The Talk Show

346: ‘Like Neo Dodging Bullets’, With Zach Gage


00:00:00   I'm so excited to have you here. You have a brand new game out called NotWords, and

00:00:04   I'll just say this once because on a podcast it's often difficult. It's cannot words.

00:00:08   Yes, with a K. But you have made a slew of games over the

00:00:13   years. I think not not entirely and and I'll just say not words is also available for Mac

00:00:19   and PC on Steam. It is on iOS, of course, in the App Store and it's also on Android

00:00:24   Play right there on day one launched last week, but let's just talk let's run through

00:00:29   some of the games that you have made over the years. I'll just start with I'll tell

00:00:34   you I'll just be upfront. My favorite Zach Gage game is really bad chess.

00:00:39   Oh, thank you. Which I want to talk about specifically later,

00:00:43   but tell me some of the other games. Tell us some of the games that you've.

00:00:46   Oh gosh, there are a lot. I tend to try to make games that are a twist on traditional

00:00:52   game genres and traditional game literacy so that they're more approachable to most

00:00:59   human beings and not just video game people. So really bad chess. I made a couple solitaires,

00:01:04   flip flop solitaire, sage solitaire. Pocket Run Pool is a billiards game. Spell Tower,

00:01:10   Type Shift, or other word games. I did Ridiculous Fishing, which was an Apple game of the year

00:01:15   and Apple award winner. And then I have a bunch of older, more art related stuff and

00:01:20   little games that got destroyed in the 32 bit apocalypse.

00:01:24   We should talk about that. I'm going to make a note for that. But Ridiculous Fishing is

00:01:27   one that I have. As soon as you said it, it was one of those things where I got like a

00:01:34   dopamine hit from my brain where my brain was like, you should go play Ridiculous Fishing.

00:01:39   Because that was another one that was an all time favorite. Can you describe it for people

00:01:43   who didn't don't remember it? I mean, when did that come out? That was pretty early,

00:01:47   right? In the iPhone era.

00:01:49   Yeah, I want to... boy, I should probably... I have a really bad memory for dates and names,

00:01:55   but I think it was either 2012 or 2011. It's pretty old. Yeah, it was a collaboration with

00:02:02   Vlambeer and Greg Wolwind, and we were making basically a sequel to another Vlambeer game

00:02:07   called Radical Fishing. And it's kind of an absurdist fishing game where you try to get

00:02:13   a hook as low as possible, and by dodging all the fish, and then when you come up, you

00:02:19   try to catch as many of the fish as possible, and then when it hits the surface, all the

00:02:22   fish get flung into the air, and then you shoot them with uzis and machine guns and

00:02:27   rocket launchers.

00:02:30   It was... is... does it still work? Is that one of the games that's been axed by the apocalypse?

00:02:35   It hasn't been axed, but it doesn't work on a lot of the newer phone sizes, but we're

00:02:41   sort of hopeful that we'll get it working again sometime soon in the future, because

00:02:45   we all sort of really miss it being playable.

00:02:48   One of the things that Ridiculous Fishing that struck me as... I am not a game designer

00:02:55   at all, but I'm definitely a UI designer, and I think about form and structure and input,

00:03:05   and it was a great game for the phone. Like, to me, that was sort of the... in the early

00:03:14   days of the iPhone, and then Android, you know, once Android became very iPhone-ish,

00:03:21   there was clearly an enormous opportunity for games, because we had these amazingly

00:03:26   powerful computers in our pockets with beautiful color screens, right? And, you know, by a

00:03:34   certain standard, like, the worst Android... like, when Android first started playing around

00:03:38   with OLED screens in the early 2010s, and some of them had some really wonky colors

00:03:44   for like, in the, like, the cyans and reds, the magentas... Even then, even by that standard

00:03:51   though, by the history of video games, these were great screens where you could do really

00:03:56   colorful stuff if you wanted to, but the controls were so limited, right? What do you do? Like,

00:04:03   it was such a breakthrough when Steve Jobs and Apple introduced the original iPhone,

00:04:08   and it's like... and they said, "Look, all these other phones, like Blackberries, have

00:04:11   these keyboards and all these buttons and D-pads and all this stuff, and it takes up

00:04:16   all this space, and then what if you come up with an idea that these controls don't

00:04:21   work well with?" Well, we know the answer to that. It's called software. What if we

00:04:25   just made everything software and just put it, you know, just make it a big screen? Great

00:04:28   idea! But really, not great for games, as games had been known to be, as games had been

00:04:36   known to be up until 2007, right? Yeah. Well, I think that's actually... that's how I ended

00:04:42   up being excited to work on the iPhone, was, like, I came out of doing interactive art

00:04:50   and interactive technology, and so the idea that there was this screen that used a mechanic

00:04:58   that nothing had ever used, that, like, I could be the first person to make a game in

00:05:02   a certain style that played with multi-touch was, like, really interesting and intoxicating,

00:05:07   and it felt like just a thrilling space to be. Because, you know, if you're making a

00:05:11   game for an Xbox, you have the controller that all the other games use, and, you know,

00:05:19   almost every game you make is saddled with all of the expectations that players have

00:05:24   for how they're going to interact with it. And so that component, that sort of narrow

00:05:29   slice of game design, which is the interactive part, is just not present for a lot of game

00:05:36   design on those consoles. Whereas with a multi-touch screen, at the beginning of the App Store,

00:05:41   when there were no multi-touch games, no one had figured out how to make games work on

00:05:44   this kind of screen, you got to spend a lot of time really thinking about, "Well, how

00:05:49   does someone even interact with this? What is this able to do? How can we make games

00:05:54   that operate on this? We don't have buttons anymore. What do we do?" And so, originally,

00:05:59   what actually got me interested in doing games was my wife, my girlfriend at the time, had

00:06:05   an iPhone touch and she downloaded Tetris. And I don't know if you remember the original

00:06:09   Tetris on the iPhone, but it was like horrible.

00:06:11   I do. Because I love Tetris as one of my all-time favorite games. I just love it. And it was

00:06:19   -- and honestly, to this day, it's still terrible on the phone.

00:06:23   Yeah, because, well, because Tetris is a game about buttons. It's like one of the things

00:06:27   that's beautiful about it is how much it celebrates buttons and the sort of simplicity and elegance

00:06:33   of its input with buttons. And it just didn't work on the phone, and I was like, "Oh my

00:06:37   God, this is what games are right now? This is the games people are coming out with? Like,

00:06:41   I just got out of grad school, but like, I think I can make something better than this."

00:06:45   And so I started exploring and working in that space, and I met Lanbir, who had done

00:06:52   Radical Fishing, and I saw it and I played it, and I was like, "Oh my God, this could

00:06:55   be amazing on a phone. This is exactly the game. The shooting and touching would be perfect.

00:07:01   Using tilt for the movement would be perfect." So I kind of approached them and talked with

00:07:07   my friend Greg, and we convinced them that this would be this really awesome game if

00:07:10   we could do it.

00:07:11   I'm out of my league talking about old Nintendo stuff, because I was more of a Sega Genesis

00:07:16   -- well, definitely way, way more. But I always thought that one of the things -- I never

00:07:21   actually owned a Game Boy back in the day, but I was always very tempted. And honestly,

00:07:27   I would have just glued the Tetris cartridge in. It would have been fine. I would have

00:07:31   just bought the Game Boy and just put the Tetris cartridge in. But one of the things

00:07:34   that always struck me, and I had plenty of friends who had one, so I knew to play it,

00:07:38   but Tetris was so perfect for Game Boy, because Game Boy -- to me, a D-pad isn't -- it is

00:07:47   what it is. It's not bad, it's not necessarily good, but a D-pad is buttons as opposed to

00:07:52   a stick. And it's not a joystick like from my youth of an Atari 2600, and like the modern

00:08:01   Xbox PlayStation-style controllers where you have these thumbsticks. And I understand you,

00:08:06   you need the thumbstick for some games, because you need to not just say "up," but "up" a little,

00:08:12   like I'm creeping forward or I'm pushing forward. Whereas Tetris, it's left, right, rotate, drop.

00:08:20   Buttons are perfect for that. And a black and white screen was fine. It was, if anything,

00:08:26   in my opinion, maybe better. It's more pure. It was just a perfect combination of concept

00:08:31   to device. I used to play -- when I was in high school, one of my best friends and I

00:08:37   would go to the local coin-operated arcade. Among the games we'd play was we'd spend quarters

00:08:42   on Tetris. And people would be like, "Why are you wasting money on Tetris when you can

00:08:45   play Tetris at home?" And we're like, "Yeah, but this is a really good Tetris."

00:08:50   [laughter]

00:08:51   Yeah, I mean, I have played Tetris with a joystick, and it is thrilling also with a

00:08:56   joystick. But I do totally agree with you about the D-pad. It is perfect. And actually,

00:09:00   there's a device that came out recently called the Analog Pocket, which is like a performance

00:09:05   Game Boy kind of. And my wife and I got them, and we've been playing a lot of Tetris on

00:09:09   it, and it's really rekindled a lot of my memories of Tetris on the Game Boy. And I

00:09:14   think, you know, there's more to it than just the buttons in the Game Boy and the black

00:09:18   and white. It's also that the Game Boy was such a forerunner of this idea of a game that

00:09:23   you had in your pocket that you could take out and play for just a small amount of time.

00:09:28   And this idea that you could hook it up to a friend's Game Boy, and then you could play

00:09:32   Tetris against each other. It was like the whole context of the Game Boy was just perfect

00:09:37   for Tetris in this way that not a lot of other things were. I mean, you talk about playing

00:09:41   it at the arcade or playing it at home. The Game Boy was both, right? You could play it

00:09:45   in bed, you could play it at school, you could play it with your friends. It kind of had

00:09:50   all of those things.

00:09:51   You could play it on the bus or the subway.

00:09:53   Yeah.

00:09:54   Or the car.

00:09:55   You could play it while you were waiting in line to play Tetris at the arcade.

00:09:58   It's probably the single greatest thing that ever happened to the backseat of a family

00:10:03   car.

00:10:04   Absolutely.

00:10:05   Because you couldn't read in the backseat of a car because the movement of the car,

00:10:10   it's too much, but you could definitely play a Game Boy. But anyway, back to Ridiculous

00:10:14   Fishing, the one thing that struck me so great, in addition to the fact that the controls

00:10:19   were perfect, it wasn't like, "Oh man, I really wish I had physical buttons." It was like,

00:10:24   "No, you don't need physical buttons for this game." It's not like, "What was that game?"

00:10:28   It was like in the initial, the very initial release of the App Store, it was like a Sega

00:10:34   game like Infinite Runner down like on a roller coaster track. I don't know. But it was a

00:10:41   fake D-pad game.

00:10:43   There were so many of those.

00:10:46   Yeah. And so many of the initial games, too, made you rotate the phone, which isn't necessarily

00:10:52   bad. There's some great phone games where you play them horizontally as opposed to vertically.

00:10:56   But Ridiculous Fishing was meant to be vertical because you drop the hook down. So having

00:11:03   a screen that was vertically oriented is optimal for the concept because you want to go deep

00:11:11   and down, and therefore holding the phone in the natural way, which is vertical, it

00:11:17   fit in a way where you'd never make that game for a widescreen TV.

00:11:22   Right. Right. Or you'd have to change a lot.

00:11:27   Right. I should never have used the word "never" there because you're a creative game designer

00:11:33   and it's instantly going to start your brain turning and you're thinking, "Well, wait a

00:11:37   second." Yeah, you could make it like fly fishing where you go sideways or something

00:11:41   like that.

00:11:42   Yeah, or you just rotate your whole TV, you know, just get people to rotate. You should

00:11:46   sell TV stands to come with the game.

00:11:49   But that was a great game. That really was. And it's just so much fun. Now, let's talk

00:11:55   about how you got into game design. I guess we'll sort of go in chronological order, but

00:12:01   I might as well take a break and thank our first friend of the show, and it's our good

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00:12:13   of times they sponsored the podcast, I said Kolide because I thought, "Well, if they spell

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00:12:21   and they very politely said, "No, we just say Kolide." And I was like, "Oh, sorry." And they

00:12:26   were like, "No, we laughed." But Kolide is a great company. They have a new take on

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00:12:38   that use MDM try to lock down their employees' devices without considering the employees'

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00:12:56   MDM was disrupting their end users, often frustrating them so badly that they'd just

00:13:01   throw up their hands and switch to using their personal laptops without telling anyone, which

00:13:06   defeats the whole purpose of using MDM to protect your company's stuff and to try to

00:13:12   keep your employees' information and the company information that employees are using safe.

00:13:17   So instead of locking down a device, Kolide takes a user-focused approach that communicates

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00:13:42   something else that's going to give them notifications from work. It's already a system where they're

00:13:47   communicating and getting notifications for work-related stuff. And it can range from

00:13:53   simple problems like, "Hey, the screen lock is not set up correctly," or hard to solve

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00:15:15   How and when did you get started doing game design?

00:15:17   Oh my gosh, well, to some extent, you know, when I was a kid, I guess I really wanted

00:15:23   to be a game designer. Growing up on Mac, it was really interesting because almost everything

00:15:29   I played was shareware that was by developers. And so, unlike a lot of my friends who were

00:15:34   playing Nintendo games or Xbox games or, well, I guess not Xbox at the time, PlayStation,

00:15:39   where these games are made by giant companies, I was playing games that were made by developers

00:15:44   who you could email and interact with and write. And so I got interested in this idea

00:15:49   of making games, and I used -- the first thing I really got into was Hyper Studio, which

00:15:55   was like a color and multimedia version of HyperCard. And then I got into this thing

00:16:01   called Coco, which was like a bespoke educational tool that Apple put out before Jobs came back

00:16:07   and axed all of the educational stuff and weird little side hobbies that had been going

00:16:14   on at Apple to focus on one thing.

00:16:16   And to be clear, I don't want to interrupt you, but to be clear, this was a Coco that

00:16:20   is completely unrelated. Among the other things Steve Jobs did is completely reuse the name

00:16:26   Coco for something entirely different. Okay.

00:16:28   Apparently such a good name that it had to come back. Yeah, so I was making games in

00:16:33   that, and then I went to high school and learned how to program and thought I was going to

00:16:39   be someone making games, and then I went to college and I went to Skidmore College, which

00:16:44   is a wonderful school, and they have a really incredible art program and a really lacking

00:16:49   computer science program, or at least they did when I was there. So I dropped computer

00:16:53   science entirely and basically went hard into being a fine artist and learning how to paint

00:17:00   and draw and sculpt really poorly and do all the things that fine artists do. I got really

00:17:05   into photography and design. And then when it was coming up to the end of the year, or

00:17:10   to the end of my time at college and I had to do an end-of-year show, I thought back

00:17:14   on a lot of the things that had been inspiring to me in high school artistically, like preystation.com

00:17:20   and a lot of early -- Jared Tarbell -- a lot of early flash experiments, and around this

00:17:24   time processing.org was going on. And I realized, like, oh, I have this programming background.

00:17:30   I can do these kinds of interactive things that a lot of my classmates don't know how

00:17:35   to do, and what if I tried to create art using these skills? So I started doing that, and

00:17:42   I got out of school and I came to New York and I met up with this artist, Zach Lieberman,

00:17:48   who ran something called Open Frameworks, which is sort of a C++ version of Processing. It's

00:17:53   like a creative coding library for C++. And through him, I did a lot of work in Open Frameworks

00:18:01   and creating interactive artwork, and I went to Parsons and met some games people there,

00:18:07   and that's sort of where I started working with the iPhone and making some games. And

00:18:12   I fell in love with the phone and I fell in love with the games community, because at

00:18:16   that time it was really small and it was just 100% incredible geniuses. You'd go to a conference

00:18:24   and every single person I met in 2007 is basically a famous indie developer now, and it was just

00:18:30   an incredible thrilling experience to be surrounded by so many incredibly talented people, and

00:18:35   I just got sucked into games that I've been making games ever since.

