Syracuse, N.Y. — John Spatola grew up playing video games and loved them so much, he wrote a tank battle game on the computer and a home run derby game on his Texas Instruments calculator while studying mechanical engineering at Syracuse University.
After a brief career working on a military radar system for Lockheed Martin, Spatola decided to launch his own game studio in Syracuse and hit it big with his second game “Trigger Fist,” a shooter for the iPhone that has been downloaded 23 million times since its release in 2012.
Seven years later, the small studio, Lake Effect Applications has launched “Trigger First: Global Operations Assault Team” (“G.O.A.T.” for short) on Apple’s iTunes App Store.
The game is the culmination of six years of work by 15 software engineers and artists at Lake Effect’s offices in the Syracuse Technology Garden, the downtown business incubator operated by CenterState CEO.
For Spatola, 33, the game comes with some risk because its free to download and play. Lake Effect hopes to make money through microtransactions, in which players can purchase “vanity” items such as additional uniforms for their characters, additional weapons and different skins for their weapons.
Many of the vanity items can also be obtained for free by earning experience points for progressing through the game, but players can get them much fast by purchasing them. For $3 to $5 a month, players receive random vanity items and double the experience points they earn playing the game.
It’s a business model that comes with a lot of risk because less than 1 percent of the people who download free-to-play games actually purchase anything. But Spatola said those who do tend to be hard-core gamers who don’t mind dropping $3 to $5 a month for packages of vanity items.
And those who don’t purchase anything still play a vital role in marketing the game by telling friends about it, he said.
Lake Effect also makes money by selling in-game advertising, which appears between mission levels.
“If it does hit, the numbers can be millions (of dollars) a month, which is more than enough to run a small studio,” Spatola said of the game. “I don’t expect those numbers, but I don’t need numbers that big because my team isn’t that big. I’m not competing with a 30 to 100-man studio.”
Central New York’s only game studio, Lake Effect was founded in 2010 by Spatola, a Watertown, Conn., native who graduated from Syracuse University in 2007 with a degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in computer science.
After graduation, he went to work for Lockheed Martin in Salina, working on radar for the defense contractor’s Medium Extended Air Defense System (M.E.A.D.S.). After three years, he left Lockheed to form Lake Effect, working out of his apartment in Liverpool for two years and later from an office in Onondaga Tower.
The studio moved in 2014 into the Technology Garden on Harrison Street, which offers low-cost rent and mentoring services to startups.
“At the Tech Garden, when you run into a problem, you can usually find someone who has had that problem before and can tell you how to deal with it,” Spatola said.
Spatola’s engineering background has come in handy. He said his degree in mechanical engineering taught him the proper mechanics of a video game character’s movements and the physics of the projectiles they fire with their weapons. And his master’s in systems engineering from Cornell University game him the management skills to oversee all aspects of a game’s production, from designing it to writing the code to marketing it, he said.
Like its predecessor, “G.O.A.T.” allows users to play the role of a soldier in an assault team that shoots it out with bad guys in varied environments. Players can compete offline against computer-generated characters or online against other players.
“G.O.A.T.” boasts a unique hybrid perspective that the company says utilizes the best elements of first person (looking through the eyes of the player character) and third person (with the camera position over the character’s shoulder so players can see more of their characters and the weapons they carry). The third person perspective is particularly important in free-to-play games because players who purchase vanity items want to be able to see them in action.
Spatola released his first game, “StickBo,” in the winter of 2010. It featured, literally, a stick figure running around with a gun shooting at other stick figures. Though pretty rudimentary, it was the No. 1 shooter game on the App Store for two days and was downloaded 186,850 times.
“Trigger Fist,” a third-person shooter, followed in the summer of 2012. Spatola wrote the code for the game and hired a couple of artists to draw the characters and environments. (The game’s name is an ode to the stick figures in “StickBo,” which had little circles for hands.)
The game became a huge hit, with 23 million downloads. Spatola said it was among the top 200 games on the App Store for four straight years and peaked at a No. 2 overall rank for free apps on iPhones.
“Trigger Fist” was initially released as a premium game, requiring a $4.99 purchase. But Lake Effect quickly converted it to a free-to-play with microtransactions because that’s the way the mobile game market was heading.
Spatola declined to say exactly how much revenue “Trigger Fist” has generated for Lake Effect, but he said it was enough to carry the company — barely — for six years while it developed its successor.
“It’s made millions, I can tell you that,” he said. “But I’ve reinvested it.”
“G.O.A.T.” took so long to develop because it has more advanced graphics and gameplay and because the company at the same time developed its own back-end platform that will allow it to produce games much faster in the future, he said.
Though it’s only available for the iPhone at the moment, Spatola said the game is actually “device agnostic,” meaning it can be ported over to play on Android phones, PC’s and gaming consoles like Xbox and PlayStation without major adaptations.
“We want to make sure of its market viability first, but this game was built so it can compete in those markets,” he said.
Lake Effect currently has six full-time employees to support its new game, down from 15 during the height of its development. Spatola said the studio will staff up again when it begins developing its next game. (This is a common practice in the gaming industry.)
He said Syracuse has proven to be a great home for the studio. He’s had no trouble recruiting graduates of Syracuse University, Cornell University, the Rochester Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“Syracuse is a great area to be,” he said. “Its cost of living is reasonable. It has good schools.”