In this series, I interview notable fellow game developers, in hope that we can glean lessons from their success.
For part 1, I talk with independent developer Adam Saltsman. Adam’s career is notable, not only for how prolific he’s been, but for how many of his projects have risen above the noise and connected with large audiences. Canabalt could be considered his first major success, gaining notoriety as a flash game and then making its way to mobile platforms. And just in the last 18 months, he’s created a movie tie-in for ‘The Hunger Games’, an installation game called ‘Capsule,’ an episodic advert-game for Old-Spice, and shipped ‘Hundreds‘ for IOS, garnering an ‘Editor’s Choice’ feature from Apple and an honorable mention from the IGF. Common knowledge says that a game development success involves a lot of luck – but when someone has a string of success like this, it’s worth looking a little closer.
On Canabalt Design
So – Canabalt kind of launched you into the spotlight. What were your overall goals for the game when you started it? Would you say the finished product is pretty close to what you imagined when you started?
Adam: It did… my goal was really just to make a one button game that I thought was really fun. For maybe once in my whole life, the finished product was both simpler and better than what I imagined it would be when I started it.
The intro feels particularly polished: there are unique animations, beautifully animated birds flying away as your hero tumbles out of the window etc. How important do you think that first impression is in a game?
Adam: I guess the way I think of it is like this: somebody out there has decided to spend some time with your game. Especially if its a cheap or free game, they might not be checking it out for very long. They might not know who you are, so they might not have a good reason to play the game for more than 5 seconds. This can be bad because I think most interesting games, game that are worth playing, are a two-way street – they need their players to give their time and their trust in exchange for hopefully something really fun or meaningful or whatever. So since I’m not there when people play my game to say “hi I’m adam I worked really hard on this I hope you like it – make sure you stick around for chapter 2, that’s when it gets good”… I guess I feel like the game needs to say that for me, if only indirectly, by being interesting and/or mysterious right away. That’s me giving something to the player, in hopes that they will sort of subconsciously decide “ok that was cool, I’ll give you more of my time, what else you got”. My blanket, not-at-all-standard term for this approach is “generous” design.
I’m curious to hear about your methodology for tuning the difficulty. Did you think in terms of “average time someone will survive” or some kind of metric like that? How do you know when it’s “just right”?
Adam: For me it is definitely much more of an art than a science (though I don’t mean art in a fancy sense, necessarily, more just in a not-science sense). In retrospect I think there is some science I could use to defend certain settings or certain variables or whatever, but… I guess in general I think the basic approach I use is something like this:
- mess around with different settings until it feels really good to me
- send it to brutally honest friends, and get it feeling good for them AND me
- send it to my mom, get it feeling good for her AND me
Two caveats – I am totally sensitive to and appreciative of the argument that “mom testing” is kind of a diminutive or derogatory way of referring to accessibility testing, and the world is full of gamer moms (like my wife!), but in this case MY mom specifically is super bad at games – she has no point of reference or game grammar or anything. So whoever it is in your life, watch them play, see what “weird” assumptions they carry to the experience, use that to make an informed decision about especially the introductory experience in the game. That’s the first caveat.
The second is that when I say “mess around with different settings” I sort of mean just flipping switches and trying stuff, and I sort of mean like very targeted, specific changes based on intuition and experience from making lots of games.
Finally if you can’t get #1 really right, like… for example, if you’re making an action game, if the game doesn’t make YOU, the creator, get sweaty palms, or whatever, usually that’s a sign that it’s still not quite there, I guess…
Sometimes I feel like developers take aspects of their games for granted, in terms of what actually makes them tick. Overall – do you feel like you totally understand what makes Canabalt so appealing to players?
Adam: I have a lot of theories but I’m very reluctant to point out any one thing. I think there are some things about it that don’t HURT – it’s about a somewhat relatable scenario (normal-ish dude in normal-ish setting), it is in some important ways “interface-less” (this is a big deal to me, anyways), it’s cool-looking and fun right away… I bet there is a lot I still don’t properly understand about it, though, and trying to understand it kind of wrecked a year of my life or more, haha. So I’m done with that!
