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In-Depth: Saltsman, One Year On From  Canabalt

In-Depth: Saltsman, One Year On From Canabalt

September 7, 2010 | By Simon Parkin

September 7, 2010 | By Simon Parkin
More: Console/PC

This week marked the first anniversary of Adam Saltsman’s one-button Flash game, Canabalt, whose stylish visuals and 'outrun the carnage' concept made it one of the signature indie titles of recent times.

Produced in just five days as part of the monthly themed Experimental Gameplay Project, Canabalt gained an evangelical following on release, its fanbase growing yet further following its later arrival on the App Store for iPhone and iPad.

Gamasutra caught up with Saltsman to talk about life after Canabalt, a period which has seen the developer assist in porting Japanese indie-darling Cave Story to the Wii and become a regular feature on the conference circuit.

"Financially speaking, Canabalt gave us a great deal of latitude to prototype, travel and decide what to work on in a relatively low-pressure, low-stress environment," he explains. "It also helped us establish a relationship with Apple, which has been a very good thing for us and even for some of our friends. "

"However, and this may sound bad, as Canabalt was a runaway success for our tiny team, but proportionally I think it received far more press than sales [for the paid iPhone/iPad versions]," he adds.

"Perhaps, at $2.99, we got the price-point wrong? I’m not sure. But either way, we didn’t make the top 10. This is fine, as a company of our size doesn't require those kinds of numbers, but in the long term Canabalt has been best for our reputation, not our wallets."

Saltsman’s admits that he found Canabalt’s success brought with it a heavy burden of expectation when deciding what to work on next. “There was also a kind of weird ‘dark side’ to Canabalt's success. It felt is sort of like...sophomore album risk or whatever (even though Canabalt was our second game) as, while working on [recently released vertical jump and swing iPhone title] Gravity Hook HD, I felt a lot of pressure to live up to people's enthusiasm for Canabalt."

The Austin-based independent developer, who also worked on hit iPhone title Wurdle and has released the free Flixel tooklit for making Flash games, commented of his pressure to perform: "It took a while to kind of climb out from under that. But once I managed to, [Gravity Hook HD] became a lot more fun to work on and play, so it was a valuable skill to learn.”

Soon after Canabalt’s release, Saltsman received an invitation to speak at the alternative Nottingham GameCity festival. “I didn't have a lot of speaking experience at that time,” he explains. “But the organizers offered to fly me to the UK to talk a little about making Canabalt, so ‘no thanks’ didn't really seem like an option. It turns out the format of GameCity is amazing - there were no talks about business, no talks about how to make your games more addictive."

"Everything was focused on making and playing - it both way less about video games and way more about video games than any other event I've ever been to. And it's very open to the public - you'd never see a room full of kids playing with Lego at GDC, it's just not that kind of gathering. GameCity is a little different that way.”

Saltsman has embraced this alternative approach to a games conference, and is returning in 2010 to host a workshop in which he creates a game live based on ideas provided by children in the audience. “At GDC last year I built a little iPhone platformer in an hour in front of a crowd, while my friend Eric talked Canabalt and App Store numbers. It sort of worked, but I've been trying to think about how to do live game making again but better.

He added: “This idea for the GameCity session originated in my nephew Nate's notebook. He has one of those 500-page lined notebooks you can get from the grocery store, and every single page of it front and back has a different game idea doodled on it. He can go through the whole book and tell you about each one, and when he runs out of pages he grabs a marker and starts coming up with new stuff. It's all insane too. I think he was five years old at the time.”

I ask Saltsman what he is hoping children will take away from the session, and indeed, what he is hoping to gain from the experience. “I'm hoping to get a chance to make something new that’s hopefully at least a little insane. I think of myself as fairly childish, but nonetheless I've erected a bunch of barriers and filters that I use to screen ideas. I am anxious to work on something absurd. Is it depressing that I can't seem to invent anything absurd enough on my own?"

"The main thing I'm hoping children take away from this is that making games is fun; that the process of seeing ideas jump from sketchbook to screen is the best thing ever. Also that they grasp, on a fundamental or even subconscious level, that games are something you can build on your own - you don't need funding or a team or a vision statement or even months of free time - you just need yourself and a weird idea and an afternoon.”

The concept of taking a game from idea to completion with few resources is a theme that runs through most of Saltsman’s work, be it in the make-up of the small development teams he has contributed to, or the economy of Canabalt’s control scheme.

But it was working with publisher/developer Nicalis on bringing Daisuke Amaya’s Cave Story to the Wii earlier this year brought fresh inspiration to work as a solitary gamemaker. “[The original] Cave Story, was a really big deal for me,” he explains. “It kind of opened my eyes to see what one person could do. It convinced me not that I should make games by myself, but that I could make games by myself.

"Cave Story Wii was a singular experience in almost every imaginable way. Even getting the job was an odd experience, in that Tyrone [Rodriguez] from Nicalis saw Gravity Hook and assumed correctly that I was a Cave Story fan, so approached me to help with the art. The actual nuts and bolts of the work was pretty horrible - resizing someone else's art, no matter how much you adore it, just gets old fast. And the pay was miserable (though that was my fault)"

"But helping to shape Cave Story for a new audience, when it had such a big effect on my perspective as a game designer, was something I couldn't pass up, and I'm more proud of my work in that game than in anything else I made. It was close to being the worst job ever, but it was also somehow the best."

This tension between struggle and triumph, risk and reward, clearly fascinates Saltsman, who tells me that he is most fond of "lonely protagonists in hostile environments,” their plight perhaps mirroring his own as a solitary developer in a world of stiff competition.

Recently on Gamasutra, Saltsman blogged about how he believes games to be primarily about education and exploration. I ask him what themes he hopes players will explore in his games, and what he would like them to learn by doing so.

“There are some 'themes' that are already cropping up in the games I make, but there are some areas I haven't explored yet that I think about a lot too. I can think of a lot of academic, noodly ways to justify my fascination with lonely protagonists and hostile environments, but I think basically it provides a compelling situation, and one that is well suited to exploration."

He concludes: "I think a lot about things being in perpetual flux - in real life if you leave someplace for a few weeks and come back, it's changed, and you can't rewind time, and I’ve started to prototype an game based on this idea."

"I think a lot about mortality, but I'm not sure that's something I would want to teach even if I knew how. It would be nice to make something about balancing protection and exposure – but most of all, if I could teach the value of taking risks, I think I could die happy."

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