The Talk Show

‘Like Neo Dodging Bullets’, With Zach Gage

Zach Gage joins the show to talk about game design and creativity, including his new game Knotwords.

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This episode of The Talk Show was edited by Caleb Sexton.


John Gruber: I'm so excited to have you here. You have a brand new game out called, Knotwords. And I'll just say this once 'cuz on a podcast it's often difficult. It's K-notwords.

Zach Gage: Yes with a K.

Gruber: But you have made a slew of games, over the years, I think. Not, not entirely. And, and I'll just say Knotwords is also available for Mac and PC on Steam. It is on iOS of course, in the App Store. And it's also on Android Play right there on day one. Launched last week. But let's just talk, let's run through some of the games that you have made over the years.

I'll just start with, I'll tell you, I'll just be upfront, my favorite Zach Gage game is Really Bad Chess.

Gage: Oh, thank you.

Gruber: Which I want to talk about specifically later, but tell me some of the other games, tell us some of the games that you've made.

Gage: There are a lot. I tend to try to make games that are a twist. Um, traditional game genres and traditional game literacy, so that they're more approachable to most human beings and not just video game people. So really bad chess. I made a couple solitaires, Flipflop Solitare Sage Solitaire, Pocket Run Pool is a billiards game, SpellTower, TypeShift, are other word games.

I did Ridiculous Fishing, which was an Apple Game of the Year and, Apple Award winner. And then I have a bunch of older, more art related stuff, and little games that, got destroyed in the 32-bit apocalypse.

Gruber: We should talk about that. I'm going to make a note for that, but ridiculous fishing is one that I have, as soon as you said it, it was one of those things where I got like a dopamine hit from my brain. Where my brain was like, you should go play Ridiculous Fishing. Cause that was another one. That was an all-time favorite.

Gruber: Can you describe it for people who didn't don't remember it? I mean, when did that come out? That was pretty early, right, in the iPhone era?

Gage: Yeah, I want to, boy, I should probably, I have a really bad memory for dates and names, but I think it was either 2012 or 2011. It's pretty old. Yeah, it was a collaboration with Vlambeer and Greg Wohlwend. and we were making,basically a sequel to another Vlambeer game called Radical Fishing.

And it's kind of a, an absurdist fishing game, where you try to get a hook as low as possible and by dodging all the fish. And then, when you come up, you try to catch as many of the fish as possible. And then when it hits the surface, all the fish get flung into the air and then you shoot them with Uzis and machine guns and rocket launchers.

Gruber: it was, is it, does it still work? Is that one of the games that's by the apocalypse?

Gage: it hasn't been axed but it doesn't work on a lot of the newer phone sizes. But we're sorta hopeful that we'll get it working again sometime soon in the future. Cause we all sort of really miss it being playable.

Gruber: One of the things that, Ridiculous Fishing that struck me as, I am not a game designer at all, but I'm definitely a UI designer. And I think about form and structure and input, and it was a great game for the phone. Like to me, that was sort of the, in the early days of the iPhone and an Android, you know, once Android became very iPhone-ish. There was clearly an enormous opportunity for games because we had these amazingly powerful computers in our pockets with beautiful color screens, right? And I, you know, by a certain standard, like the worst Android, like when Android first started playing around with OLED screens in the early 2010s. And some of them had some really wonky colors for like the, in the, like the cyans and reds, the magentas, even then, even by that standard though, by the history of video games, these were great screens where you could do really colorful stuff if you wanted to.

But the controls were so limited, right? What do you do? Like it, it was such a breakthrough, when, when Steve Jobs and Apple introduced the original iPhone and it's like, and they said, look, all these other phones, like blackberries have these keyboards and all these buttons and D pads and all this stuff, and it takes up all this space.

Gruber: And then what, if you come up with an idea that these controls don't work well with? Well we know the answer to that it's called software. What if we just made everything software and just put it, you know, just make it a big screen? Great idea! Really not, not great for games as, as games had been known to be, as games had been known to be up until 2007, right.

Gage: Yeah. Well, I think that's actually, that's how I ended up being excited to work on the iPhone was, like I, I came out of doing interactive art, and interactive technology. And so the idea that there was a screen that used a mechanic that nothing had ever used that like, I could be the first person to make a game in a certain style that played with multi-touch was like really interesting and intoxicating, and it felt like just a thrilling space to be. Because you know, if you're making a game for an Xbox you have the controller that all the other games use and, you know, almost every game you make is saddled with all of the expectations that players have for how they're going to interact with it. And so that component, that sort of narrow slice of game design, which is the interactive part, is just not present for a lot of game design on those consoles.

Whereas with a multi-touch screen at the beginning of the app store, when there were no multitouch games. No one had figured out how to make games work on this kind of screen. You got to spend a lot of time really thinking about, well, how does someone even interact with us? What, what is this able to do?

How can we make games that operate on this? We don't have buttons anymore. What do we do? And so originally what actually got me interested in doing games was, my wife, who, my girlfriend at the time, had an iPhone Touch and she downloaded Tetris. And I don't know if you remember the original Tetris on the iPhone, but it was like horrible and

Gruber: do. I, cause I love Tetris is one of my all-time favorite games. I just love it. And it was, and honestly, to this day, it's still terrible on the phone.

Gage: Yeah. Cause, well, cause Tetris is a game about. It's like one of the things that's beautiful about it is how much it celebrates buttons and the sort of simplicity and elegance of its input with buttons. And it just didn't work on the phone. And I was like, oh my God, this is what games are right now. This is the games people are coming out with.

Like I just got out of grad school, but like, I think I can make something better than this. And so I started exploring and working in that space and I met Vlambeer who had done Radical Fishing and I saw it and I played it and I was like, oh my God, this could be amazing on a phone. This is exactly the game.

The shooting and touching would be perfect using tilts for the movement would be perfect. so we, I kind of approached them and talked with my friend, Greg, and we convinced them that this would be this really awesome game, if we could do it.

I'm out of my league talking about old Nintendo stuff. Cause I was, I was more of a Sega Genesis. Well, definitely way, way more R but I always thought that one of the things I never actually owned a Game Boy back in the day, but, but I was always very tempted and honestly I would have just glued the Tetris cartridge in it would have been fine.

Gruber: I would have just bought the Game Boy and just put the Tetris cartridge in. And, but one of the things that always struck me, having, and I had plenty of friends who had one, so I knew to play it, but Tetris was so perfect for Game Boy, because Game Boy... To me, a D-pad, isn't it? It is what it is. It's not bad.

It's not necessarily good, but a D-pad is buttons as opposed to a stick. And it's not a joystick like from my youth of like an Atari 2,600 and you know, like the modern Xbox PlayStation style controllers where you have these thumb sticks. And I understand it. You need the thumb stick for some games cause you need, you need to not just say up, but up a little, you know, like I'm creeping forward or I'm pushing forward.

Whereas, the Tetris it's left, right, rotation, drop. Buttons are perfect for that. And a black and white screen was fine. It was, if anything, in my opinion maybe better. It's more pure. It was just a perfect combination of concept to device. I used to play when I was in high school, my one of my best friends and I we'd go to the local coin operated arcade, among the games we'd play.

We'd spend quarters on Tetris and people would be like, why are you wasting money on Tetris where you can play Tetris at home? And we're like, yeah, but this, this is a really good Tetris.

Gage: Yeah. I, I mean, I have played Tetris with the joystick and it is thrilling also with a joystick, but I do totally agree with you about the D-pad. It, it is perfect. And actually there's a device that came out recently called the analog pocket, which is like a performance GameBoy kind of.

And, my wife and I got them and we've been playing a lot of Tetris on it. And it's really rekindled a lot of my memories of Tetris on the game boy. And I think, you know, there's more to it than just the buttons and the Game Boy and the black and white. It's also that the Game Boy was such a forerunner of this idea of a game that you had in your pocket that you could take out and play for just a small amount of time.

And this idea that you could hook it up to a friend's Game Boy, and then you could play Tetris against each other. It was like the whole context of the Game Boy was just perfect for Tetris in this way that,not a lot of other things were, I mean, you talk about playing it at the arcade and, or playing it at home.

The GameBoy was both right. You could play it in bed, you could play it at school. You could play it with your friends. It kind of had all of those things.

Gruber: You could play it on the bus or the subway.

Gage: Yeah.

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

Gruber: It's probably the single greatest thing that ever happened to the backseat, backseat of a family car

Gage: absolutely.

Gruber: Because you couldn't read in the backseat of a car cause you know, the movement of the car, you just it's too much, but you could definitely play a Game Boy.

But anyway, back to Ridiculous Fishing, the one thing that struck me so great in addition to the fact that the controls were perfect. It wasn't like, oh man, I really wish I had physical buttons. It was like, no, you don't need physical buttons for this game. It's not like, what was that game?

Gruber: It was like in, in the initial, the very initial release of the App Store, it was like a Sega game, like infinite runner down, like a, like a roller coaster track. I don't know, but it was, but it was a fake d-pad game and,

Gage: There were so many of those.

Gruber: Yeah. And so many of the initial games to you made you rotate the phone, which isn't necessarily bad.

There there's some great phone games where you play them horizontally as opposed to vertically. But Ridiculous Fishing was meant to be vertical because you drop the hook down. So having a screen that was vertically oriented is optimal for the concept because you want to go deep and down and therefore holding the phone in the, in the natural way, which is vertical, it fit in a way where you'd never make that game for a widescreen TV.

Gage: Right, right. Or it would you'd have to change a lot.

Gruber: Right. I don't want, I should never have to use the word never there because you're a ga... you're a creative game designer and it's instantly going to start your brain turning and you're thinking, well, wait a second. yeah, you could do make it like fly fishing where you, you go sideways or something like that.

Gage: Yeah. Or you just rotate your whole TV, you know, just get people to rotate. You should sell TV stands to come with the game.

But that was a great game. That really was, and it's,it's just so much fun now. Let's, let's talk about how you got into game design. That's I guess we'll sort of go in chronological order, but I might as well take a break and thank our first friend of the show. and it's our good friends at Kolide. They spell it. KOLIDE, Kolide. And me, like an idiot, the first couple times they sponsored the podcast, I said CO-lide. 'Cause I thought, well, if they spell it weird, maybe it's pronounced weird. But then I, after like two episodes, I asked them and they very politely said, no, we just say Kolide I was like, oh, sorry.

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All right. How, and when did you get started doing game design?

Gage: Oh my gosh. Well, to some extent, you know, when I was a kid, I guess I really wanted to be a game designer. Growing up on Mac, it was really interesting because almost everything I played was shareware that was by developers. And so unlike a lot of my friends who were playing Nintendo games or Xbox games, or, well, I guess not Xbox at the time PlayStation, where these games are made by giant companies, I was playing games that were made by developers, who you could email, and interact with and, and write.

And so I got interested in this idea of, of making games and I used, the first thing I really got into was HyperStudio, which was like a color and multimedia version of HyperCard. And then I got into this thing called Cocoa. Which was like a bespoke educational tool that Apple put out before Jobs came back and axed all of the educational stuff and weird little side hobbies that had been going on at Apple to focus on one thing.

Gruber: And to be cleared, I don't want to interrupt you, but to be clear, this was a Cocoa that is completely unrelated among the other things Steve Jobs did is completely reuse the name Cocoa for something entirely different. Okay.

Gage: Apparently it's such a good name that it had to come back. Yeah, so I was making games in that and, then I went to high school and learned how to program and thought I was going to be someone making games. And then I went to college and I went to Skidmore College, which is a wonderful school and they have a really incredible art program and a really, lacking computer science program.

