How Zach Gage is Revolutionizing Classic Games

Published Jul 9, 2024

Hello! Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

Hi everyone! I’m Zach Gage, and I’ve created… well, I really can’t remember the exact number of games I’ve created, but I’ve made a lot like Puzzmo, SpellTower, Good Sudoku, Really Bad Chess, Sage Solitaire, Ridiculous Fishing… just to name a few!

I’m a game designer, programmer, educator and conceptual artist, with a majority of my work focusing on the powerful intersection of systems and social dynamics. My creations and art pieces have won lots of awards before, and I’m very thankful that many people enjoy and support my work.

And if it’s your first time playing any of my games, I hope you like them and support me so I can make more of them for you.

What’s your favorite game to play these days?

Oh man, what do I play? I have two young children, so I have barely any time between them and Puzzmo. So I don't play a lot of games. I have started carrying around a lot of stuff and I've become a bag person. I used to be a pocket, cargo-short type of guy, and now I'm a bag guy. The reason I became a bag guy is so that I could carry around an analog pocket game. If I ever have any time, I can play a game. If I'm waiting at a restaurant, I can play a game.

So I'm working my way through Dragon Quest I for the Game Boy Color, which is fine. It's fine, but it’s a lot of grinding. And then at Puzzmo, my co-founder and I do our meetings in Apex Legends so that's kind of my real game right now.

What got you interested in gaming?

When I was a kid, I played games at my friends’ houses. I lived up the street from someone who had a Nintendo. I'd go down to his place and play Nintendo a lot. I wasn't allowed to have games, but my mom said I could make games. But she caved in and said I could have two games. And so the first game was Prince of Persia. And then the second game I got was Lemmings. Frankly, I don't know what kind of policy that was.

That seemed like a really ambitious policy for an adult to be like, you can have two games forever for an eight-year-old. It didn't really work in its intended purpose, but it did work in the sense that I really got into trying to make games. Cause that was what I was allowed to do on the computer. And I don't know, I guess just kept doing that.

Afterward, I discovered shareware. And so I just looked for and played a lot of shareware on the Mac, which I didn't really pick up gaming until probably my mid-twenties. But I do think that having a childhood of playing games that were created by real people and had their names on the front of the game… I really spent my childhood recognizing that games were a product that was like a thing that somebody sat down and did, and it was something I could do.

And I think that's sort of a very different way of understanding games than like my friend down the block who had a Nintendo and we would go and rent a game from the tape store every weekend, right? That really wasn't that kind of experience. That felt like a big media experience. And so I think it was probably really helpful actually to be on the Mac at that time scrounging for these little shareware games.

Creating his first game

Oh boy. The first one that I can remember… I used to draw games, so I'd make a drawing and I would say it was a game and I would explain the level or the characters that would be drawings, and then below it would be how the level worked and what was going on written out.

And then I got into using a program called HyperStudio, which was kind of like HyperCard, except maybe a little bit easier to use. It was in color, and you could put sound effects in it, and stuff like that, and I've made a lot of games with it. The only one I still have, which someday I will get a disk drive and figure out how to play on an emulator, is called Morzag in Time and Trouble.

And I don't really remember more about it than that. I think I made it with a babysitter when I was nine years old or something.

Did you come from a family of artists?

My dad was a carpenter and my mom was a Math teacher, but she's also a watercolorist and that's pretty much what she does now. My grandfather was an art director and my grandmother painted posters for Broadway shows, and my cousins were artists. My great-grandfather was a painter. He was in the Navy, and he had Popeye sailor arms and the tattoos and everything, and he painted waves from his mind. which is pretty hardcore. I've still got some of those paintings.

So yeah, I grew up in a family where art was a really big deal, and being creative was really important and valued. And that was obviously huge. I think my mom had a rule where she really wouldn't buy me toys that I wanted, but if I wanted something for creativity, she would get it for me. And so if I really wanted to get a really high-value thing, people would gleefully pitch in.

I can remember that sometime in high school, I was really into photography and I had like a whole bunch of family members pitch in so that I could get a really nice Nikon digital SLR camera.

And that sort of carried me through a bunch of years. That was a really cool experience being able to have access to the kinds of things that I needed to do art. I remember as a kid being given a webcam so that I could make stop-motion movies with Play-Doh and that was really cool.

Just anything that encouraged creativity was really a positive association for everybody. So it was a pretty nice childhood in that way.

