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Hunger Games iOS dev Saltsman on avoiding movie tie-in mediocrity
Canabalt developer Adam "Atomic" Saltsman is taking a "teaser game" approach with his iOS project for The Hunger Games, one that differs from most movie tie-ins that have "almost always been awful."
He points to Sunsoft's Batman for the NES (as well as Batman: Arkham Asylum, released not long after The Dark Knight) as one of those great licensed games that didn't rigidly follow its movie inspiration: "It came out the same year as Tim Burton's original film, and they shared some cutscene artwork, but it felt a lot more like a licensed game to me." Saltsman notes, "There was crazy stuff in that game that was certainly not in the film (dudes with jetpacks?), but those were additions made with the gameplay in mind. I like this sentence from [its Wikipedia page]: 'It was received well despite changes from the movie it's based upon.'" "I do not think tie-in games have evolved, but I wish they would," he adds. "Arguably the best official Star Wars game ever made is the one where everyone is Lego. When game makers are free to interpret things in a way that plays well as a game, obviously the results are way more appealing. "These games that blur the line between 'tie-in' and 'licensed' seem to be the richest game experiences in this space." Advantages of a "teaser game" Saltsman argues that the limitations of mobile and teaser games can lead to better ideas: "I think the constraints of the platform encourage innovative games in a way that the relative power of consoles and PCs don't. How do you put Avatar on an iPhone? You don't!" "This is a sort of classic design problem - how do you take a really specific inspiration from one medium and transmute that into some new, foreign form factor in a way that fully realizes its potential without straying too far?" asks the indie developer. His solution is to make a teaser game that's limited in scope, and taking place outside of the film's events: "Aside from just meshing better with a kind of small game development process, the big advantage of making a teaser game has to do with what I would call the leftover space in a tie-in game."
Forming an indie dream team, and indie's future in HollywoodSimilar to how film studios bring together key figures from all over the industry to work on a project, Saltsman has assembled an all-star cast of indie game notables to help him work on Girl on Fire: Mark Johns and Kevin Coulton of Doomlaser fame (Hot Throttle, Space Barnacle) are helping design and program the title, and Paul Veer (Super Crate Box) is serving as the lead artist and animator. On the audio side, Daniel Baranowsky (Canabalt, Super Meat Boy) is composing an original soundtrack, while Ozone Sound & Music (Max and Al's Heavy-Duty) is working on the sound effects. Kert Gartner (Winnitron), who created some outstanding promotional videos for Super Crate Box and Aquaria on iPad, will also release a launch trailer for Girl on Fire.
First concept art for The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire's Tracker Jackers"Our schedule was tight enough that we had to rough most of the design out on paper and then just lock in and make the thing," says Saltsman. "A one- or two- person studio isn't going to manage that, but bringing on a whole other studio seemed like overkill. I already knew who I wanted to work with anyways, so why not see if they wanted to come along for the ride? "A good team can do anything. When you connect with the right people, it's one of these 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' situations. Your ability to create things is amplified in a way that is almost intoxicating. At the same time, of course, communication problems or other issues can have the same magnified effect, it's kind of a two-way street." Saltsman believes that film companies approaching indie developers for their tie-in games is something we'll see a lot more in the future, thanks to how indie game making has evolved in recent years: "I think the key is the same thing that has been the driver of this whole indie renaissance for the last few years, which is digital distribution." "As soon as small teams can reach a wide audience, these kinds of opportunities or responsibilities emerge pretty naturally," he adds.