Or at least they did when I was there. So I dropped computer science entirely, and basically went hard into being a fine artist and learning how to paint and draw and sculpt really poorly and do all the things that fine artists do. I got really into photography and design. And then when it was coming up to the end of the year and I, or to the end of my time at college, and I had to do an end of year show, I thought back on a lot of the things that had been inspiring to me in high school artistically... like and a lot of early Jared Tarbell, a lot of early flash experiments. And around this time was going on. and I realized like, oh, I have this programming background. I can do these kinds of interactive things that a lot of my classmates don't know how to do. And what if I try to create art using these skills?

So I started doing that and I got out of school and I came to New York and I met up with this artist, Zach Lieberman, who, ran something called OpenFrameworks, which is sort of a C++ version of Processing. It's like a creative coding library for C++. And, through him I did a lot of work in OpenFrameworks and creating interactive artwork.

Gage: And I went to Parsons and, met some games people there. And that's sort of where I started working with the iPhone and making some games. And I fell in love with the phone and I fell in love with the games community. Because at that time it was really small and it was just 100% incredible geniuses.

You'd like go to a conference. And every single person I met in 2007 is like basically a famous indie developer now. And it was just an incredible thrilling experience to be surrounded by so many incredibly talented people. And I just got sucked into games that I've been making games ever since.

There's like a certain type of personality that is drawn to a new frontier. when it's like this great unknown instead of being terrifying or feeling lost, or just standing at the edge and looking at it, they're like, oh, I need to go out there and just start exploring. This is fantastic. because there's no preconceptions as to what it could be. And there was no money. So it was just people who were like, I have a thing that I need to get out and explain to people and show people. And I'm going to do it and hopefully you'll really enjoy it. And so it was just super highly motivated incredibly talented artists.

Gruber: From my perspective, that's sorta like the early years of blogging, where the idea that you, a writer, or somebody who just wants to post things regularly to your own website under your own name, you just do it. And nobody really even knew what it should look like. What order should things show up in? Should they just all show up on the homepage? What should they do? And again, no money in it at all. There was nobody even had any ideas for how to make money, which was kind of, you know, it never lasts,

Gage: Yeah.

Gruber: We'll get there talking about games. it never lasts, but it is fun at the beginning.

Gage: Yeah, it's, it's been, one of the most interesting things, for me having gone through the career that I've had, is being able to see a bubble and ride it and see the end of it and see what comes out of it. Having gotten to spend 10 years experiencing that, I feel very lucky to have that kind of perspective now.

What was the first iPhone game that you had that hit the App Store?

Gage: So the first app I ever made was something called synthPond. Which given my light lisp I really regret naming a game that. It's like impossible to say. But that was a sound toy I guess. I was really inspired by people like, Toshio Iwai and the, other sort of experimental audio toys. And so synthPond was a spatial sequencer.

I feel like I really love music, but I'm not able to understand music. Like I can't create music the way that everybody else can. It just doesn't work for the way that my brain works. And so this was more of a, like, thinking about. What if it was a tool for spatial people, for people who like think in a spatial sense.

And so it was all about laying down nodes that would reverberate a sound. And then when that sound hit other nodes, they would respond with sounds. It was basically this tool that sort of, instead of composing in a sequence, it let you compose in a space. And it was something that I had made on the computer, and put out on my website as just something you could download on the Mac. And I was probably getting like 200 hits, a day on my website at that point, but nobody ever wrote me or talked about this thing.

And then the iPhone came out and I thought, oh, this is like a really cool device for this. Maybe I could make this experience on this. And I had all these ideas about how to use the multitouch to, you know, you grab one thing and hit something else and that lets you change the note. So I was really excited and I built it and I put it out and I, it got covered on MacRumors and it made like $20,000. And people were writing me emails and thanking me for coming up with this cool idea. And the one of the musicians of Dream Theater, who's like a pretty big metal band wrote me. And I got to go to the studio and hang out with him. And we had lunch and talked about all this stuff. And I was just like, what is this place?

Like, what is this, this device and this app store that I can just put this thing out there and that nobody cared about on the web, but here it's making me money and it's finding an audience and I'm getting contacted and people are thanking me for being able to buy this thing. It was just such a mind blowing moment.

Not to go off on a tangent, but there's a new book out, Beyond Steve, I think by Tripp Mickle. It just came out this week. The New York Times had an exerpt over the weekend and it's sort, it seems like I haven't read the book yet, but I have it, but it's, it's sort of, things aren't the same without Steve Jobs.

Gruber: And if things had gone better after Steve Jobs died, Apple would have come up with another thing like the iPhone since. And I there've been a series of books like that. since he died and, I think a lot of them have fared very poorly. I'm curious about how this one goes, because it's written a whole decade afterwards.

And so therefore it's not quite so much a prediction, but more reporting about what did happen. But my fundamental theory about why phones are such a hit is... and I don't think Apple knew this before the iPhone came out. I think they knew they had something great And when Steve Jobs just showed it to people, it, at that Macworld keynote, Those were like the longest six months of our lives waiting to actually get it. Because there was something obvious, like, oh my God, I need to have that. But I think ultimately what the phones are is the it's the end point of personal computers.

And it's like personal computers came out in the late seventies and Apple was there with the Apple II. And, and then the Mac came out in the 80s and things evolved. And Windows obviously became this huge, huge hit, for literally billions of people around the world on PCs.

But it's like with the, the phones and everything about them, the size, the fact that they're always with you, the way you can't screw them up as a typical user. There's nothing you can do to screw up an iPhone. You know, you cannot, you can't make a mistake and oh, you should not have installed that game because that game puts like a background agent in, and that thing will, it just runs all the time.

And it's really hard to uninstall. You can't do anything like that. It's like for so long before the internet, all of us who were into computers were like, why aren't more people into computers? Like the Macintosh slogan was 'the computer for the rest of us.' And it did expand computing to more people who just were turned off by the command line computers that came before it.

And like, I don't, this is jibberish. This is not for me. It definitely expanded it, especially for artists, I think. The way that the whole, design industry from education, from from colleges on up, revolutionized itself in short order. In hindsight, it's kind of bananas companies and industries don't just change from, this is the way we've always done things to, oh, we're going to throw it all out and we're going to do everything in QuarkXpress or PageMaker for layout. And we're going to use Illustrator for all of our vector or, or FreeHand, which was, I was actually more of a fan of, for, for all of our vector art and Photoshop.

And we're going to do everything on the computer. And until like 1986, nothing was done on a computer. And by 1990, everything was done on a computer. Like it's kind of bananas, but it, and it did expand it. But it's like, the rest of us were like, why don't people want to use computers? And then the internet came and it's like, oh communication.

That's what real people want to do on computers. And then the phones came and it's like, oh, here's a computer. You can't mess up. It's great for communication. And it's with you all the time and boom, that's it. That's what, and that's why there hasn't been a thing since there. There never will be a thing after that.

There is no way to, there's no way to make it more portable, more accessible more with you. There, there is. There is nothing after that.

Gage: I think what you just said with the portable and with you is also like a really critical thing for the phone. And one of the things that's most exciting for me about making games on the phone is, I love making games for the context that the phone exists in. Which is it's in your pocket, you're in line, you pull it out, you do something for 30 seconds, you put it back. Or it's in your pocket you're watching TV, you pull it out and you do this thing on the side while you're watching TV. That's this completely different context than most games exist in. And it's a completely different computing context than computers existed in beforehand. And I think this is something that right now, if you look at VR and the struggles that VR has had gaining any kind of consumer traction, I think it, to me, it really mirrors a lot of that earlier computer stuff. Which is people don't want to take a break from their lives and use a computer.

Some people do people who love computers, but most people just want to live their lives. And if they can have a computer that's with them and does stuff, that's awesome. And the iPhone was the first time that really most of the world got to have a computer that was just with them, where they could have their normal life and integrate a computer into that.

Gruber: Yeah, I agree completely. And it's obvious in hindsight and it's so obvious in hindsight that I think it gets taken for granted, but I, it wasn't obvious at the time. And I think even Apple wasn't sure, you know, like it it's so funny. I know everybody out there has probably watched the iPhone part of that Macworld keynote in 2007. But it is so funny watching it in hindsight, how much time Steve Jobs talks about the phone app, right?

It is so funny because it's, it's, it's like all this time spent like here, you know, and the visual voicemail was great. It was amazing. Like voicemail used to really suck. You had to like dial like *70 and from your phone. You dialed *70 and the system recognized like, oh, I know your SIM card, here's your phone number. It was like dealing with the world's worst call center. So yes, I, it was worth it at the time. I'm not saying they made a mistake, but in hindsight, they spent like half the time talking about the phone app, which most people I know are like, oh my God, I hate the phone. I don't, I, you know, getting a phone calls is the worst part of your day.

I do think jobs did have this obsession with trying to make computers be more, a part of lives and less computery. I think he really was keenly aware of what that problem was, even if he didn't know the answer to it. And they did try a lot of things that were on that road.

I actually did want to say, cause you were talking about the book. I haven't read the book and I don't want to like say anything that gets me in trouble or it gets anyone mad at me. But I do think like one thing to think about just for me being somebody who's an artist who who's like I've made things that were really successful and then had to keep making things after that.

Gage: And that experience of trying to live up to something, you know, being on the inside of the thing where people would look at it and go, oh, what, why didn't they make another thing like that great thing. You don't make great things by setting out to have a brilliant ideas and make great things. You make great things by having ideas that you really want to chase down and working hard for a long time and making things that are really good for a long time. And then sometimes you hit upon something that's great. And so with this like entire world of Apple prognostication, I'd be worried if Apple wasn't continuing to make great things, but they're not. They're doing great stuff.

Everything they come up with is, really cool and innovative. And like they consistently do things that are like surprisingly great, like the M1 chip. So to me, the, I like the thing that I look for with people I respect or companies that I'm interested in hearing from is, are they continuing to do really good work?

Does most of the stuff that they put out inspire me, in some way. I think that entire concept of like, well, is this person gonna have this idea that makes this thing happen? I think it's, it's sort of flawed.

Gruber: Yeah, you don't. Yeah. It's so well put, like, from the creator's perspective, there's like a inflection point of releasing the, the thing to the world and you just don't know what happens when it goes through that pinpoint.There's the, the universe on the side where it's, it starts, it's just an idea and get slowly more real.

And then you're like, okay, I'm ready to release. I'm going to squeeze through this pin hole into the outside world. And then from that point, and you might think this will be a great hit, or you might think add, I, I love this. I had to make this, I doubt this is going to be a hit. and sometimes it's like, the things you think will be a big hit aren't and sometimes the things that you thought, ah, this is probably going to be niche, like, like you were saying about synthPond, right?

Like it, it became way more of a thing once it was out on the iPhone, then you seem to have thought possible. And nothing embodies that more than the fact that the thing that was the biggest hit about the iPhone is the App Store, which wasn't part of it.

It's so true. It really is. It's so funny thinking about how excited I was and, and the people I knew in my world who all bought the original iPhone and lined up on day one. And, it used it for an entire year without any third-party apps. I actually jail broke mine by the fall and had a couple of apps.

Lights Out [Off] was the first game,

Gruber: right? Which was,I can't believe, I'm forget. Lucas Newman, I think did the programming. But one of the things I loved about Lights Out [Off] as a jail break game, like three months after the phone came out.

Right. And there was like, literally no support in Xcode. Like it's not just the, oh, there's no App Store. There was, there was no third-party developer chain. Like everything had to be backwards engineered by the community. The thing I loved about Lights Out [Off] was the way that the Mac indie community evolved into the original iOS indie community.

Is that even though there was no official tool chain, none, no App Store. So no way that it could possibly gain widespread adoption. It might break at any time, if a software update had closed the jailbreak loopholes that we were using to install it, but it was exquisitely well done. It had unbelievable pixel perfect artwork and sounds and animations. It was so well done. It was not just like a proof of concept prototype. It was like, oh, here's an amazingly fun game based on like an old electronic game design thing.

Gage: Yeah, that is such a Mac shareware community.

