Adam Atomic

Adam Atomics - Othercastles

There are few iOS games that I can play over and over again: Canabalt, created by Adam “Atomic” Saltsman, is one of those games. Maybe it´s the yearning to see if the game is actually beatable, or just the quick play dynamics that grab my attention. It is safe to say that Canabalt has been a great success as a game, both in the indie community and the “mainstream scene”.

With that said, Adam Atomic is no one-hit-wonder. As the creator of 15 games, collaborator on 17 and contributor on 13 it’s safe to say that Adam has a ton of experience. Experience that he´s unveiling right here.

I would like to start by finding out more about you, your age, where you’re from, where you work and what some of your most notable milestones are.

Sure, so I think I´m 30 years old now, It´s mattering less and less every year! I´m married and have a kid named Kinsley: he´s almost two years old and I´m expecting another child sometime this spring.

I live and work in Austin, Texas: I have my studio in our house in a kind of dedicated workspace, full of comic books, Street Fighter, drawing utensils and my laptop and headphones.

I tried to get a real game programming job when I graduated from college and failed pretty hard in that regard. So I started freelancing back in 2006, eventually I left my day job and went freelancing full time as a game designer and pixel artist.

I didn’t do anything that anyone had heard of until 2008 when I made a game named Gravity Hook, it was a web game that some people played or at least saw. About a year later in 2009 I made Canabalt, which a lot of people have heard of.

A couple of months prior to Canabalt coming out I did my first public release on my flash game framework Flixel: since then I´ve been working on iPhone and iPad stuff. I made a game for the Hunger Games show that was free for iPhone (iTunes link). Our new iPad game is coming out around the 10th of January. That’s a collaboration between myself, Greg Wohlwend and Scott Morgan who is an ambient musician and did all of the sound.

You´ve created a lot of games, Gravity Hooks as you mentioned before: Flixel and Canabalt to name but a few; have you always known that you wanted to make games? 

It’s something that I’ve been obsessed with for a really long time. Probably since I was 6yrs old, I actually found it really difficult when I was in the “achievement age”, I had some computer knowledge and wanted to build things, but I didn’t have a lot of ways to do it. I did a lot of modding on FTS games for years and years.

“I had some computer knowledge and wanted to build things, but I didn’t have a lot of ways to do it.”

That was the easiest way to do level design, to do artwork and put it in the game and see how it worked. I was never particularly good at it, but that was my first exposure to pixel art, level designs, 3D modeling and that sort of thing.

Now you can just go get Flash or Game Maker and make like a totally awesome game for free – its ridiculous.

Were your friends and family supportive of you being a game developer and do you think its easier now for those starting in video games to justify their career choice?

I think it’s much easier for small teams to make video games for a living right now. It´s probably close to 30 years since it was this easy to make video games as a small team and actually sell them.

Gravity Hook  by Adam Atomic
Screenshot of Gravity Hook

But the technical barriers back then were even higher then, so it´s a really awesome to doing things.The only problem is because it’s so fast and easy and fun to make games now, relatively speaking of course, there are so many games out.

“If you just make a game that has a neat gameplay hook, that may not be enough”

It´s not traditional competition in a business sense, but there´s competition in both quality and for gaining peoples attention. It’s not enough to just make a video game anymore. If you just make a game that has a neat gameplay hook, that may not be enough. It´s gotta be something very special in order to stand out. That’s my sense of things.

Is that why you have chosen to do indie games instead of “mainstream” games? Do you think it´s better to work on an indie game? 

I think it depends on what your goals are, but there are definitely some strengths to working in a small studio or on a small game, you get to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise. You can take more risks and you have the freedom to use those risks to make something that will stand out – which to me is increasingly important.

To me, it feels like a lot of AAA games, although the quality is getting up, there´s a sense of convergence, or like a homogeneity where they all these real obvious distinctions. Quake and Unreal are extremely fast paced vs Medal of Honor which is slower and more tactical vs Half Lifewhich is a more narrative-based experience.