On Hundreds, Launch Strategies and PR
Congrats on the stellar launch of Hundreds. It’s gotten a lot of attention and high praise, and it really seems to stand out in terms of design. There are a lot of things I could ask about – but one thing that really impressed me about the project, was your guys’ PR and launch strategy. You setup this website, playhundreds.com, and it sort of served as a teaser. I mean, it laid out the core mechanic of the game, but it also has this artful feel to it and a sense of mystery, and basically says: “Hey, this app is going to look fantastic” without giving away too much about the actual gameplay.
So looking back – how important do you think that was to your success, in terms of getting people interested and catching Apple’s attention?
Adam: I wish I could attach some kind of number to it or something, but I think that’s impossible… personally I feel that it helped a lot. We already had Apple’s attention, we’ve been talking about Hundreds with them since last March. But the site I think helped get a bit of online buzz going that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I think it helped explain some stuff. Mostly I think it helped us establish this kind of cohesive “whole” of our approach to presenting this game to whom we perceived to be our audience. I think it helped set people’s expectations for what we were building and in a weird way why? It’s really hard to quantify it but yeah, I think it helped a lot.
What else did you do in terms of launch strategy, that you feel really helped?
Adam: I think, beyond the website, Greg’s work on our banners, trailers, icon, everything, really added up to this kind of beautiful almost package or box for the game. Greg and I worked together, almost obsessively, on the wording and language we used everywhere too, trying to strike the right tone and communicate the right ideas. And again I really have no way of quantifying this but I think it helped Apple feel like we were taking this game pretty seriously, and I think it helped our audience sort of get that we were really committed to this game and that it … somehow deserved that attention or degree of… care.
So Canabalt was kind of different because it just gives you one button to play (jump) and didn’t have “levels” to choose from, or really much going on outside of that single core experience. And Hundreds is interesting to me, I think in part because of what’s not here. There’s no tutorial, in the traditional sense, and most of the mechanics are discovered, rather than taught. There’s no ‘pause’ button, or “restart level” button (I think I was at level 30 or so before I realized this!) Sometimes not putting something in a game is actually harder than including it.
Would you say this minimalism something that you strive for and consciously make a goal of?
Hah, I see what you did there
Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a project and just thinking “awe crap, we went and cluttered things up too much” and end up ripping out a bunch of stuff?
Adam: Yes, that adequately sums up a few months of Hundreds development haha.
You’ve named Super Mario Bros as one of your inspirations. To me it’s interesting because that game was so deterministic, and I’ve noticed that most of your games are kind of a delicate balance between designer intent, and random elements. With Canabalt, you learn what types of buildings and obstacles you’ll encounter, but there’s no way to memorize the patterns. This randomness seems to help drive that “just one more try” feel of the game.
And in Hundreds, each level generates seemingly random placement of objects, but the objects themselves are the same every time for a given level.
So – what’s the appeal of randomness to you, and have you formulated any kind of best practices or guiding theories about randomness, and how to use and control it?
Adam: At least on the surface there are two things I love about randomness. First, just purely practically speaking, designing non-random levels can be a huge pain, and the payoff isn’t always that great. Once the puzzle or whatever is solved, that’s it. And usually it’s a lot faster to solve a puzzle than it is to design it, so for a small team making mobile games, I think that normal content creation sometimes doesn’t make a ton of sense. Some procedural aspects can help a lot there.
“randomness, when used correctly, gets you in this … crisis management state of mind. This can be really stressful in real life, but it is kind of exhilarating and fun in games.”
Second, randomness makes testing my own designs a lot more fun. That’s sort of a greedy expression of what I think is some kind of underlying truth, though, that is shared across many many games, which is that randomness, when used correctly, gets you in this … crisis management state of mind. This can be really stressful in real life, but it is kind of exhilarating and fun in games. This comes out in a lot of action games that might be really statically designed, but maybe during combat or something things get chaotic enough that players go into this crisis management mode.