Gruber: Like if you're going to do it, do it right. And all the way to the, to the tiniest details of each pixel, each sound, the animation curves, everything. It was so much fun, but it spoke to the desire, the sort of people who, it was almost like if I pointed that out to Lucas Newman or, Craig Hockenberry, at, Iconfactory did Twitteriffic as a jailbreak app in that first year.

And it was the same thing. It wasn't just like, oh, here's an app that does Twitter. It was also, like everything the Iconfactory does, exquisitely well-designed. And it's like, if I really made a point of that, Craig and his colleagues at the Iconfactory would have been like, well, of course, you know, like, it's like, why are you saying that? Of course we, we made it look as good as possible.

Gage: Yeah. And that's such a trait of Mac shareware and especially the Iconfactory, like my main memory of them is growing up and installing their tool that let me change the, the icons of the default software stuff into, with different themes. And they had all these incredible exquisite icon themes. And it's like, yeah, that's going to break us as soon as Apple updates their OS, but it's amazing

Gruber: CandyBar.

Gage: CandyBar. Yes.

Gruber: It was so awesome. And it was so pointless from a utilitarian perspective, but it was so satisfying at a different, in a different part of your brain.

Gage: Yeah. Oh my God. I haven't thought about CandyBar in so long.

Gruber: Yeah. I think they did that in, in,collaboration with Panic. I don't know if

Gage: Yes.

Gruber: I don't know remember Panic? I'm not sure if they're still around. Well, we'll have to

Gage: Isn't well, yeah. Yeah. What are they doing now?

Tell me, you know, you were into computers, you had a Mac and you taught yourself some programming early, but you also definitely, you have an art background as an artist, like going to Parsons. Isn't really, obviously there's an interactive at the time you went there, there, you know, computers were obviously a huge part of the curriculum, but it still is a traditional artistic background almost for formal. Would you describe yourself as a formal artist in a sense?

Gage: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Formal, formally trained artist. yeah, there's actually, well, there's. I think that the biggest thing that came out of well. So first of all, I, I am still, I'm a conceptual artist. I still make work and show in galleries and things like that, which is really a delight to be able to have that kind of career and not have it be my money career, because it's like would be a nightmare to do it that way.

But it is really interesting to be able to have that career and be able to take lessons back and forth from game design. and especially it's really great to be in game design with the perspective of coming from the arts, where there is no money and everything is really different. And I think probably the biggest thing for me that has been valuable coming from the art space is this practice of making interactive art for the gallery.

When you make something interactive in and you put it in a gallery, it's not good enough to just make a really interesting piece of art it's you also have to trick people into interacting with it. And people who go into a gallery, they don't want to interact with art at all.

Gage: They want to stand back and be quiet and, and see it. And interacting with interactive art is even worse than like having to interact with anything normal, because not only are you trying to learn this thing and interact with this thing, but because it's in a gallery where everybody else is super quiet, like the spotlight goes on to you when you interact with it.

And suddenly you're the performer in the space. So, you know, not only when you put this art up, are you trying to convince people to interact with it, but you're also trying to make them comfortable being a performer

Gruber: in a public space.

Gage: in a public space, the worst scariest place to be a performer. And there are so many interactive lessons that I learned from that about how to like prime somebody to feel comfortable, interacting, how to get them up to speed fast enough that they feel comfortable exploring and get comfortable in the space.

And just start to do the kind of creative, interesting interaction that makes your work shine. And I think in games, and in design, a lot of the conversation that I hear is really built around, how to meet a user's expectations. How to build a thing that will be comfortable for a user to interact with.

You know, if you're building a tax website, you don't want the user to be becoming an expert at using a tax website. You just want them to be able to do all the stuff so that they can do their taxes. The other thing that the website's there for. So the design is always in service to this, this other thing, but in games and in art and interactive art, the interaction is the art.

That's the experience. And so it's really important. You know, when you look at something like Candy Crush or a lot of freemium games, a lot of times the design is there to get people, to be doing the real thing, which is spending the money or thinking about the puzzle or getting frustrated, but in the best games what you really want people to do is become performers.

And because performers are the most skilled and the most exciting players, there are the people who will do things with your game that you never thought were possible. And they're also the people who are the most likely to be able to grow with your game and to take something away and say, wow, I really valued playing that. That helped me as a person in some way.

And so there's this different kind of way to approach design, where you think about how to turn people into the most talented performers that they can be. And I think I really, that's a really big deal for me with game design and it came directly out of that art practice.

Gruber: Yeah. I mean, and that is spoken like, like a natural born artist. And again, it's not like you don't make money. And we'll talk about that. But it comes to one of my favorite points that I, it it's little bits of wisdom if I could impart to everybody, is that one of the most important is that it's not enough to just have a handful of top priorities, three things.

These are the three things I care about. It really matters what order those priorities [are] in, and it has profound implications, like 1, 2, 3 versus 2, 1, 3, and moving your goal for profitability up one tick inevitably has such profound implications down the road. Immediately and then down the road, it, you just end up in, in, on a different continent, right?

Candy Crush, let's throw them under the bus. That's a big company, part of King Games

Gruber: and.

That's part of the Activision Blizzard conglomerate that Microsoft has just acquired for I forget how many massive billions of dollars? I don't know.

69, 68, I think. Yeah. That's it. Here's how I remember it. It's like $68.7 billion. And I just, in my mind, it's like they came to 69 billion and they're like, Microsoft is, is sort of like the opposite of Elon Musk and they don't, they don't want a funny number as the price.

They're like, how about we knock it down to 68.7 and we'll use that as opposed to if it was Elon and, and the negotiated price was 68.7. He'd be like, I'll just give you another $300 million. So we can say it's 69 billion, right? $69 billion. That's a lot of money for video games and, and so clear. And, you know, they make lots of money.

Candy Crush is clearly, it stood the test of time, right? It's obviously not a flash in the pan. It's at least a decade old.

Gage: Oh yeah, it's a good game. It's just a little evil.

Gruber: Right, because once your priority is to keep the money coming and, and I th I think it's, fair to say that from their perspective, that's the number one priority of Candy Crush it, I guess number, maybe number one is to keep it fun or addictive or something. Right. Because if, if, you know, cause otherwise the money doesn't come, but that that's sort of part and parcel with each other. Right. You obviously need the players willing to spend money, you know, but it just seems like that's the top priority and

Gage: It's all metrics driven.

Gruber: Right.

Gage: Which is like a, I dunno, I, this is one thing I always hear. Every time I talk to anybody in the industry, in the mobile industry about stuff, they're always like, what's your retention? Like what's your day 20. And I always feel like retention. What, why are we even like, I understand why we talk about retention because it, it is a number that you can tie a lot of value to.

But on the other hand, it's like, I don't know. Like, I've never, when somebody is like, I love this movie. I'm never like, oh, oh, you love the movie. How many times did you watch it? Did you watch it 300 times? Because all of my movies, I want to make sure everybody watches them 300 times. They're like, what does that have to do with the quality of something?

It's a very, I dunno for me, it feels like a very toxic space, to think about success through that kind of lens.

Gruber: I don't look at analytics at Daring Fireball. I really, I it's been years. It's been years. I don't even have analytics at the moment. I, I unhooked Google analytics. I don't know at this point, maybe two years ago and haven't hooked anything up and there's a couple of privacy oriented analytics packages that I'm, I'm probably going to pick one soon and put it on.

Cause there's, there are some things I would like to know and I'd like, I would like to know if something terrible is truly happening. I honest to God though. Don't look. But even when I, when I do put something back on, and even when I had Google Analytics there, I. any kind of tracking codes.

I, I never tracked which articles were the most important. I mean, maybe in the very early days, like 15, 16, 17 years ago, I used to track referrals and I could tell if a full article I wrote was getting a lot of links coming in from other blogs, but now that's sort of useless cause it, that's not really way where you get traffic.

And I just don't want to know that if I write about a user, my user interface, gripes with iOS or Mac, right. I don't want to know that those posts perform poorly or, or perform well, but, you know, maybe they perform poorly and people are more interested in my commentary on, on other stuff. I just want to follow my muse and write the things that I'm interested in. And I, I don't want to get twisted by knowing that when I write about Apple Script, people's eyes glaze over in the back of their heads and they skip to the next post. I don't care if you skip though. Right? It's like, I don't, I don't care when Gruber writes about Apple Script, just, okay, cool.

Go to the next article, you know, close the tab and come back, in a couple hours or tomorrow, or in a couple of days, I'm happy to have you come back and, hopefully I'll have something that will interest you. That's great. I just don't even want to know.

Gage: I love that. I also don't do any analytics. And in fact, not words has no analytics packages or anything in it. And I, it does numbers just make me depressed. And I think, yeah, it's like a, it's a weird, like, secret that you, you don't need to do analytics to run a successful business or be successful in tech

It's so refreshing. All right, let me take another break here and thank our next sponsor. It's our good friends at, Memberful. Speaking about making people happy. Memberful is where you, as a creative person can monetize your passion with memberships. Memberful allows you the creative person to build a sustainable recurring revenue.

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It is just wonderful. everyone from, our friends at six Colors, Jason Snell and Dan Moren's site, and a whole bunch of podcasts. The list goes on and on. Here's where you go to find out more, go to If you have some sort of thing where you would like to create a membership system, go check them out. I cannot recommend them highly enough. It is really terrific. Let's talk, Knotwords. Let's go deep. It's the new game. That's why you're here right now. or as I like to say it on the podcast K-notwords. You've done word games before, that's it? This is a, well, you keep coming back to, there was SpellTower.

I forget what else, I mean, in, in a sense sort of Sudoku is sort of a word game, but with numbers, right? It definitely impacted this game.

Gruber: Hmm. Right. And what a Good Sudoku was really pretty interesting because that's one that was really interesting to me because Sudoku became a phenomenon. At least to my mind. I know people, my mom, for example, has books and books and books of Sudoku.

She loves doing Sudokus in books. It's a huge thing. So I know you can play them on, on paper. But they got computerized pretty early. It's been done so many times. I guess the two, before we get, I said, we're going to get to Knotwords, but let's talk about. Let's talk about good Sudoku and the solitaire games you've done.

Because these are two games that have been done to death. Solitaire arguably, I don't know if this is still true, but I know for a very long time was, was indisputably the most played video game in the world because it shipped with Microsoft Windows

Gage: Yeah, I mean, Solitaire is an incredible game. If you back up and think about it, like Solitaire is a randomly generated puzzle that was invented hundreds of years before video games and then video games didn't even really tackle randomly generated puzzles very well until recently when everybody's become really obsessed with Rogue-likes and that whole genre space.

Gruber: So what makes you think as somebody who's forte is distinctive games, right? There is a Zach Gageiness, to a Zach Gage game.It's not like your forte is doing, just plain solitaire, but with the prettiest graphics. Which you know, is a fine thing, right. There were some of those I'm sure you remember from like the Mac shareware scene where it was like, yeah, sure. Windows has Solitaire built in, but look at the, look at the card designs on this game from the Mac. right,

I appreciate you saying that my games have a quality that moves from game to game. Cause I think early on, I remember being told in art school that I needed to make sure that I focused on one thing, because if I did lots of different things, nobody would be able to make heads or tails of my work.

Gage: So it's really nice to be able to make lots of different things and hear that it feels like there's a narrative or a cohesion to it. I think for me, the thing is that I'm not making a Solitaire game cause I want to make solitaire or even cause I like Solitaire. I usually don't like the kinds of games that I make and then making them as a way that I learn to appreciate them and enjoy the space.

Really what I want to do is I want to make games that make people think and become better critical thinkers. Because I think critical thinking is the most important skill that a human being can have. And I have a lot of beef with how our educational system works.

Gruber: Oh

Gage: And so.

