Profitable Indie Game Development with Adam Saltsman
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
(This is an interview conducted on the Game Dev Unchained podcast)
Adam Saltsman, also known as Adam Atomic, made the endless runner Canabalt in 2009, where an anonymous runner runs in one direction and is able to jump and slide upon landing. Since then, Adam has formed his studio Finji, continuing to produce and have published several award-winning indie games including 'Canabalt', 'Hundreds', 'Feist', 'Panoramical', and 'Night in the Woods', and are currently hard at work on 'Overland' (2018)
Adam’s background is “pretty much all over the place I went to school at least partly to be sort of a computer programmer. I did that for a few years and then I worked actually as a freelance pixel artist for a few years and then sort of came around started doing programming again but mostly in flash and worked as a sort of freelance. What we call a turnkey game outsourcing studio so we do web games and advertising games and stuff like that for a while. Then started getting into making mobile games we made a game called Canabalt, it was kind of one of the first sort of popular endless-runner.” Canabalt is a pioneer game for endless runners that birthed the genre for Temple Runner and many other IOS games that became very popular. This jumpstarted Adam’s indie career and even though Canabalt never amounted to financial success, it catapulted Adam’s reputation as a accountable indie developer and opened up many doors.
“Captain Forever, was a game that was super influential on Canabalt had this sort of attitude about kind of exploration and self-direction. That was just a huge factor in deciding exactly how his Canabalt gonna function, really. Having a look an intense interest in like reactive generation as opposed to like just not wanting to have a level editor kind of level generation. Wanting the game if you sort of react to the players input and keep people on a flow state. Like these are all things just in the the zeitgeist of game design at the time. And, this is all weird because around the time we made gravity hookers, about a year before I made Canabalt, we scored a really good freelance gig that had was really in our wheelhouse. And was a good client and was great. The kind of pay that lets you take more than a week off every three months to work on your own stuff. And at the same time we had ended up accidentally collaborating on a boggle clone for iPhone, back when there was only one iPhone, and it ended up organically accidentally being iPhone game. So I can't imagine like being lucky or being in a better position to goof around and make something. Like there's all this tech that just happened to be exactly the things I was interested in at the time and we had a lot more financial flexibility than we normally had and all that stuff just kind of piled up after a while.
Difficulty Making Indie Content on Mobile
Developing for mobile in 2005 is different than developing games in 2018. Mainly because, juggernauts and huge companies with amazing resources have entered into the space and the App store still remains one of the most saturated marketplace out of all the platforms. So for a small studio to stand out takes a tremendous of focus and something that Adam wanted to avoid, for now. “I don't think we're the only ones that would have this problem but I think it's really hard to for a lot of different reasons making content that is mobile focus first and then try to also distribute it on desktop and on console. There's a lot of different reasons for that I know for us, for our last big mobile project, we had designed. I love mobile as a platform. I love phones and tablets, and I love kind of exploring what you can do with that stuff. I actually liked it. I mean, we we worked in that space for five or six years and it was like everything was new. Again, it's like the way people talk about VR right now is how I actually felt about mobile, like ‘wow this is like a whole new audience of people this is a whole new way of controlling games and it's a more mainstream audience!’ Who is like the audience that I prefer to make games for. I like making games that are accessible and that kind of like, you know, maybe people who didn't play a lot of games before can get like a gateway game. [A way] introduce people to all the weird cool sort of emotions that you get out of a more hardcore game. But somehow present that to ‘normal people.’ I love all of those things but I think you end up with a lot of tricky things like in a good mobile game, frequently, is the kind of game that you can play for five minutes at a time and have like a really complete encapsulated experience. And I think those kinds of sessions are kind of out of fashion in a lot of ways on sort of desktops and consoles right now.”
Adam iterates that all platforms has its challenges and the PC market isn’t an exception. “For us it's definitely not a case of like ‘Shoot! PC games now. We're safe!’ And everything is easy you know. It’s definitely not that. But it's more I think like trying to do mobile first and then do these other platforms is pretty scary to us and whereas we can go the other way with a little more confidence. Also,I think it's partly like the kind of games that we are comfortable making enough and getting involved with also have shifted a little bit. I think part of that is kind of wanting a break. As much as I love designing games for the mobile space and have a bunch of little cute kind of prototypes in that space, there's also just this like desire to like stretch out a little bit and see what if we did work on something that was a little beefier? Or work on something and starting with just the pure design space not even like ‘this game needs to be ten hours long!’ Just like get into that design space of ‘what is it like to design a game that can hold some of these interest for an hour or for 10 hours? Or for a hundred hours or something like that?’ What does it look like to try to build that and I think those are those are very risky kinds of experiences to target mobile with. Unless, maybe, you already shipped Clash of Clans and have seven trillion dollars.”
Focusing on PC/Console
Finji’s focus on making games for the PC/Console market is “wanting to be able to survive and thrive on the size of audiences we already had. So I think the audience size for a lot of our mobile games is somewhere between probably like fifty thousand players up to like 250 thousand players. Something like that which is a pretty good size audience. Except on mobile, if your games are like 2 bucks and you just spent like three people, three years making this cool game- it's there are places you can live where that does pay for your kids preschool and you know pay for braces or whatever else you have to do right? Like offset, no problem. So part of that part of this move to PC console focus is it's just kind of like a basic math.”
On Calculating Risks
“I feel like there's a lot of decisions that we make that are not like ‘let's do the safe thing!’ But like looking at seven different things that are all pretty dangerous and trying to map out like this one is 5% less dangerous than this one. So we'll try that next and I think if you do that enough, those bets, can start to pay off.”
Balancing Multiple Projects
“The thing that ends up making us nervous is having all our eggs in one basket. I think going the mobile route, for better for worse, has that kind of side effect and some people are able to lean into that and like really use that. There is a certain amount of overhead and stress that comes from having like 14 different baskets and you're trying to figure out which eggs go where and that is a kind of a nightmare of its own. But at the same time, if like four of those baskets get blown away by something, you still got like ten baskets left and that's all right. I'm sure part of this is probably, just like, where are different people comfortable putting all this risk? Do you want the risk to be managing a bunch of different baskets or do you want the risk to be ‘I've got one basket I'm just gonna take really good care of it.’ And hope that nothing terrible happens. I think it's probably just different people are wired different ways to keep track of that stuff. But maybe sometimes that comes out as like ‘This one is bad. This one is good.’ And I think it's probably little more complex than that.”
“Years ago we started to kind of quote-unquote pivot out of doing a mobile focused stuff and try to have what we call a platform agnostic distribution strategy. Which basically just means like making stuff that can run in more than one place and that's what kind of led us down our curren road of making more PC and console focused projects. And see, I guess I started my first freelance project in the game industry was like 2005, so about 12 or 13 years into making stuff and making mistakes and learning things the hard way and also having my butt saved by great industry mentors.”
Adam cofounded his company FInji with his wife Beckah and has helped published many award winning indie titles and was asked on how they choose which game to back. “We love a game with good art direction. We love a game that has a good sense of place... there are clear lines on everything that we've published. Through there, and you know these things look cool side by side next to each other in a big booth. And you know, everybody needs press releases to some degree and everybody needs some kind of press outreach. A little bit of press tour and some interviews at the same time. The strengths of each game I think change where you feel you get good multipliers in terms of like attention or interest you know? A lot of how we think of this stuff is ‘let's look at each game and where it's at. Let's think about what's good for that game and then let's also look at platforms let's look at press outlets let's look at content creators let's look at digital marketplaces and let's look at what their interests are right now and see where we have good overlap?”