The Courageous Chameleon and Color Switch

  • David Reichelt '13 (Theatre) developed one of the world's most downloaded apps — Color Switch. (Photo courtesy of David Reichelt)

There’s some sort of unintended symbolism deep in the scripting of one of the world’s most popular apps, Color Switch.

To play, you tap a colored ball into a shape. The shape is multicolored, so you have to time it right to tap the ball into the portion of the shape that matches the color of the ball. Once you exit the shape, your ball changes colors and you have to repeat the process through different shapes.

Determination. Timing. Advancement. Those are three key pillars of Color Switch — the invention of California State University, Northridge alumnus David Reichelt ’13 (Theatre), whose life has been very much like the little bouncing ball in the game.

Reichelt is the son of a single mother who lost her battle with breast cancer. He is a high school dropout, an Iraqi War veteran, a rock for his family, a magician, a filmmaker, a college graduate and a chameleon. So, it’s not a huge leap to understand how a theatre grad with very little game-building experience turned a chance connection and 30 minutes into his most financially successful venture yet.

“Oh, I’ve lived a couple of lives,” Reichelt said.

The First Life

“David and I went to school together,” said his younger sister Elizabeth. “It was one of those kindergarten through junior high schools, and I remember seeing David always sleeping — bored.”

So bored, in fact, that David Reichelt dropped out of high school on the first day of his junior year at Bakersfield Christian High School. He wasn’t stimulated enough and thought he would get a charge out of learning things on his own.

For example, he taught himself how to play guitar and use film-editing software. Taking on challenges became his mantra. He took three semesters of Japanese in community college, out of curiosity.

Despite his youth, he also had a lot of responsibilities.

Reichelt, now 36, was one of four children raised by a single mother, Betty Jo. The family moved to Bakersfield because it was affordable. Betty Jo worked up to four jobs to keep the family afloat. Reichelt got his first job at age 15, working at a Taco Bell to help support the family. With their mother at work so much, a teenage Reichelt and his brother, Chris, started to take on parental roles.

Reichelt eventually went back to school, but not for long. Bored in Bakersfield, he decided to travel, joining the Army.

The Second Life

It sounded like a distant rumble. Reichelt said he felt a ringing in his ears, an indication that the source of the sound wasn’t far off. Then, smoke began to fill his Humvee. He realized it had run over an improvised explosive device.

“Are my legs blown up? Maybe I’m in shock,” were his first thoughts, Reichelt said.

“I checked my legs and they were fine,” he said. “The gunner was standing outside the vehicle, and he was peppered with shrapnel on the left side of his body. It was the first time I had to do treatment.”

Reichelt served in the Iraq War in 2005 and experienced other harrowing events, but he still managed to help take care of his family from afar. He thought of his sister often and would send her encouraging letters and money, Elizabeth said.

“I don’t know how it would have turned out without my brother,” she said.

He served in the U.S. Army from 2003-06 and in the reserves afterward. When he left the military, Reichelt said, he came away with a desire to go into theatre.

Early in his military training, Reichelt began doing impressions of his drill sergeant and got a good reaction. He also taught himself how to do magic tricks and became known as the “Magic Medic.”

After the military, he decided to go back to school and earn money with his card tricks. But then Betty Jo got sick.

The Third Life

“My mom was always very positive,” Reichelt said. “She really fostered the desire for me to learn. … I think she saw something in me that she recognized when I got older.”

Elizabeth said that Reichelt is a lot like his mother — caring, charismatic and open-minded. She said their mother loved to dance and sing and had multiple hobbies. She was a religious woman, so faith was strong in the family and that resonated with Reichelt. He’d try something and believe in it. And he was going to do everything in his power to help others, especially his mother.

“When your family member’s sick, you don’t want to call it quits,” Reichelt said. “Whatever she wanted to do, if she wanted a certain treatment or a certain test, no matter what the doctor said, we demanded it.”

Betty Jo died of breast cancer in 2009 at the age of 57. Elizabeth said her brothers David and Chris were strong, keeping the family united and positive during and after Betty Jo’s illness.

David Reichelt kept moving forward, eventually making his way to CSUN, where he enhanced the skills he developed in the military.

The Fourth Life

His favorite class at CSUN was Improvisational Comedy, which recalled his days impersonating his drill sergeant. He also was a student in the conservatory program at The Second City Hollywood — recognized as one of the most influential comedy programs in the country.

Reichelt’s goal was to become a filmmaker, writer and director. While attending CSUN, he lived in Simi Valley but decided it would be better for his career if he were closer to the action. He set his sights on the Hollywood area.

It just so happened that his friend and classmate was moving out of the Universal City apartment she was leasing with a roommate. The roommate, Aditya Oza, was staying and needed a replacement. Reichelt and Oza barely knew each other, having met at a party or two, but Reichelt decided to move in with the app developer.

“As soon as he moved in, a day or two later, I had to [write] notes for this developer,” Oza said. “I was doing this really terrible job. I showed David [to get his opinion], and he said, ‘This isn’t good.’”

Oza liked Reichelt’s honesty and asked him if building apps was something that interested him.

Within a few weeks, Reichelt sold about $4,000 worth of his film equipment and became an app developer.

He read books and studied game design. He cited The Art of Game Design and Thinkertoys, a book that helps people generate ideas, as especially influential.

With his app ideas solidified, the $4,000 Reichelt made selling his equipment went to a designer in China to produce, but the work didn’t meet Reichelt’s expectations. It was the first of 200 to 300 failed attempts at making a game, Reichelt said.

After his failure with outsourcing the work, Reichelt said he decided to build the game himself using drag-and-drop game-design software called Buildbox.

It took him 30 minutes to develop a game based around shapes and colors. He showed Oza.

“I remember the first time he showed it to me with music — he made a trailer,” Oza said. “I thought, ‘We’ve got something special here.”’

Reichelt consulted with other friends in the app-development community and eventually approached some publishers. Some rejected Color Switch. The one that didn’t is counting money right now. The game was released Dec. 6, 2015 and according to Reichelt, it has been downloaded more than 30 million times and broke the record for most days at No. 1 on the iTunes Free Apps chart, at 27 days. Color Switch is currently No. 7, one spots ahead of Facebook, two ahead of Instagram and three ahead of YouTube.

“We got a million downloads the first week,” Reichelt said. “And then, right after Christmas, it got really intense. … We went from a million downloads in a week to having around a million in a day.”

Reichelt said he could probably stop everything and travel for the next two years with the money he has made from Color Switch. But he intends to keep updating and growing the game, and eventually make more apps with friends in the business. He also sees the app and app development as a means for him to continue his filmmaking career, he said.

“It’s interesting how it all connects,” Reichelt said. “It just goes to show that you never know what will happen from making a decision and trying something. I never thought I would have gotten into apps from meeting a friend in the theatre department (at CSUN), but that’s what happened. As long as you keep trying new experiences, getting out of your comfort zone and growing as a person, you never know what it will lead to.”

The Next Life

In less than a month, Reichelt will be without a home: He has given his notice and will move out of his apartment. Unsurprisingly, he’s doing it without knowing what or where his next home will be. He plans to travel the country to meet up with some friends and couch crash until life determines his next venture. Until then, he’ll just be a determined bouncing ball, timing its next move to advance.

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