Game designer and Army vet David Reichelt talks to us about how he created a hit mobile game with no coding knowledge.
Color Switch has been a mobile phenomenon since its December 2015 launch, with well over 200 million downloads. It became the No.1 mobile game in over 150 countries and was the fastest game in Apple’s App Store history to reach 50 million downloads. Earlier this year, Color Switch creator David Reichelt regained the rights from publisher Fortafy Games and released a re-envisioned version of the title, and he believes that’s only the beginning for the brand.
Reichelt’s story is familiar in some ways and very unique at the same time. Much like Rovio failed with 51 mobile games before it finally landed a mega-hit with Angry Birds, Reichelt actually dabbled with 40 different games that he saw no success with. His next one was Color Switch. It changed his life
Color Switch didn’t happen out of the blue. It wasn’t pure luck. Reichelt eventually was able to put himself in a more entrepreneurial mindset, and despite knowing nothing about programming, he learned fundamental game design principles that translated to success. His first step? Studying Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book on “The Art of Game Design” from front to back. There was no turning back after he read it.
I specifically thought that I wanted to make a game that could be around for 30, 40-plus years... So I looked at Pac-Man, Uno, Simon, and Super Mario. I tore them apart using ‘Thinker Toys’ techniques
“I got a signed copy of his book which was awesome,” Reichelt told GameDaily. “I went and talked at his school. He had a big influence [on me] and how I thought about it because he said, ‘The only thing that’s required of you to be a game designer is to say it out loud, that you're a game designer and then start making games. Start sketching ideas, this and that.’ So I remember doing that. I just did that silly exercise where I said it out loud three times and I was like, ‘Alright, I'm going to do this.’
“I had about $8,000 of film equipment because I was in filmmaking, still am, sold it all, had $4,000 and I financed my first app that way. I looked at it this way. I could learn a highly technical skill with programming or I could learn what I considered the more artistic side of things which is the game design principles. It's not really about programming even though programming is part of game design.
“So my school for game design was basically downloading games everyday, playing them, analyzing them through the concepts that I would study in his book, and I would study them and then when I thought I understood them, then I would look at games through those concepts and then to generate game ideas, I would use another book called ‘Thinker Toys’ [by Michael Michalko] which is filled with creative thinking techniques to help you tear apart ideas, combine different ideas to create new ideas, and those techniques are all based on the idea of conceptual blending which is the core of all creativity. Conceptual blending means blending a concept with an unrelated concept together to make a new concept and if you think about it, everything in the universe works like that… And so my school was basically between those two books and then just downloading and analyzing games.”
At its most basic level, Color Switch involves guiding objects through other objects of the same color. Ironically, Reichelt is color blind but that didn’t stop him from pursuing this idea once he got it in his head. Reichelt started formulating the idea after looking at the best aspects of classic games that stand the test of time.
“I specifically thought that I wanted to make a game that could be around for 30, 40-plus years,” he continued. “So I said, ‘You know what? I need to look at games that have already been around for 30, 40 plus years for inspiration.’ So I looked at Pac-Man, Uno, Simon, and Super Mario. I tore them apart using ‘Thinker Toys’ techniques and there were some common threads between them. One of them was the mechanic of color switching. In Pac-Man, you get the big pellet, the ghosts change color and you know you can eat them or in Super Mario, you get the flower, your outfit changes colors. Now you can spit fireballs. So I wrote that down. I wrote down that they have a limited color palette, about four colors on average, dark background, and I put all those together and then also had the idea that I want to surprise players.
“And then I thought, 'Well, what if the ball constantly changed colors?' And then I thought about, 'Well, what if I made that color switch mechanic the main mechanic?' And then by getting very specific with all that, then that idea emerged where I had this circle rotating in my head and I saw the ball going through it as it was changing colors.
“So Color Switch has the DNA of kind of timeless games, and it also uses a mechanic that everyone is already used to in games with color switching. Also, [in his book] Jesse [Schell] talks about how if you come up with a resonant theme in your game, you have a very, very strong chance of really impacting the player's emotions. So the resonant theme that I picked for Color Switch was the idea of adapting to challenges, which everybody, all over the world, can relate to adapting to challenges throughout their lives, and you have to to keep progressing.”
The main challenge for players to adapt to in Color Switch is the constantly changing colors and increase in speed while getting around obstacles. It’s minimalistic, but so are Simon or Uno and they work extremely well. Part of this elegance comes from the engine that Color Switch was originally built on: a program called Buildbox, which requires zero coding ability to use.
“[There were] huge limitations with that software but those ended up being assets because I always had these big ambitions for games,” Reichelt explained. “If I want to make those games, I'd have to hire a programmer but after I funded my first game that didn't make any money, I spent all my money on it, I didn't have [resources]. I had to learn how use something... the first tool I used was Game Salad and I cut my teeth on that and built 40 games, published those, none of them made any money. When Buildbox came around, I just realized it was the tool I needed.
“I can't build any crazy kind of games that you can with Unity or these advanced builders but you can make very simple games and you can do it quick. It's like using PowerPoint. It's drag-and-drop, punch in a couple numbers, there's a game. I consciously was thinking about, ‘What could I make with this? It's so limited.’ but the limitations forced me to find a creative solution within those limitations and I don't think I would have thought of Color Switch if I had all the tools available to me that I could use.”