Can you tell us more about your artistic career?

I think I had a bizarre career.

In high school, I got an art award for something when I graduated, but I honestly can't remember what it was, and I don't know why I got it, I can't remember that either. In middle school, I got to do exhibits. This sort of thing did happen later in my life, but I definitely got a lot of opportunities to show off being creative back then.

So in middle school, I ended up doing some kind of a layout on the yearbook and I got an award for yearbook page layout, which is a very silly kind of award, but it felt really cool at the time. In high school, I got some kind of art thing that I can't remember. Also, as a side job in high school, I was making websites for local businesses, and I got to be really creative in Photoshop and design things for those websites, and then people would use those websites, and that was really rewarding.

I created a blog for all of my classmates and friends, and everybody was sort of blogging on a website that I had created where I was sort of doing art and putting it onto. So that was really cool. And then in college and post-college, I was lucky enough to be asked to be in a bunch of exhibits and galleries.

I never really chased it down. But people would email me, which I still don't understand why. I don't really know why that worked out, but I've been lucky and people have come after me. I think when I try to get into stuff, it doesn't work quite as well. But when I just wait around, people come and ask to show things, which is really cool.

And it's been a very cool experience being able to show art in galleries. It's really different than putting stuff up on the internet and having people download it or having people write about it. I don't know. It's weird to be involved in a format that doesn't have metrics, I guess.

Comment on metrics-based events and works

It's nice to have something like that where you go and you just enjoy yourself and you feel like it was good. And then you go, “Ah, I don't know anything about what just happened.” and that's fine. 

And maybe when I do know about stuff, that's kind of garbage. Maybe that doesn't really matter. There are a lot of aspects of it that we're really not capturing. I think when you make stuff online, you think that you have the information and you really barely do. Our brains are so hungry for numbers that you kind of take the numbers and feel like they're actually painting a picture, but you are barely understanding what those numbers mean.

Can you tell us about Good Sudoku?

Good Sudoku came out sometime during the apocalypse. You know, COVID. Actually, there’s this loose designing process I follow, but the thing is, I do a lot of design in places where I don't really have any understanding of what the game is.

What I’m about to say about Sudoku is also true of chess—I had never really played Sudoku when I built Good Sudoku. I built Good Sudoku because I wanted to play Sudoku, and I couldn't find a Sudoku game that would let me play it the way I wanted to play it, the way that would help me learn how to play it.

I literally could not find a game that would let me take two different kinds of notes. And that was the way that I wanted to play. And I felt like I couldn't learn how to play the game unless I had that. So the first thing I did was to buy a bunch of crummy Sudoku puzzles and I built a version of Sudoku that would let me play by taking two kinds of notes.

Also, I didn't want to count. I had this sense that counting was the part that sucked because it sucked for me. It was just a purely selfish thing and I just didn't want to count. I want to play the game, I don't want to be like one, two, three… could be a three, four, five… that part is not fun for me.

And I had this thing. I don't know if this is real or not, but I had like either a fever dream or a real memory of a study from a long time ago, a sociology study where they asked people to memorize a bunch of numbers in a room and then walk down the hallway and then write those numbers down.

And for a subset of those people, they had them carry a slice of cake down the hallway with them. And the people who carried the slice of cake could not remember nearly as many numbers as the people who didn't have the slice of cake. And for some reason, this stuck in my head and I've started calling some kinds of design problems, cake problems.

Cake problems and game design

When we think about design, we think about it as—at least I thought about it as— building difficult problems for people and you have to help them solve the difficult problems better. But what the cake experiment revealed to me is that we're actually surrounded by easy problems all the time and anything you can take off someone's plate is going to help them think better, clearer and solve difficult problems better.

You don't have to attack the difficult problems directly. Sometimes if you just remove something simple, it changes the entire experience for somebody. And so I really wanted to get rid of this counting because I felt like it was keeping me from being able to access the rest of the game. So I added in a couple of things, like when you click on a number, instead of just highlighting the rows and columns of your selection, it highlights everywhere that the number cannot be on the puzzle, which I later learned is really sacrilegious to the kind of Sudoku that most people play.

Most people play a kind of Sudoku where they're literally only looking for that piece of information. All they're doing is counting and trying to find those spots and that's what they enjoy. But I wanted to get rid of that.

