This week we talk with Adam Atomic Saltsman, the video game designer behind Canabalt, Wurdle, Hundreds and Finji. Adam discusses tips for making game development businesses sustainable and why communication in teamwork is just as important as technical skill. He also covers why it’s important to ask users how they feel instead of asking for solutions, tips for freelancers, and much more.
- Adam “Atomic” Saltsman: Twitter, Blog, GitHub
- Blog Post: Selling Games
- Gravity Hook
Alexis: Adam, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Adam: Oh, my pleasure!
Alexis: There are a billion ways to introduce you, but I think that Designer of Hundreds is kind of vague and also –.
Adam: It sounds a little like an unfinished sentence, but that’s okay.
Alexis: Exactly, but not necessarily an unfinished sentence, but Designer of Hundreds – hundreds of what? Games, or a game called Hundreds?
Alexis: Exactly, so not just Hundreds but the game Canabalt, which probably anybody who has an iOS device, especially in 2008-2009, would have probably played and a whole bunch of other games, and new stuff coming down the pipeline. But before we get into the newer stuff with Finji – and it’s not exactly new since it was reborn essentially – let’s start from the very beginning. How did you first get your hands dirty with programming?
Adam: With programming, it would have been QBasic on an old 286 or 386 PC back in 1990/1988 – something like that maybe. Not like programming real things or anything, but just sort of trying weird little experiments. There’s some weird magic of – I typed in these weird things into this document, and then I saved it, and now it’s generating text on the screen or making weird sounds, and there’s something really magical about that for me still – that’s like an ongoing thing.
That was probably my first experience with it. I actually had trouble getting into more complex code at the time. I don’t know if it was just because I didn’t have a good book. At my high school, the only classes you could take were Visual Basic, which –.
Alexis: [Chuckles] That describes my feeling as well.
Adam: Yeah. And so I started to look for other things that had that similar magic, but in different ways. I was doing a lot of level ending or making new maps for Doom Engine games or initially even Wolfenstein, but then Quake Engine and Half-Life, a little bit of Quake 2 at one point. It wasn’t so much that they were first person shooters that got me interested, but Carmack was so committed to creating this both highly optimized and data-driven game engine for everything that they were making back then; it was just so easy to make new stuff and put it in there and play in it and see what is virtual architecture and why is it interesting. From there, I got into free modeling. Then finally in college, I started to get back into programming again.
Alexis: Was the end game always, “I’m going to be a game developer” or was it “You know what, I’ll study politics and figure out what happens from there”?
Adam: The end game was always “I want to make games” and I had no idea how to achieve that goal.
Alexis: So what were the first steps to getting your footing in terms of “This is how it could work” or “These are the projects that I’m working on that might segue into something that would bring home the bacon, put food on the table”?
Adam: I worked on a lot of Half-Life 2 mods in college, which seemed like a good idea because I know some people did get industry jobs out of that. Definitely, I know a lot of people who are in AAA or indie who were active in that scene back in the day.
It did not work out that way for me. In school, I was taking a pretty broad curriculum of writing and film editing and film study and animation and computer programming and history and creative writing – just a bunch of different stuff. I was sort of under the impression at the time, for reasons I still don’t understand, that a game developer or designer was someone who got to do all those things – which is actually kind of true now.
But back then it was not even remotely true; it was like the heyday of mega AAA-type of development – or at least 50-person studios. It was still a point where most developers were very highly specialized, and so when I graduated from school and was looking for work, I was a very inexperienced but enthusiastic generalist, and there’s almost no place in – still – in the AAA game industry for someone with that particularly optimistic but ultimately useless collection of skills.
We moved to Austin, Texas and I tried to get some work here and it didn’t really pan out. I actually worked, I would say, like a more traditional software developer for a long time. That was actually great; that job got weird and not as enjoyable than –.
Alexis: Was that independently or working for another web dev shop?
Adam: It was basically the equivalent of a startup here in Austin. They’d been around for a few years, but the dot com bust back in early 2000 had caused them to shrink down to be pretty small. It’s probably a 10 or 12-person company when I started working there.
Alexis: Sorry to interject again, but before we get too far from the college bit, I’m curious as to what college you went to and what you studied because it sounds that you had a bit of either a) a forward-looking game program at the school you went to or b) like an a la carte program or degree or something.
Adam: I entered college in 2000 and at the time, the only game programs – forward-looking or otherwise – in the whole country were at DigiPen. There was something vaguely resembling the games program at MIT, but it wasn’t GAMBIT yet. There’s something sort of similar at Carnegie Mellon, and there may have been something at USC already but it was not what it is now either. We couldn’t afford to go to Carnegie Mellon or DigiPen, so I was at University of Michigan, which is actually expensive school, but it was in-state.
I grew up in Southern Michigan, so it was not completely unreasonable, and it’s a name that has a lot of cache, especially in New York and Chicago, but we moved to Texas where nobody gives a crap about it, so that didn’t entirely work out.
What they had there was not so much – they had one game design class that mainly taught you how to do A*. That was the core of the course – it was an A* class with a bunch of weird group projects tacked on around it. It was really strange. They meant well, but that was the only thing.
