Indie spotlight: Adam Saltsman, Semi Secret Software

Adam Saltsman is really into Dark Souls these days.

But that’s not the only reason we talked with him. One of the most influential independent game developers of current times, Adam “Atomic” Saltsman is responsible for one of the first games that spawned the endless running genre on the mobile platforms. His contribution to game development on Flash has been significant with Flixel, an open-source Flash Actionscript library, using his work on landmark mobile games such as Canabalt and Gravity Hook.

adam-saltsmanAdam “Atomic” Saltsman

His most recent release, Hundreds, has received widespread critical acclaim with its unique puzzle mechanics and minimalist art style. Adam tells us about Canabalt, Hundreds, his views on the mobile gaming industry, and his favourite games.

And we also found out why he loves Dark Souls so much.

Let’s talk about Canabalt first. The endless running genre has become very prevalent in the mobile gaming market, and Canabalt is considered by many as the pioneer in the genre. Given the genre was non-existent in 2009, what inspired the concept in the first place?

“Canabalt had a lot of different inspirations, but the main one was actually the original Super Mario Bros.”

Canabalt had a lot of different inspirations, but the main one was actually the original Super Mario Bros. game for the NES, from 1985 or 1986 or whatever. I fell deeply in love with that game when it first came out, and it still holds up very, very well. Playing the game at a high level involves basically constantly holding the B button and the right arrow on the d-pad, and just jumping once in a while, at just the right moment. It feels very good and reckless and exciting to play that way. I thought if players were always holding those two buttons, and just sometimes tapping jump, that I could just get rid of those other two buttons and just use jump.

There were a lot of other inspirations for the game too though – Mirror’s Edge (but not the way you’d think), Flashback: The Quest for Identity, Prince of Persia, Half Life, District 9, Captain Forever, District B13 and David Belle, the parkour athlete especially, and so on.

What is your general reaction to the popularity of this genre?

I am really surprised that it has been able to take so many forms and retain such a big audience for so long. Between Temple Run 2 and Jetpack Joyride, I feel like that is pretty much every iPhone game ever. None of the other entries in the genre are as fast or exciting as Canabalt though, at least to me, which I think is a big disappointment. I’m a big fan of games like Wipeout, Vanquish, Motorstorm, and even Sonic; I love that reckless sense of speed, like I said before, and I feel like that was thrown away from the genre, and replaced with coins and hats, which to me is disappointing. Though I guess the general public approves of it.

After Canabalt, were you tempted to cash-in on the popularity of the genre?

Sort of. I didn’t think “auto runner” was the thing that would catch on; I thought it was just the simple controllers. I did try to design more one-button games, but the prototypes were all quite bad.

canabaltCanabalt

With so many endless running games coming out, where do you see this genre going? Do you think there is still scope for innovation and new ideas?

I think so, but I think it involves moving beyond coins and hats. I think that Rayman game (Rayman: Jungle Run) sort of gets it!

Let’s move to Hundreds now. First up, we’d like to congratulate you on smashing through a 100k downloads. We loved the simplicity behind the idea, and yet how engaging it was. Can you tell us a little bit about the conceptualisation and thought process that went behind the game?

Oh man, thanks! So Hundreds was originally a Flash prototype by Greg Wohlwend, that my business partner Eric Johnson ported to iPad back in August or September of 2011. He and Greg both seemed interested in pursuing the idea, and it seemed like a simple game to build at the time. Ha! We were slightly wrong about that! I talked to Greg about considering changing the basic formula to be more puzzle-oriented and to explore the idea of having these simple, random puzzles, and he was very open and enthusiastic about it. That’s when we started designing the iPad version for real, I think – coming up with the new obstacle types, and so on.

I’m sure you get this a lot, but what’s with the messages in the game?

“We wanted a sense of mystery and depth but we didn’t want any kind of overt narrative layer.”

Ha ha! I guess we just wanted something extra in there. We wanted a sense of mystery and depth but we didn’t want any kind of overt narrative layer. I’ve always loved codes; I took code-breaking classes in college for fun. I think at the time I was inspired by FEZ’s great language and code puzzles too. But yea, mainly we wanted to add a little something behind the scenes of the game, but we knew we didn’t want to do that in a normal way, so we decided on these cryptic messages.

With so much emphasis on freemium these days, were you apprehensive about pricing Hundreds at $4.99?

Only briefly, really. We were very inspired by Sword & Sworcery’s commercial success. We thought that there was an audience out there for something unique and high quality that would be willing to pay for a really dedicated and almost zen-like experience that didn’t have a lot of interruptions. I was a little worried about the price because I still think that for iPhone it is priced too high. But ultimately, the game is really best on iPad, so we looked at iPad games that we thought were comparable in some ways, and we tried to pick a price based on those games and how they were performing.

hundredsHundreds

What is your general response to the freemium model? Do you think that is the way forward for mobile gaming and gaming in general?