So I sort of added that in and the game was kind of interesting. And I thought that these basic puzzles were interesting. How can I learn the more advanced techniques? And I started looking at the internet and I felt like the way that this stuff was being taught was terrible. They would take a simple idea and then they would say, “Here are the eight ways this can show up in the puzzle.” And there's like 30 paragraphs about it. And then you look at your puzzle and you're dumbfounded and don’t know what to do. Like, I have to continuously cross reference this thing just to figure out what the next step is.

And so I was talking to Jack Schlesinger, who made the game with me, and I said, “Look man, this thing, I kind of think Sudoku might actually be really good if we could learn these later techniques. It might be a really interesting game and I want to find out.” And we got to generate some more puzzles for this game and think about how we can get people in.

More on Good Sudoku

And I have this puzzle generator and it's terrible, but one thing I noticed is that when you have a puzzle generator, the way that you generate a Sudoku puzzle is not the way you would think. It's not like some abstract mathematical process. It's literally you write a generator and you have it play the game.

And that's how it generates puzzles. And it finds the puzzles that are good. Cause it's literally playing the game. And I was like, “Look, if the generator is playing the game, then it can just tell you what to do next. And if we know what to do next, we can write up a little thing that would know if you're looking for a naked single and show you what a naked single is.” 

So Jack built this generator. But it turns out it's really hard to build a Sudoku puzzle generator and there are no good reference points on it for the internet because, of course, it turns out if you have a good Sudoku puzzle generator, you can make money with it.

So nobody wants to actually like open source a really good one. And we had to build an incredible one because the puzzles in good Sudoku get really hard. And Jack was like, “Oh, well, this is perfect because I used to work in cryptography for the government. I know how to do all this stuff.” And I was like, what is your life?

And so he built this amazing generator. And then we spent a lot of time, months and months and months, basically thinking about how to teach people all of these techniques, what order the techniques should be in and how we should reclassify. We renamed some of them and added a new thing called “split”, which is not a canonical label for techniques, but it helped us sort of structure like what order you should learn them in and how it should be approachable.

And then we just thought about how people would learn that in a game and sort of laid out all the pieces. And once we were playing and being able to see the techniques, it was a real holy cow moment. This is a really cool game and it's not as hard as we thought it was. Once something's helping you, you get the feeling that maybe anyone could learn these super advanced techniques and play these really hard puzzles.

So we put it out and it turned out that yeah, almost anyone can do it, and I think that was a real surprise to me. One of the big things that came off of Good Sudoku is people coming and saying like, “I thought I couldn't do Sudoku, and I now discovered that I can. Now, I feel that I'm pretty smart and good at puzzle games with this, and I just didn’t know I was capable of it in the first place.”

And it was really cool to learn that you just needed to reframe something and build the right kind of support structure. The seemingly radical nature of my works is just… I try to work in games that I don't understand and then I try to understand them through making a game.

And then when I have that experience, I try to turn it into an experience that anyone can have. And so I think that ends up building a lot of games that feel really fresh and different to somebody who's in that category of enjoyment.

How about Really Bad Chess, what can you tell us about that?

I had never finished a game of chess until I built the Really Bad Chess prototype. And there, I won a game of chess. I won my first game of chess against the AI. I felt like, “Oh my God, this game was really crazy!” 

For Really Bad Chess, I had the idea. I went to the Unity store and I downloaded a $5 chess asset pack that had an AI that you could play against and then I opened up the code and I was like, “Can I just make these pieces different?”

And so I did, and I played and the AI played against me and I was like, “Oh my God, I can't believe the AI is actually playing against me.” And I played out the game. And it was awesome. And I was like, “Ah, this is a game. All right, great. I’ll work on it right this instant.” That was the fastest I've ever gone from an idea to a game.

Really Bad Chess was a really fun surprise for me. I think that is, in general, how I like to approach games. I want them to be a surprise for me. I want to have that experience that everybody else is having so that I know that the game is good. And this game was particularly special because, like, I really didn't like chess and I always wanted to like it.

Usually, I make games that I didn't really like and got interested in. But chess was a game that, like, I wanted to love it. If you grow up liking games, chess seems so cool. And every time I tried to play it, I was like, this game sucks! Why does this suck? And I would try it over and over again. 

To me, chess is really beautiful and you get in these amazing positions where the pieces are all connected in this super cool way and you figure out how to break this defense, and creating this game definitely made me respect chess a whole lot more.

