Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman talks indie games, learning curves, and 30-hour iPad games

The trouble with physics and the indie revolution

Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman talks indie games, learning curves, and 30-hour iPad games
| Gravity Hook HD

The expectation to try-before-you-buy is a staple of the internet age. And it’s this openness that Adam ‘Atomic’ Saltsman believes was crucial to the success of his hit iPhone game Canabalt.

Originally released as a free Flash web game, the iPhone version sold 115,000 copies in its first five months.

Saltsman, who considers himself part of the indie movement that has flourished thanks to online distribution systems, likes to share. A co-founder of Texas developer Semi Secret, he’s responsible for Flash development tool Flixel and shares his experiences with those creating their own games.

And when he’s not experimenting himself, with games like Gravity Hook, he’s contributing to games by his friends.

We caught up with Saltsman to discuss, among other things, what motivates him, why developers are going independent, and why he felt the physics in Gravity Hook HD needed to be addressed.

Pocket Gamer: You’ve said in the past that you have some misgivings about Gravity Hook. Why is that? Adam Saltsman: I was making a lot of decisions and changes to it that made sense on paper. I was really close to the design. I was the one going in and making all the changes, so, of course the changes made sense to me, and I didn’t realise how little sense they made to everyone else. It came down to one, simple relationship.

There’s this assumed rule for game design which is things that that go slower are easier, because it decreases the reaction times required.

The one asymptote of that curve is turn-based play. But if you’re doing something physical, Gravity Hook is a very [physics-driven] kind of game, [that’s] something that a lot of people struggle with.

I think there’s a reason Tetris and Dr Mario don’t use real smooth gravity, it’s discrete steps. [Demonstrates small steps with hands] You know if it’s here, it’s next going to be here, it’s not going to be in this cloudy area. That’s a thing that I think a lot of non-gamer types really struggle with.

Gravity Hook was originally designed to be a very hardcore game inspired by this game called Thrustburst, by a little collective called Umlaut. Thurstburst is a very hardcore, reflex, skill-based game.

It’s using, essentially, the D-pad to do some fairly complex things. I wanted to do something more simple for the original Gravity Hook, make something that’s physical and challenging and mouse-based. Because it was so fast, even though it was a physical system, the reactions felt very discrete.

Gravity Hook is all about grabbing on as far away as you can, but not so far that you fall off because your rope’s too long, and then letting go as late as possible. But the simulation was so brutal that you could tell right away when you had successfully grappled something.

I wanted Gravity Hook to be slower, to be more accessible. Then I could add more strategic elements, things that you had to dodge around, learning to do late grapples and tricky manoeuvres.

That seemed like it would be a really interesting way to revisit a game without having to just port it. So I slowed it way down, and no one could learn how to play the game, because you couldn’t tell when you’d successfully grappled something.

So we released an update and there were a lot of reviews saying that the Classic mode, the harder way of playing it, was actually easier for most people. So even though the challenge was higher, the way that you could learn to play was much better.

It’s an interesting change from Canabalt, because that’s a one-button game.

The original Gravity Hook was made about a year before Canabalt. So in way, Canabalt was kind of a response to Gravity Hook.

But then the Gravity Hook [iPhone] update... I guess it’s not that surprising. We were struggling with a lot of things because the controls weren’t as obvious to adapt. In Canabalt you just touch anywhere and that’s it. But with Gravity Hook we changed the artwork and changed a lot of the gameplay.

Something I like to do as a designer is pull back: “Okay, this is the thing I made, but what’s a normal person going to think when they pick it up and do something with it?” And it turns out the best way to do that is give it to a normal person, let them play it and see what they think. We really didn’t do that with Gravity Hook.

So you’ve created games yourself, software tools to help others do the same, and you continue to give advice to aspiring developers. What motivates you?

I have a naive idea that I can help people avoid learning some things the hard way, because most of the things that I know and use on a regular basis are things that I didn’t assume.

I think the tools are so easy to use now, computer power is so cheap and excessive, and people’s literacy with computers is so much higher in general that it just seems a shame, especially to see somebody who is just getting into the idea of making games, maybe they’re 15 or something, and see them start writing a massive design document that’s like Final Fantasy meets Counter-Strike. Something really huge and impersonal, and impossible to do.

They’ll spend years just writing, drawing, and saying they’re making a game, instead of just grabbing some stuff and making a little game.

