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Q&A:  Canabalt  creator rides the wave of indie publishing, collaboration
Q&A: Canabalt creator rides the wave of indie publishing, collaboration Exclusive
April 16, 2014 | By Mike Rose




Adam Saltsman has always been a man of many hats, but with his latest venture Finji, an indie game publisher-cum-collaborator, he's now essentially evolved into a human hat stand.

The Canabalt creator has dabbled with publishing before with his previous studio Semi-Secret Software, but with Finji, he's got half a dozen projects on the go all at once, including collaborating on Infinite Fall's Night in the Woods, developing Portico alongside Alec Holowka, and risking everything on Shay Pierce's super-promising Overland.

On the Thursday evening during GDC, Gaijin Games and Finji held a joint video game show in the Gaijin offices, with games like Scale, Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon, Gravity Ghost and Coin Crypt given floor space, alongside the games mentioned above. It was a seriously chilled out evening, with everyone playing each other's games and sharing stories.

Days before, I sat down with Saltsman to find out what his plans for Finji are. I came away with the impressions that the designer is simply looking to ride the wave, and see where this latest journey takes him, rather than worrying about how his business will look in a few year's time.

So Finji is essentially an indie game publisher that also makes games, right?

It's like an umbrella for the projects that me and my wife Rebekah work on. Most of that is games that we make, so we're really actively developing Portico, doing all the game design and the art work, and collaborating directly with Alec [Holowka] on everything else.

finji 1.jpgWe're also actively developing Overland [from Shay Pierce], doing the design and playtesting, and eventually helping with art direction and all of that stuff. We've tried this kind of thing before, but only in a very limited capacity, for a variety of reasons. We've published games before, like Aquaria for iPad under my old company Semi-Secret - that was a pretty cool experience.

It's nice when you can put a bunch of things under one roof so they can share more resources. They can share accounting, development and PR resources. I can go to trade shows and promote three or four games, instead of only getting to promote one. Everything's in one place. Since we have that, one of the things we can do is try to help promote other people's games, or try to help take over some admin overhead that I lot of smaller companies don't like to do.

Kinda like Max Temkin publishing Samurai Gunn - it's not anything that even remotely resembles a normal publishing relationship, except for the fact that there is another company's name on it, and maybe some money was loaned, or some other effort was put in by that other company. But it's not about owning other people's work.

It's something we want to do more of, because it seems like it's something that we can don't mind doing, and the process of doing that is something we're comfortable with, and we've been doing for a while. Not everybody wants to do that, so maybe that's something where we can help. Then there's more cool stuff made.

When it comes to the studios who you are working with, and the sorts of studios you're hoping to work with in the future, what developer situations are you looking for?

We don't really have a super strong template or plan in place for how to do this yet, but a part of it is being an indie studio that has zero interest in the "studio" part of that description.

Alec and Scott [Benson] are making Night in the Woods along with Charles Huettner, and I'll be doing some work on that game at some point. But one of the goals of Indie Fund, for example, is to help studios produce the work, get up on their feet, run independently, become a functioning entity in the long term. From talking to Max about Samurai Gunn, Beau [Blyth] did not seem to express any interest whatsoever in being a guy who runs a small business. And we talked to Alec and Scott and said "Hey, do you guys want to start Infinite Fall LLC?, and you'll do payroll through there?" And they were like, "We don't like any of those words - we don't want any of that."


"We talked to Alec and Scott and said 'Do you guys want to start Infinite Fall LLC? and you'll do payroll through there?' And they were like, 'We don't like any of those words.'"
It does take up overhead, and it's a drain on resources, and generally if you don't have a lot of hats around the office... Someone like Rami at Vlambeer is not on every indie team, and I'm lucky that Bekah's been working behind the scenes as a producer on all of our projects for a long time, keeping us up to date on budgets, all of those things.

That's a resource we have, and some teams want that. So I think, at least right now, what we can offer as a publisher is shared exposure that we can hopefully get by putting three or four things together, and presenting them all at once.

That's just a theory right now - I don't know if it's going to work, but I'm hoping we can go to Sony and say, "Hey, let's get Finji signed up, and signing up Finji means you get three or four games within the next year instead of one." Is that cool for them? Is that better? Do platform holders like that more? We think it can't hurt, but we're not sure. It'd be cool eventually to be able to have people who, it doesn't matter what their business model is or what their business ideas are - if they have a game that fits under our umbrella, we'll figure out some way to work together.

So it sounds like you're trying to join the ranks of Devolver, Ripstone, Curve Studios etc, but with an additional hand in development.

Yeah, and Devolver is like 5 miles from us. We talk to them a lot about what we're doing. I really like to design games - I like to spend most of my time working directly on games, but I am sort of interested in some of the businessy parts, especially trying to figure out things like, how do you get rid of stuff that sucks up a lot of people's time, and which of those things are amenable to scale? How much boring admin that nobody wants to do can be put into one place at a diminishing cost?

If you're having to do payroll and send out cheques for one game that's on five different platforms, that's a huge pain in the ass. But if you have 10 games on there, it's more work, but it's not 10 times as much work. So putting all that stuff in one place has a kind of an elegance that I find really appealing.