Gruber: God don't get me started there. There it goes. There it goes, there goes to the next hour, but I agree. I do agree.

Gage: Yeah, it's, it's really weird. but we also, I, we just had a kid and watching him learn is also just like every day. I'm like, oh my God, I can't believe the way that we teach things, watching this kid learn. It's not at all how any, anybody learns in school. Yeah, so I, I want to make games that help people become better critical thinkers and also help people learn the language of video games.

If you know how video games work, you get access to this amazing literacy. That is the same literacy that's used in interactive art. It's the same literacy that's used in avant-garde film and plays. It's like this deep, incredible space. If you can just teach people how to access it.

Gage: And one of the things that I love about making games on the iPhone is that the iPhone audience is predominantly normal, non-game people and being able to make games for them is super interesting to me. And the thing is what most people know about games is they know about chess pieces and they know about cards and they know about word stuff, and they know about billiards maybe.

And so the tools that I have at my disposal to try to make games for this audience are a very different set of tools than most people who are making video games feel like they have, to work with. And so, when I think about games or encounter a game, that seems sort of interesting, like Solitare.

Where I go is okay, well, what's, what's a way that I could make this game much deeper or explore something else. Something that's not traditionally explored by, what somebody would expect in this category. But then how do I make it look and feel approachable like this game? So somebody who normally plays Solitaire would be able to pick up something like Flipflop Solitaire or something like Sage Solitaire and have what is really like a cutting edge game design experience, but built upon, a stack of things that they understand.

Gruber: Yeah. I think that point you made a minute ago about how, okay. You've looked at these other Solitare games, but they all dissatisfy you in a certain way. There's something, it's like, I kind of, I get how this is a genius game and it was really, really clever back when it was only in, could only be played with a physical deck of cards.

But something about these video game versions dissatisfied you, and how do you scratch that itch so that it satisfies you. And I feel like that's the key to so much creativity, but it also the creative personality is always full of doubts.

Gruber: And, and so many people think, I would like to make a Solitare game that's different, but all the other Solitaire games are this way. So I guess I shouldn't, because there must be that way for a reason. And, and, and instead you should, you should see that as an opportunity, you know, like it's the fact that you see you're you're dissatisfied or you think I could do that.

could do something better than that. Then you should do it. It's not a reason not to do it because it's, it's not the way it was always done.

Gage: Yeah. And also the second part of that, that's the key is you should do it. You have to do it. I think something that people might not realize about the games that I make is I'm probably make a hundred prototypes a year and I probably release one game a year and sometimes the games make it three seconds and then I put them down.

And sometimes they make it many hours of work and then we scrap them. You have to both be confident and comfortable with admitting when something sucks. And then if you do that enough, when you find something that is good, that is different. It's really obvious. Cause you're like, oh, I enjoy this. This is actually fun to do.

In other words, it's sort of like a process of going from an idea that's purely in your head and then you've got to start making it real and it coagulates to become more and more real, or it gets to a point and you're like, ah, this, this, this is a dead end,

Gage: Yeah. I'll try to walk you through a really quick one. so, so with, with Flipflop solitaire, which is, kind of like it was heavily inspired by Spider Solitaire, which is a really interesting Solitare variant for years. One of the things that's really interesting to me is this concept of difficulty and how people associate difficulty with games.

You know, a lot of games let you pick easy mode or hard mode, some games try to adapt themselves as you play to different kinds of difficulty. There's like this whole world of thinking about difficulty and challenge in games. And it's something that I think about all the time. And a lot of my games offer a variety of ways to sort of attempt to deal with this problem of trying to find the right difficulty game for the right person.

Gage: And, Really Bad Chess is a really simple example of that because Really Bad Chess, like literally your board gets worse and worse. The better you get in the game. It's like teaching you how to play chess in this very friendly way, but it's also very cruel because like at some point in the game, the computer has nine Queens and you have no Queens and you're still trying to play the game.

So that's like a very clear sort of like exploration into this difficulty question. So what I noticed is I was just looking at games and I found this game, Spider Solitaire. And Spider Solitaire has this phenomenal quality, which is that when you play a game of Spider Solitaire, it has three difficulties.

Gage: You can play with one suit, which is every card in the, in the deck of cards. You just count them as all the same. It doesn't matter what suit they are. You can play as two suits, which is black and red, or you can play as four suits, which is each suit. And the thing that's interesting is the X, the difficulty of the game is exponential.

So almost everybody who plays for any length of time can solve one suit. Two suits, much harder. And four suits is almost impossible. Four suits is like, you could play Spider Solitaire your whole life, and the day that you solve a four suit, you'll post it to Reddit and be like, I did this. this is amazing.

And the thing that's mind blowing to me, thinking about difficulty in spotting this is, I can't think of any games like that. Right? Like most people don't play, you know, a video game uneasy every day, but then some days they're like, oh, I'll, I'll try hard. I'll just try hard today and then go back to easy.

That's not part of the idea of how we think about difficulty and so I was just like completely enamored with this small aspect of the game that relates to this big thing that I'm thinking about my whole career, which is how does difficulty work and how do people interact with it. but then to, to the point that you said earlier, I looked at it and I thought, okay, well, Spider Solitaire, this is like 10 piles.

It doesn't work on a phone. It's great on the table. How do I condense it down? Maybe if I make it so that you can stack up and down, not just down with your cards, maybe then I can cut the number of piles in half. Cause I've doubled your ability to interact with the game. And I'm going to cut the piles down to five and five will fit nicely on a phone.

And it turns out that actually making you stack up and down is an entirely interesting, weird direction to go with solitaire. And you'd think that this tiny little twist wouldn't change the game much, but it entirely shifts the game. And instantly I was playing it with cards. I realized that that was true.

And then that was the game. I figured out how to develop it and push it. And I got to explore this thing with difficulty that I've been like looking at my whole career. And then I also got to, you know, try to fit a table game onto a phone and do all the other fun, interesting things about making a game deeper.

Gruber: So you actually prototyped it with just like a deck of cards in your hand.

Yeah. Yeah. Kind of, kind of an advantage to making a Solitary game of any guy is

Gage: It's the best thing about cards. The, a deck of cards is my favorite tool of all time. My desert island game is just a deck of cards. I don't care what the game is. You could, I could entertain myself for a thousand years with a deck of cards.

Gruber: It's so funny. I love a slight of hand and,


Gage: my God. Right? The total other area of cards.

Gruber: I don't do it at all and it may be in some other universe, I would have grown up and tried to teach myself some of it. I don't really think I have any, to do it, but as a, as a, an observer, a fan and audience member, I, I love it. And I will watch it.

I've watched like the late great Ricky Jay's TV specials, all of them, like six times, Those slight of hand magicians speak of a deck of, they just love cards and they keep cards with them all the time, and they do unbelievable things. Ricky J you know, used to throw cards.

Gage: Yeah. Yeah. I saw him live once. It was really an incredible experience

Gruber: Oh, my God. I'm jealous that you saw them live. I wish I would have,but he could throw a card, like just a regular card, like not like a special, oh, you got to, you know, mail order from some outfit in Las Vegas that'll send you these cards that are extra stiff. I mean, go to your local drug store and buy a pack of Bicycle playing cards, the kind that everybody knows, and he could throw them at a watermelon across the room and stick them into the rind.

And it's like, you know, like scary, you know, like he could use a single card as a weapon.And I do, like, I like playing card games like poker and blackjack and, and stuff like that. It's, it's such a wonderful invention and it, it always amuses me to in the casinos, the way that, speaking of Candy Crush, but the way they keep inventing new games that use decks of cards.

And I always know, I never play them almost never. Maybe you get a couple drinks in me and I'll play 50 bucks, but because I know that there's only, the only reason a casino would invent a new game is because they make more money from it, as opposed to blackjack where you can kind of break even if you know the rules.

And so I'm deeply, deeply skeptical and suspicious of any new game, but it fascinates me that they just keep coming up with them. You know, the four suits, 13 cards in each suit, and you could just keep making games with them. It's so interesting.

Gage: I love, I had a really fundamental career experience walking around a casino for a day. I'm trying my hardest to sort of, space out from the manipulative depressing nature of it. And just focus on the games. Those games in casinos are unbelievable. I think one of the things that's the most interesting about casino games is they're one of the only forms of artistic expression that has a coherent metric that is the metric. Which is how much money do these games make per minute. And so they're all like aggressively tuned to this very specific metric that is itself super vague and weird. One of my favorite games in the casino is three card poker.

Are you familiar with that? Three card poker is like one of the most beautiful games I've ever seen. It's this game where, for, if anyone from your audience isn't familiar with it, you basically are dealt three cards and then you have to decide, or you're dealt two cards and you have to decide if you're going to, I think it's two, two or three, you have to decide if you're going to play the hand or not.

And then you get dealt three more cards and that's your hand. And either you win or you lose it. And what's incredible about it is this moment of decision. It's just random. There's no, you don't know if you're going to have a good hand or you're going to have a bad hand and there's some more complexity to it that I'm not talking about with how the dealer's cards work, but basically it's totally random. But because you have this tiny bit of information and because of the pageantry of the game and how your bets move around on the table, it feels like you're playing this game that is incredibly elegant and interesting. And that this moment of choice is super meaningful. And how they did that with nothing, it's incredible.

I do like that game. I don't play a lot of it, but, I like it for that reason. It's also very fun to play with a friend or like your spouse or somebody, you know, so that you can play together. And it's social, right? Like I, I'm not a slot machine player. And you know, I know that they're by far and away the most popular casino games, but I know they make most of the money and I know most people like to play them, but I don't have any fun playing them because there's no decisions.

Gruber: You just hit a button and then you either win or you lose. And I find that to be very boring. There's no social element to it. Like, and I don't want to go off on a casino rant, but I also love to play craps, but I really only like to play craps if I'm with friends. And it's been a couple of years because of COVID, but I've had times where a bunch of friends, we've gone to Vegas. And playing craps with friends at the same table is amazing because you typically with, you know, and there's a gazillion weird bets you can make on a craps table, but if you just sort of bet the pass line, which is, is the person with the dice going to win or lose, you all play together and you win and lose together. Which is in an incredible game design element. The other thing I think you'd appreciate that if you think about craps, if craps was not a game that had existed since I dunno, I dunno when it was invented, but it's ever, since the existence of casinos in Las Vegas existed, craps was already part of gambling culture. It, nobody would invent that now because the table is huge. It takes up a huge amount of space and it's it's manpower heavy. There's there's at least, I think at least three. People who there's the, the guy in the suit or the person in the suit who sits down low and they have like a mirror there and that person runs the table and looks at everything.

And there's, the stick man that who literally just has the stick to move the dice around and put them back with the shooter and two other, employees who just make sure all the bets are good and pays off all the bets. So there's like four people at all times at a craps table. But if it hadn't been invented now and you, you and I went to you know, Caesars and said, we've invented a new game. It's going to be a 15 foot long table. It's going to require four full-time employees. And the rules are as thick as a book. They would just say, get out. But it's great. And you'll see, the other thing too about craps is when you're in a casino, you can always tell when a craps table is hot because it is full.

And what happens is people notice that a craps table is hot and people are winning, and then they fill in all the available spots. And then they kind of cram in and take spots that aren't really available. Just sort of stick their arm in until till the employees are like, Yeah, yeah, this table is full.

You can't play, you got to wait, but then people will stand behind the table. Cause they're hoping while the table's hot that they can join in. And then when the shooter hits their number again, the table just erupts, like their team justhit a home, run in a close baseball game. And it fills the whole casino with this certain noise that is very human, very social and very different from the ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding of, the slot machines, just sort of endlessly beeping and bopping.

I love craps. I don't like to play it, but I really like to, go into casinos with friends and watch them play it. And again, yeah, it's totally, the thing about craps is it's just this major victory for the narrative generation of a game. It's just all narrative. And that narrative is so thrilling and irresistible to be a part of.

