In 2011, designer Zach Gage decided to try something different: make a game in a genre he hated. The result was SpellTower, a mashup of word games and puzzlers, which went on to become one of his most popular titles to date, with more than 1 million downloads. Its approachable nature reached a varied audience, including everyone from traditional gamers battling for a high score to grandparents who would play it every morning. But over the years, as new features were added, the game become somewhat unwieldy. People were still playing, but there were bugs and the code was a mess. “For years I’ve been thinking ‘The right thing to do is to make a reboot,’” Gage explains. And he did just that: today sees the release of SpellTower+ on iOS.
Gage partnered with developer Jack Schlesinger on the new iteration, and the pair built SpellTower+ entirely from scratch. The idea was to remove much of the excess that had built up over the years. For instance, SpellTower was originally designed for iPads, and later a smaller game board was added for people on phones. Then, as phones steadily increased in size, phone players were able to use the iPad board as well. It was a confusing mess, and now the game has been streamlined for multiple screen sizes. It also has a cleaner look, a jazzy soundtrack, quality-of-life features like iCloud backup, and five additional game modes for a total of 11.
For Gage — whose past work includes reimaginings of games like chess, pool, and solitaire — the idea was to turn SpellTower into a more evergreen experience. By streamlining the experience, adding more things to do, and — crucially — making the game free to download, the hope is that SpellTower+ will be able to reach a larger audience and extend the concept’s life for even longer. (Gage says he considered launching on Apple Arcade, but felt that “this is a game that has a preexisting audience, and it isn’t fair to take it away from them.”)
Part of revisiting the game so many years later meant coming to terms with what SpellTower is. While many games set themselves apart through clever writing or art, there’s a certain type — Gage calls them “classics” — that need to be purposefully generic. Think of Tetris or Minesweeper. “There’s a blandness, or a generic quality, to classics,” says Gage. “They have to be able to slot into somebody’s life no matter what stage of their life they’re in.”
Though it wasn’t the initial intention, SpellTower fits into that mold neatly, with its easy-to-understand gameplay and simple, pleasing visuals. “If you break it down to its materials it’s generic,” says Gage. “[Qwop creator Bennett Foddy] calls my games ‘dad-core.’ But then you play it and you go ‘Oh, this is fun, and deep, and interesting.’ And you end up playing it for a while.”
A lot has changed in the mobile games space since 2011. The App Store has since become dominated by large-scale free-to-play games, while smaller indie titles have been rendered increasingly niche, buoyed most recently by the existence of Apple Arcade. However, Gage says that, despite the shifts in the industry, his approach to making games hasn’t changed much in the years between SpellTower and SpellTower+. “The thing that I’m trying to do is make a good game, and make a good game that people play for a long time,” he explains. “Because of that, the reality is that the actual games haven’t changed much at all. The marketing is a little different, some of the features are different, but the actual game is the same.”
That said, there is at least one thing that’s changed: his feelings toward word games. “I guess I don’t hate them anymore,” Gage says before adding, “but I still don’t like Scrabble.”