What I mean by “crisis management mode” is this whole like block or space of gameplay that is about sort of pruning or tuning your behavior in order to best cope with unanticipated events – sort of … grooming the topology of the possibility space to try and make the most of whatever is coming down the pipe, like making sure there is always a flat place to put a square in Tetris. This is a thing that a lot of my favorite games do, that I like a lot.
On Selling Games, and “Indie Fame”
Back when you released Canabalt at $2.99 on the app store, the app market was kind of at an uncertain point and a lot of people were experimenting with $0.99 and free apps, and you made some news because you released at this premium price and had sucess with it despite the “race to the bottom” trend. Then several years later, F2P has basically taken over mobile, but you guys kind of just go for it again, and released at a premium price – and once again it seems to be working.
Was there ever a point where you thought maybe you’d release the game for free with a few levels or something, and make people buy the rest piece-meal? Talk me through your pricing strategy.
Adam: Yes completely. Initially we were thinking we would be “premium” (a hilarious name for something that costs a dollar), but then we started freaking out because we didn’t have a PR plan, and Hundreds screenshots don’t really look that exciting, and the game was demoing really well to broad audiences. In a lot of ways, a game that demoes well and that hits a wide demographic is a prime candidate for some kind of IAP approach. Ultimately though we felt like it would just put us back in competition with forces and organizations that are just too big for us to handle. It’s hard for me to say for sure if that’s actually true or not, of course.
In a weird, almost dark turn of events, NOT being “freemium” is apparently weird enough that we were able to use it as another way to stand out from the crowd. How bizarre is that.
What would you say to people who would argue that this strategy can only work for people with some kind of fame, or past history of success?
Adam: I want to divide this into two arguments:
1 – “fame” (haha!) or (more likely) a bit of a track record absolutely help a TON. they probably help MOST with getting Apple to feature you. Once that happens, I think it makes these factors moot, as now you are featured, and just hugely visible in a huge store. But there are lots of ways to get featured. Canabalt was NOT featured, and we had no relationship with Apple. But because it was a modest success on its own terms, we were able to develop both a relationship with Apple and some semblance of a track record. All these things start somewhere! I think it’s all about finding a way to stand out and get people to get interested in what you’re making. There are a lot of ways to do this.
2 – HOWEVER. There is another problem here, which is even if you assume that “just” being “famous” is enough to let you price things at 2.99 or whatever the argument is, to me that implies that if you are NOT “famous” that you could have success at $0.99 or free… which I think is just not true anymore. Free games and $0.99 games ARE a lower friction environment for word of mouth sales, I think that is still totally true. But there is SO much competition in that space for time and mindshare and “users”… that I think it can be difficult to get people to spread the word about your game, even at that low (or non-existent) price. A friend recently released a FREE game that was featured somewhat by Apple, but installed way less than our paid game. And even for free games that are installed a lot, there is absolutely no guarantee that that will translate into financial success (see Gasketball, Punch Quest, etc). There are counter-examples (SPACETEAM and maybe LETTERPRESS) but “free” is not some magic bullet for success.
“It just takes a long time… I quit my day job in 2006. Nobody gave a crap about anything I made until almost 2010, and I think I got lucky by being in the right place at the right time, I think it is normal for this process to take 6 or 7 years or more, this process of making something people really care about..”
Adam: So, yeah, not surprisingly, having a track record and an audience interested in your work sure doesn’t hurt anything commercially I’m sure that’s popping monocles everywhere. The practical or interesting thing to do, though, is to think about how to go about developing a following, developing a track record… and I think that starts with both making great games that push a boundary or two, and doing your best to tell anyone who will listen about the cool thing you just made. And you CAN do that without being “famous”. It just takes a long time… I quit my day job in 2006. Nobody gave a crap about anything I made until almost 2010, and I think I got lucky by being in the right place at the right time, I think it is normal for this process to take 6 or 7 years or more, this process of making something people really care about.
On Having a Project Vision
For me, it’s always tempting as a player to look at some beautifully realized game and to imagine that the developer had some kind of driving vision for the game and that they just confidently made it all happen start to finish.