They had two computer graphics courses in total – there just wasn’t a lot there. I took all of those things, but what they allowed you to do is if your grades were decent and you did a bunch of legwork, you could create what they referred to as a – what do they call it? Like a custom concentration or something, which is essentially “build your own major.” It had to satisfy some kind of broad template for a Liberal Arts study, but you could mix and match things and it would allow you to – with a lot of fighting and bureaucratic stuff – you could actually enroll in classes and take them and be graded for them.
I got to take Cryptology and – I don’t know, History of Germany after WWII, studies of violence in the media and all sorts of different things. It was probably – just a bureaucratic overhead, it was probably 100 hours of work, maybe? It was one of those things where it was possible, but not easy.
For me it was worth it, because I got to take stuff in a lot of different courses of study and I didn’t have to waste a lot of – I was pretty ready to be done with university after two or three years, so not having to stay for an extra two or three just to take all the classes I was interested in was kind of a blessing.
Alexis: Alright. I went to a Liberal Arts school down in South Florida; I had a very similar feel. Luckily, we didn’t have that kind of bureaucratic system, but I like that kind of education.
Adam: Yeah, yeah. I love it. I still have really enormously fond memories of working in film, especially.
Alexis: Which we’ll get back to soon when we talk about Indie Game: The Movie and – what is it – Free2Play.
Alexis: So after this startup in Austin, where did you go?
Adam: The software development job was really good and then after a while I started doing a lot of freelance work. I was doing freelance pixel art and some freelance game design and some freelance programming. The programming paid really well; the art work did not, but the art work was really fun and interesting.
The game design paid well when I could get it; those gigs were pretty far and few between. I didn’t have a really good client list in order to do that in a sustainable way, which I didn’t have yet because I just started.
I did a mix of programming freelance on a bunch of different things, like satellite radio servers.
Alexis: Oh, wow!
Adam: Like Facebook Flash games and some Java clients and a bunch of weird things, and then I was doing a lot of pixel art for pre-iPhone mobile phones – old Nokia, candy bar phones or whatever – and then occasionally here and there doing some full, I call it turnkey game design contracts for advertising companies. It was kind of on and off for three or four years, and during a lot of that, my wife had kept her job at the old company that we were both working at so that we had health insurance and a good, steady fallback salary and all that stuff.
Alexis: Let’s stop a little bit here at the freelance intersection. Freelancing is a tough racket when it comes to getting a steady flow of clients and pricing. What are some of the things that you learned to get a handle on that might help other folks when it comes to just dealing with freelancing in general?
Adam: I’ve written a couple of things which we could probably send over as links or something. The big things for me were – I had set what I thought were very reasonable expectations for the amount of time that might take to spin up the business or whatever. I’d estimated that it would take about a year to get a pretty good client list going. I read that and other things, but I think a year is a very reasonable amount of time to get something going if you already have a lot of experience and a reputation in the field. I think if you’re new to the field, you should expect it to take an extra year.
It was probably about two years before we had really, really good steady work, this good portfolio build up – all those sorts of things. That’s just a thing – it’s not a deterrent or a warning so much as a “Please prepare for that” as a thing that might happen.
The other thing is it’s very, very easy to overcommit yourself in a way that is really detrimental to the ongoing growth of yourself and your work and your clients and all of that stuff. Maybe a job comes along and you’re already doing a job and you say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll take it. Give me that other work.” More work equals more money when you’re freelancing, but if you take on bad work, it’s ultimately just time lost.
The ideal thing that you want when you’re freelancing is to get paid fairly for your work, but for the work to turn out so good that it gets you two or three more jobs because the work gets seen by a lot of people and the quality is obviously very high.
In that situation, it ends up sometimes being okay to maybe didn’t get paid super well for this one job, but that one job got you five other jobs, and that’s actually really great.
Somebody jokingly on Twitter a while ago said something like, “Hey artist, I have a whole bunch of great advice for you, but you’re not going to understand it until you make all the same mistakes that I did for five years.” It’s a little bit like that; it requires an enormous amount of confidence to have some work come through and to listen to your gut and have the experience for your gut to have the right reaction, and to tell somebody, “No, I don’t want this work. Even though it pays well, I am going to instead keep my schedule open for work that better suits me and for me to do my own portfolio-building work, which will then feedback into this cycle of me being more likely to get more work and better work in the future.”
If you view all these jobs that you take as the top of a big pyramid, picking the right pyramid tops to focus on I think is really important. Sometimes it’s something that you can only deal with in retrospect, but it is eventually a thing where you can sort of get a feel early on for “The people I’m working for are going to let me do good work and they’re not going to try to steal from me and stuff like that.”
Alexis: Alright. What was the first breakout game? I think I know the answer to this question.
Adam: It depends on the scale of the breakout, but for me, it felt like the little thing called Gravity Hook in 2008 that was a little Flash game for the web and it was strongly based on this unreleased prototype that my friend Arnie made. It was like a keyboard training game, but it had a really clever, interesting little arcade hook. And so I asked him if I had free time the next week and I wanted to take a break from doing bad contract work, to build my portfolio, and I asked him if I could refund his game mechanic and he gave me the thumbs up.
His prototype was called Gravity Key and so I even cloned the name and everything, but it was fun project. It was a lot about game feel; it was a lot about controls and minimalist art – a lot of things that I feel like I’m still really interested in, but I didn’t actually sit there and stared at a blank screen and tried to make up everything from scratch.
It ended up being – especially within our scene or the community I was in – it was really well-received and it was pretty popular. That was just an immensely encouraging experience for me. It was like, “Oh wow, I can do this! I can do this!” But then I was out of money so I had to go back and do tons and tons more contract work.
