Adam Saltsman

Canabalt, Hundreds, Flixel, Grave… This guy is amazing! So we asked Adam Saltsman some questions and here are his answers!

Adam Saltsman by J. Aldeguer!


1. How long have you been making games?

I’ve been making games in one form or another since I was like 5 or something, but I shared my first video game online around 2006 or 2007.

2. Where do you find ideas for your games? Tell us something about your creative process.

If it’s a game I actually released, chances are it began with a kind of minimalist mechanical conceit – sort of an “oh what if I hooked up these three simple weird ideas that were not put together before?” thing. I’m very comfortable messing around with a kind of random-number-generator-powered toy and trying to figure out how to make it do the most interesting things with the fewest alterations or adjustments. I frame things via Tetris a lot, like “what would this weird activity look like if it was more like Tetris?” I don’t mean block-matching or whatever, but the basic idea of a solitaire game, with random elements, and you just cope with what comes down the pipe as best you can. I think that’s a really interesting and fertile sort of subclass of solitaire game activity – Tetris, Drop7, Spelunky, FTL, a lot of games that I really, really like all share these basic qualities of risk management. The more I work on games the more fun it is to try and push that template or schema to include weirder and weirder activities or scenarios.

I would say probably 60-80% of the ideas I have come from that kind of process, thinking about how to create a kind of random, strategic, tactical sort of puzzle-thing from some other interesting behavior or metaphor. I do not know if that’s good or bad. The other ideas are much more “top-down”, as they say – thinking about emotions or stories or pacing or something, and then trying to work out in reverse what kind of game systems could support that kind of experience.

3. We are big fans of Canabalt. In this game, players focus on the one-button action scheme while the story unfolds in the background. We could say that Canabalt literalizes the concept of “background story”. Do you agree? And where did this idea come from?

Ha! It’s not a real new idea or anything, I mostly carried this over from modding FPS levels when I was in middle and high school, but it’s been used in paintings and stuff for hundreds of years. For example, there’s this kind of dumb but kind of great scene, near the beginning of Quake 2, where you can see a whole in the roof, and a crashed, empty escape pod in the corner. And you get to close the gap, right, you get to see oh, right, crashed pod, here I am, great! It’s like a mini-detective thing. I think since the Thief/System Shock days this has been known as “environmental storytelling”, and it’s something I like very much, and try to use whenever I can.

The other place it came from is an experience I had as an IGF judge a few years ago, when Unity was just starting to pick up steam. There were a LOT of abstract, polygonal game submissions that year, with interesting mechanics, but just these huge swaths of unused space in the background of levels. Sometimes that can be powerful but it just felt like wasted space to me. Using that background as a canvas to provide optional narrative or scenario depth to a game is one nice thing you can do with it.

4. GRAVE is looking really good and following the process is hell of a ride. Can you tell us three or four features of the game you like the most?

Aw, thanks! The thing I like the most about GRAVE right now is the way a bunch of simple systems all overlap in an organic way to make a kind of complex emergent puzzle. On any given turn you can only do two things in GRAVE: build a trap, or trigger a trap. And yet that decision has to be made based on a ton of competing factors or tensions that you are trying to resolve. What are your placement options? How are the enemies sequenced? What traps do you have access to? How many enemies are left? For that matter, how many traps are left? How close to the goal are the two streams of enemies? All these features working together are yielding this ball of yarn that is really fun to untangle as a player. I think, anyways… our first playtest is in a few days. Hopefully I’m not wrong!

5. What are your favourite games made with Flixel, the open source game-making library you designed?

Oh gosh. I would probably give shout-outs to Lone Survivor and GIRP, I guess, even though they weren’t made with vanilla Flixel. I’m really proud that Flixel iOS was used for Super Crate Box iOS and Ziggurat, too.

6. Concerning your games, what is the most interesting feedback you have received from users?

The feedback I got on FATHOM was the most interesting feedback ever. Really polarized; some people were furious, others heart-broken. Still so proud of that game. The most important thing I learned from that game, and that feedback, aside from the fact that making a weird personal thing is awesome, is that people’s expectations are really powerful and really hard (but not impossible) to manage.

7. If you have to choose three and only three game developers to follow their work closely, which ones would you choose and why?

Oh man, only three?? HHhhhmm. Well, Jon Blow, for sure. Not to emulate his work or even his philosophy but I feel like out of everyone, he is probably working the hardest right now to just raise the bar period. Jon to me is a constant reminder that it is not just ok but maybe even like a moral responsibility to take your work very, very seriously. I would put him up there with Will Wright, probably, as far as people I think are pretty dedicated to a higher ideal that I don’t even completely understand yet. I guess my third pick would be Shinji Mikami. I think his work comes across as crass or mainstream to a lot of people, which is fair in a lot of ways, but the guts of his games, the systems powering them, are so complex and so peerless. His track record is incredible, and the way he subverts mechanical tropes is really inspiring to me.

So yeah: Jon Blow, Will Wright, Shinji Mikami. Great minds that inspire me constantly.

8. Are you a heavy gamer? What games are you playing now?

Not at all; we’ve got two kids now, so most of the time I have to choose between making games and playing games, and the former generally outweighs the latter. In the last couple weeks I’ve played a couple hours of Sokobond, Ascension and Front Mission 3, and have been enjoying them all immensely, for what it’s worth!

9. One last random question. If you had all the necessary means, what book would you turn into a video game and what would it be like (genre, platform, collaborators, etc.)?

Ha! That’s a pretty easy one. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, by John le Carré. It would use RPG battle and inventory mechanics to create a dynamic conversation system, full of double-crosses, lies, paranoia and confusion.

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