But often I find with my own projects as a developer – there’s this period I call “the awkward middle” where you’ve gotten over the euphoria of the prototype phase, and you’ve been playing the game day-in and day-out for weeks or months, and you kind of start to question whether it’s really a winner. Watching a video postmortem for Hundreds, it kind of sounded like you guys ran into a bit of that, and actually started thinking about whether you should put a more marketable theme on it like Blowfish instead of these abstract bubbles. Is this kind of unsure feeling something that you’re finding to be normal in game development? How do you power through it when it happens?
Adam: Oh jeez… yea, the FishPop phase of Hundreds was kind of a second puberty, haha. So Hundreds was MOST awkward for me way before that, basically like during February of 2012, maybe, where the deep down guts of the game were almost right but not quite, and it was really frustrating and scary, to be so close to the thing we liked, but just … missing a piece. That was the real “awkward middle” for Hundreds. FishPop came up when we were trying to figure out how to market Hundreds, how to present it to our audience, and out of a real concern that we wouldn’t solve that problem. But I think getting through that first awkward phase ultimately gave us the confidence we needed in the game itself to ride out the second awkward phase, and keep hacking at our PR problem instead of compromising the game.
I wish I had any real specific straightforward advice for powering through those awkward times… that first one was tough. Ultimately you just have to kind of believe that you will work it out eventually, and you need the time and resources to be able to delay the game until you DO work it out. The way we worked it out on Hundreds, eventually, was to just simplify simplify simplify. This had a bunch of positive effects, mostly of being able to prototype faster, and throw out bad ideas faster. I guess if I have any concrete advice its that – think up ideas, simplify them, try them, throw them out, keep doing that til you find what you were looking for. Have an open mind.
On Aiming High, Being Objective
It would appear that you set a certain bar for yourself with your projects, in terms of quality. There’s not much in your portfolio page where someone would look at it and say “Well this is pretty good but maybe he should’ve spent a few more months on it.” And I was kind of surprised to learn that with Hundreds, even though you guys had this pretty good prototype as a starting point, you iterated and tuned it and spent something like 2 Man-years on this 2D IOS game just making sure it was perfect.
Adam: So I mean my portfolio page is definitely a curated thing – there is a lot of stuff that… I should have spent a few more months on… a lot of stuff from the 2010-2011 “era” – for example, almost everything here http://adamatomic.com/prototypes/
Also, when we started Hundreds, we THOUGHT it would take like 4 months, haha.
It seems like that’s kind of different than the typical indie strategy, where a lot of us are really kind of risk-averse, or the common knowledge is that you should make a “minimum viable product” and stick it out there, and then tune it with player feedback. So what’s your mindset there? Do you have some kind of canonical measure where you say “Ok, I think this game’s ready”?
Adam: I guess this is kind of a two parter. One, I think pushing an MVP out and gathering feedback is a super awesome approach – it has its own obstacles and pitfalls and stuff, but I think at least right now that approach is better suited to PC. I think it’s hard to do that on iOS.
As far as knowing when it’s ready… I guess it’s a mix of things. Certainly we have a kind of internal list of “we want this game to have this much stuff in it.” But we also have our bank accounts. And we really just try to make the most of these things, and try to prioritize what stuff will really make a difference in the game, especially to first time players, and what stuff will really make a difference to the most dedicated players, and then anything that isn’t in either of those circles just gets pushed down the list. So I guess we sort of do build MVPs on iOS, it’s just the initial bar is set pretty high, since the polish and production quality in that environment is so high now, and users are just not as forgiving as like hardcore Windows gamers.
I’m really curious about how you get objective feedback on your games as well – do you have a trusted circle of friends whose voices you consider to be vital – or do you mostly go with intuition or some other method?
Adam: I am not at all certain that we get objective feedback on our games! But we do have friends that we trust, and family members who are maybe less exposed to games than most of our main audience, and we can watch them play. There is a lot of intuition/guessing/heuristics going on too. I think when you’re a small shop really the best thing you can do is just get people to play the game, whoever they are, and watch them, don’t talk to them, take notes, and think about the experience they’re having, and what experience you want them to be having, and when you have given yourself enough editorial distance (sometimes takes a week, sometimes a month!) from the game areas they were testing, go in and fix that stuff and make it right.