At the same time, we got the chance to work on what eventually became a very successful iPhone game called Wurdle. I actually worked on those almost in the same week, which was around the same time that we had gotten our first, really good, high-paying freelance advertising gig. Not our first, but it was the first big one that we had in a few years, and it was the most interesting, oddly, work we did.
Within one month, we either got or worked on these three different projects. There was Gravity Hook, which was the first thing that was popular in the indie games community for me. There was this advertising work in which I built the forerunner to the Flixel Engine and at the same time we had this very financially successful iPhone game, which I did not realize at the time was a Boggle clone, but now I do.
A few months after that, I was on a train in Canada with Jason Rohrer who’s a very smart game designer that I have an enormous amount of respect for. I was feeling very proud of myself for having worked on this really smart, little word game for the iPhone and he wanted to know why I had spent so much time working on a Boggle clone. I was like, “Hang on” and went to YouTube and came back. I was like, “You’re right. I don’t know.”
Alexis: Did you play Boggle before or is it one of those –?
Adam: Never played Boggle ever in my whole life. I had no idea.
Alexis: I’ve got to say that I’ve encountered things often when writing, like “This is a great idea!” then I show it to somebody and they’re like, “Were you inspired by this?” “But I haven’t seen that movie. What happened?”
Adam: Exactly. It was August of 2008 – it was this bizarre overlap and I’d been freelancing on and off for about four years part-time, two years full-time at that point and then things just started to click. It was really crazy.
Alexis: Would you attribute that too just a happenstance or it reached critical mass?
Adam: I feel like most things in my life right now, it was a mix of I’ve been working hard for a few years and when you do that, your skill – whatever that means – usually improves some. My ability to make pixel art that I felt was interesting and mysterious – I was better at that than I was before. That’s a legit thing, and I had a stronger community of friends. There are a lot of people that I’d been talking to, spending a lot of time with since about 2007, who are all other game designers and who were giving me lots of good interesting feedback.
I’d made a few prototypes before that, that I just threw out because there were things about the gameplay that I didn’t think were particularly strong, or the scope was too big. And then just a boatload of luck. I’d worked with somebody who ended up being in charge of a thing and their friend needed someone to do X, Y or Z, and so just kind of the usual. I feel like almost everything good that’s happened to me in the last five or ten years – and bad things, really – have always been this combination of working really hard, trying to plan really carefully and also getting super lucky.
Alexis: Yeah, it’s one of those make your luck circumstances.
Adam: Yeah, and there’s a cap to it. I don’t think it hurts to work hard and prepare, but if you don’t get that lucky chance, I think – somebody else had this thing, I can’t remember how it goes exactly, but something like “What we describe as luck sometimes is more like you have the right circumstances in which when an opportunity does appear, you can do something about it somehow. You can take advantage of it.” And I feel like I’ve seen a lot of that happening.
Alexis: So this is about 2009 then, right?
Adam: That was actually late 2008, December 2008.
Alexis: And so 2009 is when Canabalt comes along, right?
Adam: Yeah, almost exactly a year after Gravity Hook, weirdly.
Alexis: So what did Canabalt mean for your career, if I can put it that way?
Adam: It’s just a huge pivot or fulcrum or something. It was a little weird because I was feeling very happy with our success and connections and progress and all the things that were enabling us to do the kind of work that we wanted to do. Those things were all going really well.
We’ve had this crazy month or two in late 2008, and since then I’d been pursuing a bunch of iPhone prototypes of pursuing a car racing game that was starting to feel pretty good. Canabalt was really just done on a whim over the weekend that was intended to do what it did. It was just sort of, I’m bored; I’ve been working on this racing game.
I was making a 3D racing game from scratch in C++ for six months or something, and I was just losing my mind. That was way longer than I’ve ever worked on a single project before, and that ended up being the longest I’ve worked on a single project for a long time after that until pretty recently. I just needed a break, and then just got super lucky again – it was really weird.
I found out later that there were multiple projects being built by multiple people that were all built around a very similar concept, and Canabalt just happened to get there first.
Alexis: Now you’ve got this breakout success on the iOS store. What did that mean for financials?
Adam: Canabalt is a little bit weird. Our game in 2008, it was immediately popular. We didn’t market it or anything; we just put it on the App Store and it was a top ten game within a month.
Now I look back and go, “Oh, it’s a good thing Boggle wasn’t out yet,” because we would have been boned. Canabalt was a little bit weirder because we didn’t know anyone at Apple. We’d tried to talk to people, “Hey, remember that top ten game? We have a new game!” and nobody cared, so we engineered a thing where we’re putting the word out on Twitter, which was a really new platform at the time.
Alexis: The tweet your score thing, right?
Adam: Yeah, that was not something that was being done a lot at the time, and so people were using Twitter as a platform to talk about the game. And so we put the word out on Twitter as I was going – I had committed for my dad’s 50th birthday to – no, what was it? Retirement? I can’t remember. It was a big Christmas or birthday present for my dad. We had committed to going on a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon, which in the US is almost the most offline you can be.
The day before we went out there, we went ahead and put Canabalt up on the App Store, and then we went on Twitter and said, “Hey, if you guys have been having fun playing Canabalt in your web browser” – there were probably ten million players at the time or something – “if you do want to buy it on your phone,” – which we were internally jokingly calling “toilet tax” – “if you are into this, just buy it on Friday. That’s all we’re asking. If you’re going to buy it, buy it on Friday.”
