After leaving Microsoft to go indie, Spry Fox isn’t sweating the Road Not Taken

strange tranquil journey spry fox roadnottaken screenshot 05
Don’t let the simple graphics and cartoonish characters deceive you: Like Spry Fox’s first hit Triple Town, Road Not Taken is a complex game with complex choices.
“The way [we] tend to view the game industry is, there’s a large amount of chance and probability.”

That’s Daniel Cook, also known as “Danc,” Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re not alone. It’s somewhat of an inside joke within Spry Fox that Cook, co-founder and CEO David Edery, and in fact the entire company are relatively unknown, in spite of their longevity.

“You have to wake up every day and do great work,” Cook tells me, “and then by doing great work you get a chance at bat. If the timing is right, if you’re on the right platform with the right product and the right press and the right players at the right time, then you may actually get a hit. But otherwise, you’re going to take a swing and a miss and … you have to get up to bat a lot and take a lot of swings to actually hit something.”

Two years ago Spry Fox hit something: Triple Town, the deceptively simple “match-three” game with colorful (if aggravating) bears and adorable, little houses.

“You have to wake up every day and do great work.”

When Triple Town hit the iOS App Store, it went out of the park. Way out, scoring Spry Fox its first genuine hit. But that success was hard-won. And the iOS App Store was hardly the first swing for Triple Town.

Edery and Cook worked for years on the title, tested it on multiple platforms, failed repeatedly, successfully fended off a copyright infringement and then, finally, succeeded. And they credit that success to nothing more than luck.

“The only reason Triple Town mobile has been a success – the only reason, literally the only reason – is because Google and Apple have been very gracious and featured it many times, which has brought in a lot of users,” Edery tells me.

“Google and Apple have each featured the game six or seven times. I’ve lost count. It might be eight times at this point. That’s the only reason it’s a success. You don’t look at that and say, oh, ‘We made the right decision.’ You look at that and say, ‘My God, we were lucky.’ That wasn’t strategy on our part. That was luck.”

Spry Fox is hoping for luck again, with its latest, Road Not Taken. Luck, and maybe a little bit of learned wisdom. Perhaps even some karmic payback. For Spry Fox isn’t just another experimental indie developer. It is one of the most well-known game development teams inside of the industry, in spite of having made only a modest mark outside of it.

RoadNotTaken_Screenshot_06

Cook and Edery are industry veterans who’ve worked for some of the biggest names in gaming. Edery was a portfolio manager at Microsoft, recruiting and managing XBLA developers, among other things. Cook got his start at Epic Megagames, during the days of Jazz Jackrabbit 2. He, too, spent time inside of Microsoft, theoretically making games for the publishing giant.

Individually, the two men have consulted or worked behind the scenes on dozens of successful games. They’ve written popular game design blogs, held lectures and advised people with far more recognizable names on far more successful games than theirs. They are, in short, well-established — if you make games.

If you don’t, well, you’ve probably never heard their names. Their next game might be the one to change that.

The Start of Spry Fox

Cook and Edery were both working at Microsoft when they decided to take the plunge and start their own company. Edery had been offered a position in a strategy department at Microsoft Game Studios, but had been told by colleagues that he’d hate the move.

Everyone I talked to said the same thing,” he tells me. “They were like, ‘If you’re not at least a GM, and ideally a VP, the title — being a strategy person at Microsoft — is death. You’ll make powerpoints that no one will read.'”

Meanwhile Cook was experiencing a similar form of death. While technically a game designer at Microsoft, at least in title, he was not working on the things he wanted to make. So he made them for himself.

“That wasn’t strategy on our part. That was luck.”

“When you’re making games, you make games whether people let you make games or not,” Cook says. “No one wants to let you make games. … Inside Microsoft I was dealing with the typical politics and the reorganizations and all that madness, the end result of which was that I could not make games. … So I started doing a bunch of little hobby projects on the side.”

