Independent Game Designer
The scene felt awfully familiar when Asher sat down across from me at the 2-9 Cafe on a typically beautiful day in Los Angeles. While he greeted me over the sound of sirens and energetic USC students bragging about their weekend hijinks, my mind wandered to the last time we had lunch at this spot less than a year before.
Asher had just joined thatgamecompany, I was getting ready to graduate, and we had a long chat about making video games. The latter remained the same, but both of our lives had drastically changed. Now that the Bay Area is my home, I was just a visitor in LA, and Asher was no longer employed by the studio we both deeply admired.
And yet, he couldn’t stop grinning. His gamble turned out to be a huge success.
We know each other well, but why don’t you introduce yourself to everyone else?
My name is Asher Vollmer, and I am a game designer. I just released a game called Threes, which I’m excited to say was number one on the App Store! I graduated from the USC Interactive Media and Games Division in 2012.
When did you start making games?
Well before I started making games, I made silly Flash cartoons with my friends in high school. They were full of terrible ninth grade humor, but my friends seemed to like them. Eventually I figured out that I could program in Flash too, so I taught myself how to make a simple little platformer and a few physics simulations. I found games fascinating, and luckily USC had a summer program for high schoolers to learn how to make games.
During the program I met Matt Korba, who at the time was prototyping his grad thesis, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, but had no idea how to program. He saw that this high school kid could actually program, so he approached me and asked if I would work on his thesis, which was absurd, but I said yes of course. I ended up programming his grad thesis, which helped me get into USC.
Recently you left your job at thatgamecompany to go indie. Walk me through that decision. Did you imagine that you would have this level of success?
Oh god no. Quitting thatgamecompany was both an incredibly hard decision and an incredibly obvious one. The job was basically the perfect gig that anyone could ask for because it was as indie as humanly possible. The game we were working on felt like such a big deal, like something that everyone would talk about for ages, and I wanted to be a part of history. The hardest thing was to realize my happiness ultimately comes first.
So I started considering what makes me happy, and I like doing my own things, following crazy projects on a whim, and not being tied down to a job. I weighed my options and figured I could do contract work to keep myself alive while making my own games. The best advice I got was from Zach Gage, creator of Spelltower. He said, “you should probably just ask your mom what she thinks.”
I asked my mom and she said, “Yeah you’ve been miserable since you got this job you should quit.”
So I did. I started doing contract work, which was good way to branch out to solve interesting design challenges that were not my own.
I thought of Threes as a small game that would never do as well as Puzzlejuice, but would keep me afloat so I could work on my next idea.
Threes was your third game on iOS. What sparked your interest in iOS development?
When I think about games, I don’t have stories or worlds in mind. I wish I did, but usually when I pursue games I’m thinking of them in terms of design challenges. I give myself a constraint, and I try to figure out the best thing I can make within the constraint.
The reason I’ve been pursuing iOS games is because they present really cool design challenges that haven’t been solved yet. People are getting close and apps are getting better, but games still have a long way to go, and I am interested in pushing the limits of the mobile device and tackling the design problems that have yet to be solved.
What kinds of design problems specifically?
The design problem I faced with Threes was to find a game that would fit naturally on mobile in the puzzle space, require only a single swipe, and could easily be put away. Threes fits the mobile design philosophy in all those ways. Next, I want to pursue story in mobile games, because I don’t think anyone has done it right yet since it’s so incredibly hard. People pay attention to story in mobile games for like half a second, so how do you tell a story in 500 milliseconds?
But like I said, I don’t think in terms of story and worlds, so I’m going to have to get some friends to help me out.
Puzzlejuice and Threes were both puzzle games. What keeps drawing you back to the genre?
Puzzles are natural to approach when you’re thinking about design constraints. One of my design constraints with Threes was to make a game that you could play forever, and puzzle games fit really well into that constraint because you’re chasing a score or trying to improve. There’s no finite story to pursue or finite challenges to overcome. I also didn’t want to make a twitch game.
Was there a reason that you were avoiding twitch games?
I’m not good at them! I don’t want to ask people to get good at them, because I feel like I’m not doing them a service by helping them get better with reflexes. There’s enough games that already do that and I personally don’t find it interesting.
Do you think that twitch games as a whole are less accessible for people who are less familiar with games?
Absolutely. Puzzlejuice alienated a lot of people because it required reflexes and timing. The moment you put a timer on a game, a huge chunk of people will just get up and leave. I wanted to make a game without that, so those people could participate.
I met Greg at IndieCade and recognized his art from the internet. Later, when I was working on Puzzlejuice, I came to a point where the game was fun, but ugly. Since the game was so minimal, I had planned on doing the art myself, but Greg popped into my head because he makes minimal games look great. I tweeted him to ask for advice, and he told me to email him.
