Zach Gage

The creator of SpellTower and the newly-released Sage Solitaire

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON August 31, 2015

Discussion

Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
Hey everyone- I’m Zach. I’m a game designer, programmer, educator, and conceptual artist from New York City. I’m the developer behind games like SpellTower, Ridiculous Fishing, Guts of Glory, and Bit Pilot, and the artist behind Lose/Lose, #Fortune, Glaciers, and more. Last Thursday I released my latest game, Sage Solitaire. Designing traditional card games has been as bit of a long-term project for me, and I’m so excited to finally get to share one with everyone. I’m super honored to be here and psyched about chatting with you all and answering questions you might have about Sage, games, art, and more.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Hey Zach! Where does your fascination with card games come from?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@eriktorenberg One thing I love about cards is that they're a tremendously accessible and elegantly designed object that everyone has lying around. When you make games with traditional playing cards you're really acting more like an editor than a writer — the content is all there, you just have to organize it well. That kind of process is really fun for me, it sets up a lot of interesting restrictions, and, is in and of itself sort of a game. I have to explore a system that exists and learn things about it so I can bend it to my will and make something neat. I've also spent a lot of time with dice lately, especially for Tharsis (a collaboration with Choice Provisions), and they're interesting in a very similar way. Uh, and also paper-prototyping with cards is sooooooo fast and easy :)
Russ Frushtick@russfrushtick
@helvetica Hey Zach! It's your first time going free-to-play for one of your mobile games. Has it been successful so far? Any regrets? Any thoughts about shifting up how you monetize based on the first few days?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@russfrushtick So far it's been unexpectedly great. It's a little too early to know how things will go in the long run or how Sage's monetization strategy (yuck) — which is basically the shareware model of the 80s + ads — stacks up against other strategies, but things have been going surprisingly well. It feels like I have a very high conversion rate right now, actually the launch has felt like a premium launch numbers-wise, but with the bonus of a ton of ad-revenue and extra players added on. It's great. All the feel-good just buy this once vibes of a real game, but a much wider audience of players getting to experience it. It definitely took a lot of consideration to figure out how to pitch the game just right to players, and I can't say I enjoyed doing that, but in the end I'm glad I did it and it makes me hopefully for my future launches
Melissa Joy Kong@melissajoykong · Content, Product Hunt
Hi @helvetica! What do you think about the iOS eocsystem right now? How tough is it for indies to stand out?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@melissajoykong I have always been really bullish on iOS, and I still feel like it's a great ecosystem despite how scary it has become in the last few years. The truth is every distribution portal is clogged up with loads of software and it's tough to get noticed anywhere, the difference with iOS is that of all the premium channels, it's been clogged up the longest, and I think they handle it the best. There will always be deserving games that don't get attention, but at least I can say that on iOS there is very frequently some crazy odd game that makes its way up the charts. Lifeline did pretty recently, A Dark Room did further back than that. Pancake has been up there. I feel like on other channels there's a lot less weird stuff at the top.
Alper Çuğun@alper · Principal at Hubbub. Makes Cuppings an…
Hi Zach! I'm enjoying Sage Solitaire but occasionally I find it too engrossing and hard to put down once I start. What are your thoughts about addictive qualities in games (especially yours)?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@alper Great question! This is definitely a bit of a grey area. A lot of the luck-mechanics in Sage were designed after a trip to Atlantic City and an afternoon playing Three Card Poker changed my mind on luck. I used to feel like raw luck games were cheap and un-interesting, and thats why games like SpellTower and Bit Pilot use luck very sparingly, and give the player tons of control. I was really blown away by how compelling Three Card Poker was though, and I wanted to find a way to use some of that in my own games. Sage is a lot more balanced in terms of how much control the player has and how much luck fits in. In that way it fits in very well with solitaire games historically. I think personally the line comes when you're using the luck aspect of the game to hide a players skill impact with the intent of drawing money out of them (the way, say, candy crush uses luck). Sage doesn't do any of that stuff, but it definitely can be addictive. I think it's important though to be able to say for yourself when you've had enough and need to take a break. Honestly theres not much game designers can do to build systems that are both fun to play addictively AND ask players to stop. Nintendo tries it's damnedest, but we just click through those screens
Corley@corleyh · COO @ Product Hunt
Hey there @helvetica - thanks for joining us. First your Twitter handle is fab! Now that you've released Sage Solitaire - what's next for you?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@corleyh Thanks! Well.. At the moment, more Sage Solitaire haha. I'm working on a new mode, and I have at least one more I want to get in there after that. Also Achievements, Localization support, and Android support. It kind of never ends with new releases. After that I have a bunch of stuff on the roadmap. SpellTower will be receiving a long overdue update soon along with localization support. Tharsis (collaboration with Choice Provisions) is releasing soon. And for iOS I have a Billiards game, a new Word game, and a number-based puzzle in the works, all designed and just waiting to be polished and released! Art-wise I've been hard at work building my Glaciers series (http://bit.ly/1E9PJsf) some of which are actually going up in a gallery in Portland right now, and hopefully more of which will go up in a gallery in nyc later, along with a possible kickstarter. So hopefully a lot from me soon.
