The Challenge of Simplicity

Indie icon Zach Gage on the art of designing games for everyone.


Snappy word puzzles


The App Stores indie developers are delivering some of the most innovative, experimental games out there, and at the top of that list is Zach Gage. A 32-year-old New York native who walks the line of conceptual artist and game designer, Gage is a testament to just how far one person can go with a big idea and the ambition to see it through. His notable works include 2013 iPhone Game of the Year Ridiculous Fishing—a psychedelic take on arcade-style fishing—and SpellTower, a unique blend of Tetris and word search. We caught up with Zach about his latest game, TypeShift, the origin of the concept, and his unique creative approach.

TypeShift instantly hooked us with its intuitive controls and inviting style. How did you come up with the concept?
For TypeShift, I woke up one morning with the idea of a game where you have to locate a word within columns of letters you can only slide up and down. I quickly mocked up an image and set out to build an early version in Unity [a popular third-party game engine]. I prototype all of my games with the same process: I take the initial idea and build it as quickly as possible, holding adjustments or refinements until I have something playable—which may just take a few minutes or a few hours.

You tend to make twists on established genres, like with SpellTower and Really Bad Chess. What drew you to word games?
To be honest, I don't typically set out to do any particular thing. More often, I just work on whatever ideas I have and see what they turn into. I do have a fondness for simple components (cards, dice, words, etc.) because I find most people are comfortable with them, and I'm interested in making games for broad audiences. This is actually one of the reasons I make games for iPhones more often than for computers or consoles. Touch is something that comes very naturally to people because it's so direct.

Zach's custom-made arcade cabinet up close. It wasn't for sale. Trust us. We tried.

Is it ever difficult to translate a high concept in your mind into a fully functioning game?
I prototype a lot of games—generally my process is that if something isn't fun or immediately interesting, I move on. Because of that, most of my released games "come easy to me," but only because I throw out the difficult ones.

The challenge was: How can I make the cool parts of the game accessible to less-wordy people?

Zach Gage, developer of TypeShift

Many great puzzle games have something called "orthogonal solutions" built into their design. In crosswords, if you don't know a DOWN word, you can solve the ACROSS words around it, slowly filling in letters to help you guess the answer. Having an orthogonal solution was what I was looking for in TypeShift, but because of how small and tight the game design was, it was very difficult to fit it in. But I did it.

Zach's studio in Manhattan is home to designs both digital and physical.

This isn’t to say games can't also be pop culture—art is culture. The broad explosion of games all across the cultural spectrum entrenches them alongside other great mediums like music, sculpture, writing, painting, movies, etc.

What's next for your one-man shop? Any new concepts you've got cooking?
One never knows! My take on billiards is coming later this year, and then hopefully a card-based push-your-luck adventure game after that. That one really surprised me—I never thought I'd see my mom enjoying a game where she killed yetis with swords! She played my prototype for over an hour.

Zach on the App Store