00:18:39   There's like a certain type of personality that is drawn to a new frontier, when it's

00:18:43   like this great unknown. Instead of being terrifying or feeling lost or just standing

00:18:49   at the edge and looking at it, they're like, "Oh, I need to go out there and just start

00:18:54   exploring. This is fantastic, because there's no preconceptions as to what it could be."

00:19:00   And then there was no money. So it was just people who were like, "I have a thing that

00:19:06   I need to get out and explain to people and show people, and I'm going to do it, and hopefully

00:19:13   you'll really enjoy it." And so it was just super highly motivated, incredibly talented

00:19:18   artists.

00:19:19   From my perspective, that's sort of like the early years of blogging, where the idea that

00:19:25   you, a writer or somebody who just wants to post things regularly to your own website

00:19:30   under your own name, you just do it, and nobody really even knew what it should look like.

00:19:37   What order should things show up in? Should they just all show up on the homepage? What

00:19:40   should they do? And again, no money in it at all. Nobody even had any ideas for how

00:19:45   to make money, which was kind of, you know, it never lasts. We'll get there talking about

00:19:52   games. It never lasts, but it is fun at the beginning.

00:19:55   Yeah, it's been one of the most interesting things for me, having gone through the career

00:20:00   that I've had, is being able to see a bubble and ride it and see the end of it and see

00:20:06   what comes out of it. Having gotten to spend 10 years experiencing that, I feel very lucky

00:20:12   to have that kind of perspective now.

00:20:15   What was the first iPhone game that you had that hit the App Store?

00:20:21   So the first app I ever made was something called Synth Pond, which, given my light lisp,

00:20:27   I really regret naming a game that. It's impossible to say. But that was a sound toy, I guess.

00:20:35   I was really inspired by people like Toshio Iwai and the other sort of experimental audio

00:20:42   toys, and so Synth Pond was a spatial sequencer. I feel like I really love music, but I'm not

00:20:49   able to understand music. I can't create music the way that everybody else can. It just doesn't

00:20:55   work for the way that my brain works. And so this was more of thinking about, well,

00:21:01   what if it was a tool for spatial people, for people who think in a spatial sense? So

00:21:07   it was all about laying down nodes that would reverberate a sound, and then when that sound

00:21:12   hit other nodes, they would respond with sounds. It was basically this tool that, instead of

00:21:17   composing in a sequence, it let you compose in a space. And it was something that I had

00:21:22   made on the computer and put out on my website as just something you could download on the

00:21:26   Mac. And I was probably getting like 200 hits a day on my website at that point, but nobody

00:21:32   ever wrote me or talked about this thing. And then the iPhone came out and I thought,

00:21:37   "Oh, this is like a really cool device for this. Maybe I could make this experience on

00:21:42   this." And I had all these ideas about how to use the multi-touch to, you know, you grab

00:21:46   one thing and hit something else and that lets you change the node. So I was really

00:21:50   excited and I built it and I put it out and it got covered on MacRumors and it made like

00:21:57   $20,000 and people were writing me emails and thanking me for coming up with this cool

00:22:02   idea. And one of the musicians of Dream Theater, who's like a pretty big metal band, wrote

00:22:10   me and I got to go to the studio and hang out with him and we had lunch and talked about

00:22:15   all this stuff. And I was just like, "What is this place? What is this device in this

00:22:22   app store that I can just put this thing out there and that nobody cared about on the web

00:22:27   but here it's making me money and it's finding an audience and I'm getting contacted and

00:22:32   people are thanking me for being able to buy this thing?" It was just such a mind-blowing

00:22:37   moment.

00:22:38   Not to go off on a tangent, but there's a new book out, Beyond Steve, I think by Tripp

00:22:42   Meckl. It just came out this week. The New York Times had an excerpt over the weekend

00:22:45   and it seems like I haven't read the book yet, but I haven't, but it's sort of things

00:22:50   aren't the same without Steve Jobs. And if things had gone better after Steve Jobs died,

00:22:56   Apple would have come up with another thing like the iPhone since. And there've been a

00:23:02   series of books like that since he died and I think a lot of them have fared very poorly.

00:23:07   I'm curious about how this one goes because it's written a whole decade afterwards and

00:23:12   so therefore it's not quite so much a prediction but more a reporting about what did happen.

00:23:17   But my fundamental theory about why phones are such a hit is—and I don't think Apple

00:23:24   knew this before the iPhone came out—I think they knew they had something great. And when

00:23:29   Steve Jobs just showed it to people at that Macworld keynote, those were like the longest

00:23:34   six months of our lives waiting to actually get it. Because there was something obvious

00:23:40   like "Oh my god, I need to have that." But I think ultimately what the phones are is

00:23:46   that it's the endpoint of personal computers. And it's like personal computers came out

00:23:53   in the late 70s and Apple was there with the Apple II and then the Mac came out in the

00:23:59   80s and things evolved and Windows obviously became this huge, huge hit for literally billions

00:24:06   of people around the world on PCs. But it's like with the phones and everything about

00:24:13   them, the size, the fact that they're always with you, the way that you can't screw them

00:24:19   up as a typical user, there's nothing you can do to screw up an iPhone. You cannot—you

00:24:26   can't make a mistake and "Oh, you should not have installed that game because that

00:24:31   game puts like a background agent in and that thing will—it just runs all the time and

00:24:35   it's really hard to uninstall." You can't do anything like that. It's like for so long

00:24:41   before the internet, all of us who were into computers were like, "Why aren't more people

00:24:45   into computers?" Like the Macintosh slogan was "The computer for the rest of us." And

00:24:48   it did expand computing to more people who just were turned off by the command line computers

00:24:55   that came before it and like, "I don't—you know, this is gibberish. This is not for me."

00:24:59   It definitely expanded it, especially for artists, I think, the way that the whole design

00:25:05   industry from education, from colleges on up, revolutionized itself in short order.

00:25:12   In hindsight, it's kind of bananas. Companies and industries don't just change from "This

00:25:18   is the way we've always done things" to "Oh, we're going to throw it all out and we're going

00:25:22   to do everything in Quirk Express or PageMaker for layout and we're going to use Illustrator

00:25:28   for all of our vector—or Freehand, which I was actually more of a fan of—for all

00:25:33   of our vector art and Photoshop, and we're going to do everything on the computer."

00:25:38   And until like 1986, nothing was done on a computer. And by 1990, everything was done

00:25:43   on a computer. It's kind of bananas, but it did expand it. But it's like the rest of us

00:25:49   were like, "Why don't people want to use computers?" And then the internet came and it's like, "Oh,

00:25:53   communication. That's what real people want to do on computers." And then the phones came

00:25:58   and it's like, "Oh, here's a computer you can't mess up. It's great for communication,

00:26:02   and it's with you all the time." And boom, that's it. And that's why there hasn't been

00:26:08   a thing since. There never will be a thing after that. There is no way to make it more

00:26:13   portable, more accessible, more with you. There is nothing after that.

00:26:18   I think what you just said with the portable and with you is also like a really critical

00:26:25   thing for the phone. And one of the things that's most exciting for me about making games

00:26:30   on the phone is I love making games for the context that the phone exists in, which is

00:26:35   it's in your pocket, you're in line, you pull it out, you do something for 30 seconds, you

00:26:39   put it back. Or it's in your pocket, you're watching TV, you pull it out and you do this

00:26:43   thing on the side while you're watching TV. That's this completely different context than

00:26:48   most games exist in, and it's a completely different computing context than computers

00:26:53   existed in beforehand. And I think this is something that right now, if you look at VR

00:26:58   and the struggles that VR has had gaining any kind of consumer traction, I think to

00:27:04   me it really mirrors a lot of that earlier computer stuff, which is people don't want

00:27:09   to take a break from their lives and use a computer. Some people do, people who love

00:27:14   computers, but most people just want to live their lives. And if they can have a computer

00:27:19   that's with them and does stuff, that's awesome. And the iPhone was the first time that really

00:27:24   most of the world got to have a computer that was just with them where they could have their

00:27:30   normal life and integrate a computer into that.

00:27:33   Yeah, I agree completely. And it's obvious in hindsight, and it's so obvious in hindsight

00:27:39   that I think it gets taken for granted, but it wasn't obvious at the time. And I think

00:27:45   even Apple wasn't sure. You know, like it's so funny, I know everybody out there has probably

00:27:50   watched the iPhone part of that Macworld keynote in 2007, but it is so funny watching it in

00:27:57   hindsight how much time Steve Jobs talks about the phone app. Right? It is so funny because,

00:28:04   and it's like all this time spent like here, you know, and the visual voicemail was great.

00:28:09   It was amazing. Like voicemail used to really suck. You had to like dial like star 70 and

00:28:16   from your phone, you dialed star 70 and the system recognized like, oh, I know your SIM

00:28:20   card. Here's your phone number. It was like dealing with the world's worst call center.

00:28:25   So yes, it was worth it at the time. I'm not saying they made a mistake, but in hindsight,

00:28:30   they spent like half the time talking about the phone app, which most people I know are

00:28:34   like, oh my God, I hate the phone. I don't, you know, getting a phone call is the worst

00:28:37   part of your day.

00:28:39   I do think Jobs did have this obsession with trying to make computers be more a part of

00:28:46   lives and less computery. I think he really was keenly aware of what that problem was,

00:28:51   even if he didn't know the answer to it. And they did try a lot of things that were on

00:28:56   that road. I actually did want to say, because you were talking about the book, I haven't

00:29:00   read the book and I don't want to like say anything that gets me in trouble or gets anyone

00:29:04   mad at me, but I do think like one thing to think about just for me being somebody who's

00:29:12   an artist, who's like, I've made things that were really successful and then had to keep

00:29:17   making things after that. And that experience of trying to live up to something, you know,

00:29:24   being on the inside of the thing where people would look at it and go, oh, what? Why didn't

00:29:29   they make another thing like that great thing? You don't make great things by setting out

00:29:35   to have brilliant ideas and make great things. You make great things by having ideas that

00:29:41   you really want to chase down and working hard for a long time and making things that

00:29:46   are really good for a long time. And then sometimes you hit upon something that's great.

00:29:52   And so with this like entire world of Apple prognostication, I'd be worried if Apple wasn't

00:29:59   continuing to make great things, but they're not. They're doing great stuff. Everything

00:30:04   they come up with is really cool and innovative and like they consistently do things that

00:30:10   are like surprisingly great, like the M1 chip. So to me, the thing that I look for with people

00:30:18   I respect or companies that I'm interested in hearing from is are they continuing to

00:30:22   do really good work? Does most of the stuff that they put out inspire me in some way?

00:30:28   I think that entire concept of like, well, is this person going to have this idea that

00:30:33   makes this thing happen? I think it's sort of flawed.

00:30:36   Yeah, you don't. Yeah, it's so well put like from the creator's perspective, there's like

00:30:42   an inflection point of releasing the thing to the world. And you just don't know what

00:30:48   happens when it goes through that pinpoint. There's the the universe on the side where

00:30:54   it starts, it's just an idea and gets slowly more real. And then you're like, okay, I'm

00:30:59   ready to release, I'm going to squeeze it through this pinhole into the outside world.

00:31:04   And then from that point, and you might think this will be a great hit, or you might think,

00:31:08   I love this, I had to make this, I doubt this is going to be a hit. And sometimes it's like

00:31:14   the things you think will be a big hit aren't. And sometimes the things that you thought,

00:31:19   this is probably going to be niche, like you were saying about Synthpond, right? Like,

00:31:24   it became way more of a thing once it was out on the iPhone than you seem to have thought

00:31:30   possible.

00:31:31   But nothing embodies that more than the fact that the thing that was the biggest hit about

00:31:35   the iPhone is the App Store, which wasn't part of it.

00:31:40   Right. It's so true. It really is. It's so funny thinking about how excited I was and

00:31:49   the people I knew in my world who all bought the original iPhone and lined up on day one

00:31:54   and used it for an entire year without any third party apps. I actually jail broke mine

00:31:59   by the fall and had a couple of apps. Lights Out was the first game.

00:32:04   Yes.

00:32:05   Right? Which was, I can't believe I'm forgetting, Lucas Newman I think did the programming.

00:32:09   But one of the things I loved about Lights Out as a jailbreak game, like three months

00:32:15   after the phone came out, right, and there was like literally no support in Xcode. Like,

00:32:20   it's not just the, oh, there's no App Store. There was no third party developer chain.

00:32:24   Like everything had to be backwards engineered by the community. The thing I loved about

00:32:28   Lights Out was the way that the Mac indie community evolved into the original iOS indie

00:32:34   community is that even though there was no official tool chain, none, no App Store, so

00:32:39   no way that it could possibly gain widespread adoption, it might break at any time if a

00:32:44   software update had closed the jailbreak loopholes that we were using to install it. But it was

00:32:50   exquisitely well done. It had unbelievable pixel perfect artwork and sounds and animations.

00:32:59   It was so well done. It was not just like a proof of concept prototype. It was like,

00:33:05   oh, here's an amazingly fun game based on like an old electronic game design thing.

00:33:10   Yeah, that is such a Mac shareware community.

00:33:14   Like if you're going to do it, do it right. And all the way to the tiniest details of

00:33:18   each pixel, each sound, the animation curves, everything. It was so much fun, but it spoke

00:33:25   to the desire, the sort of people who it was almost like if I pointed that out to Lucas

00:33:32   Newman or Craig Hockenberry at icon factory did Twitter as a jailbreak app in that first

00:33:37   year. And it was the same thing. It wasn't just like, oh, here's an app that does Twitter.

00:33:43   It was also like everything the icon factory does exquisitely well designed. And it's like,

00:33:48   if I really made a point of that, Craig and his colleagues at icon factory would have

00:33:53   been like, well, of course, you know, like it's like, why are you saying that? Of course

00:33:57   we made it look as good as possible.

00:33:59   Yeah. And that's such a trait of Mac shareware and especially the icon factory. Like my main

00:34:04   memory of them is growing up and installing their tool that let me change the icons of

00:34:10   the default software stuff into with different themes. And they had all these incredible

00:34:15   exquisite icon themes and it's like, yeah, that's going to break as soon as Apple updates

00:34:20   their OS, but it's amazing.

00:34:23   Candy bar, right?

00:34:24   Candy bar, yes.

00:34:27   It was so awesome. And it was so pointless from a utilitarian perspective, but it was

00:34:34   so satisfying in a different part of your brain.

00:34:39   Yeah. Oh my God. I haven't thought about candy bar in so long.

00:34:43   Yeah. I think they did that in collaboration with panic. I don't know if panic is...

00:34:48   Yes. Oh my God.

00:34:50   Yeah. Remember panic? I'm not sure if they're still around. We'll have to say.

00:34:53   Well, yeah. Yeah. What are they doing now?

00:34:57   Tell me, you know, you were in your computers, you had a Mac and you taught yourself some

00:35:01   programming early, but you also definitely, you have a background as an artist. Like going

00:35:06   to Parsons isn't really, obviously there's an interactive at the time you went there,

00:35:13   you know, computers were obviously a huge part of the curriculum, but it still is a

00:35:17   traditional artistic background. Almost formal? Would you describe yourself as a formal artist

00:35:23   in a sense?