On Friday, a couple thousand people purchased the game just through word spreading through Twitter, and at the time, 2,000 people buying your game is all you needed to get up into the Top 20 most popular games, which gave you a lot of visibility on the App Store. It didn’t have as heavy a curation and featuring system as they have now; there was no such things as “Game of the Week” or whatever. That was our way of reverse-engineering App Store visibility.
We had a really good first day, and then I turn off my phone and went offline for a week and a half, and game back and the game had done well! Not amazingly – it was never a top ten game or anything like that – but it did really nicely. It actually did better for us later when the iPad came out.
We imported it to iPad; they had a more robust, featured “Game of the Week” type of thing on the App Store and so the Canabalt iPad got featured really heavily, and that was huge. That sustained a lot of development for a long time after that.
Alexis: I don’t know if you’re comfortable sharing this or you can share this, but I imagine a lot of developers might think, “If I just get one pretty noteworthy game on the App Store, I’ll have X amount of money in my back and that will be enough runway to make the game I really want to make” or this kind of thing. Could you share how much runway Canabalt gave you? It doesn’t have to be necessarily a runway but –.
Adam: Yes, I think Canabalt has sold around 300,000 copies. A lot of those were at sale price, but a lot of them were at regular price. I think it’s somewhere around – I don’t know, it gets split up a bunch of different ways.
Alexis: 30% for Apple, and yeah.
Adam: Yeah, and then our musician on the project gets a big revenue share, all that stuff, but I don’t know. I mean, Canabalt’s probably earned – it’s sold at least 330,000 copies, so I can’t remember what that’s going to add up to. My program’s not showing me the numbers I want it to show.
Alexis: That’s okay; that’s a solid number and folks can do some back-of-the-napkin math.
Adam: Yeah, it’s at least half a million bucks. It’s probably closer to a million bucks maybe, but over the course of five years and split up between three people. I’m not complaining. It’s not what I would call – Canabalt sold way more copies than most games that are considered a big success on Steam, because most of those copies were sold at a dollar, but now it’s $15. It’s a really different picture.
Alexis: Now that we’re covering numbers and whatnot, what have you learned about pricing? That’s often a pain point for developers that I hear them complain about often.
Adam: Boy, kind of nothing. It’s so weird. Actually my favorite thing – Ron Carmel wrote an article recently about trying to figure out how to set the price for his new mobile or iOS-focused project. I feel like he actually does a really good job of giving an overview of a lot of the things about what pricing is and how pricing works, and he ends up concluding that maybe rather than trying to decide on a price, you do something very, very similar but meaningfully different, which is you try to figure out what the value proposition is for your game. This is like providing a context for your price that’s outside of just the App Store or other apps on the App Store.
For Ron’s project, it boils down to something along the lines of “Okay, our game is basically multiplayer only” and the value proposition for it is if someone comes up or one of your friends invites you to play and says, “I want to play this game with you for weeks, but it’s $10 on the App Store.” That’s still a pretty good value proposition. “Oh, I’m going to play this game with my friends for weeks, $10 is fine for that.”
There’s a whole bunch of things in game design and marketing that all boil down to these weird judgment calls. I think it’s good to think analytically about these things and think about a lot of different perspectives, but outside of really aggressively A/B testing different prices during an open alpha or something, which won’t even give you the full picture. At some point you do have to make a judgment call and you have to decide what you feel comfortable with.
I think for the games that we’ve made for the platform that we’ve made them for, we probably could have gotten more revenue from a lower price. I don’t know if that’s actually for sure true, but it would have been really difficult.
One of the things that’s been huge for us for sustaining and maintaining the long-tail of our business has been that we can put the games on sale once in a while, and that’s really hard to do when your game costs a dollar.
But that first launch, it can be really, really huge, and it can be huge in an exponential way. I don’t know how those things play out over time but I’ve really liked the flexibility that we’ve had for being a higher-priced game. We’re not really in this to maximize revenue either; even though I know that doing a better job of maximizing revenue would give us more opportunities to do the kind of work that we enjoy.
Alexis: That’s actually one of the things that I think about a lot when I’m thinking about how game developers make their business work, is the whole long term sustainability of it. You release a game, and then you might go a year or a year and a half, or however long without – sometimes maybe even much longer – without releasing the next one. So what’s the best way to make a game development business sustainable, or some strategies, maybe?
Adam: For me, the core approach is – again, this gets down to the judgment calls a lot. Maybe I can do a better job of getting some data to back this up, but for me, the thing that I think is really important that I’ve seen our games do over a long period of time is you’re going to – this has been true of us; maybe this isn’t true of other people – but there are going to be games that have the capability to connect with a wide audience, and some other games, for better or for worse, may not have that property.
Maybe the game that you’re interested in building is a commercial game with a commercial audience, but that audience is not enormous – and that’s okay. That should be fine, but we found it very helpful for sustainability purposes to take that sort of thing into account at the earliest stages of planning.
For example, we made a game about dying alone in the dark in an ambiguously hostile space where you have to listen to yourself choke to death.
Alexis: That sounds pleasant.
