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David Reichelt has been through a hell of a lot in his life. He was both a music major and a theater major. He was a professional magician. He was a medic in the military and served in Iraq. He had to save lives, and he was nearly blown up a couple of times in his vehicle. He tried his had at making films. He cleaned swimming pools. And he was a valet parking attendant. But one of the constants in his life was games.
He grew up with computer games like Lode Runner, and he loved playing Nintendo games. At age 33, he started making games, while still parking cars. in 2013, he taught himself to make games using a creation tool dubbed Game Salad, and later switched to Build Box. In six months, he churned out 40 games. The most he ever made from those games was $40 a month. He was around $80,000 in debt.
And the 41st was Color Switch, a very simple game where you had to match colors with a bouncing ball in order to progress.
Now that game has been downloaded 200 million times. For the first two years, he worked with publisher Fortafy Games. But now the licensing rights have reverted to Reichelt. After the licensing deal ended, Fortafy pulled the game off the app stores, and now he’s relaunching Color Switch with a whole new set of improvements.
I spoke with Reichelt about his adventure and how he taught himself to be creative at game design. He’ll be speaking at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit 2018 event in Mill Valley on a panel about the future of creativity. I think it will be a fascinating session.
“Every technique is based on the concept of conceptual blending,” he said, talking about creativity. “When you take two unrelated concepts and put them together to make a new concept, you blend them together and have a new hybrid idea. If you think about it, it works on a biological level. Two parents create a child.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How did this all get started for you? What’s your background like?
David Reichelt: We had a neighbor who lived a couple of streets down the road, when I was about five years old. They had a computer, and we didn’t have a computer or any kind of gaming system. My mom became friends with this lady, who we’re still friends with today, and they had a computer and all these computer games. I’d go to their house all the time and play games like Lode Runner. I don’t remember if it was a Commodore 64. It was something with floppy discs. I was too young to recall. This is about 1984, 1985.
My dad got us a Nintendo when I was nine, so that would have been about 1988. I grew up playing Nintendo games. To this day Nintendo is still my favorite platform. I have all their systems. But I’ve been playing games ever since I was five years old.
I didn’t start developing or designing games until 2013, though. I went on this journey trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I didn’t really get there until I was 33, which is when I started designing games. In between, I went into the military. I was a music major. I was a theater major. I worked as a professional magician for a couple of years. I’m still a member of the Magic Castle. I like performing, but just for fun. I went through life trying a lot of different things. If I didn’t feel like I was passionate about something, I would go search for something else. I was always curious.
In 2013 a friend of mine that I met through the theater program in Cal State Northridge, she moved out of her apartment. I remember she had a Facebook posting asking if someone wanted to take over her lease. I was in Simi Valley at the time, my hometown, which is where I live now. I have a house out here. At the time I was working on my magic career, and she was only five minutes from Hollywood, so I decided to move out there. It was the best decision ever, because her roommate, who was still there—the first day I came out of my room he was sitting there at his computer making a video game.
As curious as I usually am, I went up and asked what he was doing. He said, “I’m making this game and I’m going to put it on the app store. I outsource some of the development and the artwork and tell people how to make this.” I guess I always assumed you had to have advanced programming skills to do anything like that. I remembered a book I had read, the Rich Dad/Poor Dad book, where he talked about creating systems of passive outcome. I thought, “Okay, this is something he’s talking about, and I’d enjoy doing it.” If you can make an app that does well, then that’s creating a system like that, and I’d been playing games my whole life.
Filmmaking was another thing I’d been working on at the time, so I had all this filmmaking gear, like $8,000 worth of cameras and things. I sold all of that to finance my first game, which came out in early 2014. I developed games for a couple of years and didn’t make any money with any of them. I developed about 40 games and the most I ever made was about $40 a month. I had all these games on the Nook app store, the Barnes and Noble app store, and then their app store closed and all my games went down with the Titanic.
GamesBeat: How much time did each one of those take you?
Reichelt: I literally stopped having a social life. I stopped doing everything so I could focus on this. The first game, I outsourced the development and it took about six months to make a game that, with my knowledge now, would only have to take a week or two. But it took six months and $4,000. They fleeced me pretty good on that one. That ended up making $75. Not too bad of an ROI.
When I had that failure I thought, “Well, how can I do this better next time? I’ll learn how to make games myself.” I found this software called Game Salad. It’s almost as simple to use as a Powerpoint type of software. You could make a really simple game a lot quicker than learning how to program. I spent about a month learning Game Salad, and then over the next six months I made 40 games. I would spend, on average, 15 hours on my computer each day building games, real simple games.