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community at Product Hunt ⚡️
Hey Zach, Great to have you here! How long did you work on Sage Solitaire before you put it out there?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@jacqvon in some ways I've been working on Sage for years, and in other ways about 3 months.
Lejla Bajgoric@lejlahunts · Intern, Product Hunt
Hey there! Would love to hear about what some of the struggles of bringing Sage Solitaire to life were.
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@lejlahunts I think the biggest hurdle was making the tutorial work. It seems really simple in practice, but of course that was kind of the goal. Sage Solitaire actually has quite a few rules that you need to know to be able to play it correctly, but nobody wants to sit through boring instructional screens. It took a few attempts until I figured out how to break the tutorial down into "just what you need to know to play" which it tells you right off the bat, and "what you need to know to play well", which it lets players learn at their own pace (through the little info buttons you tap on the right hand side).
Dan Provost@danprovost · Designer, Studio Neat
@helvetica Hi Zach! What is the design process like for a game like Sage Solitaire? Where do you start, and how do you iterate? Love the game by the way, I'm addicted.
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@danprovost Thanks Dan! Actually with Sage the process was very simple. I had the idea in the shower and I got out of the shower and put clothes on and dealt it out with cards and went "hey, wow this is weirdly interesting". Then I tried it out on a bunch of people to confirm that it was weirdly interesting. Next I programmed a really quick prototype in an afternoon so that I could play multiple games faster and play it on the go in my downtime, and try it out with even more people. Once it was pretty much confirmed that it was neat and wasnt broken, I sat down and started to put the work in to turn it into a full fledged polished game, basically doing design, naming it, coming up with the aesthetic, making the tutorial work, thinking about how to sell it, and then bug testing and beta testing the whole shebang
Teresa Hammerl@colazionearoma · Socialmediapreneur
Hi Zach, how did you become a game designer?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@colazionearoma in my heart it just happened, but career-wise sort of by accident actually. When I was younger I used to love videogames but my mom wouldn't let me buy any so I had to make my own. I grew up wanting to program and make videogames, but I didn't really know what that meant. I went to school for Art and became an artist and only came back to games when one of my artworks was selling really well on iOS so I bought my then-girlfriend a iOS device and she downloaded Tetris and it was just so awful with touch-controls I had to make a version of it that was good, that game was Unify. Around the time I made Unify I also made an artwork/game called Lose/Lose. Some of my teachers at Parsons: The New School encouraged me to go to Indiecade, and so on a whim I bought a flight and left 2 days later. At Indiecade I met a ton of amazing bloggers and game designers and discovered the indie scene, and I've been hooked on making games ever since
Jorge Luis De Alba@thejorlu · Game Designer
Hi Zach! I love how interactions feel very tactile in your games. Any tips on how to achieve this kind of feedback on touch screens?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@thejorlu Thanks! That kind of thing is really important to me so I'm glad to hear it's coming across! Hmmmm. I actually gave a talk about this stuff at GDC a few years back that might help: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/101... Things have gotten a little more complicated since then, now everyone has expectations about how certain genres will control, and you have to balance innovative controls vs. what people expect.. but there's still a lot that's possible. I think one of the biggest tricks is just making sure you have audio that backs up the interactions that are happening in your games, and not relying on visuals to do that for the player
Chris@adventuremtn
@helvetica This game came out pretty quick. What took you the longest? Iteration? Ui design?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@adventuremtn hmmmmm. To be honest everything took about the same amount of time as everything else. I think maybe implementing the UI was the longest, although maybe it just felt like the longest because it's all grunt work once you have the design down
Chris Calmeyn@calc · Co-founder of Scout
Zach, congrats on the launch of Sage Solitaire. You mentioned you were bullish on iOS and have spent much of your time the past view years designing for mobile. That said, what are your thoughts about the speculation surrounding Apple TV? Could you see yourself designing games specifically for that platform?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@calc Thanks! Yeah I think it's definitely possible. It all depends on what the platform ends up being like. Apple tends to design really unique and interesting platforms, so I'd expect that probably if it really is happening this time it'll be cool and new and I'll want to make something for it. I definitely have a outline of an Apple Watch game that I want to make, so I guess I sort of branch out of mobile occasionally.