So I sent him Puzzlejuice and he gave me all sorts of wonderful tips, and eventually asked why I was trying to do the art by myself. He offered to help, and I gladly accepted. Now we’re buddies and I fly to Chicago to hang out with him all the time.
I met Jimmy in a similar way. One day, his music popped up in my Twitter feed, and I started playing it while playing Puzzlejuice. It fit perfectly, so I emailed Jimmy to tell him about the game, he said, “yeah dude that sounds great,” and jumped on.
We had never met, but thanks to the internet he joined the team.
How much of your success do you owe to Twitter?
Roughly, at minimum, one hundred percent.
It really is a great tool isn’t it?
It’s wonderful! When Puzzlejuice came out, its rankings on the store directly correlated to how many people were tweeting about it. The moment that people stopped tweeting about it the rankings dropped. It was amazing.
Threes must have been tricky to balance, as an infinite puzzle with math based mechanics. Tell about your balancing process.
I came up Threes a year ago in a frantic night of prototyping, and I ended up with this sort of fun game that you could play for about a half an hour. A half hour is pretty good for what was basically a game jam, so I knew there was something there.
The main difference in the prototype was that any number three or greater could be combined together, so it was the easiest game in the entire planet. The game of one plus two equals three was good, but it fell apart from there and stopped being interesting.
I was stuck on that forever. The game needed one more rule to make it good, so I tried imposing all sorts of constraints. My goal was to release the game as fast as possible, but after a month of experimenting, I was frustrated. I didn’t think it would ever come out. It didn’t work.
What was the major bottleneck?
It just felt like there was a derivative strategy after a while. The game wasn’t holding my attention, and if I didn’t care a month in, people were going to stop caring five minutes in. I shelved it for three months, because everything has to be in threes with this project. I worked on other projects while it fermented in my brain, and one night my girlfriend played the prototype on my phone and said, “hey this game’s fun you should finish it.”
So I opened up Unity, tried changing this one rule about matching threes, and suddenly the game was just amazing.
It was really funny because I thought the game was so much better and finally something we could release, but all my play testers were just like, “I guess it’s a little different.”
One of my favorite aspects of Threes is the characterization of the different numbers. What inspired that decision, and how did you go about developing the different personality types?
From the very beginning Greg and I had been trying to shove as much character into the game as possible. We threw a lot of ideas at the wall, and it was a painful process because as we kept iterating, I didn’t like any of the additions.
After I figured out the big design change, suddenly there were a finite set of numbers that would show up, and we realized they could be characters. We came up with the monster designs, but when I gave my friends a version of the game that had monster faces instead of numbers, they didn’t understand what was happening. One of them said it was like reading hieroglyphs.
Greg and I were having this battle where he was trying to add character to the tiles, and I was trying to make the game as understandable as possible. We got a very sobering email from Zach Gage, who said he hated the art. Greg was crushed, but it made us step back and redefine what to do. We shrank the faces to the bottom of the tile, and once Greg ran with that, he thought it was awesome.
The latest update reveals when next tile is greater than three. I always find it interesting in the iOS world to see iterations come in after launch. How much post launch revision do you think is acceptable?
The only reason that change is acceptable is because it’s improving players’ experiences by addressing a major complaint. I used to always show what number was next, but near the end of development someone figured out the derivative strategy, and I freaked out. I overreacted and hid the next number, which I later realized went against the design principles of the game. I wanted you to be able to look at the game and see the entire game state in front of you, but in the current version you have to remember if the last few numbers were higher or lower. If you put your phone away, you might forget and that screws up the flow.
This change makes the game what it was supposed to be. I could never make a change now that affected the core of the game because it would upset too many people, including myself.
You bucked some trends by releasing an entirely paid app with no in app purchases. Do you think the free to play business model is inherently evil, or something that will be done right in the future?
I go back and forth on this question. My next game was going to be free, and I was going to try to do ethical in app purchases, but after the response Threes is getting, I’m becoming more optimistic about the idea that you can still package a product. People who wouldn’t like Threes are also the type who wouldn’t spend money on it, so it sort of worked out. The game design for my next project supports free to play, but I might get rid of it because people seem to resent it.
One of my current ideas is to release expansions for games, like old school PC games, that are literally just other apps.
Sounds like a paid update.
Exactly. Both apps could detect that the other one is installed, so they could grow each other’s experience.
Do you have a design mantra, or a set of qualities that you want all of your games to embody?
I think I stumbled into one. Puzzlejuice and Threes feel very clean, elegant, and self contained. My next game idea was messy, sloppy, and full of old fashioned fantasy elements, but now I’m thinking about adapting it to the clean experience that people expect.
On that note, what does the future hold for you?
I’m going to focus on updating and maintaining Threes for the near future, and then I’m going to take a little break from iOS games and just work on weird stuff that doesn’t need to generate income, like art installations and experimental apps. After that, maybe I’ll pursue a bigger idea.