Can you tell us more about your overall game design process?

I think my game design process takes place in three parts, but the middle part is just boring.

The first part is like finding an idea that is really interesting and following it. Having a moment of like, “What if all the pieces in chess were random? Would that fix my problem with chess?” And then doing it and seeing what was fun and then trying to do the things that continue to fall out of that initial action. 

All right, so that works. Now how do I turn this into a real game? What do I want to do next? I just beat the computer. Oh, maybe I could make their pieces a little bit better. Maybe I could build the daily puzzle. Maybe, you know, follow up on all of that stuff. 

The middle part is the “Okay, now I got to make all the menus” part, and then the end part is “Now how do I make sure that this idea, this experience that I had sitting down in this game, playing it, having this sort of moment of weird joy. How do I translate that to everybody else?” How do I make sure that when other people sit down with this game, they have that same experience?

And so the text at the beginning of chess and the sort of text and tutorialization in a lot of games that I make is really intentional. I need to set your expectations in a place so that the experience that you have is something that I can expect.

I think something that I've learned from a decade-plus of making games that's really sort of freaked me out about humanity is that people don't have that many responses. Like, it feels like everybody's really unique and interesting because the input that's going into everybody all the time is wild and varied.

We're all living these different lives. We have different things happening to us. We're reading different things. We're being shot with random number generators all the time. And so like, we're very different. But like if you sit someone down in a highly contextualized moment and then show them something else that elicits something different from the norm, that’s interesting to me.

Really, people only respond in two or three ways, which is freaky and bad. I don't know what's going on with our wiring., and that's a little frightening to think about, but it's true. And so my experience with the tutorialization and the setups for these games are usually; I'll try one setup, and then I'll show it to some people, and then I usually have to make one change, and then it works.

And it's a lot more about the strategizing around what that structure is gonna be, usually more than like, what the actual copy is. So I'll give you a couple of examples.

Flipflop Solitaire

I made a game called Flipflop Solitaire. Flipflop is a play on Spider Solitaire, which is basically a game where you're moving cards around in a tableau, like Solitaire, and you're stacking them down.

And the trick with Flipflop Solitaire is that you can actually stack them back up. So you can stack like, a 9 on a 10, but you could also stack a 9 on an 8. And then, so you could have a stack that goes like, Queen, King, Jack, Queen, King, Queen, King, or something like that. And getting that into your head is a complicated thing, it seems like I could just tell you that rule, but that doesn't work.

So there were two problems with that game. So the first problem was when I started the tutorial, I said, “Are you familiar with Solitaire or do you not play that much Solitaire?” And 100% of people would say, “I'm familiar with Solitaire” even if they had no idea how to play Solitaire. So I added three options.

I have; “I'm familiar with Solitaire, “I know a little bit of Solitaire” and “I've never played Solitaire”. But in reality, “I know a little bit of Solitaire” and “I've never played Solitaire” are the same answer. However, having those two choices gives the people who don't want to feel ashamed about themselves an answer that they can pick in which they still get a little bit of extra tutorialization.

Giving players choices and assistance

So the first thing that I had to figure out was how to tell people a couple of rules. But then I discovered that most people, especially people who were familiar with Solitaire did not and could not internalize this idea that you could stack back up because they had played ten years of Solitaire where they can only stack down.

So no matter what I would say to them. They would never do it. And the answer to that turned out to be adding a hint button. And when you click “hint”, what it does is it shows you every possible thing you could do right now. So it'll literally move the cards and then reset them and then move the cards in a different way and reset them.

And sometimes the number of things you can do is like 50 things and you can interrupt it and stop. But just giving that button and having the game show you what your options look like and how vast they were turned out to be the magic trick that like allowed people's brains to open up and be like, “Oh, I see!”

That's a trick that I try to use in a lot of games—I never want the hint to tell you the answer. I always view the hint button as an additional tool that I can use to help you learn how to enjoy the game rather than help you get it solved and then be done with the game. And I think that's really the big trick; it's not the copy that’s important, it’s having an approach to tutorialization that respects the fact that most people aren't going to want tutorialization at all. 

When you are tutorializing, you basically get one opportunity to give someone a piece of information and then that's it, it's over. You're never going to give them another piece of information. 

I always think about like have you ever pushed a pull door? That's how much people read.