00:35:24   Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Formally trained artist. Yeah. There's actually, well, there's, so

00:35:30   I think that the biggest thing that came out of, well, so first of all, I am still a conceptual

00:35:36   artist. I still make work and show in galleries and things like that, which is really a delight

00:35:42   to be able to have that kind of career and not have it be my money career because it's

00:35:47   like would be a nightmare to do it that way. But it is really interesting to be able to

00:35:51   have that career and be able to take lessons back and forth from game design. And especially

00:35:56   it's really great to be in game design with the perspective of coming from the arts where

00:36:01   there is no money and everything is really different. And I think probably the biggest

00:36:06   thing for me that has been valuable coming from the art space is this practice of making

00:36:15   interactive art for the gallery. When you make something interactive and you put it

00:36:19   in a gallery, it's not good enough to just make a really interesting piece of art. You

00:36:25   also have to trick people into interacting with it. And people who go into a gallery,

00:36:30   they don't want to interact with art at all. They want to stand back and be quiet and see

00:36:36   it. And interacting with interactive art is even worse than having to interact with anything

00:36:41   normal, because not only are you trying to learn this thing and interact with this thing,

00:36:46   but because it's in a gallery where everybody else is super quiet, the spotlight goes on

00:36:51   to you when you interact with it. And suddenly you're the performer in the space. So not

00:36:56   only when you put this art up are you trying to convince people to interact with it, but

00:37:01   you're also trying to make them comfortable being a performer.

00:37:05   In a public space.

00:37:06   In a public space. The worst, scariest place to be a performer. And there are so many interactive

00:37:14   lessons that I learned from that about how to prime somebody to feel comfortable interacting,

00:37:20   how to get them up to speed fast enough that they feel comfortable exploring and get comfortable

00:37:27   in the space and just start to do the kind of creative, interesting interaction that

00:37:33   makes your work shine. And I think in games and in design, a lot of the conversation that

00:37:39   I hear is really built around how to meet a user's expectations, how to build a thing

00:37:45   that will be comfortable for a user to interact with. You know, if you're building a tax website,

00:37:51   you don't want the user to be becoming an expert at using a tax website. You just want

00:37:56   them to be able to do all the stuff so that they can do their taxes, the other thing that

00:38:01   the website's there for. So the design is always in service to this other thing. But

00:38:05   in games and in art, in interactive art, the interaction is the art. That's the experience.

00:38:12   And so it's really important, you know, when you look at something like Candy Crush or

00:38:18   a lot of freemium games, a lot of times the design is there to get people to be doing

00:38:23   the real thing, which is spending the money or thinking about the puzzle or getting frustrated.

00:38:28   But in the best games, what you really want people to do is become performers. And because

00:38:34   performers are the most skilled and the most exciting players, they're the people who will

00:38:40   do things with your game that you never thought were possible, and they're also the people

00:38:44   who are the most likely to be able to grow with your game and to take something away

00:38:48   and say, "Wow, I really value playing that. That helped me as a person in some way." And

00:38:54   so there's this different kind of way to approach design where you think about how to turn people

00:39:01   into the most talented performers that they can be. And I think that's a really big deal

00:39:07   for me with game design, and it came directly out of that art practice.

00:39:10   Yeah. I mean, Annette has spoken like a natural-born artist. And again, it's not like you don't

00:39:17   make money. And we'll talk about that. But it comes to one of my favorite points that

00:39:23   has little bits of wisdom, if I could impart to everybody, is that one of the most important

00:39:28   is that it's not enough to just have a handful of top priorities. Three things. These are

00:39:35   the three things I care about. It really matters what order those priorities in, and it has

00:39:40   profound implications, like one, two, three versus two, one, three. And moving your goal

00:39:49   for profitability up one tick inevitably has such profound implications down the road.

00:39:57   Immediately and then down the road, you just end up on a different continent, right? Candy

00:40:03   Crush, let's throw them under the bus. That's a big company, part of King Games.

00:40:07   Right. They can handle it.

00:40:09   That's part of the Activision Blizzard conglomerate that Microsoft has just acquired for I forget

00:40:16   how many massive billions of dollars, I don't know, 69, 68. I think. Yeah, that's it. Here's

00:40:22   how I remember it. It's like $68.7 billion. And I just, in my mind, it's like they came

00:40:28   to $69 billion. And they're like, Microsoft is sort of like the opposite of Elon Musk.

00:40:34   And they don't want a funny number as the price. They're like, how about we knock it

00:40:39   down to 68.7? And we'll use that as opposed to if it was Elon and the negotiated price

00:40:46   was 68.7, he'd be like, I'll just give you another $300 million so we can say it's 69

00:40:52   billion.

00:40:53   Right.

00:40:54   $69 billion. That's a lot of money for video games. And they make lots of money. Candy

00:41:00   Crush is clearly, it stood the test of time, right? It's obviously not a flash in the pan.

00:41:06   It's at least a decade old.

00:41:07   Oh, yeah. It's a good game. It's just a little evil.

00:41:11   Well, right. Because once your priority is to keep the money coming, and I think it's

00:41:19   fair to say that from their perspective, that's the number one priority of Candy Crush. And

00:41:25   I guess maybe number one is to keep it fun or addictive or something, right? Because

00:41:34   otherwise the money doesn't come. But that's sort of part and parcel with each other, right?

00:41:38   You obviously need the players willing to spend money, but it just seems like that's

00:41:42   the top priority.

00:41:45   It's all metrics driven.

00:41:46   Right.

00:41:47   Which is like, I don't know. This is one thing I always hear every time I talk to anybody

00:41:54   in the industry, in the mobile industry about stuff, they're always like, what's your retention?

00:41:59   What's your day 20? And I always feel like, retention, why are we even... I understand

00:42:05   why we talk about retention, because it is a number that you can tie a lot of value to.

00:42:09   But on the other hand, it's like, I don't know, I've never... When somebody's like,

00:42:15   I love this movie, I'm never like, oh, you love the movie? How many times did you watch

00:42:19   it? Did you watch it 300 times? Because all of my movies, I want to make sure everybody

00:42:24   watches them 300 times. Like, what does that have to do with the quality of something?

00:42:29   It's a very, I don't know, for me, it feels like a very toxic space to think about success

00:42:35   through that kind of lens.

00:42:36   I don't look at analytics at Daring Fireball. I really, it's been years. I don't even have

00:42:42   analytics at the moment. I unhooked Google Analytics, I don't know, at this point, maybe

00:42:47   two years ago, and haven't hooked anything up. And there's a couple of privacy-oriented

00:42:51   analytics packages that I'm probably going to pick one soon and put it on, because there

00:42:56   are some things I would like to know, and I would like to know if something terrible

00:43:01   is truly happening. I honest to God, though, don't look. But even when I do put something

00:43:06   back on, and even when I had Google Analytics there, any kind of tracking codes, I never

00:43:13   tracked which articles were the most important. I mean, maybe in the very early days, like

00:43:19   15, 16, 17 years ago, I used to track referrals, and I could tell if a full article I wrote

00:43:26   was getting a lot of links coming in from other blogs. But now that's sort of useless,

00:43:31   because that's not really where you get traffic. And I just don't want to know that if I write

00:43:37   about my user interface gripes with iOS or Mac, I don't want to know that those posts

00:43:47   perform poorly or perform well. But maybe they perform poorly, and people are more interested

00:43:53   in my commentary on other stuff. I just want to follow my muse and write the things that

00:43:58   I'm interested in. And I don't want to get twisted by knowing that when I write about

00:44:04   AppleScript, people's eyes glaze over in the back of their heads, and they skip to the

00:44:08   next post. I don't care if you skip, though. I don't care when Gruber writes about AppleScript.

00:44:14   It's okay, cool, go to the next article, close the tab, and come back in a couple hours or

00:44:19   tomorrow or in a couple days. I'm happy to have you come back, and hopefully I'll have

00:44:22   something that will interest you. That's great. I just don't even want to know.

00:44:26   I love that I also don't do any analytics. In fact, NotWords has no analytics packages

00:44:32   or anything in it. Those numbers just make me depressed. And I think, yeah, it's a weird

00:44:38   secret that you don't need to do analytics to run a successful business or be successful

00:44:44   in tech.

00:44:45   It's so refreshing. All right, let me take another break here and thank our next sponsor.

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00:45:25   oh, you're on a Memberful site. It's nothing like that at all. They keep your brand first.

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00:45:34   thing over. And they have everything else you need. Gift subscriptions, you can do that

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00:47:03   Let's talk not words. Let's go deep. It's the new game. That's why you're here right

00:47:06   now. Or as I like to say it on the podcast, cannot words.

00:47:10   Right. You've done word games before. This is a well you keep coming back to. There was

00:47:16   Spell Tower. I forget what else. I mean, in a sense, sort of, Sudoku is sort of a word

00:47:22   game, but with numbers, right? It definitely impacted this game, doing the Sudoku game.

00:47:27   Right. And good Sudoku was really pretty interesting

00:47:31   because that's one that was really interesting to me because Sudoku became a phenomenon,

00:47:38   at least to my... I know people... My mom, for example, has books and books and books

00:47:43   of Sudoku. She loves doing Sudokus and books. It's a huge thing. So I know you can play

00:47:47   them on paper, but they got computerized pretty early. It's been done so many times. I guess

00:47:53   the two before we get... I said we're going to get to not words, but let's talk about

00:47:58   good Sudoku and the Solitaire games you've done because these are two games that have

00:48:03   been done to death. Solitaire, arguably... I don't know if this is still true, but I

00:48:08   know for a very long time was indisputably the most played video game in the world because

00:48:14   it shipped with Microsoft Windows. Yeah. I mean, Solitaire is an incredible game

00:48:20   if you back up and think about it. Like, Solitaire is a randomly generated puzzle that was invented

00:48:28   hundreds of years before video games, and then video games didn't even really tackle

00:48:33   randomly generated puzzles very well until recently when everybody's become really obsessed

00:48:39   with roguelikes and that whole genre space. So what makes you think, as somebody whose

00:48:46   forte is distinctive games, right? There is a Zack gauginess to a Zack gauge game. It's

00:48:54   not like your forte is doing just plain Solitaire, but with the prettiest graphics, which, you

00:49:01   know, is a fine thing, right? There were some of those, I'm sure you remember from like

00:49:04   the Mac shareware scene where it was like, yeah, sure, Windows has Solitaire built in,

00:49:08   but look at the card designs on this game from the Mac, right?

00:49:12   I appreciate you saying that my games have a quality that moves from game to game because

00:49:17   I think early on I remember being told in art school that I needed to make sure that

00:49:22   I focused on one thing because if I did lots of different things, nobody would be able

00:49:26   to make heads or tails of my work. So it's really nice to be able to make lots of different

00:49:31   things and hear that it feels like there's a narrative or a cohesion to it. I think for

00:49:36   me, the thing is that I'm not making a Solitaire game because I want to make Solitaire or even

00:49:41   because I like Solitaire. I usually don't like the kinds of games that I make and then

00:49:47   making them as a way that I learn to appreciate them and enjoy the space. Really what I want

00:49:53   to do is I want to make games that make people think and become better critical thinkers

00:49:59   because I think critical thinking is the most important skill that a human being can have

00:50:04   and I have a lot of beef with how our educational system works.

00:50:08   And, God don't get me started, there goes the next hour. But I agree, I do agree.

00:50:16   Yeah, it's really weird. We also just had a kid and watching him learn is also just

00:50:24   like every day I'm like, "Oh my God, I can't believe the way that we teach things." Watching

00:50:27   this kid learn is not at all how anybody learns in school. Yeah, so I want to make games that

00:50:33   help people become better critical thinkers and also help people learn the language of

00:50:38   video games. If you know how video games work, you get access to this amazing literacy that

00:50:43   is the same literacy that's used in interactive art, it's the same literacy that's used in

00:50:48   avant-garde film and plays. It's like this deep, incredible space if you can just teach

00:50:54   people how to access it. And one of the things that I love about making games on the iPhone

00:50:59   is that the iPhone audience is predominantly normal, non-game people. And being able to

00:51:07   make games for them is super interesting to me. And the thing is, what most people know

00:51:13   about games is they know about chess pieces and they know about cards and they know about

00:51:18   word stuff and they know about billiards maybe. And so the tools that I have at my disposal

00:51:23   to try to make games for this audience are a very different set of tools than most people

00:51:29   who are making video games feel like they have to work with. And so when I think about

00:51:34   games or encounter a game that seems sort of interesting like Solitaire, where I go

00:51:39   is "Okay, well, what's a way that I could make this game much deeper or explore something

00:51:44   else, something that's not traditionally explored by what somebody would expect in this category?

00:51:51   But then how do I make it look and feel approachable like this game so somebody who normally plays

00:51:56   Solitaire would be able to pick up something like Flip Flop Solitaire or something like

00:52:02   Sage Solitaire and have what is really like a cutting-edge game design experience but

00:52:10   built upon a stack of things that they understand?"

00:52:13   Dave I think that point you made a minute ago about

00:52:19   how, okay, you've looked at these other Solitaire games, but they all dissatisfied you in a

00:52:24   certain way. There's something, it's like I kind of, I get how this is a genius game

00:52:29   and it was really, really clever back when it was only and could only be played with

00:52:34   a physical deck of cards. But something about these video game versions dissatisfied you

00:52:39   and how do you scratch that itch so that it satisfies you? And I feel like that's the

00:52:45   key to so much creativity. But it also, the creative personality is always full of doubts

00:52:54   and so many people think, "I would like to make a Solitaire game that's different, but

00:52:59   all the other Solitaire games are this way so I guess I shouldn't because there must

00:53:03   be that way for a reason." And instead you should see that as an opportunity. The fact

00:53:11   that you see you're dissatisfied or you think, "I could do that, I could do something better

00:53:16   than that," then you should do it. It's not a reason not to do it because it's not the

00:53:21   way it was always done.

00:53:22   Yeah, and also the second part of that that's the key is you should do it. You have to do

00:53:28   it. I think something that people might not realize about the games that I make is I probably

00:53:35   make 100 prototypes a year and I probably release one game a year. And sometimes the

00:53:41   games make it three seconds and then I put them down. And sometimes they make it many

00:53:46   hours of work and then we scrap them. You have to both be confident and comfortable

00:53:51   with admitting when something sucks. And then if you do that enough, when you find something

00:53:57   that is good, that is different, it's really obvious because you're like, "Oh, I enjoy

00:54:01   this. This is actually fun to do."

00:54:04   In other words, it's sort of like a process of going from an idea that's purely in your

00:54:09   head and then you've got to start making it real and it coagulates to become more and

00:54:17   more real or it gets to a point where you're like, "Ah, this is a dead end."

00:54:23   Yeah, I'll try to walk you through a really quick one. So with Flip Flop Solitaire, which

00:54:29   is kind of like, it was heavily inspired by Spider Solitaire, which is a really interesting

00:54:35   solitaire variant. For years, one of the things that's really interesting to me is this concept

00:54:40   of difficulty and how people associate difficulty with games. A lot of games let you pick easy

00:54:45   mode or hard mode. Some games try to adapt themselves as you play to a different kind

00:54:51   of difficulty. There's this whole world of thinking about difficulty and challenge in

00:54:56   games. And it's something that I think about all the time, and a lot of my games offer

00:55:02   a variety of ways to attempt to deal with this problem of trying to find the right difficulty

00:55:09   game for the right person. And Really Bad Chess is a really simple example of that because

00:55:15   Really Bad Chess, literally your board gets worse and worse the better you get in the

00:55:19   game. So it's like teaching you how to play chess in this very friendly way, but it's

00:55:25   also very cruel because at some point in the game, the computer has nine queens and you

00:55:29   have no queens, and you're still trying to play the game. So that's a very clear exploration

00:55:36   into this difficulty question. So what I noticed is I was just looking at games and I found

00:55:41   this game Spider Solitaire. And Spider Solitaire has this phenomenal quality, which is that

00:55:47   when you play a game of Spider Solitaire, it has three difficulties. You can play with

00:55:51   one suit, which is every card in the deck of cards, you just count them as all the same.