Medal of Honor
Image from

You could really see cynical that there are these meaningful variations within the genre, but especially at a AAA level, looking at the budgets and schedules they work on, there is an almost unavoidable kind of convergence where features and ideas and approaches.

I think the vast majority of your AAA action games are heading towards this string of pearls, set piece based Uncharted-style. When you’re doing that framework you do really, really cool and interesting things, but you’re also put in a kind of a box.

“… you can make things that are weird enough to make an impression on people”

It’s really hard to stand out and that is why I think you see big AAA publishers, having serious financial problems and shutting down. Indie has its own giant host of problems and tendencies to convergences, clichés and things like that, but one of it´s great strengths is definitely that you can make things that are weird enough to make an impression on people.

It also seems as though, contrary to the mainstream community: the indie game community is much closer and help each other. For example you having contributing on Fez, is the community knitted together or is it just for show in the public and you’re basically all on your own? 

I think it´s a little bit of both really. There´s the general sense of community and all the good and bad things that brings with it, its very natural for people who have like-minded tendencies to have a pre-established understanding of likes, dislikes and passions in a lot of ways.

Fez from Polytron
Screenshot of FEZ

The thing that I love is that getting together with people who are in the game industry: I have an immense amount of respect for which is actually whatever they are indie or AAA; if we’re all hanging out, we almost never talk about video games, It´s always about other creative passions and interests for example: international politics, gourmet cuisine, sports, board games, books and movies – it almost seems as though being a passionate game developer is a good sign that this is somebody who is a veracious consumer of creative culture, a creative thinker who likes to make things, whether digital or otherwise.

So let´s say your starting off and making a new game. Is it important to be one of the community or can you do success without being in the core, lets say.

 I don’t think it hurts to have lots of friends who also make games, but it’s not by any means a necessity or a pre-requisite. I was certainly trying to build games and technology, not having much of a game centric community.

When I first went freelance, the online community that I was apart of was a pixel art specific community- which had some overlap with games, but very few were really interested in game design as a discipline and it was a really artistic, creative community.

The advantage that that had, and that communities like this still have, is that communities can give you real critical feedback and help you grow as an artist.

“I think it helps to move out of the bubble you’re in and into the wider world”

The classic example is that I grew up in a very small town, in the rural Midwest. The town was small enough that if you could use a computer at all, you were like some sort of computer genius.

In a way that was good, because you would get a lot of praise and a lot of encouragement to pursue this, but you would also get this skewed view of what was possible and what your peers in other, more challenging, or more educated environments were capable of doing and actively doing at the same time.

So in some point of every discipline, I think it helps to move out of the bubble you’re in and into the wider world and think “OK, I´m ready to step it up a notch, I need people to look at this and tell me what I can do and do it better”. Then the community of people who are activity are pursuing the same kind of feedback and pursuing the same kind of art form is a really positive thing to have the start of your sort of cultural ecosystem.

It seems like you hit the nail on finding your community, build a lot and fail and just work hard.

Yeah, and there´s a risk to any community becoming an echo chamber in a way, getting hung up on a single idea or discounting ideas from the outside, but in my experience, especially with the wider independent game communities having so many ideas, there are so many diverse view points and diverse people who are knowledgeable on the idea that communities can become a echo chamber that its been a really healthy thing to be a part of the last couple of years.

One of your games, Canabalt, had such a huge success and it´s really one of my favourite games which has brought me a lot of joy and sorrow. Were you alone on that project and how was the process of making that game?

Kyle Gray and Kyle Gabler revised the experimental gameplay project which was an old thing they used to do, and Kyle emailed me, brought it back to life in 2009 as something for the wider internet participating in, I emailed them right away to the original gameplay project to actually be pretty influential in the development of flixel and my own work on small games before Canabalt and I was like “Oh man, can I participate? This sounds great” and they where like “suuure” and randomly the first months that I was able to participate the theme for the sort of distributed game jam activity was minimalism.