That's what you get in a video game. You get one sentence and people aren't going to read it anyway. So you get that moment at the beginning, you get your one chance and then later you have to set up for yourself a way that people can get the extra information when they need it in the moment because that's when people will actually read.

And so that's the structure. A way that we did that really recently is on Puzzmo, which is this website that I built up with my co-founder, Orta Therox, and other cool artists and then sold to Hearst. And we're now working as a competitor for the New York Times. We just launched a game called Pile-Up Poker, which is a kind of Solitaire poker game that anyone can play, even if you don't know poker hands.  And trying to teach people how to play that game is really complicated.

It's been an interesting journey to think about how to get people to learn how to play a web game. We're trying to get people who are coming in from Wordle or crosswords. They're going to click something that they've never played before. We have this one opportunity to both convince them that this game is fun and to convince them that it's cool to be curious about games.

It's important to try new things and you can do it. You can try these new things and get a rewarding experience. And so our initial approach to doing game tutorials, which you'll see across the website is when you first click in, if you're on mobile, it pops up instructions like Wordle does. But what we've learned is nobody reads those, right?

You go to a game, you pop up the instructions. And the first thing you do is close them and you start fiddling around with the game. So our new approach is to build games and write instructions in a way where you learn them by fiddling around. And the instructions are not there to teach you how to play the game, they're to teach you how to fiddle around in a way that's productive, that will get you through the game so that you can teach yourself how to play the game.

And so the way that we do them in Pile-Up Poker is we have a set of very simple achievements. Put a card on the board, put two cards in a hand in a row, try to make a hand in one row, try to make a hand in a column, try to make a hand in the corners… and you don't have to accomplish them all in one game.

So if you do one and then you lose focus and you play out the game in some weird way, however you want, the next time you play, the next one is still waiting for you there. And so it's this totally new idea of how we can try to leave information lying around about how people can learn how to enjoy these things and never push them into something and always have the things that you need right at your fingertips to continue your journey of getting interested in this thing.

So when I write the copy, I try to think about how to make it as short as possible.

Can you tell us more about Puzzmo?

So Jack Schlesinger and I were building games… We're still building the games that are going on Puzzmo and I met this guy Orta Therox at a dog school in Manhattan where my dog was going. I had gotten this dog basically because, well… My wife was doing a PhD and she was working all the time and I was just like really lonely at home and I was like, “All right, I'm going to get a dog, I'll go out, I'll have this dog and I'm going to take them to this dog school and play all the time.”

And then I was like, “Well, all right, I guess I got to make friends with the people at this dog school because I'm seeing them three nights a week.” I started talking to this one guy and I was like, what do you do? And he was like, oh, I'm an engineer. And I was like, oh, well, where do you work? And he was like artsy and I do like web stuff. And then he asked me what I did and I told him video games. And it turns out he's a truly, insanely talented engineer.

And we were searching for a while to find things that we could do together. One of the ideas that we did was we built a game called Flappy Royale, which was basically this version of Flappy Bird, where you raced against the last 20 people who played the game. So you're always playing against the last 20 people and it, there were just a lot of birds all the time.

And it was a different meta-structure to play on Flappy Bird. So it always felt like, “Oh, I have this, I'm not trying to set a high score. I'm trying to outlast everybody. And I don't know how good they are.”

Sometimes maybe one of them's really good and sometimes maybe they all crash into a pipe early. It's just like playing with the meta around a game to see what kind of experience that would change for you in the game. We did that for a little bit and then I sort of had this idea that we were talking about, which was that the New York Times is sort of the only player in the daily game space.

We looked later and found out there are actually a lot of other people trying to do this, but none of them are really the ones you would think of. And even the ones that are successful are not ones that you would think of. There's a space, and The New York Times is really the only player. They're making a ton of money.

If we could be the second person in that space, that's probably a viable business because even if we can't overtake them, there's gotta be some significant level of income there. And even if we don't really want to run this thing, maybe someone would buy us and then they would run it and we could just work on it, which is what we actually want to do.

So we started working on this, and while we were on that, we also thought the New York Times had their thing, but it's not very good. They have these games, but that's it. It's like you go to their website or their app or whatever and it's just a bunch of links to games.