Cook partnered with developer Andy Moore to create the flash game Steam Birds, and with Andre Speerings to create Bunny. Both games, built in the developers’ spare time with cobbled-together art, attracted millions of players.

Edery took the hint. He pointed at the success of Cook’s flash games and suggested they team up to make that sort of game full time. That was 2009. They’ve been at it ever since, although if you’re not also a game developer you probably didn’t notice.

Spry Fox’s earliest work was consulting on other titles, many in the serious games space. Cook and Edery would be hired for their expertise, create reports, cash a check and then move on, working on their own titles in their spare time.

“I had a rough sense of what my network looked like and how easily or not easily I’d be able to tap it,” says Edery. “That was part of the reason I had the courage to leave. … Some of our best consulting gigs came from non-traditional companies that wanted to use games for serious purposes. We got hired by three different parts of Microsoft, outside of Xbox, to help them do serious games stuff. Which was cool.”

Spry-Fox-posterMaking their own games evolved slowly, occupying an increasing fraction of the team’s time, and allowing the duo to ramp up to delivering a commercial hit. Meanwhile their stature within the industry was growing. By the time Spry Fox released what would be it’s biggest hit, Triple Town, it’s impact on fellow game makers had made it difficult for them to accurately gauge their success with ordinary gamers. They had become the video game equivalent of an experimental jazz band.

“I would say that any sort of reputation we have is almost entirely in the game developer community. As opposed to in the gamer community,” Cook says.

“The reality of the industry is that, as a game developer, the best I can do is contribute knowledge and help people understand how to make better games. And not pay too much attention to the reputation outside of that. Because if you look at the game industry, there are tens of thousands of people who are intensely talented folks, and who will never get any press whatsoever. That’s just the reality of the business we’re in.”

Cook compares it to writing his blog, Lost Garden. For close to ten years he wrote it anonymously, posting thoughts about game design and the industry. When he decided to put his name on it, he finally realized just how many people had been reading it.

“I would go to GDC,” Cook says. “Normally I’d just kinda lurk at GDC. I was meeting CEOs and lead designers and they’re like, ‘Oh, I read your stuff all the time!'”

Meanwhile, between consulting gigs, Spry Fox was experimenting with new kinds of video games, and entirely new platforms. Its biggest hit was still on the horizon, and it would come from a startling place: the Amazon Kindle.

And then came Triple Town

The story of Triple Town is almost a perfect corollary to the story of Spry Fox as a whole. A “come out of nowhere” hit based on years of failure and subtle successes. A base hit, after years of “at bats.”

I ask Edery and Cook to tell me the story behind that game and both men sigh. Then, after a long pause, Edery starts in on the tale. He doesn’t want to tell it. It is, he tells me, complicated.

For one thing, there’s the lawsuit. In 2012, Spry Fox sued mobile game developer 6waves/LOLAPPS for copying Triple Town to create its own mobile game, Yeti Town.

“What would it be like to play a character who is kind of outside society?”

Spry Fox had been consulting with 6waves/LOLAPPS when Yeti Town hit the app store. In their suit, Spry Fox alleged that 6waves/LOLAPPS had asked the Spry Fox team pointed questions about Triple Town‘s development and sales data, and then turned that privileged information directly into a Triple Town clone.

“It’s bad enough to rip off another company,” Edery wrote in a blog post detailing the allegations. “To do so while you are pumping them for private information … is profoundly unethical by any measure.”

The suit was settled later that year, and Spry Fox emerged victorious. 6waves/LOLAPPS paid the company an unspecified sum, plus gave up all rights to Yeti Town. Spry Fox now owns the game.

Yet in spite of the eventual victory, neither Edery nor Cook are happy about the outcome. They’d have preferred it never happened at all. The event was just one more in a long line of obstacles for Triple Town.

Although to many who played it, Triple Town seemed to come out of nowhere, it had actually been around for years. The game started its life in 2010 as an experimental “E Ink” game for the Amazon Kindle. Back then, the game (and the Kindle as a gaming platform) failed to deliver. So the company decided to make the jump to another experimental platform: Facebook.

