The Canabalt developer discusses the endless runner genre and the ethics of free-to-play gaming.
Earlier this month Semi Secret Software released Hundreds on the App Store. We gave this fascinating puzzle game 4.5 out of 5 stars in our review, and were left impressed by the complexity teased out from the simple underlying mechanics. We've since caught up with Adam Saltsman, co-creator of Hundreds and the man behind the game that kicked off the endless-runner craze, Canabalt.
Read on to discover what Saltsman makes of the proliferation of App Store runners, his future projects, and the ethical and design challenges introduced by free-to-play gaming.
Adam, before we talk about Hundreds, we have to ask you a question about Canabalt. It kicked off a unending torrent of endless runner games of varying quality - do you ever feel as though you created a bit of a monster?
Ha - sometimes, I guess. I mean its really cool to see Canabalt DNA in other nicely crafted games that have brought a lot of joy to people, I really can't overstate that. At the same time I really don't feel like any of those games are interesting in the way I thought Canabalt was interesting. Clearly they made the right choices as far as mass market appeal goes, and that is great for them. But the stuff that I thought made Canabalt special I think went largely ignored, which either means I'm wrong about what made it special or else there is still a lot of room left for me or others to riff on that in new and interesting ways.
What are your thoughts on how the App Store, and mobile gaming in general, has changed since you released Canabalt?
For me (and we've been active on the App Store since a year before Canabalt - almost 4 years now!) basically everything has changed. More fragmentation, a dramatically, exponentially larger install base, some successes that are really unprecedented I think (Angry Birds, Temple Run, etc), and of course even more "noise" and "Race to the bottom" pricing approaches than when Canabalt came out, the rise of IAP/F2P, etc. I could go on for a while!
A lot of that doesn't really affect our work though. For us, the main thing that has changed is we're very cognizant of the change in the level of attention and polish we have to put into our games, and the amount of effort we have to put into marketing and actively strategizing about promoting our games. Those are just basic requirements for standing out in such an active and popular marketplace that we never really thought about before Hundreds.
Basically, games on the App Store got way, way nicer over the last few years. This is great, but it means we have to step up our game too.
Having worked on the App Store for some time, what are your opinions on why it attracts more developers rather than, say, the Android market?
I think the fact there there is less fragmentation matters a lot, that's something we think about a lot. There is this perception too, I think, that because of Angry Birds and Tiny Tower or whatever, iOS is where you can make a bajillion dollars or whatever. I don't think this is a healthy way of looking at the marketplace, though, and with the advent of actually-desirable Android devices in the last year or so, I think Android is getting much more interesting than it used to be!
How did the collaboration for Hundreds come about, and can you tell us a bit about the development process for the game?
The development was all done long distance, and took close to 18 months from inception to launch. Greg Wohlwend did all the art and design, Eric Johnson did all the programming, I did most of the puzzle and level design, and Scott Morgan did all the music and sound effects. Development was a bit of a roller coaster, progress and morale wise, at times, but I'm really proud of how the game turned out. ( For way, way, way more info, I also did a ridiculously long like 90 minute keynote on how Hundreds was made for GameCity in October 2011)
The Flash version of Hundreds features a simplified version of the game where levels become filled with more circles and the pace quickens up. Can we expect to see a version of this for the iOS edition in an update?
Probably not - we debated it but ultimately I don't like that, for example, level 24 of the Flash game, and level 25, are almost indistinguishable. That just bugs me. That said, there is a secret game mode in Hundreds right now that is very inspired by the Flash game, but also includes all the crazy new stuff we designed for iPad. It's pretty interesting, and we're going to be working on it more in future updates.
Can we expect any more content for Hundreds, or is it very much a project that's complete?
There are a couple more bits of content we want to get in, but to me it feels really solid and clean and nice right now. I really like that there's not much fat or wasted time/space in the game right now. I am looking forward to exposing people's performance and some social features better in future updates though, we're working on that right now.
Semi Secret Software notes on its blog that the game has "no filler puzzles, IAP or microtransactions." We take it you're not fans of freemium gaming! What do you see as the problems with this method of monetization?
So I guess for me there are two sides to this. Subjectively, just personally, I think they're an uninteresting hassle to implement and to interact with. I really like buying a game and knowing that that phase of the interaction is done and now I am just exploring it and seeing what it is and contemplating it (like you would a movie, a book, a painting, whatever).
Somewhat more objectively, though, it puts stress and strain on game designs in unpredictable ways, and I think the games that really monetize well end up really being about more retail design, and less game design, and I'm just way more interested in game design. A lot of the games that succeed as F2P count heavily on the sale of disposable items, primarily to so-called "whales", and there is a lot about that model that turns my stomach. Then there's the overhead of constantly reminding your existing players to play some more, so you can afford the incentivized ads that power the user acquisition funnels and and and... bleh. I get that that is a valid business model but it runs very counter to how I want to spend my time, and how I want to treat our audience.
Of course, F2P/IAP absolutely can be done well, but the vast majority of successes in the iOS space are using a very established model that I think is both unethical and uninteresting. We already took a lot of risks with the game design, and taking a risk on a new monetization model that we would be comfortable with and trying to fit that into the game was very intimidating just from a pure design standpoint. The same way you can kind of experiment with either form or content, as an artist, but experimenting with both can be challenging, I feel like we can either experiment with design or business, and I'm way more comfortable experimenting with the former I guess.
What's next for Semi Secret Software? Will you continue working together for your next projects - are you able to share any details of what you're working on with Modojo readers?
The main thing on our plate I think is working in these last few Hundreds features, and finishing up a pretty beefy Canabalt update we started on over the summer.
Which games that you haven't worked on yourselves do you see as the best examples of mobile gaming over the last 12 months. What makes a mobile game great?
I think Letterpress is just about the best thing. It's really accessible, clean, has simple rules, deep gameplay, can be enjoyed in short sessions, and played with your friends... it ticks a lot of my Yup This Is Pretty Great boxes. I've also been playing a lot of the Lost Cities port, which shares many of the same qualities I think!