This weekend, I got the chance to do an email interview with indie gaming icon Adam Atomic of Semi Secret Software, the company behind Canabalt, Gravity Hook, Steam Birds, and Wurdle. Wondering where the name “Canabalt” came from, what future projects Adam is working on, or what inspires a guy like him? Check out the full interview after the break.

  • You’ve got a background with gaming that dates back to the NES, but where did the idea for Semi-Secret Software come from? How did you decide that making games was what you wanted to do and how did you get from having that idea to turning that into a real living?
Adam: Semi Secret was actually my friend Eric’s idea, before that I had been running my own freelance shop for a few years.  Deciding to make games wasn’t so much a conscious process as a deep-seated compulsion from a young age, it’s just one of my favorite things to do.  Turning that into a real living was a heady mix of risk-taking, self-teaching, formal education, making friends, and most importantly actually making games.  After school I got a job as a software developer, working on GUIs for Windows apps, which was pretty nice for a few years, but eventually I got the chance to do some freelance design, code and art work.  After a few years of that Eric asked me to collaborate on Wurdle, and Semi Secret was born shortly after.
  • You’ve worked on quite a few indie gaming projects. What’s your favorite project that you’ve completed so far?
Adam: I think my favorite finished project so far is Fathom.  It’s weird and broken but the things it did right I think are a lot more interesting than my other stuff.
  • “Canabalt” is a word that is almost synonymous with “Adam Atomic” or “Semi-Secret Software,” but where did that name come from?
Adam: My nephew had trouble pronouncing “catapult” – it ended up sounding a bit like “cannonball.”  So it’s purely made up, but I like the connotations of speed and velocity that come from mixing those words.  From a practical perspective having a made-up name that is pretty easy to spell is really handy for search engine crap too.
  • You just came out with iOS ports for Gravity Hook HD and Steambirds. What do you have on the horizon for iOS development? Are you planning to port more of your Flash projects?
Adam: We don’t have any more Flash ports planned right now, except for maybe a for-fun collab with a friend.  We’re working on updating wurdle right now, and then hopefully moving on to a new, original game.
  • Have you ever considered developing for other platforms that cater to indie developers, such as PSN, XBLA, WiiWare, or the DSi Store or the upcoming markets for the 3DS and NGP? If not, what would be the barriers for you?
Adam: The platform I’m most interested in right now is Steam.  The install base is pretty huge, and the gate-keeping is pretty minimal.  WiiWare and the DSi Store are basically dead as commercial channels for independents, I don’t expect that the 3DS will be any different.  PSP Minis seem pretty risky to pursue right now, it’s hard to say if the NGP will be competitive there or not.  PSN and XBLA are definitely viable, but there’s a lot of paperwork and overhead and investment involved with pursuing those without a publisher right now.  Games like Fantastic Contraption and Minecraft are really inspirational to me as an indie businessperson, they both did really well on PC without any distributor whatsoever.  I would love to find stability on that path someday.
  • With the prevalence of mobile devices and cheaper games becoming more popular, the indie gaming scene has taken over a sizable chunk of the gaming market from the big companies. What kind of an impact do you think this has had on what sorts of games we’ve seen and are going to see? Does the type of games being released by other companies affect what you make at all?
Adam: Whenever independent studios are flourishing, the variety of games that reach the mainstream always increases.  These last few years certainly haven’t been any different, and I hope very much that the trend continues for as long as possible.  I am definitely affected by other people’s games, though my personal work and my “work” work are affected in different ways.  For work it’s interesting to see the fast evolution of accessibility, and to see what kinds of choices and challenges the mainstream are ready to embrace.  For personal stuff it’s been very exciting just to see what lovely new things people make every day, whether it’s new twists on old games, or games that are actually kind of new.
  • Companies like Zynga and Electronic Arts have been buying up indie developers by the dozen. Would you ever consider working for a large gaming software company, or are you happier sticking with the indie scene?
Adam: I think I’m pretty well beyond rehabilitation at this point; my sanity depends on staying independent for the foreseeable future.  That’s not to say there aren’t big companies doing wonderful things right now, there are!  But I like being small.  Our parameters (small budgets, small teams) are as much benefit (small overhead, small risk) as they are constraint.
