Hello! I’m Adam Graham, a game developer and software engineer from Chicago. I founded Zigurous several years ago with my best friend Zach Rowe. This is our story.
I founded Zigurous with my best friend Zach while living in my mom’s basement. Classic. We officially started the studio in the summer of 2012 after graduating high school, but the true origins started a couple years prior. I fell in love with programming my sophomore year, and Zach loved drawing and was always looking for ways to express his creativity. Around the same time, I took a business class where I wrote a twenty page business plan for extra credit; Zigurous was the motivation, although I didn’t fully realize it at the time.
Nearing the end of high school, Zach and I wanted to take our passion for video games further by pursuing careers in games. I planned on going to college to study game development and Zach was looking to go to art school, but we were too eager to get started. Since I had already detailed a complete business plan for a game studio, I brought up the idea to start our own, and we figured "why not". Now we just needed to figure out what our first game would be.
The origin of Zigurous actually extends even further back into 2010. Read this post if you want to hear the story of how Zach and I came up with the name “Zigurous”. It’s a fun one for any Halo fans out there! 🎮😇
The First Game
For whatever reason, Zach and I really enjoyed playing 'escape' games on the web. We both enjoyed solving puzzles together, so we thought it would be fun to design our own. We also thought it was a simple enough genre that making our own 'escape' game would be feasible considering our lack of experience. 2D vector art drawn and coded in Adobe Flash. "Perfect, let's do it"! “So, what are we escaping from", was the next question. Well, we spent all of our time living in that basement, so naturally we came up with the idea to Escape the Basement, and thus, our first game was born.
We proceeded to spend the whole summer creating Escape the Basement as well as laying a foundation for Zigurous, itself. It was easily one of the best summers we ever had together. We didn't really know what we were doing, but we made it up along the way. All of the scenes we drew were of the actual basement we were living in - furniture and all, with only a few made-up additions. Even all of the textures we used were us taking photos of the actual objects and blending them into our vector art in Adobe Flash. The most fun we had was designing all of the puzzles; I think we did a great job being creative in this aspect. I especially loved all of the personal references and jokes we hid throughout the game. There’s probably some in there you still haven’t found *wink* :D
The final result was something we were very proud of, especially being the first game we ever made. The game even had its own unique style compared to all of the other 'escape' games on the web. I designed the first iteration of our website, and we published the game on it, as well as on Newgrounds, and other Flash game portals. The game received great feedback, and already, Zach and I were eager to make another. A sequel, perhaps!? From this point, I knew making games was what I wanted to do with my career.
Riding on the momentum of the first game, we began creating a sequel, Escape the Estate. The storyline continued right after the end of the first game. Kane, the villain who locked you in the basement, was waiting at the top of the escape ladder. You weren't going anywhere. The second game would take place throughout the rest of the house, small parts of it being modeled after the actual house Zach and I lived in. The development process wouldn't quite be the same, though.
We both went off to college, different ones, and this prevented us from working on the game as much as the first one. We even went on a couple-month stint without talking to each other because we were so caught-up adjusting to everything happening in our lives with college and whatnot. Development on the game pretty much came to a halt, which made me unhappy. During Christmas break, I knew I needed to keep working on the game despite still not being in contact with Zach. I went ahead and proceeded, and I ended up drawing and creating the art for most of the game. Little did I know, this was actually one of my first steps into a new passion of mine, but we’ll come back to that later…
Eventually I finished the game, and right around the same time Zach and I started talking to each other again. I asked him for feedback on everything I did, and he helped me with some of the art shading and overall finishing polish. Together we launched Escape the Estate on Newgrounds, other Flash game portals, and our own website. To our surprise, the game was featured on the Newgrounds front page! However, some of the initial feedback wasn’t as positive as its predecessor. People complained the game was too hard. Mainly there was one puzzle in the game that I didn’t do a good job of designing, and I made it a bit too hard. Overall, though, a lot of people still loved it, but Zach and I knew making games was much more enjoyable together.
Rewind: we didn’t actually publish Escape the Estate for about six-or-so months after finishing development. We wanted to see if we could make money from the game by getting someone to sponsor it. I went ahead and put the game on FGL where eventually bored.com sponsored it, and we made our first bit of $$$ (very small amount). This also lead us to finding a partner who was willing to buy the rights to any new ‘escape’ games we made going forward. However, these new games had more of a focus on mobile instead of web.
With the exciting opportunity to turn making games into a job that we got paid for, Zach and I proceeded to make three new mobile ‘room escape’ games, and we sold them to our new business partner. These games were less story-driven and, instead, had more emphasis on an ‘arcade’ style of play with many levels you’d progress through. The first of these games was The Rise, one of my personal favorites. For this game, we created an entirely unique scene for all thirty levels. In retrospect, this was way too ambitious for the intended timeline, but it’s ultimately why this game was my favorite of the three in the series. I loved that every level had its own little personality, and we had to get very creative with the puzzle design in order for each scene to feel unique. Also, for the art direction, Zach tried a new style of shading which we both really liked and continued using going forward.
