Interview Published: 03/11/2016
Timothy Courtney interviews Adam Saltsman who pioneered the 'Endless Runner' genre with his game Canabalt. Adam also worked on the hit mobile game Hundreds designing puzzles and is currently developing Overland, a survival tactics game. His Mom and Pop company Finji Co will soon publish Night in the Woods and Runaway Toad.
Timothy Courtney: Can you recall any experiences as a child that really impacted you and shaped who you are today?
Adam Saltsman: Oh man, this is a huge question, I mean basically all of them. The main relevant videogame thing that happened was playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time, I think I was 6 or so, which would have been 1988. Basically been obsessed ever since.
Did you play arcade games a lot growing up, and if so, can you tell some stories about that?
Not as many as I would have liked! So pricey. We also lived in the middle of nowhere. My favorite game for a long time was the big 4-player Simpsons cab by Konami, which they had down at the weird cafe thing "downtown". So good.
At what age did you start coding and what was it that got you interested?
I probably started messing with QBASIC and other simple scripting things around age 8 or 10 maybe. I actually didn't start writing much code-code until I was maybe 18-ish, and at University. Initially (and to some degree still) I was / am just curious about the magic of programming. Write a few magic words, and this weird machine starts producing colors and sounds and stuff. So good!!
Did you look to someone in particular as a mentor when you first started making games? Who influenced you the most and why?
I didn't really have a notion of such a thing as a game designer or a game programmer or anything like that for a very long time. Most of my childhood really. My dad worked with computers, I am sure I was very influenced by that. Starting in college I began to understand that there was such a thing as Will Wright or Shigeru Miyamoto or John Romero and that was kind of a Pandora's Box situation.
You work closely with your wife Rebekah who runs Finji, which is based in Austin. How did you and Rebekah meet?
We were high school Spanish class pen-pals from different little towns in Southern Michigan. We started dating like... 16 years ago?? or.. 17? And have been married for almost 10 years. That's bananas.
You made Canabalt in a week and it instantly created a genre now known as the endless runner. Were you as surprised as everyone else, and what do you attribute most to the success of that?
I am still very surprised, and it was very lucky.
When you were designing Canabalt, where did you imagine the man in the suit running from? What do you imagine being the reason he jumped out of an office building running?
I used to have fantasies at my old office job of running down our long, long hallway just for fun. And to literally escape haha. I'd forgotten about that until months after Canabalt came out. There used to be an intro cinematic that I was designing, where the character receives an email... but it was all getting in the way of the Main Thing.
You make an effort to put limits on your developmental day so that you can still have a life. Of course that's paraphrased, but it seems like many developers struggle with staying in front of their computers like a slave to their creations. Do you have any thoughts or advice to convince developers to put limits on that workaholic mode?
I make an especially bad advocate for this right now. The last year or two has been insane. I think for me the important thing is to worry less about balance and worry more about satisfaction, and also to not trivialize your life OR your work. Sensitivity, self-awareness, research, and planning go a long ways. Learn to tell when things like Pomodoro technique will help AND when they won't. Don't forget to put deadlines on things - if Dream Project X is a disaster month after month, give yourself a cutoff date. It can provide healthy pressure to execute as well as give you a sense of closure. Constraints are great for these things.
What do you think makes a game compelling?
Oh boy this is a big question too. I guess for me, in my time of life or whatever, I'm usually engaged the most when I play something that is doing something new OR doing something so well that it feels new.
On an abstract level, Overland is like survivalist and apocalypse and social in an isolated kind of way, with strategy seeming to be a core focus, from what I've seen. What is your abstract take on it as its designer?
Yea it's very much a strategy game for me. I'm really interested in the problem or process of stringing together little generated puzzles into a satisfying arc, and Overland seemed like a great place to try to do that or explore that and see what happens. It's become a lot more than that along the way, but that was the initial idea and has been the core focus for a long time.
What was the moment when you knew you were going to make games into a career?
Kind of still not sure. I think... when I was at University I was starting to think that maybe somehow I could do this, because honestly white dudes have a lot of career options out there and I have a pretty big ego too. At the same time, I'm still not sure in some ways if this is a career? That sounds stupid to actually type but... I dunno. I guess as a designer one sometimes starts to look at everything as... systems that address needs. For me, doing creative work, taking risks, exploring new territory, making art, a "Career" in games addresses these things, and that's cool. If that ever stops being true or my Carpal Tunnel situation gets worse well... maybe new things? Or maybe I'm just super tired from PAX!
The game industry, or maybe it's primarily indie studios, seem to be becoming more and more transparent in their development. Is that about marketing, like a competitive edge, and do you see that continuing?
Yea I think that's probably fair to say. I think there are other things going on too - it's partly for getting feedback, and partly just for connecting with other people period since indie games especially are often created in relative isolation. But raising awareness is a huge part of it - in the current "phase" of "marketing" we are very very focused on just getting other humans to acknowledge and recognize that Overland even exists, and since we're still in development, transparency makes a lot of sense there. It can be tricky though, there's... I feel tensions when we do this kind of thing, between wanting to show how the sausage gets made and that it's people that are making the sausage, and simultaneously recognizing that there is a kind of magic to a game, and that maybe it sometimes has more power if you don't know about all the algorithms that make it tick...