00:55:56   It doesn't matter what suit they are. You can play as two suits, which is black and

00:56:00   red, or you can play as four suits, which is each suit. And the thing that's interesting

00:56:04   is the difficulty of the game is exponential. So almost everybody who plays for any length

00:56:10   of time can solve one suit. Two suits much harder, and four suits is almost impossible.

00:56:17   Four suits is like you could play Spider Solitaire your whole life and the day that you solve

00:56:20   a four suit, you'll post it to Reddit and be like, "I did this. This is amazing." And

00:56:25   the thing that's mind-blowing to me, thinking about difficulty and spotting this, is I can't

00:56:30   think of any games like that, right? Like most people don't play, you know, a video

00:56:35   game on Easy every day, but then some days they're like, "Well, I'll try hard. I'll

00:56:39   just try hard today and then go back to Easy." That's not part of the idea of how we think

00:56:44   about difficulty. And so I was just like completely enamored with this small aspect of the game

00:56:50   that relates to this big thing that I've been thinking about my whole career, which

00:56:54   is how does difficulty work and how do people interact with it? But then, to the point that

00:56:58   you said earlier, I looked at it and I thought, "Okay, well, Spider Solitaire, this is like

00:57:02   ten piles. It doesn't work on a phone. It's great on a table. How do I condense it down?

00:57:07   Maybe if I make it so that you can stack up and down, not just down, with your cards,

00:57:13   maybe then I can cut the number of piles in half because I've doubled your ability to

00:57:16   interact with the game and I'm going to cut the piles down to five and five will fit nicely

00:57:20   on a phone." And it turns out that actually making you stack up and down is an entirely

00:57:25   interesting, weird direction to go with Solitaire and you'd think that this tiny little twist

00:57:31   wouldn't change the game much, but it entirely shifts the game. And instantly, I was playing

00:57:36   it with cards, I realized that that was true, and then that was the game. I figured out

00:57:40   how to develop it and push it and I got to explore this thing with difficulty that I've

00:57:44   been looking at my whole career, and then I also got to try to fit a table game onto

00:57:50   a phone and do all the other fun, interesting things about making a game deeper.

00:57:55   So you actually prototyped it with just a deck of cards in your hand and a table?

00:58:00   Yes.

00:58:01   Yeah. Kind of an advantage to making a Solitaire game of any kind, is that...

00:58:05   That's the best thing about cards. A deck of cards is my favorite tool of all time.

00:58:11   My desert island game is just a deck of cards, I don't care what the game is, I could entertain

00:58:16   myself for a thousand years with a deck of cards.

00:58:19   It's so funny, I love sleight of hand magic.

00:58:23   Oh my god, right, a total other area of cards.

00:58:26   I don't do it at all, and maybe in some other universe I'd have grown up and tried to teach

00:58:34   myself some of it. I don't really think I have any to do it. But as an observer, a fan,

00:58:42   an audience member, I love it. I've watched the late great Ricky Jay's TV specials, all

00:58:49   of them, like six times. Those sleight of hand magicians speak of a deck of... they

00:58:54   just love cards and they keep cards with them all the time and they do unbelievable things.

00:58:59   Ricky Jay used to throw cards. Do you ever see that?

00:59:03   Yeah, I saw him live once. It was really an incredible experience.

00:59:06   Oh my god, I'm jealous that you saw him live, I wish I would have. But he could throw a

00:59:10   card, just a regular card, not like a special, "Oh, you got a mail order from some outfit

00:59:16   in Las Vegas that'll send you these cards that are extra stiff." I mean, go to your

00:59:19   local drug store and buy a pack of bicycle playing cards, the kind that everybody knows,

00:59:24   and he could throw them at a watermelon across the room and stick them into the rind. And

00:59:30   it's scary. He could use a single card as a weapon. And I like playing card games like

00:59:36   poker and blackjack and stuff like that. It's such a wonderful invention. And it always

00:59:41   amuses me too in the casinos, speaking of Candy Crush, but the way they keep inventing

00:59:47   new games that use decks of cards, and I always know, I never play them, almost never. Maybe

00:59:53   you get a couple drinks with me and I'll play 50 bucks or something. Because I know that

00:59:57   the only reason a casino would invent a new game is because they make more money from

01:00:02   it, as opposed to blackjack, where you can kind of break even if you know the rules.

01:00:06   And so I'm deeply, deeply skeptical and suspicious of any new game. But it fascinates me that

01:00:11   they just keep coming up with them. Four suits, 13 cards in each suit, and you could just

01:00:17   keep making games with them. It's so interesting.

01:00:19   I had a really fundamental career experience walking around a casino for a day, trying

01:00:28   my hardest to sort of space out from the manipulative, depressing nature of it and just focus on the

01:00:35   games. Those games in casinos are unbelievable. I think one of the things that's the most

01:00:40   interesting about casino games is they're one of the only forms of artistic expression

01:00:46   that has a coherent metric that is the metric, which is how much money do these games make

01:00:53   per minute. And so they're all aggressively tuned to this very specific metric that is

01:01:02   itself super vague and weird. One of my favorite games in the casino is three card poker. Are

01:01:08   you familiar with that?

01:01:09   Yes, yes.

01:01:10   Three card poker is one of the most beautiful games I've ever seen. It's this game where,

01:01:15   if anyone from your audience isn't familiar with it, you basically are dealt two cards

01:01:22   and you have to decide if you're going to play the hand or not, and then you get dealt

01:01:29   three more cards and that's your hand, and either you win it or you lose it. And what's

01:01:33   incredible about it is this moment of decision, it's just random. You don't know if you're

01:01:40   going to have a good hand or you're going to have a bad hand, and there's some more

01:01:43   complexity to it that I'm not talking about with how the dealer's cards work. But basically

01:01:48   it's totally random, but because you have this tiny bit of information and because of

01:01:52   the pageantry of the game and how your bets move around on the table, it feels like you're

01:01:56   playing this game that is incredibly elegant and interesting and that this moment of choice

01:02:02   is super meaningful. And how they did that with nothing, it's incredible.

01:02:09   I do like that game. I don't play a lot of it, but I like it for that reason. It's also

01:02:13   very fun to play with a friend or your spouse or somebody you know so that you can play

01:02:20   together and it's social. I'm not a slot machine player, and I know that they're by far and

01:02:27   away the most popular casino games, and I know they make most of the money and I know

01:02:30   most people like to play them, but I don't have any fun playing them because there's

01:02:35   no decisions. You just hit a button and then you either win or you lose, and I find that

01:02:40   to be very boring. There's no social element to it. I don't want to go off on a casino

01:02:47   ramp, but I also love to play craps, but I really only like to play craps if I'm with

01:02:54   friends. It's been a couple of years because of COVID, but I've had times where a bunch

01:02:59   of friends who have gone to Vegas and playing craps with friends at the same table is amazing

01:03:05   because you typically, and there's a gazillion weird bets you can make on a craps table,

01:03:09   but if you just sort of bet the pass line, which is, is the person with the dice going

01:03:13   to win or lose, you all play together and you win and lose together, which is an incredible

01:03:20   game design element. The other thing, I think you'd appreciate that. If you think about

01:03:24   craps, if craps was not a game that had existed since, I don't know when it was invented,

01:03:30   but it's ever since the existence of casinos in Las Vegas existed, craps was already part

01:03:37   of gambling culture. Nobody would invent that now because the table is huge. It takes up

01:03:43   a huge amount of space and it's manpower heavy. There's at least, I think at least

01:03:50   three people who, there's the guy in the suit or the person in the suit who sits down

01:03:57   low and they have like a mirror there and that person runs the table and looks at everything

01:04:03   and there's the stick man who literally just has the stick to move the dice around

01:04:08   and put them back with the shooter and two other employees who just make sure all the

01:04:14   bets are good and pays off all the bets. So there's like four people at all times at

01:04:18   a craps table. But if it hadn't been invented now and you and I went to, you know, Caesars

01:04:26   and said, "We've invented a new game. It's going to be a 15 foot long table. It's going

01:04:34   to require four full time employees and the rules are as thick as a book." They would

01:04:40   just say, "Get out." But it's great. And you'll see. The other thing too about craps

01:04:46   is when you're in a casino, you can always tell when a craps table is hot because it

01:04:52   is full. And what happens is people notice that a craps table is hot and people are winning

01:04:57   and then they fill in all the available spots and then they kind of cram in and take spots

01:05:02   that aren't really available, just sort of stick their arm in until the employees are

01:05:06   like, "Yeah, yeah, this table's full. You can't play. You got to wait." But then people

01:05:10   will stand behind the table because they're hoping while the table's hot that they can

01:05:14   join in. And then when the shooter hits their number again, the table just erupts like their

01:05:19   team just hit a home run in a close baseball game. And it fills the whole casino with this

01:05:24   certain noise that is very human, very social, and very different from the ding, ding, ding,

01:05:31   ding, ding, ding of the slot machines just sort of endlessly beeping and bopping.

01:05:35   I love craps. I don't like to play it, but I really like to go into casinos with friends

01:05:41   and watch them play it. And again, yeah, the thing about craps is it's just this major

01:05:46   victory for the narrative generation of a game. It's just all narrative. And that narrative

01:05:53   is so thrilling and irresistible to be a part of, and it has this incredible mechanic where

01:05:58   you can bet on a number, and every time the shooter hits that number, you get paid. So

01:06:03   it's like you've created a little money factory, and everybody's got their own little factories.

01:06:08   And one thing that I realized when I got into craps is like, craps must have been a major

01:06:12   inspiration for Settlers of Catan, which is like the biggest American board game since

01:06:17   Monopoly. It's the same mechanic. You're constructing little cities on numbers, and when those numbers

01:06:23   get rolled, you get paid.

01:06:24   Yeah, that's a good analogy. I'm familiar with the game enough to see what you mean.

01:06:31   That's pretty good. That is, the times that I've won money, like significant amount, like

01:06:34   holy crap, look how many chips I have. I better leave. I better get, let's go. It's always

01:06:40   because I had money on the six and the eight, while some shooters, you know, has like a

01:06:44   ten, which is sort of a rare number. So in other words, the shooter is just sitting there

01:06:49   shooting over and over again until they get another ten, at which point they win and all

01:06:54   the bets are paid off and everything's over and we start all over again, or they roll

01:06:57   the dreaded seven and then they lose and all the bets, every bet is cleared off the felt

01:07:02   and it all goes to the casino. And in the meantime, while you're waiting for the shooter

01:07:07   to either roll a seven and lose or hit another ten and win, if they keep rolling sixes and

01:07:11   eights in there, you just keep getting paid and you can just leave your bet up there and

01:07:15   it just keeps coming. It just keeps coming and coming and coming. And those are the times

01:07:19   where it's like some kid just keeps shooting the dice and just isn't winning, isn't losing,

01:07:25   and you've got like the six and the eight or some whatever numbers, whatever your lucky

01:07:28   numbers are. And all of a sudden you've got this giant stack of chips and it's like, how

01:07:33   did this happen? It's amazing. And it feels like the whole universe is just smiling and

01:07:37   upon you. And it's of course, I know, I know in my mind that it's just stupid, stupid statistical

01:07:43   luck and that they are guaranteed the most honest dice in the universe. But you can't

01:07:52   help but feel that there is a narrative at play, right? It's the same thing when a craps

01:07:56   table is ice cold. It's like, oh, this table stinks.

01:07:59   Michael Gentry Yeah. Yeah. And just in case, so I don't feel like I'm an idiot when I re-listen

01:08:03   to this later. I know that Catan is not an American board game, but it was an American

01:08:07   board game phenomenon.

01:08:08   Dave Asprey Right, right. Let's talk, so that leads us to, craps of course, leads us directly

01:08:15   to Not Words, the crosswords game. Not Words is in a, maybe in a nut. I quoted when I linked

01:08:21   to it on Daring Fireball over the weekend, I quoted your description and you don't mention

01:08:24   this, but I would just say, I think most people would describe it as a crossword game without

01:08:29   clues.

01:08:30   Michael Gentry Yes.

01:08:31   Dave Asprey Which sounds, sounds impossible at first.

01:08:35   Michael Gentry Right. Right. It sounds like there's not even a game.

01:08:40   Dave Asprey Right. The trick is how do you do this without clues? They're just English

01:08:45   words, the typical words that would be in a crossword puzzle as you know it. And the

01:08:51   crossword, the board game, the board, if you will call it, looks like it could be a regular

01:08:56   crossword game where you would play it with clues at first glance. But then there's little

01:09:00   sub-shapes within the game, sort of like Tetris pieces, but they're not necessarily, you know,

01:09:08   Tetris pieces famously are all four squares. That's the tet in Tetris. You know, they could

01:09:13   be three, they could be five. I don't know what's the, what's the biggest chunk that,

01:09:18   that's allowed in Not Words. Are there six?

01:09:20   Michael Gentry I think they go up to seven.

01:09:22   Dave Asprey Oh, okay.

01:09:23   Michael Gentry In puzzles. But yeah, it's two to seven in general.

01:09:25   Dave Asprey Right. It might be like a little L shape. It might be a little square. It's

01:09:29   like any kind of imaginable little shape of two to seven squares. And then in the, in

01:09:35   the corner of that piece, it'll tell you these, let's say it's a little four square shape.

01:09:41   It'll tell you these four squares consist of these four letters. There may not be a

01:09:46   complete word. In fact, typically there's no complete word in that piece. You just have

01:09:52   to use it combined with the adjacent ones to make words. You pick it up pretty quickly,

01:09:57   which again is sort of a hallmark of your games where you don't need to read a lot of

01:10:03   rules to pick it up and start playing. And I think to touch on one of your previous points,

01:10:08   that's why sort of playing off these classic forms like billiards and crosswords and solitaire,

01:10:19   people already know the order of a deck of cards that a jack is less than a queen is

01:10:23   less than a king, and they know that a crossword puzzle gets filled in with words. So you're

01:10:29   starting with this sort of foundational knowledge. How do you describe not words?

01:10:36   Matthew Feeney Yeah, I mean, I think you did a pretty good

01:10:39   job. It's the really simple description if people have this backing is it's kind of like

01:10:44   Ken Ken meets crosswords. But if you've never played Ken Ken, then yeah, it's basically

01:10:49   a crossword puzzle where the whole grid is split up into zones. And then in those zones,

01:10:54   you have a couple of letters that you have to distribute, and then you have to make it

01:10:57   so that all of the across and down words are real words. So you're just sort of taking

01:11:02   these little pieces and untangling these kind of partial anagrams to create these full words.

01:11:08   Dave Tilley You describe each puzzle may seem difficult

01:11:11   at first, but like all my favorite newspaper puzzles, it gets easier as you progress. And

01:11:17   I thought that was an interesting way to describe it that it is sort of like a newspaper puzzle.

01:11:21   I used to love back when I read a daily newspaper every day, I did the jumble every day. That

01:11:27   was it's such a stupid game. I don't do regular crossword puzzles because they take too long

01:11:32   and I get bored. I've never been a fan. But the jumble was good because sometimes you

01:11:37   could solve it in a minute if you got lucky. And usually two or three minutes, you should

01:11:40   be able to get the jumble. You know, the jumble for people who don't know was I think, five

01:11:45   five letter words every day. I think there were five, which is sort of reminiscent of

01:11:50   jumble, but it and they would just be scrambled, just five scrambled words. And there'd be

01:11:56   a little cartoon to go with it with a with a caption. And then within those five words,

01:12:01   where you just unscramble the anagrams to make words, there would be circles in different

01:12:07   spots. And then this once you've solved all five, the five that are circled is one more

01:12:12   anagram to solve. And then that one is the clever pun to the cartoon that goes with it.