It might just fail - we'll do Night in the Woods, and... I mean, that game's going to do great no matter what, but it might be that we feel, "You know, this didn't have the efficiency of the economy that we hoped it would. This isn't as scalable as we thought it might be." And maybe we won't act so much as a publisher anymore - maybe it'll mainly be a co-development relationship that we have with developers.

So you're essentially offering the idea of taking some of the crappy bits off their hands, and letting them focus on the game bit.

Yeah, if it's helpful. I can imagine a scenario too, though, where there's an artist and a business person, and they get along really well, and they want this studio, and they don't have someone who has a lot of design experience. So maybe collaborating with them isn't a matter of us taking the business stuff off their hands - maybe what we're able to do is come in and say to them "We're not going to tell you how to design your game, but what we can do is check the game out from time to time, and point out things we've done before that you should what out for."



Maybe that's a way we can be helpful, and help their games exist. It's essentially like, we really like IndieFund, and we've done some investment in outside studios, and that was cool. But there's this other side that we've done before. I worked on Fez for two years, and I only worked half a Sunday a month for two years. It was not a large amount of work, but it was necessary for the game to ship. Somebody needed to animate waterfalls and butterflies.

You could view that as crappy work, or it's sort of like well, somebody needs to do this, and this game is a remarkable piece of art, and I would be happy to put in some half-Sundays - even if it means painting 400 frames of waterfalls, if that's what it takes for this thing to be beautiful, even if all we do is add a tiny piece - I feel really good about that.

And I can write code and do art, and my wife can do admin and production, so we're just hoping that if there's people out there who are making really beautiful things, and maybe their team is currently missing a piece. Then maybe that's a piece that we have, and if that game fits in with our games... I mean, there's no ground rules, but we're probably not going to have a lot of games with assault rifles, or with predatory business models.

Is there a goal in terms of the sorts of mediums you're aiming for - so are you interested in games that are trying to innovate, or are you thinking you just want to be part of games that are going to be entertaining? With not so much this big focus on something new.

The current iteration of IndieFund has a very strong focus on relatively high degrees of experimentation. I don't think we'll end up being that hard-line, but one of the core things is we need to love the game, whatever it is.

If a stranger emails us and says, "Hey, we've got this game and we don't know how to fix this problem, and we heard maybe you could help us," if it's not a game that we're just personally interested in, we're probably not going to get involved. I don't want to step in and say "I can help you" when I don't actually care that much about what we're supposed to be helping.


"Hopefully we can help people, but if we can't, that's fine - I'll go paint waterfalls for somebody else's game."
I only bring that up because that presents a filter on the sorts of things that we would be backing, and part of that would be innovation. Part of it is, "Can humans relate to this." That's something we're interested in.

It sounds like you're riding the wave right now, seeing how it pans out with the people you're working with now?

Yeah. We have a bunch of ideas of things that we think might be cool, and a big part of that is playing out the projects we have now. It may turn out that we don't have the kind of clout either with fans or with press to be of use as a promotional partner. That's a possible thing that could happen.

And if that's the case, that changes how we approach people. In one way or another, I like working on other people's games sometimes, which means Finji as an umbrella for our work means we'll be collaborating with people no matter what. But the way in which we decide to do that depends a lot on what happens in the next year or two. If things go the way we think they're going to go, we have some cool ideas for - I don't want to call them "services", but things that we could do that could level playing fields for certain non-business-orientated developers, and do so in a democratic way. We have some ideas, but if we're really wrong about everything we're doing right now, we're definitely going to be looking through our long-term planning going "ahhh!".

I feel really good about everything right now - it's just a matter of whether my imagination actually has anything to do with reality. We're probably going to find out sooner rather than later! I'm up for it either way. I've made lots of colossal mistakes in the past, and I think we'll probably make more - but that's how we learn stuff. So hopefully we can help people, but if we can't, that's fine - I'll go paint waterfalls for somebody else's game, and that'll be fine too!

It seems like you're up for whatever this venture throws at you, no matter what the outcome is.

Yeah, I don't mind failing at all. As long as that's true, I wanna keep messing up. I've got a lot of opportunities to mess up with this new thing!

overland.jpgThe thing I like about Finji is that we have - this sounds depressing, but it's not - we have the ability to make bigger mistakes, more safely. We can try riskier things with less risk to our basic ability to put a roof over our heads, and feed the children etc. So that's exciting. We're making cash investments into some of our internal development, which is something we've never done - we've been bootstrapped for six years, and now we're actually bringing on bigger teams of committed people. This isn't a thing we could have done a couple of years ago.

So we could lose all of that money, but even if we do, it's not that high a price to pay for a really, really good crash course in how to do anything other than bootstrapped, eat pasta for a year development.

Overland is the one that we're doing the most experimenting with, Shay Pierce's game. We haven't really shown much from it, but that's the one that we want to get out as a paid alpha in Fall. That's the one we're making the cash investment in, and it's sort of like, "Well, we're definitely going to have this much money available to put into it, and that gets us to this point..." and if it's not ready for paid alpha by that point in time, and we don't have any more of our own money to put into it, then I don't 100 percent know what we do then. So that one sort of has a deadline."


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