Adam: Yeah, that’s not necessarily – no. This is going to sound like I’m giving a lot of rules, and I think breaking rules is one of the best, most interesting ways to get noticed and to create something interesting. But as a rule, that sort of thing is not necessarily really interesting to a really wide audience of people. It’s kind of unpleasant in some ways, and not everybody is interested in paying for an unpleasant experience.
But we acknowledge that and we said, “We’re probably not going to sell a whole lot of copies of this game, so I think we can afford to work on it for about a month.” And maybe working on it for more than a month as a commercial endeavor would not be super responsible.
If you do want to work on it for more than a month, the commercially responsible thing to do is to look at your other work and decide what parts of your other work are going to subsidize this project, or what parts of your other work are going to make it so that time spent on this game is not just accidental, lost time or time you never really accounted for, if it’s going to be done during work hours. If it’s going to be displacing something that might otherwise have both an equal level of interest from you, the designer, or something you’re passionate about that would also have this ability to engage with a wider audience.
Alexis: So no matter how big a developer or a game company gets, they always have to do a certain amount of marketing, for better or for worse, or whatever term you’d like to use to spread the word of their games. And often from the outside it seems, “It’s Adam Atomic; he’s got a new game. Of course he’s going to get noticed and do well.”
What are some of the things that you still have to do to spread the word and make sure people know about your games?
Adam: Tons and tons of stuff. It depends on the platform, but usually we have – that Capsule game is an exception where I just was not confident in the breadth of audience it was going to reach, and so we just didn’t market it basically. We sent a few free copies to some folks that we thought would really be into it, and that was about it – which is different because our track record is different when we send something over versus somebody else.
For a game like Hundreds where we thought, “This might really click with people,” I think we spent somewhere around three to four months of part-time work and thousands of dollars paid out to contractors to help us put together a heavily, thoroughly unified series of movie trailers and websites and screenshots for the App Store and all those things all put together in a way that was really –.
Alexis: Polished and packaged, yeah.
Adam: Very polished, but also very expressive of the game. This is where it started to become – because we didn’t really market any games before that that heavily either. I really like the idea of “marketing” being a thing where you are trying to extend your game off into these non-interactive spaces, essentially. And so for us, the Hundreds trailer and the Hundreds website and all those things were all really weren’t marketing for the game Hundreds – these were extensions of the game Hundreds. What is Hundreds as a website that’s trying to draw people in to what we think is interesting about it? And then built that.
Language-wise – what are the words that we’re going to use in this sentence, either in the App Store or on the website? Or when we’re in interviews that we think are going to do the best job of getting people from a place where they don’t know anything about the game, to a place where they’re excited about the same things that we’re excited about in the game.
In a trailer – what can we put in the trailer that we think is going to get people’s attention and again, get them to be excited about exactly the same things that we’re excited about. It took us a really, really long time, but I’m pretty happy with the results. I think it turned out okay, and I think Greg ended up using a really similar process on Threes. Our process was in itself inspired by some of the work done on SpellTower and Sword and Sworcery.
I think there’s something to be said for it. I think there’s something to be said for extending your game out into these spaces in a way where it can reach people and communicate with people in a generous way. And when you have a game that you think can reach that wide audience, I think that’s a really important step. And for the most part it doesn’t matter even if you’re a well-known game developer within game developer circles. Nobody knows who you are. No normal person knows who you are, and you can’t rely on that.
Our marketing is really us going, “Okay, not everybody is going to see this game on an iPad.” Some people will; some people will be looking over your shoulder and watch you play on an iPad and the game needs to speak for itself in that scenario. But there are all these other places where they might find out about it – screenshots, blog posts, YouTube, eventually Twitch and stuff like that. How does the game represent itself there? How does it reach out to people? How does it invite people to be a part of it? It’s a pain in the ass. It’s a whole lot of work.
I think it’s worth it. If you want people to play it, then I think it’s a step that you can take to mitigate the otherwise lottery-like effect of throwing something out in the ocean and seeing if it floats.
Alexis: When it comes to your games’ audience, and in software in general, it’s always a mantra – listen to your customers, listen to the players, listen to their advice and integrate that. But then there’s also the other side of it, “Well, listen to them but don’t always do exactly what they want because it might not turn out as it should.”
How do you integrate that in your own games? Or not integrate it, if that’s the case.
Adam: I think there are two things that are really important and are really great reasons if you’re trying to make a game especially for a wide stream of audience or mainstream audience. One is, if people play the game then asking them how they feel about it. When people play a game, they’re often eager to offer suggestions, and I think that sometimes that works really, really well, especially if it’s other game developers who are already familiar with what you’re trying to achieve and maybe have some clever ideas for a way that you could get there that you haven’t thought of yet.
For – I’m going to non-pejoratively refer to as “normal people” – for normal people, asking them how they feel about, especially if it looks like they’re stuck, to ask them to talk about how they feel or what they’re thinking is really the most useful thing to do in that scenario. How they feel or what they’re going to tell you about, what they’re thinking is almost never going to be what the real problem is; it’s always going to be one step away. Whereas if you as them for suggestions or solutions, that’s going to be two steps away because they are going to provide suggestions or solutions for what they think the problem is, which is almost never what the problem actually is.
Play testing with normal folks and not telling them how to play – just setting them loose, asking them how they feel if it looks like they’re stuck, or if it looks like they’re having a lot of fun – I think is really great and very helpful. Again, it doesn’t tell you what to fix or how to fix it, but it’s like shining a light near where something might be broken, as opposed to just the whole thing being dark. So that’s really great.
