Still running: Adam Saltsman on Canabalt’s legacy and his new label Finji

A little John Woo, a little Michael Bay.

A little John Woo, a little Michael Bay.

If I had to name the single most influential mobile game developer of the iPhone era, my pick would be Adam Saltsman. Many developers can boast of having shipped a hit game or two, but how many can lay claim to inventing an entire genre? Saltsman can. The creator of both the genre-defining game Canabalt and the widely-used game development framework Flixel, Saltsman’s fingerprints are evident everywhere in mobile gaming.

Together with his wife Rebekah, Saltsman launched a new publishing label called Finji last week, an imprint whose stated mission is “collaborate with who we want, when we want, on the games we love.” The games in development under Finji’s tent are kaleidoscopically varied and intriguing: from grim turn-based survival game Overland to the lavishly-illustrated cartoon adventure Night in the Woods.

Over the past few days I’ve been talking to Saltsman about what Canabalt looks like to him five years later, and what he wants to achieve as a publisher.

Back in 2009 there was brief vogue for “one-button games”, out of which emerged Saltsman’s Canabalt. The game scrolled sideways across a greyscale apocalypse and you controlled a man running from a mysterious but certain doom, timing his jumps from rooftop to rooftop. There was no end — only more running. The infinite runner genre was born.

Everyone on Earth was born with a powerful thirst to play Canabalt — we just didn’t have an outlet for it until 2009. Canabalt was a enormous hit, and Saltsman ported it from the Web to iOS, Android, PSP, and a half-dozen other platforms. A countless wave of infinite runners followed suit: Temple Run, Ski Safari, Robot Unicorn Attack, 10000000. Back in 2012 it seemed like ten new infinite runners were turning up on the App Store every day.

Five years on, Saltsman still doesn’t seem to quite understand how he bottled that lightning. “I have a bunch of pet theories [as to why Canabalt was so popular],” he told me last week, “but it’s almost impossible to say if any of them are the actual reasons.”

“I think it didn’t hurt that the game took place in a kind of normal human environment, and the characters appear to be normal humans, even though there is some crazy stuff happening in the background. I think the simple controls helped, and I also think that the sort of… lack of exposition? I think that helped too. It drops you right in the game, you don’t have to learn a ton of stuff just to interact in a basic way, and the environment is sort of familiar.”

Overland, the turn-based survival game that Saltsman and collaborator Shay Pierce are working on now.

Overland, the turn-based survival game that Saltsman and collaborator Shay Pierce are working on now.

Infinite runners have always struck me as particularly grim games. There is no way to win — the game procedurally generates an endless road ahead of you filled with continually more dangerous obstacles. Sisyphus doesn’t have it this bad. All that matters is how long you survive, and your only reward for doing better is to be booted right back to the start. But maybe I’m a closet pessimist, because Saltsman doesn’t see things that way.

“Canabalt is, at least for me, a profoundly joyful game,” he says. “For me it’s a total fantasy, the ability to run and jump safely like that, it’s like a dream about flying or something. That’s the actual Canabalt – the death and destruction are window dressing for that, I think.”

And he’s right. There’s something glorious and exhilarating about hitting the apex of a jump and landing just right in Canabalt. It feels like flight. Maybe the game has never been topped because no successor has ever re-discovered that sensation.

For his part, Saltsman doesn’t feel like the father of a movement. I ask him if he feels any ownership over the infinite running genre. “None whatsoever. I feel lucky i got to contribute to it when I did. I feel like most infinite running games actually branched out in a pretty different direction from Canabalt, they’re really their own genre now, even if they were maybe inspired by some aspect of the Canabalt form factor early on.”

Don't be fooled by the anthropomorphic cats and bright colours: Night In The Woods definitely seems weird enough to be a Finji game.

Don’t be fooled by the anthropomorphic cats and bright colours: Night In The Woods definitely seems weird enough to be a Finji game.

Saltsman is moving on, too. There’s never been a sequel to Canabalt (although a cynic might call Gravity Hook “vertical Canabalt”) and the first crop of titles under his Finji imprint are markedly different. Overland is a post-apocalyptic turn-based tactical game being made in conjunction with former Blizzard man Shay Pierce. Capsule is Saltsman’s last release, a claustrophobic nightmare of a PC game about forestalling asphyxiation in a doomed spaceship. Night in the Woods is a colourful but sinister game being made by animator Scott Benson and Aquaria co-creator Alec Holowka.

If there’s a line to trace between all of these games, from Canabalt to Capsule, it’s that they exude narrative through non-traditional ports. There’s no exposition in Canabalt, but it feels like you’re seeing a big, fascinating world for just a moment, as though strobe-lit. “We’re really interested in how narrative and storytelling works in games,” Saltsman tells me. “The things that we value are emergence (game systems interacting and creating surprises), new angles on game art, audio that is really specific to the game and developed alongside it from early on.”

Since Finji is about working with the people you want to work with, I ask Saltsman, who would be your dream collaborator be? “I was trying to think of some like ‘celebrity’ game dev (Shinji Mikami, droooool) but i think our dream collaborators are really anybody who shares our values and interests, but ideally comes from a different background and has a different voice. One reason we’re so excited about helping with Night in the Woods is it’s not the kind of thing we can build on our own. Technically it is within our reach, but the heart of the game is somebody else’s voice, and that’s really powerful.”

I’ll be keeping an eye on Finji (especially on Overland) and I’ll let you know when Saltsman has more to show us. You can follow the man himself on Twitter.