Reichelt’s eclectic background -- he’s worked in filmmaking, as a magician, as a valet -- has come together to form the person that he is today, but it might be his service in the Army that changed his attitude and his approach to making games the most.
“When you go in the military, it does a couple of things, at least for me it did,” he said. “One thing, I didn't have much confidence in myself. Before that, I was a high school dropout. I was much more quiet before the military and then when I was a medic, well, you can't be quiet. You have teach soldiers about certain medical first aid that they could do when you're not there. You have to take care of soldiers when things happen. So what happened was when I got deployed to Iraq, I found myself in situations where I had to treat soldiers when we're just roaming around and all of a sudden, you get blown up or something and when I was able to do that successfully, not that I didn't make mistakes, you know, when you're just trying to get things done in the middle of your adrenaline rush, you still make mistakes, but I was able to successfully treat soldiers.
“When I got out of the military, I had this confidence because I was stretched so far outside my comfort zone and I met that challenge, when I got out, nothing felt as challenging as that. So the mindset that I started to get was when I would face a challenge, even to this day, I always think, ‘Well, I'm not getting blown up and no one's shooting at me, this isn't that bad. I can handle this.’
Of course, being in the military also tends to give an individual more discipline than an ordinary citizen as well. It’s certainly helped Reichelt’s work ethic. He gets up around 4AM everyday.
“I have my coffee and then I hit the gym and then I go hiking and I just start studying and working on games in a variety of ways,” he described. “I don't really like partying at all. I feel like it's a waste of time. I'd rather work on something so I'm always working on something. I'm always trying to improve how I think and I really got that from ‘Thinker Toys’ because I was never aware that there were techniques that you could specifically use to expand and improve how you think indefinitely if you keep doing it and by using those techniques and learning how to look at things and not look at things as how everyone else does but look at things in a way that you could break it up into an infinite amount of things so that you can come up with new ideas and never run out.”
Now that Reichelt has some success, he’s been able to hire programmers to work with Unity, which will open up new possibilities for the brand. Because the game is based around a simple mechanic and idea, it’ll be easier to take the IP out into wider directions.
“I'm not worried about other IPs because I think I have kind of honed in on this one so well that we want to expand on it and we have so much material, we just would be too busy to start a new IP,” Reichelt said. “We're so unspecific with what Color Switch is… shapes and color, we can reinterpret that into specific things in an infinite amount of ways. We didn't start specific, like Clash of Clans is specific. Angry Birds is very specific. It's harder to stretch that into new things because you already started specific.
"We're so unspecific just within the Color Switch brand, there's so much to do that could last us years and we already have this brand recognition.”
One way Color Switch has been able to expand is with esports. Last year, the game joined the Skillz platform, which sees millions of players competing on mobile each year. Kyle Sye who leads Business Development for Color Switch, actually joined Reichelt after working with Skillz.
“All this stuff is just investment in the future,” Sye told us. “I think there's a misperception of what an esport actually is. When I say the word esport and I close my eyes, I see huge stadiums and hardcore games and male audiences. At Skillz, we saw that it was split pretty evenly, male and female. And with Color Switch, it's such a big brand and it's a casual game. All an esport means to me is that people can play against each other. People can tune in and watch and people can actually take home something.
“People are already streaming Color Switch. I mean, there's billions of views on all of our videos already. It's a natural progression for all games to actually have the ability to play multiplayer against somebody… We actually have eight games coming. We have a couple IP mashups but the esport title is actually the sexy stuff. Esports is a big [buzz] word, but it's an investment in the future of where we think the industry is going to be going.”
Beyond the games, Reichelt and Sye have larger ambitions to turn Color Switch into a multimedia giant. Like Rovio, Color Switch is leveraging merchandising, but the company is also taking things a step further with possible music distribution and amplification with social media stars, as described by Forbes.
“We look up to a lot of great game studios like King, Zynga, Electronic Arts, Supercell, and Miniclip,” Sye told Forbes. "We are always trying to push ourselves to come up with new strategies and techniques to grow our business. Companies like Ketchapp, Voodoo, Unity and Twitch have changed the gaming industry forever. We know that Color Switch will be one of the most important innovators and leaders going into the future.”
It’s been a wild ride for Reichelt. Only a few years ago, he was still parking people’s cars to make ends meet. Now he’s sitting on top of a leading mobile brand.
“I was always reading game design blogs or developer blogs or playing games, tearing games apart, studying game design, kind of trying to attack the problem from as many perspectives as possible and so all that time and effort over time that I've put into this finally did create this life-changing moment for me,” he said. “It all comes down to constantly improving how you think so you improve what you do and you improve your results until you have breakthroughs.
“It's not about you as an artist at the core. Although you have to learn how to be an artist to design something, but after kind of being an outsider and then getting into [this industry], meeting everybody, hearing everyone's perspective, it's just reinforced my thought that it is about caring about game design and becoming as good a game designer as you can and then everything will fall into place.”