Adam Saltsman and Bennett Foddy on the rise and rise of indie
In issue 248 of Edge, out November 22, we discuss the rise and rise of indie with two of its greatest exponents: Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman and QWOP maker Bennett Foddy. Here, we present additional material from that meeting, the pair covering topics such as Greenlight, the increasing popularity of physical gaming and why many motion-control games fail as spectator events.
What do you think about Greenlight?
Bennett Foddy Well, we know a lot more about Valve since they accidentally – or not – leaked their employee manual…
Adam Saltsman It was a deliberate PR move!
BF It was fascinating and I recommend everyone reads it. One of the things you get out of it, is that it’s not easy for them to scale up the business of processing games into Steam – people have to be doing it voluntarily within Valve and they have a limited number of people who are in charge of it. Obviously that’s a problem they needed to solve – so they’ve gone for Greenlight. I’m not against it in the abstract, I’m just disappointed in the things that people are choosing to green light! But that’s a separate problem. As long as Valve takes a certain amount of stewardship over good games, whether they’re indie or not, and makes sure they get onto the platform even if they’re not green lit, I think that’s fine. I think a lot of players and fans don’t necessarily know what they want until they play it. Sometimes you do, sometimes the idea is so compelling that you know, but a lot of the time there are games that catch you unexpectedly. A lot of the games I love are novel to me. I’m 34 now I’ve been playing since I was two-years-old and most of the ideas that have been around the industry for a long time I’m bored of. I hope that Greenlight can find a way of supporting not just mods and zombie games, but also the leftfield ideas.
AS That would be great, but my main reaction to Greenlight – it could be a weirdo steampunk-themed gallery of oddities. Then maybe you could submit your thing over there and Steam gamers could say, yeah, give me a bundle of ten bizarre things for $5 and I’ll play. People in that crowd could get into that, but it has to be spearheaded by Valve, and that’s not happening right now.
Adam Saltsman's monochrome Flash hit Canabalt kickstarted the 'endless runner' genre
Does the need to adhere to specific platforms’ abilities and limitations mean game makers are more greatly compromised than individuals in other creative industries?
BF Well, we have this thing with games in that they have to work – there’s this engineering side to them, they have to work both in the sense of not having bugs but also they have to provide certain psychological effects, and they have to have certain kinds of mechanical characteristics. A game has to have tight controls, it has to have visual and sonic feedback, it has to be possible to understand what you’re doing – we have to worry about all that and I don’t think they do so much in other visual arts.
AS Although they have had this in literature. Dickens and Dumas both published in serial and they both had to write for that format. If you read Three Musketeers it is very neatly divided into discreet adventures which are then lumped into larger discreet meta-adventures, that then form the over-arching narrative. That was very deliberate, he had a studio full of researchers and plot architects who would go through and organise everything, essentially level design the book – and then Dumas would actually write it. And it’s nice that it carries over into a compendium format after the fact but it wasn’t developed that way in the first place – other art forms do think about forms of delivery.
BF I think it’s just one among many creative contrasts that we have, many of them are technical, but not all of them. Over the course of the history of art, technical constraints tend to have been conducive to interesting work rather than the enemy of it. I don’t mind the technical stuff, although sometimes I wish it was as easy to make a game as it is to slap paint on a canvas…
AS I think of Canabalt as my magic bullet of game design – you can put it on anything and it’s totally fine because the interaction is so stripped down. That’s the only way to do that – that’s the key thing: the interaction has been as close to removed as possible while still letting people get pleasurable feedback from the game. I have a year of prototypes, a year spent trying to do more things with really minimal input and I can’t do it – I’m out of those ideas! I’ve embraced how rare they are and that’s totally fine. Even in visual arts, if you have a small canvas and you have a ceiling, you do different work, you paint for the format. Our version of that is weirder but it’s similar.
BF It’s a more complicated terrain, but I think you’re exactly right. There are poems I like just as much as books – it’s just a difference of scope, it changes how many ideas you’re trying to get across. But in videogames it’s very complicated to work out that relationship.
AS It has not always been recognised that this is a thing you have to do. If I’m working on an iPad game, I should probably think about the idea that it’s to be played on a big touchscreen: that shouldn’t just be a consideration, it should be the primary thing that dictates what we build and how we built it because it’s so fundamental – and there are games where that’s not been true.
BF That’s why I’ve been promoting the idea that people should design games with the iPad switched off. They should experiment with the interaction so that it’s fun, even when there’s nothing on screen.
AS I do that all the time! I think I’ve got a great idea for a game and then I go… [mimes playing on a switched off iPad], no it’s not working…