Right now at least I’m not very confident that freemium is the way forward for anything. I think when price was a strong differentiator in the market, it looked like it was going to solve a lot of problems. As a small studio, you have this huge problem of app discovery, word of mouth, and so on. But at least from where I’m sitting, I have friends that have built very good, very interesting freemium games, and they haven’t been downloaded nearly as much as our “premium” priced game, because there are so many options for freemium games now. I think for a lot of players, the problem is finding time to play something, not finding the two or three dollars to buy it. Not to mention that we’ve barely broken even on our “premium” game, while friends with the same number of units sold on Steam are literally millionaires! So at least for studios our size that can’t afford X amount of user acquisition each month, and don’t want to use treadmills or other malicious game loops, I think even the App Store’s version of “premium” is probably not going to cut it long term.

A lot of indies are not very fond of the commercial side of the industry. What according to you is the main difference between commercial and indie games in terms of the user experience that is delivered to gamers?

“I have friends that have built very good freemium games, and they haven’t been downloaded nearly as much as our “premium” priced game.”

I don’t really see these things as being that black and white. I think when I use the word “indie”, I’m usually using it to refer to a pretty small team making a creative or interesting game. The reason that is a useful word to me is it indicates that the game could potentially have some kind of cool idiosyncrasies, where the voice of the creator or author really shines through and enriches the experience, since the team is too small to dilute that natural tendency. I think when indies are getting down on commercial games, there are a lot of complex reasons for that, but I think one of the things that people are reacting against is the feeling of being in a very safe, very vanilla, very committee-produced experience. Big studios and small studios both make games that have that feeling or have that approach.

Likewise, I’ve been playing this game – Dark Souls, lately, and man alive does that game not feel like a vanilla or safe experience! I personally think that playing it safe is really not very safe in the long term. From Software, the creators of Dark Souls, made FOURTEEN mech combat games before they put out Demon’s Souls, but almost no one in the US had even heard of them before Demon’s Souls launched. I think people can sense that vanilla safety, and taste it, and they get bored with it eventually. Louis CK talks about this when he talks about making his own weird show that has won tons of awards now.

I think when you have skilled practitioners with a lot of experience, it’s important to let them take risks. I think the easiest way to get your audience interested is to have them look at your work and go “Whoa! What is this? I don’t recognise this, but I am liking what I’m seeing!” I think Hundreds manages to do this to some degree, and it’s important for reaching a new audience and for establishing a good relationship with the audience you’re seeking, as a creator.

dark-souls-1Dark Souls

Why is iOS the preferred platform for mobile game developers over Android? Do you see this changing anytime soon?

I think iOS has been pretty dominant for two main reasons: unified devices, and commerce-oriented audience. In a lot of ways, these both boil down to the actual hard plastic rectangle of the phone itself. For years now, the Apple devices have just been quantifiably vastly higher quality devices. Almost no one bought an Android phone because they wanted it more than an iPhone. So the Android owners out there, there were a lot of them, but there wasn’t a huge proportion of them that bought an Android phone specifically as an entertainment device to use with a pre-established storefront like iTunes. I think pretty naturally that meant that a very small proportion of Android owners even cared about Google Play. The other thing about the phones themselves is there are like a hundred or a few hundred Android phones, with dozens, if not hundreds, of different screen sizes and resolutions and GPU manufacturers and memory amounts, and so on. As a developer, that can be a pretty nightmarish scenario, depending on the game you’re building, and so on.

“A year ago, I would never have considered an Android port being worthwhile, financially. Now, we can’t afford not to put our games on Android!”

I think if you combine these two things, the high level of Android fragmentation, and the (until about a year ago) the lower quality of devices, you really naturally end up with an environment where doing apps commercially really favours the iOS side of things. Now that Android phones are much more competitive, especially the Samsung Galaxy phones, and there are quality tablets out there too, I think you see a lot of people preferring those devices to their Apple counterparts, and that is changing the audience and the customer base and people’s shopping habits. The fragmentation is still a hassle, but even a year ago, I would never have considered an Android port being worthwhile, financially. Now, we can’t afford not to put our games on Android!

Can we expect to see Hundreds on the Google Play Store in the near future?

Yes, absolutely!

The recently announced Playstation 4 is getting a lot of indie support. Can we expect to see something from you on the console as well?

You know I have no idea, but I would love that. I would love to design a console game someday. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on currently?

We’re mainly focused on updating Hundreds and getting the Android port ready for showtime. We’re also working on a big Canabalt update, as well as getting it ready for the Ouya console.

Your top 5 games of 2012?

I think the games I loved the most in 2012 were Trials: Evolution, Mark of the Ninja, and XCOM. I also enjoyed Spelunky and Dishonored. Embarrassingly, the games I enjoyed the most recently were actually Vanquish and Dark Souls, which are from 2010 and 2011 respectively; I’m just that far behind in games. I’ve been meaning to play The Walking Dead, FTL and Starseed Pilgrim, and so many other things, and just not had the time. We live in a very cool time for videogames, that I am having this problem. Ha ha!

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