But if you play video games, that's not the standard if you play Fortnite or Minecraft or Apex Legends or Roblox, these are like worlds that you go into with your social circle, and there are leaderboards, things to think about that are going on all the time. We already had the games, because Jack and I made a lot, so we didn't even have to find the games or make the games, we just needed to rebuild them for this platform and spend all of our time really thinking about what would make an amazing platform.

And, Orta was like, “That's a great idea! That seems like something that could work. I'm going to leave Artsy and let's just try it for a year or two. Let's figure it out.” And I was like, “Well, that's ridiculous, but sure.” And then I had this sort of random meeting with this person from the Astra Fund, which was like a sort of charitable fund that tries to give money to puzzle games or games that are going to improve mental capacity to some degree.

Like… games for education, but not like educational games, just games that are good for people, because you're brain is thinking. There are a lot of games that I think are good for people.

Creating more fun games and giving NYT a run for their money

People say like, could you please make a game like this? Because at this point I've got this reputation of doing twists on old games. And one of the things that came up a lot was crosswords. Please make a new crossword. And it started to feel really important to me to make a crossword because the things that I started to hear were things like, “Oh, the New York Times is really stuffy.” and “The New York Times crossword is the standard crossword of our lives!” these takes are not very modern.

It's not really addressing things that younger people care about. It has a voice that's a little bit weird. It's maybe not as diverse and interesting as it could be. Just like Sudoku, it's an app that is just a product for people who already know how crosswords work. It's not a thing for new people and I had this idea about how to make crosswords approachable by giving these bespoke little hints that we do on Puzzmo.

And it felt like if we were going to build this games platform, we had to build it around a crossword. That had to be the centerpiece of this launching thing because that's what a newspaper games page is; it's a crossword and then also other games.

And so you just can't do that unless you have a lot of organization and a lot of money. And so we met up with these Astra people and they were really interested and they were willing to fund us in a way where we could have three years of runway to have crosswords and start to build this company. And we were like, well, that's wild, these people are just going to give us a bunch of money. That's amazing! I guess let's go for it.

And so we started building it and sort of halfway through the process of building it, we got cold called by Hearst who just had found me through some other means and we ended up having a bunch of conversations about them potentially acquiring it. And then they did. And so now we got to do what we wanted. We don't have to run a company, but we're getting to build this amazing thing. And we have access to all of these resources and all of this promotion. And it's pretty cool and exciting. 

For me, one of the really interesting parts of it is trying to figure out how to do interesting things with business structures as I would do it in the way I would try to learn games because I'm finally in a place where there are business people who have objectives that are like, “Here's how you make money as a company.” or “Here's what a functioning business looks like.” or “Here are the things that we have to improve to make that work.” And we're in the newspapers division. So the people who are the business people really know about that stuff because they have been in an industry that's been struggling for the past 25 years.

So they really know about business stuff. And it's really interesting to sort of have these things filter through and have to think about how we build a website. That is a great experience for everybody but also leverages the things that we have to do to make money that we now know about. 

I'm really enjoying all the sort of novel problems that are, that are showing up. And I think we're doing it. Like, I think if you go to the website, I don't think we're doing anything that feels cheap or feels like a money grab, we're just trying to build a great experience that like also works as a business.

What do you think is the most challenging part of creating a daily games platform like Puzzmo?

I think one of the things that's an interesting challenge with games with this particular audience is that most of this audience does not seek games at all.

They stumble into games and then they play games or they play games because someone told them to. So like my personal theory right now is that like a lot of the people who play New York Times games play them because the New York Times is thought of as an intelligent institution. And so if you can solve the New York Times games, an intelligent institution is telling you, “Hey, you're pretty smart!”

And that is, I think, one of the largest motivators that people have for playing these games. And it doesn't have to be the New York Times telling you you're pretty smart. It could be some other institution that you care about saying, “Hey, we really love this game. You should check it out.” Or it could be your friends showing up and being like, “Hey, I just saw this amazing game, come play it with me!” or “Come help me do this thing in the game.” 

And that's really the root by which people end up playing these games. It's either they just purely stumble into them and they're fun and interesting enough right off the bat that they want to keep playing or they're getting them on some kind of major personal recommendation. And so trying to build a thing that like allows these games to spread far and wide around those systems is a really interesting challenge because that's like, we don't have direct control over either one of those things. We're not a big enough company that people go, “Oh, well, Puzzmo said I'm smart, so I'm smart.” And we're not all of your friends, so we can't like, just send you games that we really like. 