The other thing that I really like when I’m talking to people while they’re play testing – and the reason I like asking them how they feel or asking them how they would describe the game to their friends – is you as a game designer or a game developer, you found something neat. You found some weird math or some weird feeling or mood that you want to share with people because you think it’s really cool, and chances are a lot of other people also think it’s cool, but the way that they’re going to describe it as people that are new to it rather than people that have been really exploring it really close up for a long time is going to be different. They’re going to use a different language; they’re going to focus on different things, and I find it massively helpful to talk to people after I’ve been on a project for 6 or 12 months and listen to how they describe it.
When I am introducing the game to people who have never played it before like you would do on a website or in a trailer or in your “marketing,” I use the language of someone who is new to it – not the language of someone who’s overfamiliar with it.
Alexis: Right. The fish in the water doesn’t know what’s in the water because it’s so used to being in there.
Adam: Right, right. Like a fish would forget to describe it as wet, when it turns out that’s a really –.
Adam: Yeah, it’s a notable feature.
Alexis: Or a bug, maybe a bug.
Adam: [Chuckles] Yeah, yeah.
Alexis: Now help me out in pronunciation here – Finji, right?
Adam: Yup, exactly.
Alexis: What is Finji and why are you back to it?
Adam: We’re sort of back to it, but it’s sort of what we’ve been doing this whole time. The thing that I think is maybe closest to it is this idea of when a band starts its own record label or something. We’ve been releasing games independently since 2007 or 2008 and we have a lot of infrastructure for doing that, and we’re continuing to do that but there are occasionally opportunities where we can share some of that infrastructure with other developers who either are not interested in it or whatever.
The counter-example for us I think is something like Indie Fund. One of the things that Indie Fund is really great at is giving you the resources to establish your own infrastructure and start your own company, which is awesome. I would’ve really liked Indie Fund to be there when we were at the start of our career, but not everybody wants that for a variety of reasons.
One of those reasons is this model of collaborative development where a few people get together to build a game rather than to start a company that builds games. In that case, starting a company maybe make sense, and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s stressful or it’s too much overhead, or it’s just not something they want to deal with and it’s not something they want to continue to run in the future after the project is done.
In that case, we’re just like, “Hey, we have that already. Just come over and use ours.” We already have to write all these checks every month, we already have template contracts and licensing paperwork and we know how to file all of your trademarks and we already have contacts with all the consoles – Valve and everybody – so just don’t worry about that. You guys make the game and we’ll do all that other stuff.
To me, it just feels good to be able to take that off of the shoulders of people who specifically don’t want it. In addition to internal development and self-publishing like we’ve always been doing – and this is a thing we’ve done a little bit before. We did a port of SteamBirds for iOS a while ago and we released Aquaria for iPad – we helped distribute and market that – and so this is just stepping up that side of things a little bit.
Alexis: So Finji has – or you have officially codified this as Finji again in 2014. That was in March, I think.
Adam: Yeah, somewhere around there.
Alexis: How has it been going so far?
Adam: It’s been great; it’s been really good. We’ve got one and a half-ish internal projects that we’re self-funding, and then we helped with the Eliss Infinity launch on Android and we’ve been helping with Night In The Woods; we’ve had a really good booth at PlayStation Experience this last weekend.
We’ve also been helping with Panoramical by Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga. We’re helping them with paperwork and deadlines and all sorts of stuff like that. And it’s been really great. I’d say this is stuff we’ve done before. Fez needed animation help at one point, so I just did a bunch of animation for Fez. It wasn’t necessarily a money-making opportunity; it was “Oh, Fez needs animation. Fez is beautiful. We should make animation for it.” This is kind of that. Like, “Night In The Woods is beautiful; these guys should have business help so that they can just make it beautiful.
So far it’s going really good. A year from now, it’ll be interesting to have another discussion publicly and explain whether or not it was actually a good idea in practice, but it’s been so positive so far.
Alexis: If you’d like to be on next year, let me know [chuckling]. If this hasn’t been an absolutely terrible experience.
Adam: [Chuckles] Here’s a list of things not to do – which should be fine. Most of my career has been a lot of that; that’s how you learn.
Alexis: Number one – do not podcast with Alexis [chuckling]. Two – do not podcast with Alexis [chuckling].
It seems like you’re a very, very busy guy – not just because of the game development, but also because of ancillary and – I guess not necessarily ancillary stuff, but things that go hand-in-hand with it. Organizing GDC, I think, as an adviser – Juegos Rancheros, which is the local Austin kind of game developer organization/meetup thing. Hell, you even built something for Indie Game: The Movie and you were helping out Valve with Free To Play, which is a documentary for DOTA, I think?
Alexis: A) How do you do it and b) why do you like to get yourself into so many projects?
Adam: Probably it’s like an undiagnosed but very minor attention disorder, partly, but a lot of it is just – we’ve been doing this for a long time and these things just start to add up; it starts to look like a ton of stuff.
I could throw in there – we did a little mini game for Christmas last year with Dose One and we made a game with Keita Takahashi last spring, and that’s been touring around with Wild Rumpus for a while. There’s obviously Flixel; there’s a lot of different things.
Part of it is I really do like working on small, self-contained projects, all those Hunger Games and Old Spice – like the Dikembe Mutombo things too. I really like these projects that have – they’re a set size and you can explore a complete idea and then share it with people. A lot of these projects just don’t take that long to put together.
