Asher Vollmer helped make one of the most popular games of 2014.
“Threes” has been downloaded more than 1 million times and was blessed by Apple as the mobile game of the year. It’s the puzzle game at its most elegant, owning an invitingly crisp design and requiring little more than basic mathematics and casual swipes of the finger.
Now the Westside-bred 25-year-old has a new game. But “Royals” is nothing like “Threes.” To start, it is designed to be difficult. Vollmer, in fact, tells people it’s impossible. It’s not, but if you try it your character will perish in minutes.
Chances are, you will never be a royal — in life, or in Vollmer’s game.
But at least it won’t cost you much. It’s essentially free. Vollmer is asking players to pay what they wish. Why free?
“People will see the ‘Threes’ guy made a new game and not read anything about it,” he says. “They’ll skip all the prep I do about how it’s a hard game and then pay $2 to get the game and find it incredibly obtuse and difficult, and then they hate me. So when I figured out I could release it basically for free, it was a relief.”
Draped in a rudimentary medieval setting, “Royals” starts with the grandest of ambitions, teasing players to carve out a strategy that will take them from peasantry to the upper class. It moves like a board game, and at times if feels as if one is leaving fate to a roll of the dice. You can try to be a bard, or maybe a lumberjack or a miner. One need press only a couple of buttons, but life will likely find a way to crush one’s dreams.
Vollmer doesn’t want to make it easy — on players or himself.
Speaking this week just days after releasing “Royals” online, Vollmer was wondering whether the game will turn off more players than it will please.
“As the creator of ‘Threes,’ I have a brand now. That’s what I’ve been told,” Vollmer says. “People expect me to keep making tiny little puzzle games. That’s my brand, and if I keep doing that, then people will be happy. ‘Oh, good, he’s the puzzle game guy!’ But meanwhile, I am an actual person who is interested in game design and pushing it in different ways. I’m interested in different dimensions of it. It’s been hard to tell people that I’m not making puzzle games and seeing them get disappointed.
“It’s like I’m betraying them.”
“Royals” should help remake Vollmer’s brand as a designer who aims to defy expectations. He’s still tinkering, however, with just how much his audience should be challenged.
His “Close Castles,” released after “Threes,” was fast-paced, pitting player versus player in a cutesy quest for world domination. The game toured festivals and was even announced to be coming to Sony consoles. Then Vollmer pulled the plug, frustrated, he says, that the game had only one true path to victory. He thinks he’s figured out a way to make it work, but Vollmer is also at peace with “Close Castles” potentially never being officially released.
“‘Threes’ opened up a lot of opportunities, but it opened up the opportunity to say no,” Vollmer says. “That’s what I’ve embraced.”
He said no, for instance, when larger companies came calling.
“All these people would come to me and say, ‘We like your game. We think this game would be a good fit for you.’ But I’m in a position where I just want to pursue my own projects. That’s liberating and I love it.”
“Royals” is all Vollmer. Players at the outset of the game are given three options: “become queen,” “become king” or “become royal.” The actual game doesn’t change regardless of the path one hopes to follow. The end game is the same: castle or bust.
Players will need to get used to the message displayed on the screen at game’s end: “You have died at 27 as a lowly peasant and will be forgotten.” If “Threes” was bright and effortless, this is cynical and perplexing, viewing society at its most distressing and games as tools to confront.
Vollmer describes the game as optimistic.
That’s a joke.
“It’s optimistic in that you could become king, but it’s almost totally impossible and crazy hard, and you most likely will die,” he says. To win, one must first figure out how the game works. Players are given no rules, no tutorials. Vollmer frames it as “an old forgotten game from your youth,” and the look is of a PC game from the ’80s. The music is chippy and chirpy.
The first time Vollmer had players try out the game, the test subjects were annoyed. But that reaction taught Vollmer some lessons about game design — or people’s assumptions, rather. He found that if he sold it differently, people started having fun with it.
“I sent out the game to a lot of people, and the first response I got was, ‘Oh, my God, this is so frustrating. I quit.’ Only after that did I figure out that I need to frame this game in a certain way,” he explains. “This is not an easy game. The trick I’ve learned is that you tell people that the game is 100 times harder than it actually is. Then when they come to the game and it’s only pretty hard instead of impossible, they feel incredibly powerful.”
Still, Vollmer admits that “it’s a weird game, and it’s guaranteed that not everyone who buys it will like it.” That’s why players have the option to download it free — if you hate it, it cost you nothing. Vollmer says about 20% of the people who download it offer to pay, a rate he’s happy with.
Next, Vollmer aims to go big, as he says he’s working on a much larger, more complex title. He refuses to discuss it until he’s convinced it doesn’t stink. If that day never comes, so be it.
“I decided that what’s most important in the long run is my happiness. What makes me happy is designing a bunch of weird games and challenging myself.”