Social games had begun to take off, but most were either copies of other games, or else very simple “act, then wait” types of experiences. Triple Town was different.

Triple-Town-screenshot-007

“Everyone in the industry was playing it because it was a novelty: an original game on Facebook, which at that point you just didn’t see,” says Edery. “An original game that people thought had a healthy, interesting, gamer core mechanic, that was totally unheard of.”

The unique approach netted Spry Fox an immediate following, but fell short of commercial success. Although game developers loved the game, audiences were less enthusiastic.

“The game was too hard for the average Facebook player,” Edery says. “They were bouncing right off it, no matter how much effort we put into the tutorial.”

So Spry Fox went back to bat. This time as a “free to play” app on mobile devices. The result: a roaring success. Millions of people played the game, and enough spent money on it for Spry Fox to turn a profit.

Yet again, there were obstacles. Most introduced by Spry Fox itself.

Edery and Cook had decided to aggressively limit Triple Town‘s ability to monetize the free to play model. You can spend extra money to play the game, but the game’s design intentionally limits its the benefit of doing so. Spry Fox wanted a level playing field, to ensure that paying players didn’t have a competitive edge. What it got instead was a neutered moneymaker.

In retrospect, Edery calls that decision “morally” correct, but says, “It was the wrong decision from a business perspective.”

The game was also, in spite of an attempt to make it more approachable, too hard for most casual players.

Players would be attracted to Triple Town by its colorful characters and seemingly simple gameplay, and enjoy it — for a time. They’d then realize that in order to become good at the game, they’d need to be playing it like chess, and thinking many, many moves ahead. The result is an ultimately disappointing experience for many players.

“We’ve actually tried and failed to make our games easier,” says Cook. “There’s this term, ‘cognitive load,’ sort of like how much your brain is working when you’re playing a game. If it’s working too much you start to get frazzled and frustrated. If it’s not working enough you tend to get bored. … I tend to like games that are a little bit probably too much on the high cognitive load side of things. When we’re building our games, things like Triple Town are the result.”

For Road Not Taken, Spry Fox is trying for a different approach.

The Road Not Taken

Road Not Taken is named for the classic poem by Robert Frost, in which a person ponders a choice made long ago, between walking down one of two roads, and the impact of that choice on their current circumstances.

“I took the one less traveled by,” the poem reads, “and that has made all the difference.”

It is at once elegiac and triumphant, as the author supposes that the perception of one road being different from another may have been an illusion, but does not specify specifically what “the difference” actually was. The poem is about the choice, not the outcome.

For Cook, the choice of his game’s title was intentional, and similarly ambivalent. Years ago he imagined that his life would take him on a certain course, and he has now realized that where he has ended up is not exactly where he intended.

“As a child I had this assumption that there’s this standard path you follow in life,” Cook says. “I’m gonna go to school, do really well in school, get those As in my classes, and then because I got As in my classes I’m gonna get a really good job. While I’m at my good job with a salary and so on, that will make me attractive and I’ll get married. Then, once I’m married, we’ll have 2.5 little children, and the story gets a little fuzzy at that point.”

Cook has lived his life with that path in mind, but hasn’t followed it. Instead of raising a family, he’s built a career. He chose to make games, and that choice has made a difference.

Now he wants to make a game that embodies the spirit of that choice, to share with players some aspect of the sad, but beautiful path down which his choice has led him.

“What would it be like to play a character who is kind of outside society?” he asks.

In Road Not Taken, you play as a ranger who adventures in the woods rescuing lost children. In the game, time passes. You have a lifespan of 15 years. What you do with those years will define your experience, as will the impact of your actions on the world around you. Cook wants players to feel inspired to live the best life they can within those 15 years.

He wrote most of the game’s text himself, and programmed it as well. It is as much a letter of love from the developer as anything he has ever made. It is also, like all of Spry Fox’s games, mechanically deep, in spite of the relatively simple actions you’re able to perform.