Gage: And it has this incredible mechanic where you can bet on a number and every time the shooter hits that number, you get paid. So it's like, you've created a little money factory and everybody's got their own little factories. And one thing that I realized when I got into craps is like craps must have been a major inspiration for Settlers of Catan, which is like the biggest American board game since Monopoly.

It's the same mechanic. You're constructing little cities on numbers. And when those numbers get rolled, you get paid.

Gruber: Yeah. That's, that's a good, that's a good, analo... I'm not a huge, I I'm familiar with the game enough to see what you mean. That's, that's pretty good. That is the times that I've won money. Like significant amount of like, holy crap. Look how much any chips I have. I better leave. I better get. Let's go. It's always because I had like money on the six and the eight while some shooter is you know, as like a 10, which is sort of a rare number.

So in other words, the shooter is just sitting there shooting over and over again until they get it another 10, at which point they win and all the bets are paid off and everything's over and we start all over again, or they rolled the dreaded seven and then they lose. And all the bets, every bet is cleared off that felt, and it all goes to the casino.

Gruber: And in the meantime, while you're waiting for the shooter to either roll a seven and lose our hidden other 10, and when, if they keep rolling sixes and eights in there, you just keep getting paid and you can just leave your bet up there. And it just keeps coming. It just keeps coming and coming and coming.

And those are the times where it's like, some kid just keeps shooting the dice and just isn't winning, isn't losing, and you've got like the six and the eight or something, whatever numbers, whatever your lucky numbers are. And all of a sudden, you've got this giant stack of chips and it's like, how did this happen?

It's amazing. And it feels like the whole universe is just smiling upon you. And it's of course, I know, I know in my mind that it's just stupid, stupid statistical luck and that there they are guaranteed the most honest dice in the universe.

Gruber: There's

Gage: Yeah.

Gruber: But you can't help, but feel that there is a narrative at play, right?

It was the same thing. When a craps table is ice cold. It's like, oh, this, this table stinks.

Gage: Yeah. Yeah. And just in case, so I don't feel like I'm an idiot when I really listened to this later. I know that Catan is not an American board game but it was an American board game phenomenon.

Gruber: Right. Let's talk. So that leads us to craps. Of course, we just directly to knot, Knotwords, the crosswords game, Knotwords is in a, maybe in a nut I quoted when I linked to it on Daring Fireball over the weekend, I quoted your description. And you don't mention this, but I would just say, I think most people would describe it as a crossword game without clues,

Gage: Yes.

Gruber: Which sounds sounds impossible at first.

Gage: Right, Right, It sounds like there's not even a game.

Gruber: Right. The trick is how do you do this without clues? They're just English words. The typical words that would be in a crossword puzzle as you know it. And the, crossword, the board game, the board, if you would call, it looks like it could be a regular crossword game where you would play it with clues, at first glance.

But then there's little sub shapes within the game, sort of like Tetris pieces, but they are not necessary. You know, Tetris pieces famously are all four squares. That's the Tet in Tetris, you know, they could be three, they could be five. I don't know. What's the, what's the biggest chunk that that's allowed in Knotwords, are there

Gage: I think they, I think they go up to seven

Gruber: Oh, okay. Maybe

Gage: puzzles, but yeah, that's two to seven in general.

It might be like a little L shape. It might be a little square. It's like any kind of imaginable, little shape of two to seven squares. And then in the corner of that piece, it'll tell you these, it's a say it's a little, four square shape.

it'll tell you these four squares consist of these four letters. There may not be a complete word. In fact, typically there's no complete word in that piece. You just have to use it combined with the adjacent ones to make words. You pick it up pretty quickly, which again is a sort of a hallmark of your games where you don't need to read a lot of rules to pick it up and start playing.

And I think to touch on one of your previous points, that's why sort of playing off these classic forms like billiards and, crosswords and solitaire. People already know the order of a deck of cards. That, Jack is less than a queen is less than a king. And they know that a crossword puzzle gets filled in with words.

Gruber: So you're starting with this sort of foundational knowledge. I it's, how do you describe Knotwords.

Gage: Yeah. I mean, I think you did a pretty good job. It's the really simple description if people have this backing is it's kind of like KenKen meets crosswords. but if you've never played Ken Ken, then yeah. It's basically a crossword puzzle where the whole grid is split up into zones. And then in those zones, you have a couple of letters that you have to distribute and then you have to make it so that all of the across and down words are real words.

So you're just sort of taking these little pieces and untangling, these kind of partial anagrams to create these full words.

Gruber: You describe it, each puzzle may seem difficult at first, but like all my favorite newspaper puzzles, it gets easier as you progress. And I thought that was an interesting way to describe it, that it is sort of like a newspaper puzzle. I used to love back when I read a daily newspaper every day, I did the jumble every day.

That was such a stupid game. I don't do regular crossword puzzles cause they take too long and I get bored. I've never been a fan. But the jumble was good because sometimes you could solve it in a minute if you got lucky and usually two or three minutes, you should be able to get the jumble. You know, the jumble for people who don't know it was I think 5, 5 letter words every day. I think there were five, which is sort of reminiscent of jumble, but. And they would just be scrambled, just five scrambled words.

And there'd be a little cartoon to go with it with a, with a caption. And then within those five words where you just unscrambled the anagrams to make words, there would be circles in different spots. And then this once you've solved all five, the five that are circled is one more anagram to solve. And then that one is the clever pun to the cartoon that goes with it. Do you remember jumble? Or am I telling you about a

Gage: know. I do remember it and I like it. I have a like sort of armchair loose obsession with newspaper puzzles for a lot of different reasons, but probably because I've been working in this space for so long. But yeah, for my whole career, basically I have, I've had this obsession with these very simple kinds of puzzles that are out there.

I think a really good example is Sudoku. That's why I worked in it, but also,Picross or Nonograms if people are familiar with it, there's one called Two Not Touch that they started running in the Times this year. It's basically, there's this world of these logic puzzles that you can print on a sheet of paper and that's the whole game.

Gage: And each one is a unique puzzle every day and you look at it and at first it seems impossible. And then you start working it. And as you put answers in those answers form, these like very dramatic constraints onto the future of the puzzle. And I think if you look at a crossword puzzle, if you put one word in a crossword puzzle that really doesn't do much for your other answers, right?

Like maybe you get one letter on one word and so, okay. Maybe I've got three words in, and that gives me enough that I can find something, but it's not like dramatically reducing the possibility space of what words could go in this thing or helping you. But in Sudoku, if you put in one number that can like change the whole puzzle, it can, it affects the row. It affects the column. It affects its box. It might give you, it might affect something with another one of the same number that gives you another answer. That affects note, it's like this giant cascade of like information and ideas that come out of just this one small thing. And, I, in my mind, over the years of thinking about this, I kind of call it, like a possibility funnel.

So as you get closer to the end of the puzzle, that funnel shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until by the end, it's inevitable that you would solve the puzzle, but it still feels exciting because you're at the climax of this journey that you've taken with this puzzle and designing a game that has that, that also is incredibly simple and you can look at it and see it.

And it fits on a piece of paper. All those qualities together is just like a nightmare. And it's so hard. And I sort of still am a little reeling that we found a new one, because this is just something I've like as a design goal. As a game designer, it's been been something for a very long time.

Gruber: Yeah, I think, I think you could definitely play Knotwords on paper. I think the biggest problem would be you definitely... I would at least need to erase a lot.

And and I mean, this sincerely I'm not even making a joke, but like it would be, it would the problem with Knotwords as a newspaper game would be the newspaper is such crap paper that erasing, you'd wear through the paper pretty quickly. It is true and Knotwords absolutely has that feel to it where it's like, I started playing and it's like, the sort of onboarding game or maybe there's a couple are very small and, and, you know, cause it it's sorta like play this one, which is really small and easy to get the feel for it.

And then it's like, okay, here's a real daily puzzle. And I was like, oh my God, this is impossible. I'll never get to get this. I just, this is my brain. Doesn't work this way. And I just sit there and hunt and I'm like, oh, well here's one where it has to, there has to be a three letter word right, here out of this group, all in this thing.

And the only three letter word out of these four letters, I think the only one that you could make is, Hey, H E Y. That's it. There's no other, Yeah. There's no other possibility here. Okay. Well then now I've got a word. And oh, well this other spot has to be the I, even though it goes in a different direction and you start finding these spots in the puzzle where you can you can definitely make a conclusion. Or, this is the part where you need the eraser. It's like, oh, I could see two words out of this group right here. All right. I'll guess a coma. All right. And then, then, then say, ah, God, I've pick, I made a mistake with coma. I gotta delete that. Now I got to delete this. I got to delete that and put a different word in that spot and it's oh, okay. Yeah. Now, if I do that, then this becomes obvious and it's pretty easy to make a word. And it's, you know, like if you get yourself in a spot where you think you've got a couple of words in Knotwords, but it leaves you with a new word that starts NV.

You're like, well, I I've obviously made a mistake, some sort of terrible mistake because I don't need to look in the unabridged dictionary. There's definitely no word that starts NV.

and I'll just say that, then you get towards the end. And this w what I thought was, I am never going to finish this one.

Gruber: This is impossible, but then I get towards the end and I'm like, I guarantee I'm going to, I know I'm going to beat this, but I need to, I need to see it to completion. I need to fill in the very last square, even though in my gut, I feel a hundred percent certain now I'm going to beat this in the next minute or two. But I'm not just going to put the game down before I've actually put the very last letter in and gotten a beep and a bop from the game to tell me I beat it.

Gage: Yeah. And I, I think that's the, that's part of the joy of newspaper puzzles is that when they're done, you can see it. And it's like, they're filled in, you in all the letters and getting to that point is really different from something like solitare. Where like most solitaire games, once, you know, you're about to win a button pops up and you go, boop, and the computer does everything for you.

But with newspaper games, there's something special about being able to see it. And yeah, and that, that funnel that's so glad. I'm so happy to hear that that's been your experience with it. That's exactly the kind of experience that that we're going for. And I think something that I was really surprised to learn working with Sudoku on good Sudoku to talk to another thing that you hit on a little bit is this idea of like you think Sudoku is a beautiful game because the rules are really elegant, but the reality is most Sudoku puzzles are terrible.

Gage: Like 99% of like, of things that you would have, like numbers that you put in. They don't even work. They're not even puzzles. And then like in that 1% of things that are actually Sudoku puzzles, many of them are impossible or too hard. And the way that you actually get to a good Sudoku is by building a generator.

That's really smart. That knows how to solve it. That knows how to identify the little diamonds in the rough of possibility space. And so if we were to do a Knotwords newspaper puzzle, those puzzles might look quite different than the puzzles that we put in the game. They might have more spots that are, that are like anchor points where you can say something for sure, to try to like reduce the space of erasing and things like that.

Gruber: How do you guys generate the puzzles for not words?

Gage: We that's a very complicated question. We spent a really long time building the generator. The game was in development for, I think probably six or seven months. And I, I would say we probably spent four of those months building a generator. Jack, my partner on the project has had a lot of practice because we built Good Sudoku and we, figured out how to build one of the best Sudoku generators in the world, which is, you know, there's not any documentation really on how to do that.

So we kind of had to reverse engineer it. And I think that set of skills really paid off here. When we prototype the game, I originally prototyped it on a piece of paper. And, as Jack started building the generator, I would, with some game design friends, we would make puzzles by hand for each other and figure out which kind of puzzles were good and what things were interesting.

And then Jack would build a generator and we would look at what the puzzles looked like and compare them with our hand-built puzzles and say, okay, well, is there some kind of rule we can come up with for the computer to teach it? What is interesting about this puzzle? That's not interesting about the puzzle that it generated.

