There's a new breakout game hovering near the top of the iTunes app store and the Google Play store popularity charts. It's called Make It Rain: The Love of Money. It was downloaded nearly 300,000 times on Friday, and is pulling in $50,000 a day for the company behind the app, Space Inch. Having never heard of Space Inch, I called its CEO, Joshua Segall.

Turns out, he's no behoodied SoMa Sightglass lurker. Quite the opposite: Segall works out of a backyard shed in Alabama, and is a former lawyer who's run for Congress twice. If you've played the company's apps, which have varying degrees of activist bents, you likely be able to guess his political affiliation: Democrat. The New York Times just called Make It Rain the Wolf of Wall Street of iPhone games, a "simultaneous expression of how seductive the pursuit of wealth is and how corrupting the financial markets can be."

That's pretty weighty conceit for a game in which a popular mode of gameplay is rapidly wagging one's thumbs in order to swipe dollar bills from a large stack on your screen to "make it rain" bills--a term originating in the early aughts to describe the act of throwing dollars into the air to watch them flutter down (apparently this act is native to strip clubs). It was popularized by the Fat Joe and Lil' Wayne song of the same title from 2006, and as something of a catch-phrase on the HBO series Eastbound and Down

The game itself is based on accumulating wealth through a variety of simulated entrepreneurial activities (operating a lemonade stand, buying a fast-food chain), coupled with financial-storage tools (owning a piggy bank, opening a savings account) and wealth-boosting activities (hiring a publicist, donating to a politician). Things get, well, interesting when one accumulates more wealth. Options then include morally dubious--and downright illegal--decisions, such as engaging in insider trading, starting a pyramid scheme, becoming an NSA collaborator, operating Arctic drilling, and buying a federal judge.

"The joke of the game is you can't get rich unless you are corrupt or doing things that are illegal," Segall tells me. "Obviously we are entrepreneurs. But we believe that unchecked political and financial power is a problem." Yes, the app was designed as something of a spoof, but it's also social commentary.

And it came from a really interesting place. The company behind the game Make It Rain is far from ordinary. For instance, its chief programmer is also a Grammy Award-winning musician. He's Andy Ross, the guitarist for the pop-rock group OK Go. He's currently based in Los Angeles. 

In New York is the third co-founder of Space Inch: Ari Kardasis, an MIT-, Princeton-, and Brown University-educated mathematician, programmer, and architect. Together, the trio dreams up, designs, codes, and moderates a series of small-screen games, each more successful than the last. Just as are the founders, the 15 employees of Space Inch are far-flung and communicate virtually from Washington, D.C., Florida, and Spain.

Kardasis and Segall were college friends who, after years living in entirely different places and working on very different things, decided to try to put their heads together and make a few apps. Their first was a fairly basic geolocation and messaging app called Pocket Doorbell, which could notify users' friends when they were approaching the friend's apartment. They also built a nifty, super-simple tool called Lost Photos, which found photo attachments in a user's email in-box and stored them in one place.

These got some pickup, but not so much that either founder could quit his day job. Once Andy Ross, the guitarist-slash-programmer, joined their team, the trio hit gold. They created a game app called Disco Bees, which roughly follows a Candy Crush-style formula of gameplay, but involves lining up bees arranged in hexagonal honeycomb patterns. It's free to download, and allows in-app purchases of extra moves or bonuses. Through promoting the game with Facebook ads, it took off.

"It's been the focus of the company ever since, and allowed us to quit our day jobs," Segall says.

For all its success, Disco Bees is a pretty straightforward game--it's a little addicting, and fun, but not particularly psychologically interesting or instructive. But it was giving this fledgling company sure footing. For its next act, the founders thought they'd work on a counting game that could stand alone, and also feed users back into Disco Bees. Their collective activist streak kicked in, though, Segall says. They thought: What if we can make a game that we are really proud of, that does something entirely different?

"We are pretty political people," Segall says, noting that two early partners in creating the game are consultants in Washington, D.C., who worked on the fight against SOPA/PIPA and are heavily involved in advocating for net neutrality. "We are excited to do something that let us send a message and also make a fun game."

The message Make It Rain sends is resonating with players--especially kids. Segall says one bit of correspondence from a young player overjoyed him: The player first complained about the lack of options for what to do with your money once you accumulate it, and can buy anything in the game, from a cigarette factory to an island nation. Then, as Segall tells it, the player amended the note: "You end up scrambling for all this money, and for what? I'm definitely not happier I accumulated it. Valuable lesson."

What's next for Space Inch? Segall says he'd like to scale up the operation even more, and continue to be an innovative company that can ask its users to think more deeply while enjoying a game.

"Who knows, maybe we'll build in an activist edge to Disco Bees," he says. "Colony collapse is a serious problem."

Published on: May 15, 2014