Dan Provost@danprovost · Designer, Studio Neat
If I may ask another question, any strategy tips for Sage Solitaire? I find it's important to try to drain the top rows, while keeping the bottom rows alive, even if it means forgoing higher scoring hands. I'm also quite liberal with trashing cards, in an attempt to score higher hands. Good idea?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@danprovost yeah man keep em coming :) I think you're definitely on target with your strategies. Actually the game was originally called "Siege Solitaire" (until I got worried about TM conflicts), because it's about laying siege to the top row. I guess my biggest tip would be generally avoid flushes at the start of Single Deck. Although, one thing that's been kind of interesting to me is that every mode really has it's own strategies. Flushes aren't nearly as bad in Double Deck or Fifteens mode
Dan Provost@danprovost · Designer, Studio Neat
@helvetica Oh that's interesting, why should one specifically avoid flushes? What makes it more problematic than any other five card hand? Often in the game I will have 4 of one suit showing, and I will trash cards in an attempt to reveal the 5th card of that suit. I guess I should stop doing that? :)
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@danprovost nah, I think later on in the game flushes can be really helpful. The problem is that flushes are less functional with bonus cards because you only need one bonus card in a hand to get the multiplier, and flushes either have no bonus cards in them, or all bonus cards in them by design. Additionally, flushes, unlike straights or full houses don't break apart into more functional smaller hands later when you're less likely to have 5 piles, and due to some weirdness of how making poker hands out of a static deck works, the more hands of a certain type you do early, the more of that same type you're likely to come across later.
Chris@adventuremtn
I saw a study that older women are the overwhelming majority consumer of iOS card games (other than poker). Did you consider that and did it Change Anything when designing sage?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@adventuremtn Oh interesting. I didn't know that, but that sort of makes sense given some anecdotal reports. I think that might be generally true with word games as well. Sometimes I think I'm mostly only famous amongst people's grandmas. I really want my games to be accessible to everyone, so I'm definitely not doing anything weird like explicitly targeting women or the elderly :p But I do think often people who don't have a history of playing games are getting the short end of the game stick these days, and statistically (because of culture and advertising), that has has been those two groups. There are very few deep complex modern games designed without the requirements of being able to understand moving in 3d spaces, or being able to use a gamepad, or understanding basic game tropes. We spend a lot of time as designers trying to stand on the shoulders of those that came before us, but it can sometimes end up ostracizing those that haven't taken part in that gaming history. I try to make games that anyone can understand even if they've never played videogames before, or don't know how an ipad even works, and I think sort of by accident that's endeared me to older people who sometimes feel left out by technology.
Helene Meurer@thermomixblog
@adventuremtn lol, I guess I'm in that demographic!
Chris@adventuremtn
@thermomixblog excellent! Do you play mostly card games? Also how do you figure out which one to play when the App Store is soooo full of card games that all look the same?
Helene Meurer@thermomixblog
@adventuremtn Never played a card game till this morning when I downloaded Sage Solitaire!!! I really like what Zach said about making his games accessible. That's what appeals to me most, the "easy to grasp" aspect, the nice feel and audio etc. Here's an interesting fact... I've been trying for YEARS to get my 84 year old mother interested in the iPad so that she could be more connected to her family but she is extremely resistant and hates computers etc. Last week when I took her to a medical appointment I put my iphone in her hands and "let" her play Spell Tower while she waited for the doctor. Next day she asked to play it again. Then, today she asked me if you could have an iPad of her own so that the can play THAT GAME. Woohoo! Another technophobe just got hooked, thanks to Zach!