Indie Game: The Movie initially was really just a couple of weeks, and Free To Play is probably pretty similar. Juegos Rancheros is really fun to organize, but it’s maybe a few hours a month or something. These things totally add up, but they’re so rich that I feel like I get so much out of them that is, in a weird way, not doing them cost more than doing them.
Alexis: Opportunity cost, yeah.
Adam: Yeah, like there’s so many –.
Alexis: And life enrichment.
Adam: Yeah, it’s interesting stuff. I really enjoy projects where I’m underequipped, initially. That’s the thing that gets me really excited about a project. I want parts of the project to be familiar, but I really want big pieces of it to be strange and for me to not be used to those sorts of things. We’re doing a little thing on the side where we’re consulting on designing a virtual pet type of thing, which doesn’t sound super interesting, but I’ve never designed a virtual pet thing – I don’t know how that stuff works.
Alexis: You just want to dig in there, figure out how it works and go “Oh yeah, okay.” And then, “I did this.”
Adam: Yeah! Pull it apart. What happens when you put the pieces back together upside down? Is that interesting or broken or what? I really like that. It keeps me interested and awake and engaged and all those things.
Alexis: Now speaking of these different projects, there’s a talk you gave I think in 2011 where you introduced the concept of time until death. You have to focus on making sure what you’re working on matters, and I guess that dovetails in. Has that been a thread that has been following you since then, or was that mostly a one-off way of explaining it?
Adam: I think it’s a bunch of things. One – we have two kids now, and I just don’t have that much time for building stuff. I’m taking a lot of – what is it? I’m not even sure how to describe it exactly, but the way I used to develop was not lazy or anything, but I wasn’t worried if I was spending time on something that maybe wasn’t super promising, because all I had was time to work on stuff. I might spend a couple of weeks chasing a prototype that I hadn’t really thought critically about, and that wasn’t a negative experience or anything. But as the roof has been coming down on my free time over the last few years, I felt like it’s more and more worth for a variety of reasons, thinking more critically about what projects we’re working on and why we’re working on them.
And who we’re working with and what that means and what kind of example that sets and all of those things. They just seem like they matter more – I don’t know. I don’t think it’s that they matter more than they used to, but I’m more aware that those things are important.
Alexis: Let’s see – another tidbit that I found through doing research. This was on Lifehacker a year ago where they went through not necessarily your workflow but some of the tools that you use. One thing that stood out to me was that you mentioned playing cards and dice and tokens for prototyping. I wonder how those physical bits fit into digital game development.
Adam: Sometimes it’s just for fun. Sometimes it’s just the same reason you would bust out a Lego set to have your fingers do something and maybe happy accidents happen or because you’re mechanically distracted, your brain is free to do a better job of free associating or lateral thinking or something like that.
There’s been a couple of projects where it’s been really directly useful. The mini game that we made with Dose One last Christmas was all proven on paper. The earliest prototypes for our current big internal project, Overland, were all proven out on paper as well. There were a couple of really game-shattering bounds bugs that were super fast and easy to test on paper that actually would have taken ten times as long to do digitally.
There’s a thing about paper prototyping where if you’re going to actually produce a tabletop board game, I think you’d end up having to write these – for a lot of them – almost obsessively-strict rules to make sure that everybody’s following it, because there’s no computer mediating that experience. But when you’re paper prototyping, your brain is just there making up these new rules. You can pretend a lot of things while you’re moving some physical representations of the game rules around, and it’s just massively – it’s just so fast. It’s so fast and it’s so fluid, and there are a lot of tools and a lot of processes that have this weird speed threshold where as soon as you can do X, Y or Z in a short enough window of time, it actually turns into a different process in some ways.
The difference between you seeing something like – for 3D modeling, the difference between this and Google SketchUp and a heavily engineering-focused tool is you can be proficient in both tools, but something about the process of working with a rapid tool becomes different. It makes you more willing to do more experiments and to try weirder things because you know the cost will be lower.
Alexis: And you’re in the flow; you’re not taken out of it to struggle with a tool.
Adam: Right, and so I found it’s huge for that, and I think there’s a limit to – it feels like it’s more effective for turn-based games as opposed to real-time games or multiplayer games or something. I think it’s a great way to take a break and it’s a great way to just exercise game design muscles. On top of that, it also occasionally is a great way to fix weird problems really quickly.
Alexis: Okay. Now we’re just about an hour here, but I’ll make these last few really quick. Tips for finding partners in game development – often you’re a programmer, not necessarily much of an artist or vice versa. How do you make sure you find somebody that “This is a gal or a guy that I’m willing to work with”?
Adam: Oh, man. I really value collaborators who are very communicative. I’ve almost never had a bad collaboration where there was a skill problem or a technical expertise problem; the only really genuinely bad collaborations that I’ve had have involved people who, for one reason or another, did not communicate well. That doesn’t mean that it was their fault; there may have been an environment or conditions that I was responsible for that contributed to that, and that’s something that I definitely work on myself and focus on trying to do better at. But it means an enormous amount to me to be able to work with people who can just talk to you.
It sounds like a really dumb thing, but that’s huge. That’s an amazing thing to be able to get from the people that you work with, and so that’s probably the main thing.