“I started to think of a very simple game.”

A lot of my freelance work up until 2008 involved doing artwork for mobile phone games. One of the holy grails of traditional mobile game development was trying to make really intriguing games with very simple controls because the keypads on pre-touchscreen phones where horrible. So if you wanted to make a game that was gonna be successful on old traditional mobile phones, you really had to boil the controls down.

Canabalt by Adam Atomics
Screenshot of Canabalt

I definitely thought about games with simple screen controls for a long time, but I didn’t have anything in particular in mind, I had just replaced my broken NES and was playing some Super Mario 1 and watching speed runs and somewhere between those things came the idea of: This is the game where you keep running faster and your jumping across rooftops and its sort of like Gravity Hook; your just trying to run as fast as you can before you die.

I hacked together a really simple prototype. Just a little white box with some big, green boxes: occasionally you jumped through a window and that’s all really. I then went to this Swedish artist named Arne Niklas Jansson who did the artwork for a game called Cortex Command. Dan Tabar, the other developer on Cortex Command, lived in Phoenix and was on the road to other friends in the indie community that I was already friends with through random meetups.

Cortex Command
Screenshot of Cortex Command

Nikolas was a huge inspiration for me and on the process of my art and how I think about game design now. But he rarely leaves Sweden, so I convinced him to leave Sweden and come work in Phoenix for a couple of weeks! We even held a game jam in honor of this strange foreign visitor.

It was a cheap, short flight from Phoenix at the time so I went out there and brought my prototype with me and made almost everything in Canabalt that weekend. And in that, there was this faithful conversation with one of the other guys named Steve Swing and we where talking about how he loved how I had this open ended design in where you where flying through space, kinda big warship approaches you, you could say “wow, I´m not ready for this” and you could fly of to a different quadrant of space and find an easier challenge.

“If you wanted to write an article about Canabalt for your blog, you didn’t have to go get a press kit.”

It seemed like it would break the game, but in fact it made the game really fantastic, interesting and accessible. We were trying to figure out how you could do something in a game that had a structure like gravity hook and what you do to enable the player to choose to do sure challenge level and really put it in a transic built in way. That’s where Canabalt sort of react in a city came from.

How does a game succeed, despite it being a good game? Is it by luck, or use by followers?

It depends on the situation your in. For Canabalt, I didn’t really do anything. I just submitted it to the Experimental Gameplay, as was expected if you were a participant in the workshop that month. I also posted it on TIGSource forumswhere I’d met a lot of people in the indie scene that I´m still friends with now, but that was it. I really didn’t do anything else.

“You don’t have to give anything to the game before the game starts giving back to you”

It kinda spread on its own and I think a big part of that is basically luck, but something I strongly believe in, is that it doesn’t waste you to much time. When you start playing it, you press one button and there´s a guy jumping out of the sky scraper and glass falling out everywhere with cool music. The game is just going. You don’t have to give anything to the game before the game starts giving back to you. I think that something that is really important.

Usually you refer that as a “generous design”, and I think that’s really important in general.

The other advantage that I think Canabalt has is, it’s also an advantage that a lot of 2D games have, is that it´s fairly difficult to a bad screenshot of Canabalt. The game is cinematically framed in a deliberate way for gameplay purposes, so most screenshots kinda look cool. It wasn’t in the design plan, but I´m suspicious it helps the game spread. If you wanted to write an article about Canabalt for your blog, you didn’t have to go get a press kit. You can hit play, take the screenshot, write two paragraphs and throw in a link and you have an article about Canabalt.

Last question: Is it possible to beat Canabalt?

Absolutely not! Theoretically there´s a kill state. I haven’t done the math on it, but you have to be on the same run for weeks if not months.

It will eventually break, but no one has done it.

Illustration: Mijowi