And so Jack and I went back and forth on that, where he was sort of the interface to this complicated algorithm. And then I was the hand built design interface to like what we knew was right about the puzzles. And we just went back and forth for a really long time. And Jack came up with some really clever algorithm ideas and, we eventually got the generator to a space where it was generating really great puzzles.

Gruber: Does does that mean that because you can trust the generator that the puzzle is solvable? That you don't have to human test every single puzzle that goes into Knotwords.

Gage: Yeah. And in fact it means a little bit more than that. We do some stuff that probably seems like it's a magical, result of the rules that actually isn't. So for example, we do a lot of, one of our metrics in terms of our puzzle generation has to do with,possible permutations that can exist within the puzzle.

And so we, in the standard puzzles in the game are very restrictive of how many permutations can exist. So, like, for example, if you've put in two different six letter words that interact with each other, they're right. Like they have to be right, because we don't allow for puzzles that have that size words that are interacting that are like not working.

And so doing that, like cutting out those kinds of puzzle structures is a big part of what makes that, possibility space funnel happen. It's like removing those options is why when you put in a bunch of words, they're usually correct, except maybe one of them's wrong in this other way and then you figure that out. And we're careful about how, how we adjust that because in the game there's a kind of puzzle called a twist puzzle that has some numbers that count how many vowels are in each row or column that they're related to. And in those puzzles, we allow a lot more permutations, but still only one for the answer.

Gage: So you're kind of, incentivized to use those numbers as a tool for solving the puzzle.

What'd you guys use to build like the word list

Gage: So, we use Wordnik, which is an, an source word list that you can license for games. And then, over the years, after making a lot of word games, I've sort of compiled a lot of lists, including lists around how well-known words are.

Gruber: Oh yeah. That's interesting.


Gage: So I, I have lists of like hyper, commonly known words and then slightly less known words.

And we use those also as a basis of generation. So you'll notice and not words as you go throughout the week, the Friday, Saturday, Sunday puzzles often include more words that are a little bit less known or even in the puzzle books. Some of one of our puzzle types is uncommon words. And that puzzle is also filled with words that are less likely to be super commonly known.

Gruber: Yeah, there was a, I play, I guess. Cause I played over the weekend in anticipation of this. I was, there was a three-letter word. I'm going to forget it. It was like TEC or T a C. And I was like, I don't know, it doesn't look like a word to me, but one of the things is if you can try the word it's, there's no penalty for trying a word that, that isn't a word.

It just gives you a little squiggle out to say, that's not, that's not a legit word. so if it says that's a word it's not confirming that you've put the right word in. It's just confirming, this is considered within Knotwords, a legitimate word to play. But one of my favorite little features, cause otherwise it would drive me nuts, on a phone in particular, you don't want to be switching back and forth while you're playing a game to, for me, a dictionary app is if there's a word that I don't know what it means, I want to look it up and you can always there's there's just a little dictionary lookup button once you've completed a word. And then, you know, like it's, I guess it's based on which square has input focus right now.

Like if you wanted to change that square and if it is part of a complete word, you could just hit the dictionary button and it'll tell you the definition from like, which, and I don't know if you have multiple sources. It seems like most of the definitions come from Wiktionary, which I

Gage: Yeah. It's from Wordnik and Wordnik is of multi-source open-source dictionary. So sometimes they'll come from Wordnik or a variety of other ones, but it's all built in the same sort of word list on, on our end. And yeah, that's a great, the, your point about not wanting to open up the dictionary on your phone is, is I really appreciate that point.

I think, that's something I try to be super cognizant of with building word games and it's something I've noticed when like, something like Myst will get a port and suddenly Myst is on the phone. or something like that. I always think like, this is so frustrating because like the phone is my notebook or it is my dictionary.

Like if I'm playing a game on the computer and I have some kind of note that I have to take down, I'll take a photo of it with my phone, or I'll write it down with my phone. So I always try to be very cognizant of if I'm making a game for the phone, this is in the place of the player. notebook our reference tool.

And I want to make sure that anything that they would have to write down or look up or anything like that would be included in the game because otherwise, like people aren't walking around with two phones to look up definitions in Knotwords.

Gruber: Right. So, you know, it's, it's so convenient and it's so satisfying because maybe you didn't even guess it. Cause you don't know the word. This isn't the word. I just looked it up while we were talking to her. But tech TEC is a word it's, it's some kind of mid century shorthand for the word detective that wasn't the word I'm thinking of.

It wasn't it was something like that though. But I've never heard of TEC either now I'm ready for it and not words, but it let's say you, you end up, it's just like any other crossword puzzle where you can end up filling in a word without ever guessing the clue because you fill in all the other words in the other direction.

And you know, so let's say it's T E C across, but you filled in all the ones that go down and now you've you you've got it. And it says, it's a word. And you're like, well, what the hell does that mean? Boom. You're like two taps away from, oh, okay. It's like a mid-century nickname for a police detective. Oh, interesting.

And now you've learned a word

Gage: One of the things that I'm really excited about, about not words is that it has that quality of, because of the funnel, being able to allow you to enter in words that you didn't know and, discover them. And that's a very uncommon, quality on a word game. Like I think even if you think about like Wordle, which is basically the most accessible or approachable word game that I've ever seen, we're almost everybody solves Wordle almost every day.

Even in that, if you didn't know the word, it would be really hard to solve word all despite all of the clues, because the game is about recall and about being able to identify this word that you know about. And so being able to have, clues and structured puzzles in Knotwords that get you to words that you didn't know, even though you'd think that that would be impossible.

Gage: It's, it's really cool. And so being able to look up them and learn definitions of strange words, I always get really excited when that happens to me in one of the puzzles.

Gruber: Yeah. You mentioned when we first got in touch about doing the show and you, you got me. on the beta of Knotwords a couple of weeks ago, you mentioned Wordle. I mean, I, 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, my parents are both they're, you know, my dad's I think 84. And my mom's like in her late seventies, but they're both very healthy. We're so lucky, that everybody's healthy and around.

And now all four of us play Wordle every day and we have a group chat in 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, and I certainly love my parents. I talked 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, for so long. And now it's there every single day we all play. and I can't, I don't know. I never, it it's actually improved our lives in a certain way. I, it really has like, and, you know, cause it's, it's mostly filled with Wordle talk, you know, line four, line three. All right.

Trophy goes to, Bob today. But we, you know, you can put other things in there, right? And so now we've got like this active, social, passively active social channel, which is why group chats are so great. what, what, what a great thing. And, 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 until midnight. And, and of course, if you really want to, you can, cause 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, 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 literally the opposite of Candy Crush.

Gage: Yeah, I, 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 Knotwords 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. 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. 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. What a, you'd never find that by digging into your metrics.

Gruber: I would, I would be bored to tears playing three Wordles in a row. I would, I honestly would. And I did, because I wrote about the rip offs and the rip offs 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.

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 too.

It's like,

Gage: Yeah.

Gruber: cause it's sort of,

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 and It's so healthy. It must be a good field. And, and you know, part of not words is okay, the daily puzzles, are certainly take significantly more time than solving a Wordle.

It's it's, you know, it's a little bit more akin to a crossword puzzle, but smaller, you know, than, than like the daily newspaper crossword puzzle. 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.

And there's absolutely no mechanic telling you and now instantly let's roll into this game. You know, keep going, keep going, keep playing, keep playing, keep playing until your phone battery is dead. There's nothing like that. If you'd like to, you can. But you know, there's no pressure and there's no pushing or steering you to keep going.

Gage: 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. 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.

And then I think what else could I do? And for Knotwords, that was when I came up with the twist mode. 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 of, ton of, ton of Knotwords, hours And I think at that point, our puzzle seemed really good because it was very fresh mechanic. And it was really exciting to see where it went, but they actually weren't that good. And so I played, 40 hours of mediocre Knotwords puzzles. And I thought, you know what? We can't have people playing 10 of these a day. We just got to have them play one because otherwise they're going to feel the malaise that I feel.

And now of course the puzzles are much better. And I do feel like people could probably play more if they want it, but they're still going to hit that burnout at some point, no matter what. And it made me feel like this approach was, just a much healthier and a more interesting approach and an approach that will make you feel happier about the time you're spending with the game.

Gruber: Really Mediocre Knotwords.

There's there's your game. So let's talk about how the game, makes money. 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?

Gage: So the, I mean, there's no difference. It's do you hate subscriptions or do you think you're going to be playing for more than three years?

Gruber: So you could, in other words, you could pay 12 bucks once and just buy the game. And now you're, you're in like Flynn, you've got it. Your gold, 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.

Gage: Yeah. And there's a one week free trial. So if you don't even know you can do a free trial.

But you can also play for free forever, right? To some degree. And you just, what are the limits on the free game?

Gage: Yeah. So for free, we just give you basically something that looks like what Wordle gave you. We give you the daily puzzle every day and you can play it every day. 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. And, we give you 10 extra puzzles in the puzzle book a month.

So there's a little bit extra if you want to kinda play more than one, a couple of days 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.

Gruber: So the no ads thing to me, that's how I would do it too. But it's unusual. I mean, what's

Gage: Yeah.

what's the thinking

Gage: Well, so it's, it's actually been. I mean, I've been making games for free that have ads in them for probably six years now. 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. And, this was right around. I don't know if you remember, or were familiar with the Threes/2048 thing.

Gruber: I remember Threes,

Gage: So Threes was this like bespoke indie game that a bunch of my friends made and it was this real phenomenon. And then like a week into it, this game 2048 came out that was basically like heavily influenced by Threes, a little different, but heavily influenced and, totally free and just had a lot of ads.

And it basically that game made like a hundred times the revenue that Threes made, even though Threes like came up with this whole idea and this new mechanic of interacting with things. And so I think being on the App Store, I looked at that and was like, well, geez, that's, that's gonna happen to me if I don't make my games free.

So I need to think through how I can do free and, you know, how to make money with ads and rethink my whole process of, you know, what it looks like for somebody to be playing my game and, and have options and make sure that nobody can undercut me. And I did that for a while. You know, I don't know for sure that I'm never going to do ads again, but there's a lot of stuff that, being in the ad ecosystem, I started to discover that really bothered me.

Ads are, the libraries are big. So your, your, your apps get big. They show good ads right at the start, but the longer your app is on the store, the worse the ads get. And then all of a sudden they're like hawking weird drugs and weight loss things, even if you told them not to. They're like crashing your app and giving horrible bugs.

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. And the person who gets taken advantage of in that situation is like me and the people who are playing my games.

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. And I was like, oh my God, I can't believe this is happening. This is like, I, I don't want to be a part of this. 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 on most of my games, ads are accounting for 20 to 50% of the revenue from games.

Gage: 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, if I don't do this. This is part of the ecosystem. And it's part of what people come to expect from games. And they'll get mad at you, they won't, they won't play a game that they have to pay for it, but they're happy to pay to play these games that like shove a thousand ads in your face.

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. 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.

Gage: And it's a way that we can really provide a very fair ask when we're asking people to play this, right? If you're going to enjoy a game once a day, then we can easily kind of be like, alright, well, that's all you get. Then if you're playing the free version, we're giving you what really feels like a full game, even though it's very restricted and small.

And that kind of gave us this opportunity to try this new adventure. 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? $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.

And it's been a really amazing, I think people have, I've been really surprised by how many people have just gotten the $12 thing. Nobody has ever complained about the price so far. Everybody seems really happy with it and, you know, people seem to be subscribing also. So it's been a really positive experience,

Gruber: Well, that's, that's awesome to hear because nobody is outside the seven day free trial yet.


Right. I mean, although I guess that would be, I guess you get the seven day free trial through paying right.

To get the.

Gage: No. When I look at my analytics, it's like how we've, made like $0 from subscriptions because

Gruber: Right. Right. But that is great to hear. Is part of the thinking (I know we've spent so much time talking about how, you know, you're like, you really are. You're an artist who is driven by, by trying to make the coolest thing), but is part of the thinking like with Threes getting, let's just say they got ripped off.