01:12:22   Do you remember jumble? Or am I telling you about a game you like?

01:12:25   I do remember it. And I like it. I have a like sort of armchair, loose obsession with

01:12:32   newspaper puzzles for a lot of different reasons, but probably because I've been working in

01:12:37   this space for so long. But yeah, for my whole career, basically, I've had this obsession

01:12:43   with these very simple kinds of puzzles that are out there. I think a really good example

01:12:49   is Sudoku. That's why I worked in it. But also Picross or nanograms, if people are familiar

01:12:55   with it. There's one called Two Note Touch that they started running in the Times this

01:13:00   year. It's basically there's this world of these logic puzzles that you can print on

01:13:04   a sheet of paper, and that's the whole game. And each one is a unique puzzle every day,

01:13:10   and you look at it, and at first it seems impossible. And then you start working it,

01:13:15   and as you put answers in, those answers form these very dramatic constraints onto the future

01:13:23   of the puzzle. I think if you look at a crossword puzzle, if you put one word in a crossword

01:13:27   puzzle, that really doesn't do much for your other answers. Maybe you get one letter on

01:13:33   one word, and so okay, maybe I've got three words in, and that gives me enough that I

01:13:36   can find something. But it's not dramatically reducing the possibility space of what words

01:13:42   could go in this thing or helping you. But in Sudoku, if you put in one number, that

01:13:47   can change the whole puzzle. It affects the row, it affects the column, it affects its

01:13:53   box. It might affect something with another one of the same number that gives you another

01:13:59   answer that affects another. It's like this giant cascade of information and ideas that

01:14:04   come out of just this one small thing. And I, in my mind, over the years of thinking

01:14:09   about this, I kind of call it a possibility funnel. So as you get closer to the end of

01:14:14   the puzzle, that funnel shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until by the end it's inevitable

01:14:18   that you would solve the puzzle. But it still feels exciting because you're at the climax

01:14:24   of this journey that you've taken with this puzzle, and designing a game that has that

01:14:29   that also is incredibly simple and you can look at it and see it and it fits on a piece

01:14:34   of paper, all those qualities together is just like a nightmare. And it's so hard and

01:14:40   I sort of still am a little reeling that we found a new one because this is just something

01:14:47   I've -- like as a design goal, as a game designer, it's been something for a very long time.

01:14:52   Yeah, I think you could definitely play NotWords on paper. I think the biggest problem would

01:14:59   be you definitely -- I would at least -- need to erase a lot. And I mean this sincerely,

01:15:06   I'm not even making a joke, but like it would be -- the problem with NotWords as a newspaper

01:15:11   game would be that newspaper is such crap paper that erasing, you'd wear through the

01:15:17   paper pretty quickly. It is true, and NotWords absolutely has that feel to it, where it's

01:15:23   like I started playing and it's like the sort of onboarding game or maybe there's a couple

01:15:29   or very small and you know, because it's sort of like, play this one, which is really small

01:15:35   and easy to get the feel for it. And then it's like, okay, here's a real daily puzzle.

01:15:41   And I was like, oh my god, this is impossible. I'm never going to get this. I just -- this

01:15:44   is -- my brain doesn't work this way. And I just sit there and hunt and I'm like, oh,

01:15:49   well here's one where it has to -- there has to be a three-letter word right here out of

01:15:54   this group, all in this thing, and the only three-letter word out of these four letters,

01:16:00   I think the only one that you could make is, hey, H-E-Y. That's it. There's no other -- yeah,

01:16:05   there's no other possibility here. Okay, well then now I've got a word. And oh, well this

01:16:09   other spot has to be the I even though it goes in a different direction. And you start

01:16:14   finding these spots in the puzzle where you can definitely make a conclusion. Or this

01:16:20   is the part where you need the eraser. It's like, oh, I could see two words out of this

01:16:24   group right here. All right, I'll guess coma. All right, and then it's like, oh god, I think

01:16:30   I made a mistake with coma. I've got to delete that now. I've got to delete this. I've got

01:16:33   to delete that and put a different word in that spot. And it's, oh, okay, yeah, now if

01:16:39   I do that, then this becomes obvious and it's pretty easy to make a word. And it's, you

01:16:43   know, like if you get yourself in a spot where you think you've got a couple of words in

01:16:48   not words, but it leaves you with a new word that starts N-V, you're like, well, I've obviously

01:16:55   made some sort of terrible mistake because I don't need to look in the unabridged dictionary.

01:17:01   There's definitely no word that starts N-V. And I'll just say that then you get towards

01:17:07   the end and this, what I thought was, I am never going to finish this one. This is impossible.

01:17:13   But then I get towards the end and I'm like, I guarantee I'm going to, I know I'm going

01:17:17   to beat this, but I need to, I need to see it to completion. I need to fill in the very

01:17:22   last square, even though in my gut I feel 100% certain now I'm going to beat this in

01:17:27   the next minute or two, but I'm not just going to put the game down before I've actually

01:17:31   put the very last letter in and gotten a beep and a bop from the game to tell me I beat

01:17:35   it.

01:17:37   Yeah, I think that's part of the joy of newspaper puzzles is that when they're done, you can

01:17:44   see it. It's like they're filled in, you've filled in all the letters. And getting to

01:17:50   that point is really different from something like Solitaire where, like most Solitaire

01:17:54   games, once you know you're about to win, a button pops up and you go boop and the computer

01:17:58   does everything for you. But with newspaper games, there's something special about being

01:18:02   able to see it. And yeah, and that funnel, I'm so glad, I'm so happy to hear that that's

01:18:07   been your experience with it. That's exactly the kind of experience that we're going for.

01:18:13   And I think something that I was really surprised to learn working with Sudoku on Good Sudoku,

01:18:19   to talk to another thing that you hit on a little bit, is this idea of, like, you think

01:18:23   Sudoku is a beautiful game because the rules are really elegant, but the reality is most

01:18:28   Sudoku puzzles are terrible. Like 99% of things that you would, of like numbers that you put

01:18:35   in, they don't even work, they're not even puzzles. And then in that 1% of things that

01:18:39   are actually Sudoku puzzles, many of them are impossible or too hard. The way that you

01:18:44   actually get to a good Sudoku is by building a generator that's really smart, that knows

01:18:49   how to solve it, that knows how to identify the little diamonds in the rough of possibility

01:18:53   space. And so if we were to do a Not Words newspaper puzzle, those puzzles might look

01:18:58   quite different than the puzzles that we put in the game. They might have more spots that

01:19:01   are like anchor points where you can say something for sure to try to reduce the space of erasing

01:19:09   and things like that.

01:19:10   How do you guys generate the puzzles for Not Words?

01:19:15   That's a very complicated question. We spent a really long time building the generator.

01:19:20   The game was in development for, I think, probably six or seven months, and I would

01:19:24   say we probably spent four of those months building a generator. Jack, my partner on

01:19:28   the project, has had a lot of practice because we built good Sudoku and we figured out how

01:19:34   to build one of the best Sudoku generators in the world, which is, you know, there's

01:19:38   not any documentation really on how to do that, so we kind of had to reverse engineer

01:19:42   it. And I think that set of skills really paid off here. When we prototyped the game,

01:19:47   I originally prototyped it on a piece of paper, and as Jack started building the generator,

01:19:51   I would, with some game design friends, we would make puzzles by hand for each other

01:19:56   and figure out which kind of puzzles were good and what things were interesting. And

01:20:00   then Jack would build a generator and we would look at what the puzzles looked like and compare

01:20:04   them with our hand-built puzzles and say, "Okay, well, is there some kind of rule we

01:20:08   can come up with for the computer to teach it what is interesting about this puzzle that's

01:20:13   not interesting about the puzzle that it generated?" And so Jack and I went back and forth on that

01:20:17   where he was sort of the interface to this complicated algorithm, and then I was the

01:20:22   hand-built design interface to like what we knew was right about the puzzles, and we just

01:20:27   went back and forth for a really long time, and Jack came up with some really clever algorithm

01:20:32   ideas and we eventually got the generator to a space where it was generating really

01:20:38   great puzzles.

01:20:39   Does that mean that because you can trust the generator that the puzzle is solvable,

01:20:47   that you don't have to human test every single puzzle that goes into NotWorts?

01:20:53   Yeah, and in fact it means a little bit more than that. We do some stuff that probably

01:20:58   seems like it's a magical result of the rules that actually isn't. So, for example,

01:21:04   we do a lot of -- one of our metrics in terms of our puzzle generation has to do with possible

01:21:11   permutations that can exist within the puzzle. And so we, in the standard puzzles in the

01:21:17   game, are very restrictive of how many permutations can exist. So like, for example, if you've

01:21:23   put in two different six-letter words that interact with each other, they're right.

01:21:28   Like they have to be right because we don't allow for puzzles that have that size words

01:21:34   that are interacting that are not working. And so doing that, cutting out those kinds

01:21:41   of puzzle structures, is a big part of what makes that possibility space funnel happen.

01:21:47   It's like removing those options is why when you put in a bunch of words they're usually

01:21:53   correct except maybe one of them is wrong in this other way and then you figure that

01:21:57   out. And we're careful about how we adjust that because in the game there's a kind of

01:22:01   puzzle called a twist puzzle that has some numbers that count how many vowels are in

01:22:06   each row or column that they're related to. And in those puzzles we allow a lot more permutations

01:22:11   but still only one for the answer. So you're kind of incentivized to use those numbers

01:22:16   as a tool for solving the puzzle.

01:22:19   What do you guys use to build the word list?

01:22:23   So we use Wordnik, which is an open-source word list that you can license for games.

01:22:29   And then over the years after making a lot of word games I've sort of compiled a lot

01:22:34   of lists, including lists around how well-known words are.

01:22:39   Oh, yeah, that's interesting. That's really interesting.

01:22:42   I have lists of hyper-commonly known words and then slightly less known words and we

01:22:47   use those also as a basis of generation. So you'll notice in Not Words as you go throughout

01:22:52   the week the Friday, Saturday, Sunday puzzles often include more words that are a little

01:22:56   bit less known. Or even in the puzzle books, one of our puzzle types is uncommon words

01:23:02   and that puzzle is also filled with words that are less likely to be super commonly

01:23:07   known.

01:23:08   Yeah, there was a—I guess because I played over the weekend in anticipation of this—there

01:23:13   was a three-letter word—I'm going to forget it—it was like T-E-C or T-A-C and I was

01:23:19   like, I don't know, that doesn't look like a word to me. But one of the things is if

01:23:22   you can try the word, there's no penalty for trying a word that isn't a word, it

01:23:27   just gives you a little squiggle out to say that's not a legit word. So if it says that's

01:23:34   a word, it's not confirming that you've put the right word in, it's just confirming

01:23:39   this is considered within Not Words a legitimate word to play.

01:23:43   But one of my favorite little features, because otherwise it would drive me nuts, on a phone

01:23:48   in particular you don't want to be switching back and forth while you're playing a game,

01:23:52   to, for me, a dictionary app. If there's a word that I don't know what it means,

01:23:57   I want to look it up, and you can always—there's just a little dictionary lookup button once

01:24:02   you've completed a word, and then, you know, like, I guess it's based on which square

01:24:10   has input focus right now, like, if you wanted to change that square. And if it is part of

01:24:16   a complete word, you can just hit the dictionary button and it'll tell you the definition

01:24:21   from, like, Wiktionary—I don't know if you have multiple sources, it seems like most

01:24:24   of the definitions come from Wiktionary, which I guess is open source?

01:24:29   It's from Wordnik, and Wordnik is a multi-source, open source dictionary, so sometimes they'll

01:24:33   come from Wordnik or a variety of other ones, but it's all built in the same sort of word

01:24:39   list on our end. And yeah, that's a great—your point about not wanting to open up the dictionary

01:24:45   on your phone is—I really appreciate that point. I think that's something I try to

01:24:49   be super cognizant of with building word games, and it's something I've noticed when, like,

01:24:54   something like "Mist will get a port and suddenly Mist is on the phone" or something

01:24:58   like that. I always think, like, this is so frustrating because, like, the phone is my

01:25:02   notebook or it is my dictionary. Like, if I'm playing a game on the computer and I

01:25:06   have some kind of note that I have to take down, I'll take a photo of it with my phone

01:25:11   or I'll write it down with my phone. So I always try to be very cognizant of, if I'm

01:25:15   making a game for the phone, this is in the place of the player's notebook or reference

01:25:20   tool, and I want to make sure that anything that they would have to write down or look

01:25:24   up or anything like that would be included in the game because otherwise, like, people

01:25:29   aren't walking around with two phones to look up definitions and not words.

01:25:33   Dave: Right. So, you know, it's so convenient and it's so satisfying because maybe you

01:25:37   didn't even guess it because you don't know the word. This isn't the word. I just

01:25:40   looked it up while we were talking here, but "tech," T-E-C, is a word. It's some

01:25:45   kind of mid-century shorthand for the word "detective." That wasn't the word I'm

01:25:49   thinking of. It was something like that, though. But I've never heard of T-E-C either. Now

01:25:53   I'm ready for it and not words. But let's say you end up—it's just like any other

01:25:57   crossword puzzle where you can end up filling in a word without ever guessing the clue because

01:26:02   you fill in all the other words in the other direction. And, you know, so let's say it's

01:26:07   T-E-C across, but you filled in all the ones that go down and now you've got it and it

01:26:13   says it's a word and you're like, "Well, what the hell does that mean?" Boom. You're

01:26:15   like two taps away from, "Oh, okay, it's like a mid-century nickname for a police detective.

01:26:21   Oh, interesting." And now you've learned a word.

01:26:23   Dave: One of the things that I'm really excited about about not words is that it has

01:26:27   that quality of, because of the funnel, being able to allow you to enter in words that you

01:26:33   didn't know and discover them. And that's a very uncommon quality on a word game. Like,

01:26:41   I think even if you think about, like, Wordle, which is basically the most accessible or

01:26:46   abridgable word game that I've ever seen, where almost everybody solves Wordle almost

01:26:50   every day. Even in that, if you didn't know the word, it would be really hard to solve

01:26:55   Wordle despite all of the clues because the game is about recall and about being able

01:27:01   to identify this word that you know about. And so being able to have clues and structured

01:27:07   puzzles in not words that get you to words that you didn't know, even though you'd

01:27:13   think that that would be impossible, it's really cool. And so being able to look up

01:27:17   them and learn definitions of strange words, I always get really excited when that happens

01:27:22   to me in one of the puzzles.

01:27:29   I mean, if we're going to talk games and word games, I mean, how can we not at least talk about Wordle a little? I love it. I know it's so stupid. I play every day. I've got my, but here's one of the things that is so fun and interesting about Wordle. So my sister's two years younger than me. My parents are both, they're, you know, my dad's, I think, 84. And my mom's, like, in her late 70s, but they're both very healthy. We're so lucky that everybody's healthy and around. And now all four of us play a game.

01:27:58   All four of us play Wordle every day, and we have a group chat and an iMessage, and we post our lines, and my mom sends, like, a trophy emoji to whoever solves it in the least words. And, you know, we have a good family. And I certainly love my parents. I talk to my dad on the phone a lot. But we have never had a continuous group chat, the four of us, that was active for so long. And now it's there every single day. We all play.

01:28:24   And I can't, I don't know, I never, it's actually improved our lives in a certain way. It really has, like, and then, you know, because it's, it's mostly filled with Wordle talk, you know, line four, line three, all right, trophy goes to Bob today. But, you know, you can put other things in there, right?