“You can move around,” says Cook. “You can pick stuff up and throw it. That’s pretty much the main interactions you have in the game. But with that simple foundation, all the objects end up having their own unique behaviors.

“And there’s some mystery in the forest and how you figure out what’s actually happening. I wrapped that all around something I knew pretty well, which was this strong mechanics base. Hopefully it’s a fun game to play in addition to all the narrative elements.”

Cook also hopes the people who play it understand its meaning, but he isn’t trying to hammer anyone over the head with it. He says that if only a small fraction of potential players take real meaning from Road Not Taken, then that’s a job well done.

“I don’t necessarily believe in making stuff that’s completely on the nose, explicitly stating, ‘This is the way you should be feeling at this moment as you experience this creation that I’ve authored,'” he says.

“I’m okay if it’s not completely apparent to people. … It’s almost like building honesty into your product. You hope that by building honesty into your game, those honest things will be little chunks of gold that people will find, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, wow, this is meaningful and valuable to me!’

“It has to hit the right person at the right time. And then maybe it’ll click with them.”

At bat

In talking with Edery and Cook, there’s a recurring theme of “education.” They say it is one of their passions, and in looking at their careers and the past several years at Spry Fox, it’s apparent they aren’t just blowing smoke.

From the game development blogs that both men still maintain, to the years spent consulting on other people’s games, to the way they manage their company — inspiring their 11 or so employees to work on what most fulfills them, and then bubbling this ideas up alongside their own — Edery and Cook are hard to characterize as anything but “enlightened human beings.” To the point where it’s a little intimidating.

“We’ve actually tried and failed to make our games easier.”

In spite of having achieved only modest commercial success, in spite of the Triple Town lawsuit, and in spite of the uncertainty of anything they’re attempting, including Road Not Taken, both men express extreme gratitude for the opportunity to have pursued game industry careers at all. Talking to them together is like having tea with Zen masters. I come away feeling a little lightheaded, but grateful myself for the opportunity.

“I honestly feel incredibly lucky,” says Cook. “I feel like one of the luckiest people on the planet. I live in this gorgeous city [Seattle]. I live above a coffee shop. I have essentially all my material needs met, through—I don’t know. Luck, essentially? Given that, what were the things that helped me get here? Education. Family. Friends. People taking me aside and saying, ‘Hey, that was a really stupid idea.’ Or, ‘Hey, have you thought of this?’

“And so for me it’s always been a big thing to say, ‘Look, let’s stop worrying about myself for a moment. What can I do to just give the tiniest little bit back?’ It’s a big world out there. You can push on it hard without making much of a dent. You just have to give as much as you can and hope you make a small difference.”

“Quite frankly, there’s no harm in giving,” Edery says. “You can make a lot of friends. You can help a lot of people. It’s all upside when you open up and try to share what you’ve learned with other developers. … Making games is super hard, and I’ve never heard of a situation where someone watched a lecture and therefore was able to compete with the people who gave the lecture. It’s a lot harder than that. I’ve never understood the point in being secretive about it. We’re still — I mean, every week, Danc and I are like, ‘Well, there’s another dumb thing we did!’ It’s just so hard. There’s no reason to think that by giving someone a little bit of a leg up, that you’ll then later suffer. The industry doesn’t work that way.'”

I ask the men what success, for them, would look like for Road Not Taken. What would be the sign that they’ve finally made a “break out” game?

“Mostly, with any game, you just want people to play it,” says Cook. “That’s the first step. It would be nice if they enjoyed it. It’s not necessary. [He laughs] It would be nice if they found something in it that was meaningful to them for longer than the time that they played it. … But I don’t try — I generally keep my expectations of every release relatively low.”

“You have to, right?” says Edery. “That’s the only way to prevent yourself from going insane in this industry. You have to go in with modest expectations and then hopefully be pleasantly surprised.

“It’s a crapshoot.”

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