My day job was cleaning swimming pools. I’d get up at 5 a.m., go clean pools until 10 a.m. or 12 p.m., and have most of the day left to be at my computer. My last job I was a valet and I could make my own schedule, so it was the same thing. I could make enough money to pay my rent, and then just spend the rest of my time at home making video games.
GamesBeat: You didn’t have a whole lot of money saved up from anything?
Reichelt: No. In fact, the exact opposite. I think I was about $80,000 in debt on different credit cards and school loans and things. I’d make my rent, but I’d always get calls from credit card companies because I hadn’t made payments in six months. My credit was not very good at the time. I was under a lot of financial pressure, but I was determined. I felt I had found something I could excel at. As frustrating as it was a lot of the time in the first two years—I had all these bouts of depression and whatnot, but I stuck to this plan of learning and applying everything I could for game design until I made something that enabled me to do it full time.
GamesBeat: You said you were in the military as well?
Reichelt: Right. I was a music major at the time. I didn’t want to be a music major anymore. I was in Bakersfield, California. We had moved out there from Simi Valley when I was 11. I just found myself in a spot where I didn’t want to be a music major, because I couldn’t see myself doing anything having to do with that knowledge. I didn’t have any money to restart. So I thought, “Well, my brother and sister joined the military, and they’re traveling and earning money for school,” and I decided to go that route.
I just happened to choose the one where they’re going to send you to the desert. I joined as a combat medic. I went to Iraq in 2005. But that was a great experience. I learned a lot from having that job, having to treat people. I was in the military officially from 2003 to 2011. It’s been a while.
In Iraq there was no front line. You have a base, and when you’re outside of the base, traveling around, you’d hear bombs go off every now and then. Any day, you’d go out and hear something go off in the distance. You get trained to look for things that could be IEDs, improvised explosive devices, along the road. The training basically tells you anything can be a bomb – a crater, a dead cow, a can, anything. So you’re always on edge.
We got blown up a couple of times. Fortunately, I never got injured, but we had some people injured. I was the medic, so I was the one treating people when things would happen. I spent a year over there. I took a lot of pictures and video, because I thought, “Well, I’m never going to be here again, so I’d better document this.” It was a great experience. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I didn’t have that, because it gave me this bedrock of confidence to just go out and try new things. I would always think, “Nobody’s shooting at me. I’m not getting blown up. This isn’t that bad. I can handle it.” It gave me a good perspective for challenges.
GamesBeat: That’s a rough time to have joined up.
Reichelt: Yeah, it was in the middle of a lot of stuff happening. But if I had the choice to go back and change it, I wouldn’t. I would not be in games right now if I hadn’t had that experience. Everything I did after that was always outside my comfort zone, trying to do something new, learn some new information. That’s how I got into theater. That’s how I got into public speaking. I joined Toastmasters back in 2011. All the things I got into post-military were because I finally got out of my comfort zone and challenged myself in a big way. I was able to meet that challenge and I just kept that pattern going.
GamesBeat: Where did this idea for Color Switch come from?
Reichelt: There are two books that were and still are the foundation of my game design schooling. One of them is called Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko, and the other one is called The Art of Game Design, by Jesse Schell.
Thinkertoys is really the key to giving me the tools to think of the idea. It’s a book full of creative thinking techniques. They show you to take apart any existing ideas and combine them with other idea to form new ideas based on those inspirations. Every technique is based on the concept of conceptual blending. When you take two unrelated concepts and put them together to make a new concept, you blend them together and have a new hybrid idea.
If you think about it, it works on a biological level. Two parents create a child. Water is made of hydrogen and oxygen. On their own they’re not water, but when you blend them together, you get water. All the elements are like that. Not only does it work on a conceptual level with creating ideas, but it works on a physical level as well.
I started using these techniques back in 2010, when I found this book. I’d used them off and on, but I never had something specific to use them for. They’re really geared toward helping you solve problems. When I got into games, my main problem was designing games that people would enjoy. I would always use these techniques for that.
After I made 40 games and they all failed, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to simplify everything.” I wanted to simplify the themes I focused on, simplify the type of game, not try to make any kind of elaborate game. I wanted to make something as simple as possible. When I thought along those lines, I realized that I also wanted to make a game that could be around in 40 years. What are games like that? Super Mario Bros. Pac-Man. Uno. Simon.