01:28:42   And so now we've got, like, this active social, passively active social channel, which is why group chats are so great. What a great thing. And there's absolutely no, you know, part of the charm of it. It wasn't just that it's free, it wasn't just that it was on the web, but that there's no, it's not even possible to keep playing. Like, you have to wait till midnight.

01:29:03   And, and of course, if you really want to, you can, because now there are more Wordle clones than you could possibly count. So if you really want to play a Wordle-like game for an hour and just keep beating puzzles, you know, the app store is chock full of options for you, you know, you can do it. It's not like Josh Wardle, the creator of the original Wordle, or now the New York Times who bought it from him and own it. They're not being mean by keeping you from doing it.

01:29:27   But they're just saying, in our version of the game, you play once, you solve it, and you know, come back tomorrow. And I think that is such a wonderful mechanic. It's so, and it's, you know, literally the opposite of Candy Crush.

01:29:40   Yeah, well, there's a lot of things I love in that story. I totally agree about that mechanic, and that was actually a major influence on how we thought about what the flow of how someone would interact with NotWords would be. That's definitely the main reason why we put so much focus on it being a daily puzzle, and we put up a lot of friction around you playing more than the daily.

01:30:05   We have two dailies, and you can, if you paid for it, you can go back in history and play as many puzzles as you want, but it's very focused around just asking you to do the daily every day.

01:30:17   And that was directly inspired by Wordle and thinking about that structure, because it is such a compelling way to interact with something, and I think Josh was really correct that that is the most fun way to play Wordle, which is great.

01:30:32   You'd never find that by digging into your metrics.

01:30:35   I would be bored to tears playing three Wordles in a row. I would. I honestly would. And I did it because I wrote about the ripoffs, and the ripoffs weren't about the mechanics. The thing I wrote about was people actually stealing the name Wordle, which is clearly wrong, and to some extent stealing the exact look of the game, which is like, "Come on, there's like a zillion billion ways that you could make this look."

01:31:01   Even if it's the same mechanics. Come on, come up with your own look. And then after that, if you want to take the mechanics, but I've played with those games, and it's like, "Oh my God, this game that I love to play every morning while I drink my coffee, it bores me to tears doing two."

01:31:15   It's like, because, yeah, because it's sort of--

01:31:17   And how is that possible? It's just two.

01:31:19   I don't know. I don't know. I don't know, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to play again tomorrow morning, you know? It really is interesting.

01:31:25   And it's so healthy. It must be a good feel. And part of NotWords is, okay, the daily puzzles certainly take significantly more time than solving a Wordle.

01:31:36   It's a little bit more akin to a crossword puzzle, but smaller than the daily newspaper crossword puzzle.

01:31:43   But then you finish it, and it's done, it's correct, and you get the animation and audio feedback to tell you that you've solved it.

01:31:50   And there's absolutely no mechanic telling you, "And now instantly, let's roll into this game."

01:31:56   You know, "Keep going, keep going, keep playing, keep playing, keep playing until your phone battery's dead."

01:32:02   There's nothing like that. If you'd like to, you can, but there's no pressure, and there's no pushing or steering you to keep going.

01:32:10   Yeah, we really wanted to focus on the daily and give you time to recuperate, especially because some of the weekend puzzles are longer, and we wanted it to still be exciting to open it up and get to that.

01:32:23   I think also part of it was, like, my game design process is I work on a game, and then I just play it for hundreds of hours until I'm sure that I'm bored of it.

01:32:34   And then I think, "What else could I do?" And for Not Words, that was when I came up with the twist mode.

01:32:40   But it was also this sort of funny side effect where we were really only halfway through the generation process when I was playing a ton, a ton, a ton of Not Words hours a day.

01:32:50   And I think at that point, our puzzles seemed really good because it was this very fresh mechanic, and it was really exciting to see where it went.

01:32:59   But they actually weren't that good, and so I played 40 hours of mediocre Not Words puzzles, and I thought, "You know what? We can't have people play 10 of these a day. We just gotta have them play one, because otherwise they're gonna feel the malaise that I feel."

01:33:14   And now, of course, the puzzles are much better, and I do feel like people could probably play more if they wanted, but they're still gonna hit that burnout at some point, no matter what.

01:33:23   And it made me feel like this approach was just a much healthier and more interesting approach, and an approach that will make you feel happier about the time you're spending with the game.

01:33:33   Really mediocre Not Words. There's your game. So let's talk about how the game makes money.

01:33:39   So for 12 bucks, $11.99, you can—I'm going by the App Store prices—$11.99, you can pay for the full game. And for $5 a year, $4.99, you get a pro subscription. What's the difference?

01:33:52   So, I mean, there's no difference. It's, do you hate subscriptions, or do you think you're gonna be playing for more than three years?

01:34:00   So you could—in other words, you could pay 12 bucks once and just buy the game, and now you're in like Flynn, you've got it. You're gold.

01:34:07   Or, if you'd prefer, if you'd rather just pay five bucks for the next year and see if you like it again next year, you could do that.

01:34:14   Yeah, and there's a one-week free trial, so if you don't even know, you can do a free trial.

01:34:20   But you can also play for free forever, to some degree. And you just—what are the limits on the free game?

01:34:27   Yeah, so for free, we just give you basically something that looks like what Wurtle gave you. We give you the daily puzzle every day, and you can play it every day.

01:34:38   And if you miss one, you can't go back and play it again, but you can play the puzzle on the day every day.

01:34:44   And we give you ten extra puzzles in the puzzle book a month, so there's a little bit extra if you wanna kind of play more than one a couple days.

01:34:53   And that's it, and there's no ads or anything. We don't collect any data, we don't generate any analytics. It's just a fun game that you can play totally for free.

01:35:03   So the no ads thing, to me, that's how I would do it too, but it's unusual? I mean, what's the thinking there?

01:35:13   Well, so it's actually been—I mean, I've been making games for free that have ads in them for probably six years now.

01:35:22   There was a point where I realized I would have to stop selling my games as a premium because I was being knocked off within 24 hours.

01:35:31   And this was right around—I don't know if you remember or were familiar with the Threes 2048 thing?

01:35:36   Yeah, I remember Threes.

01:35:38   So Threes was this bespoke indie game that a bunch of my friends made, and it was this real phenomenon.

01:35:44   And then a week into it, this game 2048 came out that was basically heavily influenced by Threes.

01:35:52   A little different, but heavily influenced and totally free and just had a lot of ads.

01:35:57   And it basically—that game made like a hundred times the revenue that Threes made, even though Threes came up with this whole idea and this new mechanic of interacting with things.

01:36:07   And so I think being on the App Store, I looked at that and was like, "Well, geez, that's going to happen to me if I don't make my games free,

01:36:15   so I need to think through how I can do free and how to make money with ads and rethink my whole process of what it looks like for somebody to be playing my game and have options,

01:36:27   and make sure that nobody can undercut me."

01:36:29   And I did that for a while. I don't know for sure that I'm never going to do ads again,

01:36:34   but there's a lot of stuff that being in the ad ecosystem, I started to discover that really bothered me.

01:36:41   Ads are—the libraries are big, so your apps get big.

01:36:46   They show good ads right at the start, but the longer your app is on the store, the worse the ads get.

01:36:52   And then all of a sudden they're like hawking weird drugs and weight loss things, even if you told them not to.

01:36:58   They're like crashing your app and giving horrible bugs.

01:37:02   Advertisers are always trying to scam the people who are clicking on their ads, and they try everything they can to get around the restrictions by ad providers.

01:37:12   And the person who gets taken advantage of in that situation is me and the people who are playing my games.

01:37:19   There was a whole thing where a lot of ad providers were just copying your clipboard, and they didn't tell anyone, and they certainly didn't tell me,

01:37:26   and I was like, "Oh my god, I can't believe this is happening. This is like—I don't want to be a part of this."

01:37:31   So I've really wanted to get away from ads for a very long time, but it's been tough because when I look back at my revenue,

01:37:38   on most of my games, ads are accounting for 20 to 50 percent of the revenue from games.

01:37:44   And so it's very difficult to be able to really say like—like to look at your numbers and be like, "Oh, you know, I can't run a business if I don't do this."

01:37:53   This is part of the ecosystem, and it's part of what people come to expect from games.

01:37:57   And they'll get mad at you. They won't play a game that they have to pay for, but they're happy to pay to play these games that like shove a thousand ads in your face.

01:38:05   And so it was very frustrating, and this game, we felt like this is a really special game, and we really want to present it in a way that is impressive and maybe a little bit more generous than ever.

01:38:19   It's also a game that we only want people to play once a day, so we wouldn't really be getting very much ad revenue from that anyway.

01:38:26   And it's a way that we can really provide a very fair ask when we're asking people to play this.

01:38:34   If you're going to enjoy a game once a day, then we can easily kind of be like, "All right, well that's all you get then if you're playing the free version."

01:38:42   We're giving you what really feels like a full game, even though it's very restricted and small.

01:38:47   And that kind of gave us this opportunity to try this new adventure.

01:38:51   And so we thought, "You know what, maybe we can't make money from ads in this game, but what if we raise the price really substantially?"

01:38:59   $12 is a lot more than we typically charge. And then maybe with subscriptions we can make up for that and give people another way that they could still spend closer to what we usually charge on a game.

01:39:10   And it's been really amazing. I think people have--I've been really surprised by how many people have just gotten the $12 thing.

01:39:17   Nobody has ever complained about the price so far. Everybody seems really happy with it, and people seem to be subscribing also.

01:39:24   So it's been a really positive experience.

01:39:27   Well that's awesome to hear, because nobody is outside the 7-day free trial yet.

01:39:34   Right?

01:39:35   Right?

01:39:36   Or although I guess that would be--I guess you get the 7-day free trial through paying.

01:39:41   No, no, when I look at my analytics it's like we've made like zero dollars from subscriptions because everybody's in the trial.

01:39:48   Right.

01:39:49   But that is great to hear. Is part of the thinking--I know we've spent so much time talking about how you're like--you really are.

01:39:57   You're an artist who's driven by trying to make the coolest thing.

01:40:01   But is part of the thinking like with 3s getting--let's just say they got ripped off. I remember writing about it.

01:40:08   I just looked it up. I definitely linked to 3s back in 2014 because I loved the game. It was so much fun.

01:40:14   Or it still is, but like a lot of games you just sort of play--I don't know. I played myself out of it.

01:40:20   I did the same thing with Letterpress, which I loved. But eventually I was just like--and I was pretty good at Letterpress.

01:40:26   I don't know why. There's some combination of the strategy and the word knowledge. I was really good at boxing people in.

01:40:35   And I've heard Go players talk about that. And that Go is notoriously more difficult than chess for computers to beat the top human players because top Go players have an intuition.

01:40:47   I had like a weird Letterpress intuition, and it just worked in my favor.

01:40:51   So envious of that. That's a game that I always wished I was good at.

01:40:55   And I'm usually really bad at games. I'm not a great word game player. But somehow Letterpress really fell in my sweet spot, and I was really good.

01:41:02   And then eventually I got introduced to a friend of a friend who works at Apple. Because she's still at Apple, I'm not going to mention her name.

01:41:10   But she could beat me like Neo dodging bullets. And I was like, "Oh my God!"

01:41:17   And it's not what drove me away from Letterpress, but it was like I at least realized, "Okay, this is how good you can be."

01:41:24   It was very interesting. It's like becoming a very good, really good high school tennis player, and then you play a pro.

01:41:32   And it's like, "Oh, okay. There you go. I'm just going to be a recreational player." But I loved Letterpress.

01:41:37   But is part of the thinking behind something like what games to actually go from prototype to actually, "Let's build this and make it real and ship it. Let's do that this year."

01:41:47   Which is, I'm sure, just more work. Everything like that is always more work than you could ever imagine.

01:41:52   But is part of it the idea that with the generator that you guys spent a lot of time building, it's really going to be hard to clone?

01:42:01   Nobody's going to be able to clone NotWords in a good way in a weekend.

01:42:06   You know, I actually thought that it would be really easy to clone. That was my big fear.

01:42:12   A lot of the planning for this game was designed around the idea that it would be very simple to clone.

01:42:17   Because building puzzles by hand is so easy. Right? So if building puzzles by hand is so easy, how hard could it be for the computer? Very hard, turns out.

01:42:25   But, yeah, and the other thing that is very important to understand about cloning is a lot of people are not able to intuitively, quickly tell the difference between something that's bad and something that's good.

01:42:38   And so with NotWords, somebody could probably clone it, and the puzzles could be totally mediocre, and they could still get a ton of traction and get a lot of attention and time.

01:42:47   And then, because the puzzles are mediocre, people would start to feel like, "Oh, this actually isn't as good as I thought it was," and burn out on the concept because they experienced the bad version that they didn't even know.

01:42:58   It's like if somebody decided that they didn't like hamburgers because they'd eaten at Burger King a lot. And it's like, "Oh, well, that's not the good version."

01:43:07   But it looks like a hamburger. It's the platonic ideal of a hamburger. And so we actually made a ton of design decisions.

01:43:13   They're called Burger King, for Christ's sake.

01:43:15   Right! They have the crown. It's got to be a great burger. We made a lot of decisions in the game around that idea.

01:43:22   So part of, also built into this sort of free no ads model is we were like, "Well, nobody can undercut us." Right?

01:43:30   Because all these free games, their whole thing is like, "Yeah, we're going to throw a thousand ads at you, but it's free."

01:43:36   And now we're like, "No, you can't even do that. Good luck making a game where you have crummy versions of our puzzles and you have no ads, and now you want people to pay for it. It's not going to happen."

01:43:46   We'll see. I hate to issue this challenge. I'm sure someone's going to come and rip us off.

01:43:51   But the other part of it was, the game, I've been trying to chase this game design for so long that I know that this game fits into this classic mode.

01:44:02   I don't know if it'll be popular like Sudoku is popular, where it's famous all over the world. That would be amazing. I don't know if that's going to happen.

01:44:12   But it fits the model. It's like the same structure as something like Sudoku.

01:44:18   And so I really wanted to, my biggest goal was like, if this game becomes super popular and everybody's done a version of it, I want to make sure that when people look at our version,

01:44:28   they know that we were the people who invented it, and this was the beginning of what this game was.

01:44:36   And so we made a lot of choices around that structure. Part of it was doing it free. Part of it was just thinking about how we were going to do the polish on the app.

01:44:44   Something I noticed, you know, there's a really big game on the App Store called Wordscapes. That's actually a pretty clever game.

01:44:51   And as far as new word games go, I think it's really interesting. But the thing with Wordscapes is if you look at Wordscapes and you look at the clones, they look the same.

01:45:01   The aesthetic and the design of Wordscapes is so bog-standard mobile. Everything's flat, there's some stock art in the background.

01:45:11   Even though this is the game that invented it, it just looks like every other mobile game. And when I first got into it, I didn't even play Wordscapes for a while because I didn't even know that it was the original.

01:45:22   I thought, "Well, this is just all clones." And we really wanted to make sure that when we built the game, it would be so obvious that it was not like these other things.

01:45:30   That somebody wouldn't be able to clone our spit and polish. And that's why things like having the bunny be in the game, having the different soundscapes, really going for a Nintendo level of feel.

01:45:45   And looking at Nintendo games and thinking about how does Nintendo do it? What are they interested in? What's their design aesthetic? And how do we work that into what we already know how to do?

01:45:56   Yeah, that's a good way to put it. I'll just add before we move on that that's the one thing I don't like about Wordle, because it's a web game. There's no sound.

01:46:05   And I like sound. It drives my wife. When I get divorced, it's going to be he wouldn't turn off the key clicks on his phone.

01:46:13   I like the key clicks. I do. I like because it's the only haptic feedback you get on this flat keyboard. And I like them and my wife can't stand them, let alone if she's trying to fall asleep or something.