  • “Freemium” and “Paid DLC” have become popular terms in gaming lately. How do you feel about these models and would you ever consider releasing a game that used either of them?
Adam: Definitely – different games should be sold different ways.  Most other game or entertainment-related industries have a wide variety of commercial models: pay per view, stadium/theater tickets, DVDs, annual subscriptions, etc.  I don’t see why video games as a whole should be restricted to just one way of exchanging money for neat stuff.  That said, these particular systems of payment actually have significant effects on the design of the games themselves, and the things that I think about and design tend to not be very compatible with these systems.  I think methods like Kickstarter are a more interesting alternate source of funding for me personally.
  • If you could have been the one to make one major, modern game and one recent indie game, what would you want to credit for?
Adam: Whichever one I liked better, I suppose!  There are a lot of large, recent-ish AAA games of which teams are and should be very, very proud – Resident Evil 4, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, all Blizzard and Valve games, Team Ico’s games, Godhand, Super Mario Galaxy, Infamous, Metroid Prime, Little Big Planet, Motorstorm: Pacific Rift, and Batman: Arkham Asylum all come to mind.  If I was working at a studio and we made something wonderful, I can’t imagine being happier.  That said, I haven’t been part of that process, and probably won’t be, so the more likely scenario is getting credit for something less important and more indie.
  • Outside of gaming, what are your some of your biggest creative influences, such as music, movies, books, or life experiences?
Adam: Yes.  In almost everything, science fiction and adventure fiction (in music, movies, books, whatever) mean a lot to me.  I will happily listen to almost any music that is “for real” and not just manufactured for radio/tv play.  I am very much into genre film (samurai, zombies, vampires, etc) and foreign film (South Korean, Spanish, British, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese).  Real life adventures are great too – I rock climb a lot, and a year and a half ago we rafted down the Grand Canyon for 8 or 9 days, that was pretty amazing.  If I had to attribute some kind of specific thing that I look for, it would probably be vicarious escapism and, as Ursula Le Guin puts it, “telling lies to tell the truth.”  A book like Dune says more about the mystery and ferocity of Bedouin nomads than most actual history books.  That’s not to say one shouldn’t seek out the actual history as well, but sometimes fictionalized accounts communicate a pleasurable essence more immediately and more clearly than the muddy facts.
  • If it wasn’t making games, what do you think you would have done for a living? Is there anything you wish you could be doing regardless of how practical it is, like being an astronaut or taste testing new ice cream flavors?
Adam: If video games didn’t exist, I would be making comics, movies, pop fiction or music, and probably be just as happy.  Going to space would be completely amazing but is still sadly profoundly impractical and prohibitively expensive.
  • Almost done! Who are you heroes or role models? Who do you look up to for inspiration or guidance?
Adam: Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and Alexandre Dumas were all pretty remarkable dudes that I admire for a lot of different reasons.  In the realm of games in particular, I think Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright and Arne Niklas Jansson have influenced me more than anyone else, although I really admire Shinji Mikami, Fumito Ueda, Jordan Mechner, Eric Chahi and Michel Ancel.  Modern indies like Matthew Wegner, Jonathan Blow, Jenova Chen, Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler have all been big inspirations to me as well, for a bunch of different reasons as well.
  • Last question, I promise. What advice do you have for budding indie developers, programmers, and designers looking to get into the indie gaming scene? Is there anything that was particularly helpful to you, anything absolutely essential to know, or anything you wish you knew earlier?
Adam: Don’t build your own tech (yet), and start making games right now.  You can literally start making games tonight, for free, in Flash, Game Maker or Unity for Windows or Mac.  Go do that RIGHT NOW it will be awesome.
There you have it, folks! Big thanks go out to Adam Atomic for doing the interview. If you’re interested in Adam’s work, go check out the browser-based versions of Canabalt, Gravity Hook, and Fathom for starters, then download the even better iOS versions (Canabalt, Gravity Hook HD, and Steam Birds direct links to the iTunes store). Thanks for reading!
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