I say they’ll do that because I did that for a long time. That was just my way of being a game designer, and I really didn’t start doing nitty-gritty prototyping and testing until two or three years ago. I’ve been learning a lot since then.

How do you think people perceived you then?

It’s not that I necessarily believe in Karma exactly, but I’ve personally been witness to people paying things forward and I’ve received that.

I’ve had people bend over backwards to provide advice or help or assistance in some way, at some critical point, and [Semi Secret's] iPhone stuff has worked out so well in the last couple years that I’ve been able to travel and to spend time on open-source projects. It just seems like while I have this window to do this, I should do this.

And there’s a lot of really great side effects of doing stuff for free, in that they can spread much faster. I don’t think Canabalt would have done what it did if we did it for iPhone first. It was just a thing that was fun to do and I wanted to share it with people.

I’ve played so many free games and gotten to indulge in so many free games. Cave Story does a lot of things that I love and it’s free, even though a guy worked on it for years.

I think making money is hard for me to engage in. Ostensibly, if you’re creating a commercial work of art, then you have two primarily concerns: i) to make a wonderful thing, and ii) to make sure that it makes money. But if you’re making something free, all you’re worrying about is the first part, and I think it’s a lot easier to focus and get certain things right. At least for me.

Why do you think a lot more innovation is happening in the indie game space today?

I think a large big of it is you can survive more easily. This goes on and off, there’s commercial cycles and hobbyist cycles. [For instance,] 1985-1995, there was this PC boom of amateur games. But then, 1995-2005 is this ten years of really commercial stuff again.

Between broadband and people making awesome free tools, I think the last four or five years have been really, really interesting. I think it’s a natural consequence. You take any artistic medium and let it be dominated by purely commercial interests for long enough and eventually a lot of people who’ve been enjoying that are bored by it. So [indie developers] are trying to see where else to go now.

The fact that we can do it and buy food at the same time is really nice. It was possible to do, but it was very hard. A runaway hit indie game in 2005 would make you about $50,000, or something like $35,000 after taxes, which is definitely enough to live on for a year in some parts of the US.

They are people who have just become independent in the last few years - I’m definitely in that group. Then there are people who were working in the commercial industry very successfully and then opted to leave, because you can survive and have this satisfying creative pursuit at the same time.

So I think there’s a whole class of independent developers who are really notable who never would have existed in the last ten years, because why would they leave their job to go do something that risky? You don’t get World of Goo without having these legitimate distribution systems for small companies.

What do you think of the ‘casual’ games market?

I don’t exactly like the word ‘casual games’. It’s not like it doesn’t exist, it’s just a weird attribution. I mean the way it’s used is for accessible shallow games. It relies on a fake idea about accessibility and difficulty that’s super frustrating to me.

Where a lot of people assume that there is one axis of video games: there’s accessibility on one end and challenge on the other.

But what they’re telling you is Tetris is neither accessible nor challenging. And it’s obviously completely made up. There’s transcendentally high-level Tetris play, it’s a really challenging game, and everyone knows how to play it.

I feel like the success [of casual games] is because of their accessibility, but the surface qualities that are mimicked are just that, shallow. They’re not doing everything they could. But I'm hoping that it will pan out as a bit of a phase, and what they will have done is gotten people into gaming.

What technologies or markets are the next spaces for reaching new audiences in your view?

For me, the three big steps were PopCap, the Wii, and Facebook. I don’t like anything that they’ve made, but as far as being ambassadors of games as a legitimate pastime for everyone they’ve done really marvellous things. I just wish that they were doing it with depth, and without sacrificing all the things that they did sacrifice to do it.

What the next step is, I hope that the movement or the idea is to take all the positive, accessible aspects of those games, and discard this idea that they can’t be challenging or interesting, and embed complex, mature ideas into something that people can digest.

I think it has happened already. I think Flower is a phenomenal ambassador. That’s a semi-serious, beautiful thing that I can give to my mum and she can play and enjoy on a lot of different levels.

What do you think the future holds for mobile gaming platforms?

The thing I’m curious about is whether or not the iPad [...] will support a longer form game experience. I don’t think that exists yet. I want to see if there’s a place for a 30-hour adventure on iPad and I’m curious to see if the audience will support it.

Thanks to Adam for his time.
Aaron Lee
Aaron Lee
Having realised his chances of going into space were more or less non-existent, Aaron now spends his time exploring the cultural wilderness and musing about the world in words and pictures.