Admittedly, we were more lazy for the next two games. In fact, I ended up creating the second game, Lunar Escape, mostly by myself in a similar fashion to Escape the Estate. I had established a framework working on The Rise that allowed us to easily create more of this type of game, which I utilized in order to make a quick buck. Apparently I didn’t learn the lesson the first time because this ended up being my least favorite of the three. It was clear once more that working together was more enjoyable and yielded better results.
Together, we created the third game of the series, Ancient Odyssey. We really enjoyed the Egyptian pyramid theme of this game, but we didn’t create an entirely unique scene for every level like we did for The Rise. I still think we got very creative with the puzzle design, and taking all of our experience from the first two games allowed us to make even more improvements on this one. All in all, it was a decent game, but it didn’t quite have the same personal touch.
At this point, Zach and I were getting bored of re-hashing this type of game. The guy we sold the previous games to asked if we wanted to make an even larger game of the same genre with a bigger payout. We ended up declining, though, because Zach and I sensed we were slipping away from our roots and why we loved making games so much in the first place. It was cool to make money developing these games and watch them get downloaded hundreds of thousands of times on the app store, but I think we made the right choice in going back to our independent roots.
With a fresh start, Zach and I wanted to try something different. All of the games we had made thus far were puzzle games, specifically ‘escape’ games. We wanted to explore other genres but still stay in the mobile space since a lot of games were moving in that direction — Flash was starting to become an outdated technology. We decided to run a little experiment and see what we could create in only ten days. With this constraint, we knew the game needed a very simple design and straightforward mechanics. We decided to make an arcade game focused around high-score play. The ten-day experiment turned into Squish-em!, a whack-a-mole recreation with ever so squishy moles asking for a tap on the head!
After the ten days, we had a pretty decent playable prototype. For how simple it was, it was actually pretty fun. We decided to continue development a little while longer to turn it into a polished, publishable game. I also took this as an opportunity to run a business experiment. I wanted to explore different business models within the mobile space, specifically free-to-play with microtransactions. This lead us to adding a lot more content to the game — more types of moles, more scenes, more power-ups, more everything. Eventually we published the game to the iOS App Store, and the results came in…
…Well, there weren’t really any. The game didn’t get many downloads, so the business experiment was pretty much a flop. That said, we did learn the importance of marketing and having a fan base. It certainly helps to get your game featured on the app store to bring in some initial downloads. Otherwise, without having an already established fan base, the game isn’t going to get much attention unless you spend money on marketing (which we didn’t have). I do think the business insight I got from developing and publishing this game was very valuable. It certainly would be helpful for the next game; although, this ended up being the last game we published.
The Final Test
Squish-em! was published in mid 2015, right around the same time I was nearing completion of my bachelor’s degree. In fact, I disliked being stuck in school so much that I knew I needed to get out early — I had been taking extra classes for a while in order to graduate an entire year early. I thought this was a smart choice at the time, but it might have actually been a bad one. I was so busy with school and other commitments that Zigurous fell to the wayside. After finally graduating, though, I knew I’d be able to continue working on games for Zigurous.
I had one last chance to turn my games into my career. I spent that whole summer working on a new game with Zach, but it never really came to fruition. It was too ambitious of a timeline before I eventually needed to get a full-time job to sustain living. This is where not blazing through school may have actually been a smarter decision. Obviously I would have collected more debt, but it would have given me the time to build a more sustainable career out of Zigurous.
I ended up applying to nearly every game studio in the city of Chicago, but I didn’t even get an interview with one of them, yet alone a response. I could have moved to a city that had more opportunities in the game industry, such as Seattle, Austin, or various places in California, but I really didn’t want to leave Chicago. Since my degree was concentrated in Computer Science, I knew I’d still be able to get a job as a software engineer. That I did, and a pretty good one too.
I’ve been working at this digital innovation firm since then, over three years now. It’s a great place to work; however, I find more and more that it doesn’t allow me to express myself creatively in the ways that I want. Over these past few years, I’ve struggled a lot with finding the time and energy to put towards my games. Zigurous means so much to me; it’s practically my identity as an artist. Yet, I’ve only become more distant and less creative. I’m really looking to change that now.
Zach is currently on a different path in his life where developing games isn’t his focus. Sadly, this means it’ll just be me making the games (although, I’m sure he’ll still be involved in some way or another). Over the past few years, I’ve been learning a lot about myself and what’s important to me in life. I really want to incorporate more of my personal thoughts and stories into my games. Additionally, I’ve come to really love designing and not just engineering. I think now is a great opportunity to express myself as an artist.
Going forward, I am shifting focus to creating games that have a strong balance of play, design, and art through storytelling and self-expression. In order to achieve this, it’s time to do something bigger.. something deeper, more meaningful. No more mindless web and mobile games. I want to build worlds and tell stories around them. I want to create games that impact people on a personal level. I want to help people, and I want to do that through my games. This is what I seek to do with this new chapter of Zigurous.
If you’ve read this whole post thus far, then holy shit, you are amazing! I would love your support. Free free to reach out to me on social media or via email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peace and love,