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Semi Secret's Adam Saltsman

Canabalt dev on the indie scene and creative independence

Two-man studio Semi Secret achieved unexpected success with last year's Canabalt - a one button game about fleeing the apocalypse. Originally created for a game jam, web-acclaim led to a successful iPhone port and the later release of physics title Gravity Hook and word game Wurdle.

Now Semi Secret's designer/artist Adam 'Atomic' Saltsman straddles the worlds of both commercial development and personal projects. Ahead of his appearance at GameCity this week, GamesIndustry.biz talked to Saltsman about striking a balance between business and creativity, US indie dev culture, the problem with microtransactions and the rise of iPad gaming.

GamesIndustry.biz What have you got planned for GameCity?
Adam Saltsman

I just found out that I was going to be on a panel about why bother making games in the first place. Which I think Jon Blow and Keita Takahashi and a whole bunch of people who are way more qualified to talk about this than I am are on. So that's pretty cool.

GamesIndustry.biz You've done a talk along those lines before haven't you: that question of why someone feels compelled to make games?
Adam Saltsman

Yeah, I think there's an interesting pile of things there, because there are a lot of people who have been doing this for a long time and not doing it for money. I don't know if it's necessarily super-useful to be super-analytical about it, but it's interesting looking at some of the reasons why so many people have put their whole lives into this thing.

GamesIndustry.biz Is it something you already knew before you ended up asking it of yourself on-stage, as it were?
Adam Saltsman

Like a lot of guys I'm in this circle with, I have to do it. I'm compelled to this. Which I think is a totally adequate answer, and I've sort of poked around in why that compulsion exists. Part of it is kind of unanswerable and part of it is sort of answerable - there are a lot of cultural and historical forces there. I think it boils down to making any kind of art is this playful, creative process: if you're writing a song you're experimenting and trying things, you're trying to communicate an idea to a bunch of people. That all applies to making games; it applies to playing games too. Writing a piece of music that other people will compose, it's a really weird relationship or engagement with a creative process.

GamesIndustry.biz And with games, you also have to factor in feeding your ideas to a whole bunch of other people on the development team, and then seeing how they translate them?
Adam Saltsman

Yeah. The guys who do that and really excel, like Michel Ancel, either they're remarkable people or they have really remarkable producers. I dunno - there's a reason I usually make games by myself or with just one or two other people. Otherwise it just multiplies the complexity of the problem.

GamesIndustry.biz How are you dealing with the pressures of reconciling projects that are personally interesting to you with commercial necessities?
Adam Saltsman

You mean having a game business but also wanting to be sort of irresponsibly creative?

GamesIndustry.biz Well, Canabalt was almost an unexpected success, born of a game jam and then ported to iPhone. Are you now in a position where you have to bottle that lightning rather than have it happen quite as organically?
Adam Saltsman

On and off, yeah. It's a thing that I'm conscious of and I try to approach personal projects, games I'm intensely passionate about, as being in a different bucket than the projects that we want to go forward with for the company. It doesn't mean that the games for the company aren't fun, it's just that you can image a simple Venn diagram. One circle is games that I actually want to work to on and the other is games that I think could actually make money or look good on our portfolio. The overlap is what we try to work on - we tend to not go after games that we think will just be money-makers. But it definitely changes the creative process and the games we make. I try, now that we've got a little bit of financial stability and freedom in our work schedule, to have a couple of fairly unstructured days a week where we make things to release for free or release for karma for the company, like Flixel or other webgames. If one of those things turns out to be very cool and we want to roll it over - that we decide after building it that this we could actually maybe sell it - we can move it over and adopt it as a company thing. I have a very hard time designing things with commercial viability in mind from day zero.

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Alec Meer


A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.