01:46:28   So I do, of course, mute my phone when she's in bed. But sometimes I forget and it's like, I'm telling you, it's going to be the cause of divorce.

01:46:37   But I wish Wordle had some sound. It would be, it would, I don't know. I get it. It's obviously not holding back Wordle's success. But let me take, wait, I had one more thing I wanted to say before we move on. I know we're going long. Sorry, but this is so fascinating.

01:46:54   Oh, it's okay.

01:46:55   Oh, for prototyping, what tools do you use?

01:46:59   Ah, that's a good question. For the most part, we program our games in Unity, but we don't tend to start in Unity. I tend to start almost all of my game designs on a piece of paper or with cards or with dice or with pieces or banana grams or Scrabble tiles.

01:47:20   One of my favorite artists is Saul Louit, and he's a conceptual artist and he makes these beautiful, or he made these beautiful works that were basically instructions. And then you would buy a copy of the instructions and people would come to your house from his studio and do the, follow the instructions on a wall and it would create this sort of generative piece of artwork.

01:47:43   And Saul Louit has this really great piece called "Sentences on Conceptual Art" that is in itself kind of an art piece, even though he specifically says it isn't in the piece.

01:47:54   And one of those sentences, one of the ideas of this whole piece is this thought that the conscious brain creates rational stuff and the subconscious brain creates irrational stuff.

01:48:07   And irrational stuff is where the gold is, that like the magic of art, the magic of these beautiful things that you experience that you don't know how to understand, that that is all born in this subconscious mind.

01:48:19   And for me, that's this like really sort of critical text in terms of understanding what my process is and how it works. And I have this very strong aversion to thinking too much about something.

01:48:33   Like I think if I have an idea for a game, the most important thing is that I can sit down at the table, come up with whatever rules very quickly I need to come up with to be able to test the strange thing that came out of my subconscious.

01:48:46   Because if I don't do that, if I think about it for too long, it's going to lose all of its magic. I'm going to over-design it into some direction that it's not meant to go and it's just going to be a thing that someone designed.

01:48:57   And so for me, because of that, all of the tools that I like to work with are tools that require almost no effort, just cards or dice or something.

01:49:05   Or if I do program, I don't like to program anything that's going to take more than three hours or four hours to program. It's very important to me that I can like get the idea down, play it right away.

01:49:16   And I think that's why also a lot of my games are these sort of small ideas that are sort of very deep and have expanded into a lot of different spaces but are like fundamentally just like a very small core.

01:49:29   Yeah, that's interesting. I love hearing that. And I was wondering how much you design on paper. I do. I know in the last... I speak of myself as though I still design things, but like when we designed Vesper back in the day, the Notes app, I did so much on paper.

01:49:46   I just did, you know, and then paper to screenshots to, "Alright, but now let's make it real. Let's start building this because if we dick around too much with just these static things, we're going to go way too deep and too far before we know how it feels."

01:50:05   And if you don't start making it real at some point, you know... And it is true. Like an idea in your head, it's sort of like a gas and it's all together for a while, but if you let it just sit as an idea for too long, it dissipates too much and it's gone.

01:50:25   And you can remember that it was there, but it's no longer... Maybe more like a liquid. I don't know. It's like liquid and it's like it'll just drip out, you know? It's like you kind of got to freeze it and start making something out of it before it drips out of the leaky bucket that is your brain.

01:50:43   Yeah, I think it's like, you know, people talk about inspiration, but nobody thinks of inspiration as something that you spent 30 hours thinking about. That's design, right? But before the design, you get the inspiration.

01:50:56   And how much of the inspiration you can stay true to, for me, is a real function of how quickly I can work with it before it becomes boring or normal.

01:51:07   I don't mean to dig into anything. You know, if you're uncomfortable talking about it, that's fine, but maybe you're not. I don't know. But it's like a couple of days into this, the first week of NotWords coming out, what's the split on iOS, Android, and the Steam versions so far?

01:51:24   So I don't know what the Android stuff looks like. I haven't asked for those numbers because I don't really care. The Steam stuff, what's the split? Well, that's a very good question. I would say probably off the top of my head, I want to say it's like five to one iOS to Steam.

01:51:46   But I'm not sure that that's 100% correct. I didn't look at the numbers this morning.

01:51:52   I say this after telling you. I don't even know my analytics at Daring Fireball. So, you know, ballpark. But it's mostly, I guess what I'm interested in, is it primarily iOS at this point? Because it's new, and that's where, you know, your games are best known.

01:52:07   And maybe the people who are most likely to appreciate the details that go into it are already on iOS.

01:52:15   I think that's a big part of it, but I also think it plays great on computer, and I was really surprised how enjoyable it is on the computer. But, you know, it's a game design that's for the context of mobile. It's going to be better mobile.

01:52:29   Basically, any game that is as good mobile as on the computer is better mobile, right? Because you have more situations where you can play it, you can open it up in an elevator or whatever. And so, I'm not surprised that it's doing better on iOS, but also it was kind of meant to, I guess.

01:52:49   When we thought about bringing it to Steam, we wanted to bring it to Steam for a couple of very tactical reasons. So one of those reasons was we wanted to make sure that it would exist forever in the format we put it out.

01:53:02   Because it's a Windows game, we never have to touch it again, it'll always be there no matter what. Somebody will figure out how to emulate it if they can't. So we've, like, there's an archival aspect to it.

01:53:14   A second reason we wanted to put it on Steam is because we thought that this is the kind of game that would appeal to streamers, because we know there are people who stream crossword games.

01:53:23   And Sudokus, right?

01:53:24   And Sudokus. If you've got a mobile game, nobody's going to stream a mobile game on a phone. There's tech to do it, but it's just not something people do. So we wanted to be able to give streamers a key.

01:53:35   And then the third reason, which is one that we didn't even fully realize until we released it, but it's hard to get press for games these days. There are not that many outlets.

01:53:44   And being able to have something be on PC means we are opened up to a lot of other outlets that would not normally write about a game, like PC Gamer or CNET, potentially. So that was sort of the third reason.

01:53:57   So Steam is, like, for us it was this spot where-- oh, and then the last reason is we want to start releasing my games on Steam more frequently, and Jack and Mike games when we create them on Steam also, just as another platform to start putting stuff onto.

01:54:11   And this felt like the right game to take that leap with.

01:54:15   So really for us, Steam is serving a bunch of utility and experimental services for us, and if we get money also on Steam, that's even better. But that wasn't our main goal.

01:54:29   All right, let me take a break here and thank our third sponsor, and then we're at the home spread. I'm so thankful for your time.

01:54:34   Sure, this is really fun. I really appreciate it.

01:54:36   All right, let me thank our third sponsor. It's our good friends. I mean, good friends. I mean, this is our longest-running, most common sponsor. I love this company, too.

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01:57:48   My thanks to Squarespace. I would like to talk about, before we get, I want to talk about Playdate, but before we get there, the one last thing, and if I, a lot of times when I interview somebody, no matter how long it goes, there's always one thing that it's like, "Oh my God, that's like the first thing I wrote down at the top of my list of questions, and I forgot."

01:58:06   Literally at the top of my list here of my notes for this conversation with you is about credit. And you open up Not Words, like most of your games, and it says Not Words game by Zach Gage, and I'm sorry, Jake's last name is...

01:58:25   Jack Schlesinger.

01:58:26   Jack Schlesinger. Jack Schlesinger. You know what's funny? So I misremembered Jack as Jake, but I was actually going to guess Schlesinger.

01:58:35   Hey.

01:58:37   But you don't see that a lot, and I've, I actually, like 10, 15 years ago gave a talk, I mean, actually I guess it was 15, at least 15 years ago, because it was at Macworld Expo, but I even gave a talk where it was like my top 10 issues with Apple at the time, and one of them was the fact that at old Apple, let's say classic Mac era Apple, the about boxes for Apple software had the names of the people at Apple who made the thing.

01:59:05   And at some point, and it was definitely a Steve Jobs thing when they came back, they stopped that. And policy-wise, soup to nuts, all throughout Mac OS X, there's nowhere where you can go and say about text edit or about mail or about any of the apps, and you don't get credits.

01:59:23   And the idea, you know, Jobs' notion ostensibly was that he thought that Apple's rivals were using about boxes to recruit Apple people.

01:59:35   I, you know, he was obsessed with, what do you call, not recruiting, but what's it called when you're poaching, right? Which is very much, I'm not like an anti-capitalist, but it's definitely the perspective of the CEO of a company, whereas from the ground up, it's called taking a better job, right?

01:59:55   Which is actually something people do and should be able to do, and you know, that's how you build a career, and if you want to keep these people, hiding their names isn't the way to do it, it's keep them happy and pay them fairly and well.

02:00:09   And so I don't think that was quite it. I think it was also just sort of an irrational part of the Apple brand. You know, they just want everything to be from Apple. It's Apple. They want Apple's name to be on the credits.

02:00:20   And you see that, you just, but even outside Apple, you see it, you know, there just aren't a lot of games that open like that, but other forms of artwork, you know, certainly books, you buy a book, there's the author's name is on the cover.

02:00:33   You watch a movie or a TV show, they always start with opening credits, and they tell you who the stars of the show are and the producers, you know, but then you get, and the last opening credits are the writer and the director.

02:00:48   And because writing and directing are the most creative, the most responsible for the thing that you're watching, and they always get credit. And you know, I know in the entertainment industry, it's actually written into the union rules, you know, for the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild, but it's just part of it.

02:01:09   And you know, you come from the world of real art, you know, real physical art, you know, that's, you know, I don't mean to be... Hang on your wall art. Right. Hang on your wall art.

02:01:19   It would be absurd if you went to a show and they didn't put the name of the artists on, or like a museum, like imagine going to a museum and they don't tell you who painted this.

02:01:31   It would be absurd. But that's sort of how the computer world has gone. Like, you just go to a lot of websites and you never see the names of the people who made it.

02:01:40   Yeah, I... Oh man, I don't want to talk for a whole nother hour about this. I have so many feelings about this. I think one thing to bring up is that this has been a very contentious topic sort of behind the scenes in the game industry for a really long time. Not just right now with the way that credits are given, but historically, you know, games were companies.

02:02:03   And then for a minute when EA showed up, it was all about the people who made the games. And then very quickly, it suddenly became the companies wanted to be the companies again, and they hid those names.

02:02:16   And it was similar to sort of the Jobsian stuff that you're describing. Companies wanted to have the credit and own the games and sort of take over.

02:02:26   And I think when indies started to really blow up, at least around the time that I showed up, a lot of people, you know, you're just one person and you're making a game in this space and you're trying to figure out how to make money.

02:02:38   And your first thought is, you know, I need to look like the other players in this space. I should have a company because if I have a cute logo and a good company name, that's how people, you know, that's what I'm supposed to do. That makes me look professional.

02:02:52   And I think to some extent, actually, despite coming from art and being used to signing the things that I do with my literal name, I think I kind of fell into this name first approach because when I signed up with Apple, I didn't have a company and you could sign up just as yourself.

02:03:10   And so always it was my games were from Zach Gage. That's where they're from. And I think it took me a little bit into my career to sort of start to really look at this and say, no, this is the right approach.

02:03:24   This is something that I'm not, this is not just a default. I'm going to figure out how to embrace this.

02:03:29   And one of the reasons that I thought that that was really important is I am, for me, one of the big things besides the critical thinking thing is this game literacy thing and getting people to understand games and to be able to understand the game industry as an artistic industry.

02:03:48   And when I look at something like film and I look at film directors and think about, well, what is it that got film directors to be able to be looked at as artistic?

02:04:01   And I think it's that, you know, the age in film where you go, oh, this is a Hitchcock movie or this is a Spielberg movie, right?

02:04:09   It's that moment where you can watch three Spielberg movies and three Hitchcock movies, and even though they're all about different things, you can see that cohesiveness between those movies because there's a person at the top that you know.

02:04:23   Whereas like if you watch three MGM movies, right, that doesn't give you anything.

02:04:29   And then once you know a name, you can go, oh, when I grow up, I want to be Steven Spielberg. I want to do the thing that Michael Crichton does and write books.

02:04:40   You have to be able to see the human behind the art for you to be able to see the art sometimes.

02:04:48   And I think that's really important for games, not just from the artistic standpoint, but also even from the standpoint of getting more people into games and not as making games through the game industry, but as being indie, as being able to look at games and say, oh, I could make a game, I could be a part of this.

02:05:06   And so those are a huge number of the things that I think about when I'm looking at this approach of like really putting these names up front.

02:05:16   That's so well said. And it's so, you know, it's so interesting with directors. I'm fascinated by it. And that was my credit on Vesper. I was credited as the director because that's how I saw my role.

02:05:28   Brent Simmons was writing the code. Dave Whiskus was doing all the actual design. And I was just in the middle directing it and saying, yes, this is how it should feel. This is how it should work.

02:05:38   And, you know, it wasn't I wasn't trying to be cute. I just didn't know how else to describe it. But it worked out well, even though the app was not a financial success, it worked out well as a way of working and conceptualizing what my role was.

02:05:51   And it's funny because you can have directors whose work is so idiosyncratically distinctive. Wes Anderson pops into mind, right? It would be very, very difficult.

02:06:03   You know, I'm sure he's also so talented. If he wanted to make a movie that didn't look and feel like a Wes Anderson movie as we know it, I'm sure he could.

02:06:12   But it's like what he wants to make is so clearly of his style, you know, and somebody else who I'm a huge fan of, Sofia Coppola, is more of a chameleon.

02:06:24   And I don't think if you showed me a new Sofia Coppola movie, but there weren't credits, I don't know that I would be able to guess that it was her until maybe I got to the end of the movie.

02:06:36   And the themes and little things and it's like maybe I would have her on the list, but it's a deliberate choice on her part to sort of bend her style to the structure of the thing.

02:06:51   But it's once you know the themes that she keeps coming back to, it's very distinctive and I think so important. And I just love that. I don't know.

02:06:59   You could make anything, honestly, paint drawing on a wall, a game by Zach Gage, and I'm going to download it and try it.

02:07:07   I'm glad you're enjoying them all.

02:07:10   I always go back to paint drawing on a wall because in the late 90s when word came out that Stanley Kubrick finally had a new movie coming out, Eyes Wide Shut, my one friend who was also a big Kubrick fan said, "If Stanley Kubrick made a movie of paint drawing on a wall, I'd watch it at least once."

02:07:27   Just because I trust him so much that somehow he'll make it engaging.

02:07:31   Right, you can already start to think in your mind like what could be happening? Like that would make this great.

02:07:37   What would it sound like? What kind of creepy music?

02:07:40   Are there shadows going by that mean things?

02:07:42   Hitchcock's another one. I just watched, it's one of those YouTube rabbit holes, you know. You start going down the YouTube rabbit hole of anything and it's like, "Oh my God, YouTube is so amazing."

02:07:52   But it was like a couple, I got into a couple of Hitchcock YouTube videos because I linked to, I forget what the context was, Rope.

02:08:00   It was something with Glenn Fleischmann about doing something in a single take and Rope is a Hitchcock movie that simulates 90 minutes of a continuous take of a murder mystery.

02:08:12   But they could only shoot just under 10 minutes of film at a time in a film canister and so he disguises all the cuts by like panning the camera across somebody's back so there's a moment where all you see is the black of somebody's suit jacket.

02:08:26   And then when you get to the end of the pan, it's actually a new cut of film. It's ingenious editing wise, but it's actually a very good movie. I would recommend it.

02:08:35   It's also, I was like, "When the hell did he make that?" Because I remember I haven't seen it in forever and now it's like near the top of my to watch list again because I haven't seen it in like 25 years.