Watching your postmortem for Hundreds, it seems like you kind of just connected with Greg Wohlwend organically after he released an early version of Hundreds on the web a couple years back. And I’m seeing that some other successful games like Sword and Sworcery and Super Crate Box are these collaborations between people who often don’t sit under the same roof, or set out to have a traditional “game business” together. Do you see this method, where you basically find the perfect team of people to make each game, as a good pattern to follow for game development?
Adam: I can’t think of anything better to do. I think one of the great things about being a small studio is having the agility to do this sort of thing. There are a lot of risks that come with it too, but being able to react or commit when serendipity actually bothers to show up is invaluable.
“I think one of the great things about being a small studio is having the agility to do this sort of thing. There are a lot of risks that come with it too, but being able to react or commit when serendipity actually bothers to show up is invaluable.”
What are the challenges of this model, in your experience?
Adam: It seems like the hardest thing is just making sure that everybody can eat food and pay bills while you make the game. There are other challenges (communication, sometimes motivation, etc) but I think with the right people, those problems have a tendency to manage themselves. The former problem does not.
On The Industry, Business Models and The Future
So the “game industry” as a whole is kind of going in a bunch of directions right now. Traditional consoles have declined, mobile has taken a big bite out of “AAA” and indies are kind of trying to find their way in all of it. It’s encouraging to see something like Hundreds with a focus on quality that can still top the charts – but do you see mobile as a place small developers will be able to survive going forward in general?
Adam: I think so – partly because I sort of disagree with the characterization above. What I see happening is the video-game-playing audience absolutely exploding; TONS of people are playing games right now that never played games before. So there are a lot of hardcore gamers and consoles, there are a lot of crazy mobile phones, there are a lot of web browsers, there’s just so much stuff. The main thing that I see happening lately that worries (and inspires) me is the overall quality and diversity of indie games going way up. That’s not to say that there is competition, I don’t believe that is true… but to me, it feels like it used to be that as long as you made something that was even halfway interesting, that was enough to get a lot of press and a lot of attention and a lot of sales even. But lately the quality bar feels really high, and for projects with commercial or financial aspirations I feel a lot of pressure to spend a lot of time on marketing and PR (or the indie version of those things) because I am not really confident that just making a cool game is going to be enough.
You wrote awhile ago about the trend in mobile games towards the F2P model and Micro-transactions, comparing some of the practices to “extortion,” and it caused quite a stir. But now that F2P is kind of taking the industry by storm, and consoles and PC games are moving that direction and more and more players are demanding free games – how do you see this resolving?
Adam: I was talking about this with friends today, and honestly I think some games are already resolving this, and pretty well. League of Legends is doing a pretty good job. I think ShellRazer is doing a pretty good job. I think the success of just timesink moneyholes and slot machines and other bullshit is causing a big fuss, but I do still think it is unsustainable. I think the people who “play” these “games” will graduate and move on to other activities. The current popular approach to F2P will probably never really go away, but I don’t think it will be the premier or optimal approach for much longer.
Maybe to ask it another way: what would be the ideal for you, in terms of where games are at as a whole, in say, 5 years?
Adam: The thing I’m really looking forward to is, probably this sounds snobbish, but whatever – I’m looking forward to an even pickier, ever more literate audience of video game players who are “grown up” – I guess because I see this in myself, and I know people like me are getting older and getting crankier but still wanting new experiences and new activities and new mysteries. I am looking forward to people like my dad who “hates video games” sort of really deeply subconsciously realizing that video games are great, he just didn’t like what people were doing with them before.
Alright, this last one is a bit ridiculous, but here goes: Please pick 3 words describing yourself and your career, that you feel have been most important to your success.
Adam: haha ugh, um, ok: planning, multidisciplinary, risks
So – there you have it! Huge thanks to Adam for taking the time to answer my questions. For you readers – let me know in the comments if this is something you’d like to see more of!