I remember writing about it. I remember, I, I, at least I just looked it up. I definitely linked to Threes back in 2014. Cause I loved the game. It was so much fun. Or it still is, you know, but you know, like a lot of games you just sorta, you know, you play, I don't know. I played myself out of it. I did the same thing with Letterpress, which I loved.

But eventually I was just like, and I was pretty good at Letterpress. I don't know why I, it there's some combination of, the strategy and the word knowledge. I was really good at boxing people in. And I've heard Go players, talk about that. Like, you know, like, and that Go is notoriously more difficult than chess for computers to beat the top human players because top go players have an intuition.

Gruber: I had like a weird Letterpress intuition and it just worked in my favor.

Gage: So envious of that. That's a game that I always wished I was good at.

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. And then eventually I got introduced to a friend of a friend who works at Apple and, I've because she's still at Apple, I'm not gonna mention her name, but she, she could beat me like Neo dodging bullets. And I was like, oh my God. And it 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. It, you know, it was very interesting. It's like becoming a very good, really good high school tennis player. And then you play a pro and it's like, oh, okay.

Gruber: That's, you know, there you go. I'm just going to be a recreational player, but I loved Letterpress. But it 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. Which is, you know, I'm sure it's just, just more work, everything like that is always more work than you could ever imagine.

But as part of it, that the idea that with the generator that you guys spent a lot of time building, it's, it's really gonna be hard to clone. Nobody's going to be able to clone, Knotwords in a good way in a weekend.

Gage: You know, I actually thought that it would be really easy to clone. That was my big fear. A lot of the planning for this game was designed around the idea that it would be very simple to clone 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. 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. And so with Knotwords, 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.

And then all because of 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. 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, but that's not, that's not the good version.

But it looks like a hamburger. It's the platonic ideal of a hamburger. And so we actually, we made a ton of design decisions...

Gruber: They're called Burger King for Christ's sake

Gage: Right. Yeah, they have the crown, it's gotta be a great burger. We made a lot of decisions in the game around that idea. So part of also built into this sort of free no ads model is we were like, well, nobody can undercut us, right?

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. And now we're like, no, you know, 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. We'll see, you know, I hate to issue this challenge. I'm sure someone's going to come and, and rip us off. But the other part of it was like the game. I've been trying to chase this game design for so long, but I know that this game is like fits into this classic mode.

I don't know if it'll be popular, like Sudoku is popular where it's famous all over the world. Right. That would be amazing. I don't know if that's going to happen, but it fits the model. It's like the same structure as something like Sudoku. 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, they know that we were the people who invented it and this was the beginning of, of what this game was. 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. Something I noticed, you know, there's a really big game on the App store called Wordscapes, that's actually a pretty clever game. 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, the, the aesthetic and the design of Wordscapes is so bog standard, mobile, everything's flat, there's some stock art in the background.

You know, 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. I thought, ah, 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. That somebody wouldn't be able to clone our sort of spit and polish.

And that's why things like having the bunny be in the game, having the different soundscapes, really going for like a Nintendo level of feel. 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.

Gruber: Yeah. That's what, a good way to put it. I'll just add before we move on that, that's my, the one thing I don't like about Wordle, because it's a web game. There's no sound. And I like, I like sound, it drives my wife... it's going to drive... when I get divorced, it's going to be, he wouldn't turn off the key clicks on his phone. I...

Gage: Oh my God.

Gruber: I like the key clicks. I do. I like, cause it's the only haptic feedback you get on this flat keyboard. And I like them and my wife can't stand them and let alone if she's trying to fall asleep or something. So I do, I do of course mute my phone when, when she's in bed. But sometimes I forget and it's like, it's, I'm telling you, it's going to be the cause of divorce, but I wish Wordle had some sounds.

It would be, it would, it would. I don't know. I, I get it. I'm I'm, you know, 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.Oh for prototyping, what tools do you use?

Gage: 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 Bananagrams or Scrabble tiles. One of my favorite artists is, Sol LeWitt 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, the, 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. And Sol LeWitt 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.

And one of those sentences, one of the ideas of this like whole piece is this thought that, the conscious brain creates rational stuff and the subconscious brain creates irrational stuff. And irrational stuff is where the gold is. That like the magic of art, the magic of these beautiful things that you experienced, that you don't know how to understand that that is all born in this subconscious.

Gage: And for me, that's just 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. 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, to test the strange thing that came out of my subconscious. 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.

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. 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.

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.

Gruber: Yeah, That's interesting. I love hearing that and I was wondering how much you design on paper. I do. I know, you know, in the last I, I speak of myself as though still designed things, but like when we designed Vesper back in the day, the notes app, we did, I did so much on paper. I just did, you know, and, and then paper to screenshots to "all right, but now let's make it real." Let's start building this because if we, if we dick around too much with just these static things where we're going to go way too deep and too far before we know how it feels. 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, it it's sorta like a gas and it's, it's, it's all together for a while.

But if you let it just sit as an idea for too long, it, it dissipates too much and it's gone 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, it'll just drip out. You know? It's like, you gotta, you kinda gotta freeze it and start making something out of it before it, it drips out of the leaky bucket.

That is your brain.

Gage: 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 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.

Gruber: Are you willing? I don't, I don't mean to dig into, the, the, 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 how a couple of days into this, the first week of Knotwords coming out, what's the split on iOS, Android and the Steam versions so

Gage: So I, I don't know. What's, what the Android stuff looks like. I haven't asked for those numbers, cause I don't really care. the Steam stuff. what's the split. Well, that's a very good question. I, I would say probably off the top of my head, I want to say it's like five to one iOS to Steam, but I'm not, I'm not, I'm not sure that that's a hundred percent correct.

I didn't look at the numbers this morning.

Gruber: and I, I say this after telling you, I don't even know my analytics at Daring Fireball, so I, you know, ballpark, but it's, it's mostly, I guess what I'm getting at, but 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 and maybe the people who are most likely to appreciate the details that go into it are already on iOS.

Gage: I think that's a big part of it, but I also thinkit 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, that's going to be better mobile. It basically any game that is as good mobile as on the computer is better mobile, right?

Because you have more, more situations where you can play it. You can, you know, 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. Like 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, that it would exist forever in the format. We put it out because it's, 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, if they can't. So we've like, there's an archival aspect to it.

I 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 and Sudoku. 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 like it's It's just not something people do. So we want it to be able to give streamers a key.

Gage: 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, for games these days. There are not that many outlets 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 there's, that was sort of the third reason. So Steam is like, for us it was the spot where, oh, and then the, 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 a, another platform to start putting stuff on. And this felt like the, the right game to take that leap with. So really for us, Steam is serving a bunch of sort of utility and experimental services for us. And if we get money also on Steam, that's even better. But that, that wasn't our main goal.

All right. let me take a break here to thank our third sponsor and then we'll hit the home stretch. I'm so thankful for your time. let me

Gage: This is really fun. I really appreciate

Gruber: 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, Squarespace. Squarespace is where you can build your own website without being a web developer or knowing anything about web development. But puts you the person who wants to build, create design, tweak, run, update, check the stats, check the analytics. You want your own website. You don't have the technical ability. You don't know code. You don't know HTML, CSS, you don't know JavaScript. Squarespace lets you do it all. You don't know DNS. You don't know how to register domain names. Guess what? You can do it at Squarespace. They do everything literally A to Z of having your own website Squarespace lets you do it without technical expertise.

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There is no like Squarespace look to a website. There's no logo or bug in the corner that says this is powered by Squarespace. It's just your website with your look, your feel, you start with a score of templates to choose from that range, all sorts of different styles, visually,design wise. All of their templates scale great from the phone to a big desktop.

And they're all tweakable and adjustable. You could have stores and they handle all the stuff like commerce. You can do email campaigns where you can, collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers and do it all with email templates that are just as easy to use as the website templates from Squarespace. They even have SEO tools that are actually healthy and not like weird and gross, but just ways to make sure that your website gets seen by the people who ought to be seeing it and help maximize your, results in search engines, because let's face it, that's how people are going to come to your website.

It's just a great company and a great, great service. And they keep sponsoring the show because people from the show keep signing up with code or which I think happens a lot people come to you nerdy listener of The Talk Show and say, can you help me build a website? And you just say, "Hey, how about this? Go to Squarespace and give them this URL, And they get a free trial, 30 days, no credit card upfront, full featured, everything they need to do 30 days. And the credit comes back to the show and they get the 30 day free code. And when you use that code after the free trial, you get 10% off your first purchase.

Gruber: You can prepay for a whole year, save 10% on the whole year just by using that code TALKSHOW, go to And remember that code TALKSHOW when you or whoever you send to that URL signs up. My thanks to Squarespace. I would like to talk about, oh, before we get, I want to talk about Playdate, but before we get there, the one last thing.

And if I, 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 literally at the top of my list here of my, notes for this conversation with you is about, credit.

And you open up Knotwords like most of your games. And it says, not words game by Zach Gage. And, I'm sorry. Jake's last name is

Gage: Jack Schlesinger.

Gruber: Schlesinger Jack Schlesinger. I, you know, it's funny. I, so I misremembered Jack as Jake, but I was actually going to guess Schlesinger.

Gage: Hey.

Gruber: but you don't see that a lot. And I've, I actually like 10, 15 years ago gave a talk I mean, it might've been actually, I guess it was 15, at least 15 years ago. Cause 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.

And at some point, and it was definitely a Steve Jobs thing when they came back and they stopped that. And policy-wise soup to nuts all throughout MacOS X there's, nowhere where you can go and say about TextEdit or about Mail or about any of the apps and you don't get credits. And the idea, you know, Jobs, his notion ostensibly, was that he thought that Apple's rivals were using about boxes to recruit Apple people.

Um, I, you know, he was, he was, he was obsessed with,what do you call not recruiting, but, what's it called when you poaching, right.

Like which, which is very much, I'm not like an anticapitalist, 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? Which is actually something people do and should be able to do. And, you know, it's, it'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. And I, So I don't think that was quite it. I think it was also just sort of, irrational part of the Apple brand would, you know, would they just want everything to be from Apple. It's Apple, they want Apple's name to be on the credits.

And, 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, you buy a book. There's the author's name is on the cover. You, 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, the last opening credits are the writer and the director.

Gruber: And because of writing and directing are the, the most creative, the most responsible for the thing that you're watching and they always get credit. And, and, you know, I know in the entertainment industry, it's, it's, you know, it's actually written into the union rules, you know, for the Writers Guild and the Director's Guild.

But it's just, it's just part of it. And, and, you know, you come from the, the world of real art, you know, real physical art, you know, that's, you know, I don't mean to

Gage: hang on your wall art

Gruber: hang on your wall art. 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.

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.

Gage: Yeah. 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, this has been a very contentious topic. 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.

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 and it was similar to,sort of the Jobsian and stuff that you're describing. Companies wanted to have the credit and own the games and, and, sort of take over.

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 the space and you're trying to figure out how to make money. 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 and a good company name, that's how people, you know, that's what I'm supposed to do. That makes me look professional. 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.

And so always it was, my games were from Zack Gage. That's where they're from. And it, I think it took me a little bit into my career to. Start to really look at this and say, no, this is, this is the right approach. This is something that I'm not, this is not just a default. I'm going to figure out how to embrace this.

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, and to be able to, understand the game industry as an artistic industry. 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?

Gage: And I think it's that, you know, the agent film where you go, oh, this is a Hitchcock movie, or this is a Spielberg movie, right? 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. Whereas like if you watch three MGM movies, right, that doesn't give you anything.