In the 1960's, there was a huge indie music scene, a strong political counterculture, and in places like Greenwich Village, there was so much influential music being made that contained political commentary. With the wars always ongoing today and the huge game scene, why do you think there's not more indie games being created with political themes?
THAT is a very good question. There are... I think game modding and indie game dev in general often has parallels w punk rock or other countercultural movements, and that's even more true for the current "DIY" movement in indie games (which do lean more political to be fair). But there's always a question floating around, I can't remember who I first heard voice it, that goes something like "wait you can make anything you want and you're making NES fan art??"
Which is... I think both fair and not. I ... value the creation and consumption of entertainment because we live in an imperfect world where escapism and the ability to escape something can be a basic survival mechanism for different people at different times of their life. But I also value the creation of work that has a point - and I don't think these things even have to be separate...
Another factor i think is just raw difficulty. It's... pretty non-trivial to make a game that functions at all on a technical level, even more so that does something new and interesting and people can understand it and enjoy it, even more so when you try to somehow embody (without trivializing) some component of real life or politics or society... it takes practice, and a lot of people (including myself) haven't really put the time in. DIY scene is doing amazing stuff in this space though!
What are some movies that you really like?
Basically all of them but for better or for worse here are the current things I just want to watch over and over again: Lupin III Castle of Cagliostro, Speed Racer, Mad Max: Fury Road, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Hatari!
This is a list that is problematic at best. First, this is a boy list if there ever was one (all that's missing is DREDD). Second, some of the people involved in these films are really problematic (Marvel is getting gross, John Wayne was a p grand racist). But man alive. The JOY in these films. The... sort of life force, the optimism, the energy... Speed Racer especially. I dunno. For me, at this point in my life, these movies mean a lot to me (see previous about creation and consumption of entertainment I guess haha)
I watch lots of "real movies" with "good actors" and stuff too, don't get me wrong, and I think high art / low art is kind of absurd when it comes to film, and I think with the exception of industrial rom-coms my film palette is *pretty broad*. Just... I guess I'm just in a joyful boy-movie mood lately.
When you're not making games, is there another activity you are very into, such as hiking or building or anything else?
Yeah when work isn't just a maelstrom of destruction I love parenting, running, rock climbing, reading, and film festivals...
Do you think there's some magic to creating a phenomenon game, especially smaller games, and is that something game developers with little budget can realistically strive for?
I would say there's a lot of luck. That's not meant to invalidate the hard work or the planning or to devalue someone's ability to notice an opening and kind of capitalize on that or even to imply that there isn't such a thing as a good idea but... there are so many factors, and I ... at this point I believe that enough of them are out of our control as designers that there are other things that are ... at least for me better to strive for. There's a very complicated version of this answer that I sometimes do as a like lecture or talk or whatever but basically for commercial indie game development, I think the "trick" is to try to find places where your original ideas that you are passionate about overlap with SOME of the known interests of a known game-buying audience, and strive to do a good job of that.
If you're just making games for yourself as a hobby, just make whatever you want!! Clone stuff and learn from it, make horrendous things no one would ever buy, explore explore explore explore.
The Simpsons was very fast-paced and active/alive from one side of the screen to the other, where as King of the Hill was quite the opposite. King of the Hill didn't rely on all that and maybe considered the show as a smart comedy. I see this going on in games too, with games that have constant effects everywhere vs the style that leans more to minimalism. Which do you lean to and why?
As a player I enjoy a pretty wide range of things. As a designer with my level of experience I lean very very hard towards minimalism. I used to think that was just kind of a pretentious personal style, which it totally is at least partially, but also for me it is about my comfort with design.
The thing about design is this: if you are making something new, no one understands it. NOT EVEN YOU. ESPECIALLY not you. Not only is it new but ALSO you have no objectivity about it either because YOU are CREATING IT like a GOD. So you're flying blind a lot of the time. You have past experience and you're hoping it keeps you safe-ish but its wild terrain out there right. So, do you try to design something that has 500 different moving parts that all have to fit together and work together in a way that you like and you understand or do you really focus on something that has like... 5 parts, and just try to understand those?
Different strokes for different folks for sure, but minimalism to me isn't just about elegance, it's about being able to even hold a design in your head at all. (not all designers and not all games need that of course! but thats a hangup for me for sure)
Will you tell people what to watch out for next from you, and how they can keep up with you?
Right now we're mainly working on developing our survival strategy game Overland, as well as publishing new games like Night in the Woods for PC and PS4 and Runaway Toad for mobile. You can follow me on twitter @ADAMATOMIC or check out our company Finji at finji.co, @FINJICO, blog.finji.co, or facebook.com/finjico
plus youtube and twitch and whatever haha
💘 Interview by Timothy Courtney
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