So we're doing a lot of stuff around, you know, how to build a community around games where the community doesn't exist yet and allow people to build their own communities around games. This makes it so that if you are that anchor person, the one who's getting your friends into it, we have the tools for you to start doing so and to get in as many people as you want.

Puzzmo is published in a lot of places, all of the newspapers in Canada publish us, theSkimm publishes us, Polygon publishes us. So we have partners with whom people have a direct relationship, like with theSkimm. And so if theSkimm says, here's the game that we're really loving right now, some people have that parasocial friend relationship with this business in the same way that people do with the New York Times, where they go, “Oh, well, I respect these people, and I've been reading them for years, and I respect their voice. And their voice is now telling me about this other thing that they legitimately find to be cool. So I’ll try it.” And so, it's been really about trying to build something that has those social things but also is legitimately cool.

And it's cool in a way that when we go to the people who run something like theSkimm, they go, “Oh, I love this. I want to work with you because I think the people who are constituents are going to like this. And we'd be excited to tell them about it. And we're not going to feel embarrassed to bring you to the party.”

So how many people are currently playing your games at Puzzmo?

Oh, I don't look at that. That’s something I learned many years ago, but you know what I really think? One of the things that's cool about working with Hearst and with the business people there is that I stopped doing that a really long time ago. The very first thing I dropped before I truly stopped looking at numbers was looking at retention, which is like everybody feels like retention is this really important statistic and it's not. You don't have to look at it.

It doesn't need to be a thing that you think about. And I always felt like the thing about retention is if you try to increase retention, you are going against the values of the people who you are creating for. Sometimes, maybe sometimes, you made a mistake and you built something that people turn on or they don't like or they don't know how to get into and so, like, retention could be good.

But a lot of times when people fall off, It's because you don't need to do something forever. If I asked you what your favorite movie is and you were like, oh, it's whatever, and then my next question was like, “Have you watched it more than a thousand times? Do you watch it every year?” You'd be like, “You're insane!”

That's not what a movie is. I watched it a couple of times and it really meant something to me. And that's how I feel about video games. It's something you play, you enjoy and then you're done. That's great. Don't come back. Don't play it again. Like, you're done. 

And part of our approach with Puzzmo is like, we want to give you a lot of ways to play the games, and we want to give you a lot of games, because we think these games are good, and we think that if you enjoy one, you'll enjoy a lot of other ones because they're related in terms of their approach.

And so, when you're done with one, then check out another one. And then if you don't like it, then, you know, you can be done. You don't have to return to Puzzmo every day, but we're going to at least try to give you a diversity of stuff that you can play with. But the newspaper division puts importance on retention as it is really important if you're a newspaper and for business, so to them, it’s a really important number.

And so I think what we have now is a really great and interesting relationship where we have a group of people who are looking at mechanical means of retention because they're trying to improve retention in the places where you can just screw something up and somebody bounces because a button was in the wrong place, or they didn't know what a thing meant, or they didn't know how to get back to the main page, or they had one really miserable experience. So we have people who are looking at that.

Then on my side, we're not doing that with the games. We're not looking at, like, SpellTower and being like, “Okay, well, everybody plays SpellTower until day 15 and then we lose 10%. How do we not lose 10 percent?” And to be able to separate that out and have those pieces sort of be looking at different aspects of the site I think is really healthy and really interesting.

And that's like part of the space where I'm talking about it being like, interesting to be trying to build a business while still providing a really like reputable moral thing. Sorry, I don't have an answer about how many people are playing, but we have a very lively discord.

Where should we go to learn more about you and your work?

You know, that has become a really tough question. I used to say follow me on Twitter, but I don't really use Twitter anymore. I think once they banned the third-party clients, it just became unusable for me, so I don't do much there.

But I am on Mastodon, where I'm at I'm on Bluesky also, but I don't really post there a lot. I don't post much on Mastodon, but if you message me, I will see it, because I do check Mastodon all the time. Honestly, probably the best spot is in the Puzzmo Discord or the Eggplant Show Discord.

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1151 Walker Rd #310, Dover DE 19904

© 2023-2024 Hey Good Game, Inc.

1151 Walker Rd #310, Dover DE 19904

© 2023-2024 Hey Good Game, Inc.

1151 Walker Rd #310, Dover DE 19904

© 2023-2024 Hey Good Game, Inc.