Taking on Zynga and Rovio: Zach Gage and SpellTower
It’s increasingly hard for indie developers to compete with large game publishers. But if there’s any platform the underdog can rise over (or come close to) the big dogs, it’s in the App Store. We talked to Zach Gage, developer of hit word game, SpellTower, last week who tried to take on Zynga and Rovio with a sale and marketing push. While SpellTower never made it over Angry Birds Space and Draw Something on the top charts, the already successful app became even more successful last week. It cumulatively rose over a hundred places in the top charts and, according to another interview Gage gave to Forbes, earned 30% of SpellTower’s lifetime downloads in that two day sale period.
We kept in touch with Gage throughout his sale and discussed the factors and strategies that helped make SpellTower such a successful app. First, let’s take a look at some numbers.
- In Top Paid Apps, SpellTower went from 93rd to 13th.
- In Top Paid Games, the app went from 44th to 11th.
- In Top Paid iPad Apps and Top Paid iPad Games, the app reached 3rd (previously being 7th and 4th). Both ranks were right under Angry Birds Space and Draw Something.
- In Top iPhone Paid Apps, it went from 93th to 13th (the same increase as overall paid apps).
SpellTower was a huge success on the iPhone during the sale. Gage believes $0.99 is a much more competitive price point on the iPhone, while iPad users are more willing to pay $1.99. He also mentioned that the iPhone is a more accessible device and people were more likely to just download the game to whatever device they had on them when they heard of the sale.
Gage attributes more than just the sale to the recent success,
“Well, I think the sale was helpful, but the community was amazing. So many tweets went out yesterday. My iPad was beeping off the hook. It was really overwhelming for me, to have so many people help me out. I think the reddit IAmA was pretty helpful too.”
On the reddit IAmA, Gage’s page received 156 points (247 up votes and 91 down). Gage thinks the support the community gave by tweeting and helping spread the word made a huge difference. The IAmA on reddit resulted in over 200 comments between Gage and readers. One of the most interesting comments on the reddit included a quick discussion about if Zynga offered Gage over $100M,
Original question: “If Zynga offers you > 100 million dollar, would you take it?
Gage: “not if they made me work for them”
Another commenter: “Hmm. That is either bull**** or commendable integrity, sir.”
Gage: “I’m not in this for the money. I’m here to make work I think is good and enjoy being alive. No amount of money would be worth working for Zynga for 5 years and not making any side projects.”
Gage also commented on the “garbage app” atmosphere of the App Store and how he believes the App Store is actually a great place for developers right now,
“I like the App Store. It’s true theres a lot of garbage out there, but Apple’s curation is quite good, and there are a lot of people who like those superficial games. At the end of the day, that audience is out there and you have to decide if you want to cater to it or not…I think the App Store is the best place right now to make a name for yourself with really unique and interesting apps/games.”
SpellTower had a previous surge in the rankings (April 11th through the 13th) prior to the sale.
“A big update hit and Apple featured it simultaneously. Plus, kind of market saturation from being in New York Times Magazine.”
He explained the update included a great website created by a friend of his, Chris Driscoll, a new icon that better displayed that it was a word game, and screenshots that include accolades (he doesn’t believe many people actually read the descriptive text).
SpellTower has been a huge hit. Gage believes the strategy element is one of the most unique parts of his game.
“SpellTower is pretty unique for a word game. It really forefronts strategy in a way that not a lot of word games do. Theres randomness, but it’s low. Most of your ability to do well comes from a combination of knowing words, being able to see words in advance, and making the right words, in the right places, at the right times.”
Gage plans to continue making challenging apps. He believes that challenging experience is part of what made SpellTower so successful.
“The major thing I’ve discovered is that people actually really like challenging games, if you approach them the right way. Its difficult to build them like that, but it’s not something I’d ever realized. A good example is Pacman. Pacman is super hard, but it’s fun for everyone because it’s easy to grab a power pellet and chomp ghosts. It builds on an accessible strategy.”
SpellTower may not have risen above the giants, Zynga and Rovio, but it’s equally impressive for a one-man indie development studio to be in the same league as the big name developers.