to Gage to see how he’s feeling and what he thinks was behind the game’s success.
The Creators Project: How does it feel to be taking on the bigger, mainstream developers?
Zach Gage: Wow. I mean it’s kind of amazing. I never in a million years thought I’d ever make something that got into the top ten, let alone top three. It’s been a bit of a long road for me. I’ve been extremely lucky for the past three years and have made a lot of amazing friends and gotten really heavy critical acclaim, but I’ve never seen monetary success. It seemed (almost legitimately) like thinking really hard about making games, and thinking zero about making money, would be a really hard way to find success in iOS space, which is dominated mostly by good games with adorable characters.
Obviously there are little indie standout hits like Tiny Wings or at one point Cut The Rope and Angry Birds (when it was smaller), but usually those games do a lot to be addictive (this isn’t to say they’re not great, they are great for sure). I’ve never concentrated on making my games addictive or leading players with achievements. Not because it’s good or evil or anything, it’s just not my interest. I mean, my games don’t even have graphics beyond colors and shapes.
It’s kind of funny actually, that I would finally find success with a word game, since it’s a space where if you only have shapes and colors nobody notices. Anyway, it feels great to be contending for the top. I never thought this would ever happen.
What sort of encouragement would you give to anybody out there thinking of making an app, but worried they haven’t got the resources to make it work?
My God. Well. If you want to stick true to your values, it’s a long road. I think you’ll find that in any profession. It’s a hard and long road, but it’s an awesome road.
I think if you’re looking at the App Store and saying “I can make money in this space,” unless you’re a brilliant PR businessman/game maker without scruples, you’re making a risky bet. But if you’re looking at the App Store and saying, “I’ve always wanted to get into making games and sharing them with people,” the App Store couldn’t be better. It’s cheap to develop for, it has a huge audience, and you never know where it will go. The indie game community is the nicest, most amazing community I’ve ever been a part of. Any route you take to becoming a part of that community is worth it.
Why do you think the game’s been so successful?
God I wish I knew, right? It toiled for a bit under the radar. I used the time when it wasn’t doing quite this well to find out what problems some people had and smooth the edges. I think that helped a lot. Also, obviously the Apple feature really kicked it into high gear. Having the New York Times Magazine piece last week couldn’t have hurt. And then a lot of luck and lucky PR.
I think it’s a word game that does something new with something old. It keeps the pacing and strategy and puzzle nature of traditional paper word games like crosswords or word searches, so it’s very accessible, but it adds a layer of deep strategy that those games don’t have. There are a lot of me-too word games in the App Store right now, and I guess people were ready for something new. It’s pretty exciting. There are some other good indie word games out there too. PuzzleJuice is a really good one. It’s neat to see indies moving into a “casual” gaming space.