The other thing that I really like to see is people who – it’s such a joy to work with people who have weird ideas and are just not afraid to share them. I think that’s been a through line for a lot of people that I’ve worked with and it’s just been unanimously positive experiences. They communicate well and they see strange things that I don’t see, and they have the confidence to pursue them.
Alexis: So that’s why you moved to Austin. Keep Austin weird – that whole thing.
Adam: [Chuckles] It hasn’t hurt, it hasn’t hurt. We’ve had really good collaborations here in town. But a lot of time they also – I’m not using “weird” pejoratively at all – but these really non-traditional ideas, even if they are impractical or they don’t work out, they do such a good job of changing the way that you look at a problem or how you look at a solution space, or how you think about the way that the problem is constructed, or even how you describe the problem in language, that these “bad ideas” or “weird ideas” that get thrown out –.
The value of an idea is not necessarily that it’s part of the game and that it ships. If it’s the weird idea that gets you thinking in just the right way that you can figure out the last few things that you’re stuck on, I think it’s really important. Sometimes you can’t get there without that. They’re often a dark place in the wilderness, and if you knock down some trees on accident, you just can’t find them.
Alexis: Right. Let’s see – so what’s one mistake you’d rather not repeat?
Adam: [Chuckles] I have to pick just one?
Alexis: Time allowing, you can give us as many as you like.
Adam: [Chuckles] Oh man. Assuming we have less than 11 hours left, I’d pare it down a little bit. I think this is the best one that I’m willing to talk about. It was a chunk of time where, after Canabalt was released, I had a really weird idea about what I should be prototyping and why I should be prototyping it. I drew some really erroneous conclusions from the success of that game that I somehow allowed it to override things that I knew before and things that led the creation of Canabalt.
But because it was a success and it was something that was, in a lot of ways, maybe my design more than – the projects in 2008 were projects that were, like I was saying, a Boggle clone, or a game that was very heavily-inspired by a friends prototype. Canabalt felt like a little bit more like mine in some ways. It wasn’t the first one-button game or the first infinite runner type game, but it felt like mine and it felt like the response to it was an endorsement from people in some way that, against all of my better judgment, displaced a lot of things that were very important to me and that directly contributed to Canabalt being designed and developed.
I probably spent a year on prototypes and I think I was building for the wrong reasons.
Alexis: Tried to derive a formula maybe from Canabalt, like what is my style? How can I replicate this?
Adam: Kind of. At first especially, it was even worse than dumber. It was really me going like “Oh, that game only took us a month to make and it made a $100,000!”
Alexis: Let’s make 12 more!
Adam: Yeah! “It’s the next month, time to make another hit game.” That’s not the frame of mind or the set of concerns that led to uncovering the pieces that fit together to make something like Canabalt. I really do wish that some of that time, which was very comfortable, well-funded, fun time – I think they could’ve been used so much more productively or on projects that were so much more interesting.
Some of those prototypes have seen the light of day, but not as commercial projects at all. They’re more like warning signs, “DON’T GO HERE.”
Alexis: Okay, I’ve saved the two toughest questions for last. First one is, what’s your text editor of choice?
Adam: Sublime Text, of course. Surprising no one.
Alexis: [Chuckles] I don’t know, I’ve had a few Vim and Emacs as of late.
Adam: Oh for sure, for sure.
Alexis: And Visual Studio.
Adam: Mm-hm, mm-hm.
Alexis: Now the last one is, where does the “Atomic” in Adam “Atomic” Saltsman come from?
Adam: Oh, God. Perfect. When I was in high school, which was in the late ‘90s, it was sort of the hay day of third-wave ska and mainstream punk music and pop punk and all of these things, and skateboarding.
Alexis: I like where this story’s going.
Adam: There were all these weird new clothing companies that were cropping up, that were all somehow embroiled in this weird, newly commercialized music culture and MTV and X-Games and skateboarding. Companies that maybe before had just made roller blades were now making these cool t-shirts, and there was a whole graphic design aesthetic that was wrapped up in all of that stuff, and I thought this stuff was so awesome!
And so I had made a pitch or a set of designs for a weird skateboarding clothing brand that was going to be called Adam Atomic.
Alexis: You said this story was going to be embarrassing, but it’s pretty cool.
Adam: I did that, and then obviously that went nowhere. But I kept using it as a nickname in Counterstrike in college. This was in the early 2000s and just an almost unknowable amount of time spent playing counterstrike in dorm rooms on LANs and all that stuff. That was always kind of my call sign on there and then it just sort of kept migrating.
So it’s been around for a while, like 20 years or something.
Alexis: Alright. Now we finally got the dirt [chuckling].
Adam: Sure it is.
Alexis: Alright! Well if folks would like to learn more about Finji, where should they go?
Adam: Finjigames.com is a great place to start. It’s got a lot of the projects we’re working on and it’ll lead you to the blog and Twitter account and all that good stuff.
Alexis: And if we’d like to stalk – I mean, just keep up on your whereabouts, where can we follow you on Twitter?
Adam: Just @adamatomic – all one word.
Alexis: And for us you can follow us @Binpress and myself @alexissantos. Adam, we have made it through probably well over an hour. Thank you for your patience.
Adam: Oh, no. I apologize for not shutting up earlier. It’s a problem that I have.
Alexis: Nah, this is good stuff, I assure you.
Adam: Good, good, good.
Alexis: And for the listeners, we’ll catch you next week.
Author: Alexis Santos