02:08:44   But it's in color, but it's a 1946 movie, which is to me like breaking my mind. I was like, "I didn't think they had color movies." And then I'm like, "Oh no, The Wizard of Oz and Snow White was 1937 so that was animation."

02:08:58   But somehow I didn't think they shot movies. But anyway, if somebody ever found a lost Hitchcock movie and there were no credits, the whole movie was edited together, but there were no credits and you watched it, you'd say, "Oh, this is a hit.

02:09:12   What the hell is this? This is an Alfred Hitchcock movie. There's no mistaking it. Nobody else could make it." I mean, like Brian De Palma is sort of admittedly a huge, huge Hitchcock fan and makes Hitchcock-style plots, but they don't look like a Hitchcock movie.

02:09:29   They look like a Brian De Palma movie. It's so interesting to me and I just love that you put your name on it.

02:09:36   The last topic I want to talk about, and it's the rare instance where I can parlay off the previous episode of the show, is talking about Panic's playdate, which you, I guess, have some experience with?

02:09:49   Yeah, it's funny. Mine, I literally, it arrived right before we did this call. I was like, "Oh no, I gotta go run downstairs and pick this up." But also, yeah, I made one of the games in the first season, so I've had one for a very long time. It's cool.

02:10:06   I know that the way they're unfurling the season, that the games are sort of a surprise, so I'm not pressing for any spoilers. I never ever press my guess for that. So if the game itself is a secret, I don't even know, because my playdate is still lower.

02:10:22   It's coming soon, but I wasn't quick enough to do the pre-order. If you don't want to tell me what it is, you don't have to tell me, or is it known what the game is?

02:10:31   Yeah, it's a little known. There have been a little bit of previews around it, but I'm very curious how people will take it. It's a game that I designed a very long time ago, because I got in working with it almost right at the start.

02:10:44   But it's a take on Snake, because I wanted to do something with buttons. So it's a Snake game, like the Nokia Snake game, but you can jump, and you can jump onto yourself and ride on yourself and jump over yourself, and so it kind of turned Snake a little bit into maybe a little bit like a skateboarding game.

02:11:01   But I just wanted to make something that was very simple and would fit the device and would be the kind of game that reminded me of the kinds of games that made me excited about the device, which is really the thing that is like...

02:11:17   The first thing that I really thought about when they started pitching this thing is, I remember in high school making games, and it was cool making games and showing them to friends on the computer, but the thing that really took off amongst my friends was...

02:11:31   Do you remember the TI-83 graphing calculator?

02:11:34   Yes, definitely.

02:11:36   So that was this wild graphing calculator that you could use to plot things, but you could also make games for it. It had this very crummy programming language.

02:11:46   But it also was a LED black and white screen, but it was bit-mapped instead of those 888...

02:11:56   The best game you could make on an even older calculator was spelling the word "boobies" upside down or something like that.

02:12:06   Right, this had a real screen though. And so people did all kinds of weird stuff. Somebody ported Legends of Zelda Game Boy game to it, which seems impossible to imagine.

02:12:16   But also it was very easy to make dumb little games for friends and give them to them and let them play them on a physical piece of hardware.

02:12:25   And that was just this totally magical thing in high school, and I remember playing Snake a lot on it, and so I wanted to kind of explore that a little bit and do a little homage.

02:12:37   But the thing that I wanted to talk about at the playdate, I remember, so on your last show you were talking about how exciting it is that Panic is making these tools for this thing.

02:12:46   And Panic is one of the best tool-making companies that's out there. And that is exactly what I'm excited about more than the thing, is this potential for a community.

02:12:57   And I wanted to just talk a little bit about... Are you familiar with Pico 8 at all?

02:13:02   I've heard of it. You tell me what it is. I know what you're talking about.

02:13:07   So Pico 8, first of all, there's a huge space of indie game design tools that are very simple, some of which are even directly referenced.

02:13:17   Like Pulp is directly inspired by something called Bitsy. And there's Bitsy, there's Twine, there's something called PuzzleScript.

02:13:25   And all of these very successful little tools have these niche communities.

02:13:30   And I think one of the things that makes these tools very approachable and fun for people to work with is that there are these incredible constraints around what you can create.

02:13:40   So if you make something in Twine, it's going to be a website, it's got to be basically text, even though you can have pictures, you're going to click hyperlinks to move through it.

02:13:48   If you're making something in Bitsy, you have a very limited amount of space for your aesthetic, you really can only use the arrow keys to move around.

02:13:55   There's all of these constraints. And a couple years ago, this person, Zep, came up with this thing called Pico 8, and they called it a fantasy console, which is this incredible idea.

02:14:08   Which is basically, it's like he invented this console that doesn't exist, but it has all the constraints of a real old console.

02:14:16   So when you program, your program length is specifically limited, you can only have so many characters.

02:14:22   You can only use certain kinds of sound stuff. You can only have so many pieces of art. You can only have so many colors.

02:14:32   And all of these constraints work together in this very cool way because they create this very constrained tool, but it's not constrained to a kind of game.

02:14:42   It's constrained in other ways. And what that did is it created this amazing community, and so Pico 8 has a BBS system where you can post games, they can be shown in just an image, and it downloads into the software and you can play it.

02:14:58   Of all the spaces in indie games that I'm excited about for young people to be creating interesting stuff, Pico 8 is by far the most exciting. There's people doing weird experiments, there's people learning to program, there are famous indies creating prototypes in that space that then go on to be turned into bigger games that are making tens of millions of dollars.

02:15:19   It's this incredibly amazing, thrilling space. And the thing that is weird about it is after Zep created this fantasy console, a lot of people have gone and said, "Okay, well we're going to make a fantasy console and it's going to have these different rules."

02:15:34   And none of them have ever taken off in any way really at all to rival Pico 8.

02:15:41   And I feel like the playdate is the first thing I'm seeing that isn't just a derivative of this idea of a fantasy console, but is an evolution of this idea of a fantasy console.

02:15:52   In that it's got all of the tools and all of the smarts and all of the care that goes into creating the toolchain for this because it's panic, but it's also not a fantasy console. It's a real console.

02:16:04   And that's so amazing to me that they were able to pull that off, and I feel like there's this incredible chance to have not just one great video game, indie game, artistic exploration community, but two.

02:16:20   And one of them be focused on this beautiful little yellow thing. And that's the thing that I'm so excited about. It's not just the tools, it's that there's this holistic thing happening that is giving us an opportunity for a community, a new community, in a way that is very uncommon.

02:16:39   It's that whole "everything is a remix" mentality or going from improv comedy where you just start with an idea and this, and it's like, what if you took the Pico 8 fantasy console and instead of just tweaking limits, what if we said instead of 48 kilobyte limited, we'll make it 64.

02:16:59   What if the "and" is "and we'll actually make a little handheld thing, like an actual thing, and we'll sell it for like $179." And then immediately somebody says, "Of course, well that sounds like a nightmare."

02:17:14   And they're like, "Yeah, but maybe we could." And then they look, and wouldn't it be fun? And that's sort of the backstory. It was, and it took panic longer than I think they thought it would. But not too much longer, it's shipping.

02:17:29   You know, I think they announced earlier than they probably wish they had because they had an opportunity to be featured in a, I forget the magazine, but it's a really, really-- Oh, Edge. Yeah. Yeah, Edge, right? And I don't even know if they regret it. I think it's a, you know, why not if you can get that opportunity?

02:17:46   But it makes Playdate seem later than I think it's fairly, would fairly be deemed to consider that it is because it was announced then, you know?

02:17:57   I think if you look at it like as the process though, I think what you end up seeing is this, there's, some people really know how to do a process. Like the people who are the best at stuff, it's not that they're coming up with an amazing idea.

02:18:14   It's that once they have an idea, they know how to chase it down and build it into something that's really amazing. And if you look at what the Playdate was, like when I got into the Playdate, they basically were, explained to me, you know, we're going to try to have 52 games and we're going to put this thing out and, and every week of the year, you're going to get a new game and it'll be some very small experience and we're just going to contract a bunch and, and it'll be a big surprise to everybody and that'll be the thing. Right.

02:18:41   And then I think the longer it took them to do the hardware, it sort of put the screws to them on the software side and on thinking about it. It's like, you know, if, if you've got a couple of people working on hardware and they're working on it for almost eight years, you've still got other people on the project.

02:19:01   Right.

02:19:01   Who have to figure out what they're doing and what they're paying attention to. And I think the very first thing they realized was, wow, a lot more developers want to get involved in this than we thought. Like we actually can't find all the cool developers.

02:19:12   So we need to hire someone who can like do developer outreach and start to find out more developers and start to find out what kinds of things developers need. And so they got it to more people and then they started to realize like, oh, well, you know, there are even more people.

02:19:27   It's not just this audience of, of people who can code, who make good games that we want to reach out to. Like what if we could reach out to everybody? What if we could have a tool where we're in this space now and we're seeing all this stuff?

02:19:38   Maybe there's stuff we could make that would make it available to everybody that anybody could code a thing for this. And I don't think you would necessarily see that if they had shipped the Playdate three years ago.

02:19:48   Right.

02:19:48   I think a lot of this stuff developed as the excitement around the product got bigger and they had to start to think about like, well, what is this opened up? What kind of doors can we find now where we can build stuff for this?

02:20:03   Yeah. And you know, it was the previous episode with Michael Simmons where we talked about Playdate at the end. And one of the analogies, you know, we mentioned the Pulp system, which is the web-based thing that is very visual and therefore because it's visual and it's in the web and you don't have to conceptualize the game as source code in your head, you can visualize it, conceptualize it, turn it from idea to a game.

02:20:26   You can actually install on a Playdate and play. It's so accessible to more people because that's how different people speak. And the analogy I didn't, I wanted to make but didn't make last week was to PostScript, which people forget or don't know.

02:20:41   But Adobe PostScript is a programming language and you could write it by hand. I had a professor at Drexel who did his PhD thesis on PostScript and he showed us his demos and they were amazing.

02:20:55   And the source code, it's not the easiest programming language to use for sure. It's not like writing assembly language, but like with just a ridiculously short number of lines of code, he'd make these unbelievable vector images.

02:21:08   And then you could, you know, the displays at the time were incapable of proving that they were vector, but you could just keep zooming in to show that, oh, that's a vector because you just keep zooming and zooming and it just is more intricate.

02:21:20   But it's clearly Illustrator that made PostScript something for the most people and people who are artists because you just drag a line, you make a curve. How do you adjust the curve? You drag a handle and you do it visually, right?

02:21:34   And it's like, Pulp could be that sort of thing for budding game developers or even if it's just game designers, you know, like we talked about prototyping before and maybe to really take an idea and see it to completion, maybe you'd have to graduate from Pulp to their fuller SDK in Lua or C or something like that.

02:21:53   But you can get something that's an actual game, not just like a bunch of index cards. And again, I'm a paper person, but proving that a game is a good idea is actually having it on a playdate and pushing buttons and making things happen and having fun is different than flipping through a bunch of index cards where you show what the screens would look like.

02:22:16   I think if the playdate becomes very successful, we're going to see a lot of incredible games that are done entirely in Pulp. I think one of the things that is very easy to forget about with games is that, you know, like a game doesn't frequently require the bleeding edge of technology.

02:22:35   Sometimes, sure, but most of the time -- I mean, you can make a game with a pencil and a tablecloth at a restaurant and play it. You don't need anything. And I think really often the thing that new game designers need or students of game design need is constraints.

02:22:52   That's the thing that you actually need to make a game because otherwise it's very difficult to focus and move in a direction. And so I think these tools that give us interesting, compelling constraints and then also a really meaningful payoff are always the most powerful tools.

02:23:09   And that's why Pico 8 was really successful, and I hope that'll be the case with the playdate.

02:23:14   I personally also -- and again, it's nostalgia because I came of age in the '80s with the black and white monochrome Mac, but I love the aesthetic of just black and white, and I love the Atkinson dithering algorithm to do things that you just can't believe aren't grayscale but are really just black and white pixels, and you use the right algorithm and you can do this.

02:23:39   But the funny thing is that as limited as the playdate is, it is so much more powerful than a 1984 Macintosh. So you can do things in black and white on the playdate screen that you never, ever, ever -- even Bill Atkinson himself could never have done, like animate something that's using this complicated algorithm for the dithering effect and have it just be completely live at reasonable frames per second.

02:24:05   Yeah, I think that's one of the most delightful things about the devices. I think people will play some of these games and just be absolutely in awe about what this looks like.

02:24:17   You think a black and white screen looks one way and then you play this thing that is just animated in an incredible way, but then at the same time, if you're trying to make a game for this, the ask couldn't be lower.

02:24:33   You know, you've got to make a little character in black and white. Sure, anyone can do that. It's great.

02:24:39   Right, and it brings me back to those early days, decades ago, on the classic Mac where you could open up anything in ResEdit and just -- I miss ResEdit so much. Right? I know you do, because I know that you did the same thing as if an icon really bugged you, or you just wanted to just have fun. You could just open it up in ResEdit, open the icon, and you had a little pixel editor that was really well done and had a pencil tool and a fill tool and an erase tool.

02:25:08   You had undo, and you could just make a little thing, and you'd see the zoomed up version next to the shrunk down version, so you could see if the little tricks you were using to draw the pixel by pixel art actually looked good at real size and then make your own little icons.

02:25:23   And then all of a sudden, the button for whatever, the icon for whatever, looked the way you designed it and not the way that it shipped on however you got it.

02:25:39   On top of that, you could add little menu items that you could never hook up into doing anything, or you could go look at the assembly. The thing that was amazing about ResEdit is it really was the view source of the Mac.

02:25:56   And even though the source you viewed was basically impassable because it was compiled down to assembly, it was incredible. It was amazing as a kid to have this tool that let me look inside anything and have it basically be like, "Yeah, this is a thing. Someone made it. This is what it looks like inside."

02:26:15   Yeah, and you could see this is what it looked like to the creator. You're just the user. You got this copy of the app, and you've cracked it open in ResEdit. You just open it, and you're looking at these resources in the exact same way that the developer and designers who made the app were looking at it and making it and tweaking it.

02:26:36   Yeah, and then you could tweak it.

02:26:38   Yeah, exactly. It was such a great way to get you to feel like, "Hey, I could do this too."

02:26:43   Yeah, it was amazing.

02:26:45   Well, Zach, this was absolutely a wonderful, wonderful discussion. I'm so happy to have you on the show. I'll have you back because this is too good, and I have questions left, so I'll save them for the next time.

02:26:57   Great. I'd love to come back. I love being on this. This was a really fun conversation.

02:27:01   It feels like a reasonable guess given the last 15 years of your career that you'll probably have future games.

02:27:10   Yes.

02:27:12   I will say this. If I could ask one bonus question. How much, when you set out, did you set out to be somebody who makes a lot of little games as opposed to, you know, your life's work is this one masterpiece game?

02:27:28   I don't think I set out to do anything. I'm someone who operates very in the moment, and I always just want to do the thing that I'm excited about and then get it out because I'm afraid that if I don't get it out, it'll never show up.

02:27:43   And all I want to do is have the thing be out and be able to talk about it. So I don't know that I set out to do anything, but I've always been the kind of person who makes a lot of small stuff, so that was, I think, going to be how it went.

02:27:55   All right. That's a perfect way to end the show. I want to thank, in addition to Zach Gage and his wonderful new game, NotWords, which you can find on the App Store and on Steam and on the Play Store, I'm going to thank our sponsors.

02:28:07   We had Squarespace, where you can build your own website, and Memberful, where you can monetize your passion with membership, and Collide, endpoint security for teams at Slack. Thank you, Zach.

02:28:18   Thank you.