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@thermomixblog hahaha oh my god that's an amazing story about your mother, thanks for sharing! Ridiculously, this is definitely not the first time I've heard stories like this. This kind of thing makes me feel extra good about trying to make accessible games. And, also, honored to have introduced you to the wonderful world of card games :)
Helene Meurer@thermomixblog
I'm not much of a game player but the aesthetics and um... feel of your games have won me over. You talked about the games you played when younger and I have to wonder if you ever played Triptych from Chronic Logic. That one had a smooth and lovely feel to it, much like SpellTower... I think you might like it, but it's an old one now. Wish you could revamp it for them, but then again, for someone as creative as you are, I'm sure there's no appeal in revamping a game...
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@thermomixblog Thanks! Whoa that looks neat. I will try to check it out! In terms of block dropping games have you played Puyo Puyo? That's probably my favorite of the category. Visually the old game that I can't get over is Zoop, which has got to be one of the most ridiculous and wonderful visual games of all time. I think it's inspiration is super obvious in all my designs.
Helene Meurer@thermomixblog
@helvetica Thanks Zach, I'll check that one out. fyi, what makes Triptych so great is the "softness" of how the blocks drop, and the way they are animated... you can only see that when playing, not really from static screenshot. Thanks again!
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@thermomixblog ha! oh crazy. I just found a video.. It's like this tetris video
except an actual functional game. that's pretty great
Helene Meurer@thermomixblog
@helvetica Yes! (except for the annoying music ;-) Thanks for checking it out! It was great to meet you earlier today. Really enjoy the way you communicate, via your games, and words.
Near the end of the game, you can start figuring out what cards are left by which cards have been played so far. With real cards, you could look through the "discard pile" to see which cards have been played, but in Sage Solitaire you have to keep track yourself. Have you considered adding a way to "look at the discard pile" in-game?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@ianh_ Yep I've actually tried a number of different iterations for how to do this well, and for the most part they make the game a lot less fun. One of the weird things about playing a game on a table is the 'space' of the game is pretty fluid. You can discard cards off to the side and feel like they're gone until you need them. In a digital game though everything on the screen has to be very deliberate, and so it feels that way. Every version of being able to look through cards that I could come up with just felt like the game was really pushing you very hard to optimize your play, and optimizing play in Sage is actually extremely difficult. It's pretty doable from a broad systemic odds-based way, but on a per-card level it's a nightmare. Ultimately the gains of being able to look through your cards for the last 4 or 5 cards were out-weighed by the drag the system put on the rest of play.. It's really not as helpful as it seems like it would be.
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
Thanks so much everyone! That was fun!
Helene Meurer@thermomixblog
Love your work Zach! Have just now downloaded Sage Solitaire and it's great to read here that you have an update planned for SpellTower... I bought in largely due to the Debate mode but that seems to be problematic for some of us users... would love to see that working as an in-app purchase option so I can challenge friends :)
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@thermomixblog Thanks! Yes I'm so sorry about that SpellTower bug :( The update that's coming is going to bring a branded (and awesome) dictionary to the game along with fixing the Debate mode (and making it work online with voice chat) so you won't have to be in the same room as the people you want to crush anymore !
Jorge Luis De Alba@thejorlu · Game Designer
The different backgrounds for Sage Solitaire are pretty cool. Was it an early design choice to make the experience more personal? or was it just a simple bonus for the paid version?
Zach Gage@helvetica · stfj
@thejorlu What happened is that I was working on the design for the game in Illustrator and I needed to jazz up the background a little bit, so I started looking into their pattern options and some of them are pretty wild. I've always wanted to make a game that looked ridiculous and 90s, and a game that was an update to Solitaire seemed totally appropriate for that treatment (given how funky and great MS Solitaire looked), but I didn't want that to be the only way to play the game. Putting in a ton of flavors seemed like the solution, and as a bonus, people immediately took to them. I think because they're not all slick people are comfortable picking the one that makes them happy, and nobody is worrying about how cool or not cool they are. if you're curious, here's a screenshot of one of the half-done early visual tests for Sage. You can see I backed off quite a lot :p