And then once you know a name, you can go, oh, when I grew up, I want to be Steven Spielberg. I want to do the thing that Michael Crichton does and write books. I want, you know, you have to be able to see the human behind the. For you to be able to see the art sometimes. 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 indies, as being able to look at games and say, oh, I could make a game, I could be a part of this. 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, these names up front.

That's so well said. And it's so, you know, it's so interesting with directors. I 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. Brent Simmons was writing the code, Dave Wiskus was doing all the actual design and I was just in the middle of directing it and saying, yes, this is how it should feel, this is how it should work. 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, it worked out well, even though the app was not a financial success, it worked out well as a way of working in conceptualizing what my role was. And it's funny because you can have directors whose work is so idiosyncratically distinctive. Wes Anderson pops into mind, right?

Gruber: Like it would be very, very difficult, you know, I I'm sure he's also, he's 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, 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, Sophia Coppola is more of a chameleon. And I don't think if you showed me a new Sophia 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 and the theme, it's the themes and, and little things. And it's like, maybe I would have her on the list, but, but it's a deliberate choice on her part to sort of bend her style to the structure of the thing.

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, like you, you could make anything, honestly, paint, paint, drying on a wall, a game by Zach Gage and I'm gonna download it and try it.

Gage: Oh, I'm glad you're enjoying them all.

Gruber: I always go back to paint drying on a wall because when, when, in the late nineties, when word came out, that Stanley Kubrick had it finally had a new movie coming out, Eyes Wide Shut. And my one friend who was also a big Kubrick fan said, if Stanley Kubrick made a movie of paint drying on a wall, I'd watch it at least once. Just because I trust him so much that if somehow he'll make it engaging,

Gage: Right. You can already start to think in your mind, like what could be happening like that would

Gruber: right.

Gage: Yeah.

Gruber: What would it sound like? What kind of

Gage: Are there, are there shadows going by that mean things

Hitchcock's another one. I just, I just watched, I 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. But it was like a couple of, I got into a couple of Hitchcock, YouTube videos, cause I, I linked to, I forget what the context was Rope. It was something with Glenn Fleishman about doing something in a single take. And Rope is a Hitchcock movie that it simulates, 90 minutes of a continuous take of a murder mystery, but they could only shoot just under 10 minutes of film at a time and a film canister. And so he disguises all the cuts by like panning the camera across somebody's back.

Gruber: So there's a moment where all you see is the black of somebody's suit jacket. 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. And it's also, I was like, when the hell did he make that? Cause I remember I haven't seen it in forever.

And now it's like near the top of my to watch list again. Cause I haven't seen it in like 25 years, 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, 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. But somehow I didn't think they shot movies, but anyway, it, if you ever, 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. What the hell is this? This is a, this is an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

There'd be no, there's no mistaking. It, nobody else could make it. I mean, like Brian de Palma sort of is, you know, admittedly a huge, huge Hitchcock fan and makes Hitchcock styles plots, but they don't look like a Hitchcock movie. They look like a Brian de Palma movie. It's it's so it's so interesting to me.

And I just love that you put your name on it. The last topic I want to talk about, and it's the rare instance where I've got, I can parlay off the previous episode of the show is talking about Panic's Playdate, which you, I guess have some experience with.

Gage: Yeah, I it's funny mine. I literally, it arrived right before we did this call. I was like, oh no, I, I

Gruber: Oh, no.

Gage: go run downstairs and pick this up. But also, um, yeah, I made one of the games in the first season. So I've had one for a very long time.

I don't, I know that, I know that the way they're unfurling the season that the games are sort of a surprise. So I don't want, I'm not pressing for any spoilers. I never ever pressed my guests for that. But I, so if it's, if the game itself is a secret, I don't even know. Cause my Playdate is still lower on the it's coming soon, but not, I wasn't quick enough to do the pre-order. I'd say, you know, 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 or ...

Gage: Yeah, it's a little known. I haven't, there've been like 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 cause I got in, working with it almost right at the start. but it's, it's a,take on snake, cause 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. But I just wanted to make something that was very simple and would fit the device and would be the kind of game that, that reminded me of the kinds of games that made me excited about the device. Which is really the thing that, that is like the, the first thing that I've 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.

Gage: But the thing that like really took off amongst my friends was, do you remember the Ti-83 graphing calculator? So that was like this wild graphing calculator that you could use to, to plot things, but you could also make games for it. It had this like very crummy programming language.

Gruber: And it, but it also, it was, it was a LED black and white screen, but it was bitmapped instead of, you know, those, those 8, 8, 8 were, you know, the best game you could make. Unlike an even older calculator was spelling the word, you know, "BOOBIES"...

Gage: Right...

Gruber: or something like that.

Gage: right. This had a real screen though. And so like, people did all kinds of weird stuff. Like somebody parted like Legends of Zelda Game Boy game to it, which seems like impossible to imagine. But like also it was very easy to make dumb little games to, for friends and give them to them and let them play them on a physical piece of hardware.

And that was just. Totally magical thing in high school. And I remember playing snake a lot on it. And so I wanted to kinda explore that a little bit and do a little homage. But the thing that I wanted to talk about the Playdate, I remember you. So, on your last show you were talking about, how exciting it is that Panic is making these tools for this thing.

And Panic is like one of the best toolmaking companies that's out there. And that is like exactly what I'm excited about more than the thing is this potential for a community. And I wanted to just talk a little bit about, I don't, are you familiar with Pico-8 at all?

Gruber: I've heard of it.

It's telling you, tell me what it is.

Gage: so so Pico-8. So first of all, there's like a huge space of indie game design tools that are very simple.

Some of which are even like directly referenced, like pulp is directly inspired by something called Bitsy. and there's like, there's Bitsy, there's Twine. There's something called PuzzleScript. And all of these very successful little tools have these niche communities. 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.

So like if you make something in Twine, it's going to be a website. It's gotta be basically text. Even though you can have pictures, you're going to click hyperlinks to move through it. if you're making something in Bitsy and you have a very limited amount of, of, space for your aesthetic, you really can only use the arrow keys to move around.

There's like all of these constraints. And a couple of 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. Which is basically, it's like he invented this console that doesn't exist, but it has all the constraints of like a real old console.

So when you program, your only your program length is like specifically limited. You can only have so many characters, 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 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 it's constrained in other ways.

And what that did is it created this amazing community. And so like Pico-8 has like 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. Like of all the spaces in indie games that I'm excited about for like 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, you know, tens of millions of dollars. 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 like, okay, well, we're going to make a fantasy console and it's going to have these different rules. And none of them have ever taken off in any way, really at all to rival Pico-8. 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. In that it's got all of the tools and all of the smarts and all of the care that goes into creating the tool chain for this 'cause it's Panic, but it's also not a fantasy console.

It's a real console. 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, and one of them be focused on this beautiful little yellow thing. And that's, that's the thing that I'm so excited about.

It's like, 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.

Gruber: It's it's that whole, everything is a remix, mentality or, 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 like, just tweaking limits what if we said, instead of 48 kilobyte limited, we'll make it 64.

What if like the, and is, and will actually make a little handheld thing, like an actual thing, and we'll sell it for like $179. And, and, and then immediately somebody says, of course, well, that sounds like a nightmare. Right? And they're like, Yeah, but maybe we could, and then they look, wouldn't it be fun.

And you know, that sort of, you know, the, the backstory, you know, it, it was, and it, it, it took Panic longer than I think they thought it would, but not too much longer it's shipping. You know, I think they, 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 Yeah. Edge. Right. And, and it, I don't even know if they regret it. I think it's a, you know, why not, if you can get that opportunity, 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,

Gage: I think if you look at it, like as the, 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. 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.

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 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 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. 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,

Gruber: well

Gage: You know, there are even more people, 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 of this stuff, 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. 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 are, what is this opened up? What kind of doors can we find now where we can build stuff for this?

Gruber: Yeah. And you know, I, it was a, 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, that is very visual in. and, 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, to a game 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, but, or, or don't know, 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. And the source code, it's not the easiest programming language to use for sure, it's not like writing assembly language, but like w with just a ridiculously short number of lines of code he'd, he'd make these unbelievable vector images.

And then you could, you know, th 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. Cause you just keep zooming in zooming. And it just is more intricate. 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, and you do it visually, right? And it's like, pulp could be that sort of thing for, 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 and Lua or C or something like that.

But you can get something as you know, that's an actual game, not just like a buncha index cards, not, you know, 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, and having fun is different than flipping through a bunch of index cards where you show what the screens would look like.

Gage: I think if it's 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. Sometimes, sure. But most of the time, I mean, you can make a game with a pencil and a tablecloth, at a restaurant 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. 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. And that's why Pico-8 was really successful. And I hope that'll be the case with the Playdate.

Gruber: I personally also, and again, it's nostalgia because I came of age in the eighties 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 gray scale, but are really just black and white pixels.

And you use the right algorithm and you can do this. But the funny thing is that as limited as the Playdate is it is so much more powerful than like a 1984 Macintosh. So you can do things in black and white on the Playdate screen that you never ever, ever in. even Bill Atkinson himself could never have done, like animate something that's using these complicated algorithm for the dithering effect and have it just be completely live at, you know, a reasonable frames per second.


Gage: 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. You think a black and white screen looks one way, and then you play this, that, this thing that is just like animated and in an incredible way.

But then at the same time, if you're trying to make a game for this, you know, the ask couldn't be lower. You know, you gotta make a little character in black and white. Sure anyone can do that. It's great.

Gruber: Right. And it brings me back to like those early days, decades ago on the classic Mac where you could open up anything in ResEdit and just write I'm sh I know you do, cause I know that you did the same thing as if, if like an icon really bugged you, or you just wanted to just have fun. You could just open it up and ResEdit opened the icon and you had a little pixel editor that was really well done and, and had, you know, like a pencil tool and a fill tool and erase tool and you had undo. And you could just make a little thing and, 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 and, you know, hit save.

And then all of a sudden, the, you know, the button for whatever, you know, the icon for whatever, look the way you designed it and not the way that it shipped on. however you got it.

I mean, this isn't even what we're talking about, but I'm just so excited to talk about ResEdit for a Not on top of, on top of that. You could like add little menu items that frequently you could never hook up into doing anything or like you could go look at the assembly. I mean, the thing that was amazing about ResEdit is it really was the view source of the Mac.

Gage: And even though the source you viewed was like, basically imparseable because it was compiled down to assembly. It was, it was incredible. It was like 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.

Gruber: Yeah.

And you could see this is, and, and this is what it looked like to the creator, right? Like you're just the user, you, 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.

Gage: Yeah. And then you could tweak it.

Gruber: Yeah, exactly. It was such a great way to get you to feel like, Hey, I can do this too.

Gage: Yeah, it's amazing.

Gruber: Well, Zach, this was absolutely a wonderful, wonderful discussion. I'm so happy to have you on the show. I'll have you back cause this is too good. And, I have, I have questions left, so I'll save them for the now.

Gage: Great. I'd love to come back. I love, I love being on this. This was a really fun conversation.

Gruber: It feels like a reasonable guess, given the last 15 years of your career, that you'll probably have future games.

Gage: Yes.

Gruber: I will say this. Can I, if I can ask one bonus question it's 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, this, your life's work is this one masterpiece game.

Gage: I don't think I set out to do anything. I think I I'm someone who operates very in the moment and I always just want to do the thing that I'm excited about and, and, and then get it out because I'm afraid that if I, if I don't get it out, it'll never show up. And all I want to do is have the thing be out and be able to talk about it.

so, so I, 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.

Gruber: All right. That's a perfect way to end the show, but I want to thank in addition to Zach Gage and his wonderful new game, Knotwords words which you can find on, the App Store and on steam and on the Play Store. I'm gonna thank our sponsors. We had Squarespace, where you can build your own website and Memberful, where you can monetize your passion with membership and Kolide, end point security for teams that Slack. Thank you, Zach.

Gage: Thank you.