It's no secret that discoverability is a big problem in the mobile space. But for all the screenshots of app stores flooded with clones of Flappy Bird and Threes, Finji co-founder and Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman told GamesIndustry International that those sort of efforts aren't the real cause of the problem.
"A lot of people tend to boil discoverability down to '500 Flappy Bird clones came out yesterday, so who's going to notice your game?' That used to not be a problem because everything was garbage," Saltsman said. "Four and a half years ago, if you made something like Canabalt--which I think would have a very hard time getting noticed today--it was very noticeable back then. Three or four years ago, if we'd released Hundreds back when there was more garbage and less awesomeness, proportionately it would have stood out from the crowd a lot more than it did."
"...'500 Flappy Bird clones came out yesterday, so who's going to notice your game?' That used to not be a problem because everything was garbage."
Saltsman called the current situation a general problem/amazing problem for the industry, and the indie gaming scene in particular. The bar for getting noticed is just getting higher all the time, he said, adding developers should ask themselves why people would play their games over Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero, Quadrilateral Cowboy or Towerfall.
"None of those games are even competitive with each other. There's just a reality of what kind of audience you can reach, how much free time they have, and do they have a reason to spend time with what you're doing when they have this endless buffet of breathtaking works of art to choose from? And that's just a hard problem," Saltsman said.
Saltsman was reluctant to call Finji's approach to the problem a "strategy," but he did say the company's games would reflect a certain set of values that could help them stand out.
"We're definitely interested in putting together games that an adult human could pick up and engage with, and not feel guilty that they're playing a kid's game," Saltsman said. "We want to build things that are pleasant to look at and respectful of their audience. And it probably sounds condescending to say those are ideals that differentiate what we're doing from other game companies, but I see it as a pretty small field still."
Getting down to the strategy, Saltsman explained how Finji--a two-person outfit consisting of himself and wife Rebekah Saltsman--differs from the couple's previous collaborations. While they will continue making their own titles, the Saltsmans are also helping bring other developers' efforts--like Infinite Fall's upcoming Night in the Woods--to market. By bringing an assortment of games under one roof, Saltsman hopes he will have a little more leverage when it comes to getting Finji's games onto platforms he's never properly worked on before, like Steam, PlayStation Network, or Xbox Live Arcade. It wouldn't be prudent to consider the move of a single successful mobile developer into the once-flagging console space as evidence of some greater trend, but Saltsman clearly feels the bloom is off the mobile market rose.
"iPhone and iPad games have not jumped the shark or anything, but it feels like the rate at which really, really cool stuff is coming out has slowed down," Saltsman said. "It feels like some of that low-hanging fruit is gone, which to me is another indication of this raising of the bar and difficulty in differentiating your work and having it justify people's attention."
"I'm a white guy who studied computer science in college and grew up in the Midwest. There's almost no arena in which people approach my work with prejudice about the quality or the motivations behind it..."
The aforementioned Flappy Bird drew plenty of attention when it launched earlier this year, too much for the liking of the game's creator, Dong Nguyen. The Vietnamese developer pulled the game after receiving death threats and seeing the way people became addicted to it. Having experienced his own mobile hit with Canabalt, Saltsman could relate to at least a fraction of what Nguyen went through.
"To me, his decisions were extremely reasonable, and I completely understand why he made the decisions he did," Saltsman said. "But I've never been on the receiving end of the level of abuse that he got. I'm a white guy who studied computer science in college and grew up in the Midwest. There's almost no arena in which people approach my work with prejudice about the quality or the motivations behind it, generally speaking. I've never had to worry about putting up a game and people assuming I copied it or had to hire someone else to program it because why would I know computer programming?"
Even without the online abuse, Saltsman said he struggled with Canabalt's popularity.
"For a lot of developers, a successful game design gives you tunnel vision, even when you're aware it's happening," Saltsman said. "You assume that you must have done something right on purpose. So what is that thing? What should you build next? How can you make sure the thing you build next stands up to the thing you just built? And that stuff's all a hassle, even if you're not having abuse and death threats heaped upon you by the Internet at large. He really got a lot of crap heaped on him for absolutely no reason. The real merits of the game, the real things that were interesting about it, were almost completely ignored. Based upon the effect it had on Dong Nguyen's personal life, it'd be really hard to say that Flappy Bird was a successful game for him."
The ugliness of online abuse directed at Nguyen aside, Saltsman said he's optimistic that the gaming industry is making progress when it comes to social issues.
"If nothing else, even if there isn't as much specific, concrete progress being made, I feel like the terrain for making progress is so much more fertile than it's ever been before," Nguyen said. "It feels like a lot of change is going to happen soon, like the room has been cleaned and stripped and primed, and we can paint new colors on the wall finally."
"It feels like a lot of change is going to happen soon, like the room has been cleaned and stripped and primed, and we can paint new colors on the wall finally."
At the same time, he acknowledged the difficulty of fighting against everything from the language people use to the way "generations of prejudice" influence the way people grow and think.
"There's a superficial logic to things like, 'Well girls just don't like computers that much.' As if that's a natural effect rather than an institutional effect," Saltsman said. "On the surface, it might seem hard to argue with because you could take a poll of 13-year-old girls and not many of them would like computers. But it's a cultural effect of excluding a large group of people for a very long time from a field that history shows us women did have an interest in and an aptitude for."
For Finji's part, Saltsman said the studio recently put out a hiring call that noted a particular interest in having people from diverse backgrounds apply. Despite that notation, Saltsman said all the initial applicants at first were white men. Later in the day, they repeated the call, saying the specifically wanted to hear from women for the position. That brought dozens of submissions from women within hours.
"It really seems like there's a reluctance to apply for certain types of jobs that are well within the abilities of people who are minorities in the industry right now, but they feel like there's no point," Saltsman said. "'Why bother signing up for another job that nobody's going to call me back about because I don't fit some preconceived notion about who can handle that job?' And that was an eye-opener."
As for how developers can encourage diverse applicants in less direct ways, Saltsman mentioned another studio that was similarly disappointed with the homogeneity of applicants obtained through normal channels. That studio's solution was to post the position on a TV and film jobs board, where the breakdown of applicants offered the diversity they were looking for. He also suggested studios make a public commitment to supporting workplace inclusivity. Ultimately, it's measures like these that he sees as producing the sort of diversity the development community currently lacks.
"It's going to be hard, and there are going to be bad things happening between now and then, but I feel like game conferences and gatherings are safer places for women to be at, psychologically and physically, than they used to be. And that's really good," Saltsman said. "The number of women who get to work on games is improving and will hopefully improve a lot more soon. I see it as a snowball that kind of wants to roll down the hill; there are just a couple things in the way."