This is our fourth instalment of our series Indie Game Developer Interviews where we cover the day to day of indie studios and look into how they make their amazing games.
We had the chance to sit down with Finji games. A small independent game company, Finji is run straight out Grand Rapids, Michigan, by husband and wife team Rebekah and Adam Saltsman. We talked to them about what it’s like being a woman in the industry (we are few and far between so it's great to sit with a woman who knows what's going on!) alongside the daily struggles of being a game designer.
Honestly, they have quite a fantastic story and it was such a pleasure interviewing them. Finji is a great example of the passion, vision and creativity behind small game designers and what they’re able to accomplish. As I described in the Indie Game Makers: Thiery @ Trailblazer interview, it isn’t easy being a game designer however the pay off is immense - it’s sharing a game you created and loved to the rest of the world and hoping the world loves it as much as you do.
Could you tell me more about yourself: How did you and Adam come up with Finji?
Bekah: A lot of people just call me Bekah or Bex. I run a small independent game development studio and micro publisher with my husband Adam Saltsman. We have been together for almost 20 years, and married since 2006. We have 2 sons who we call gremlins on a regular basis on social media.
We are pretty normal people- except we work in an industry that lends itself to extraordinary things.
We started our first game company in 2006 when Adam’s focus was web advertising games (in flash specifically) and other turnkey game projects in both advertising and mobile phone game art assets. In 2014, we decided to create Finji. Finji, the name, came about because we were young parents and we nicknamed our second son Finji (Our kid’s real names are Kingsley and Finnegan.)
I took a front and center role at the company as CEO, we shifted our focus to PC and console games and we started offering a home to independent games that needed an extra sets of hands on deck to make it to market. These first publishing project games included Night in The Woods, Feist and Panoramical.
As a woman, what has your experience been like in the gaming industry?
Bekah: I have 2 versions of the industry- which can be divided into pre-mom and post-mom me. This is also the delineation of me in my 20s and me in my 30s. This also bridges the gap between events that didn’t have codes of conduct and events that do.
Before 2011, pre-mom era: A time when all the indies at GDC could fit in one not-very-big-bar, the consoles hired models for their parties, the show flow had booth babes representing games and brand, and the percentage of visible women was exceedingly low. If I compare my experience then - being followed at industry events, being propositioned standing next to my husband, being blocked into corner and walls when I'm separated from my group at parties, the constant barrage of pickup lines to experiences I have now - where I am a minority, but I am not alone?
The industry is a better place because women are here and we are being seen. That’s not to say it is all better. It is not entirely safe for us on social media, I just don’t attend events alone - and when I travel solo I meet up with trusted friends and I move in their pack. When I am on streams or I do interviews, the majority of the comments revolve around my appearance and not what I am saying. I have a certain “uniform” that I wear to events that will downplay my femininity - I never show cleavage, I never wear florals or prints, I wear dark skinny jeans and hoodies. I also will wear 3+ inch wedge boots to most industry parties because that pulls my height up at about 6 feet/1.82m and height has a tendency to make people take a step back from my personal space. It is small and subtle, but I take a lot of precautions to make sure I am never the victim.
Pre-mom me cared A LOT emotionally about the bad things and it is a major reason that I stayed in the background in the industry. I was happy being known only as Adam’s wife and did some money stuff. When I decided to take on running Finji with Adam, the main hurdle was knowing that I would have to put an image of myself on the internet. Before 2014, only one existed and it was me in my rain gear in the grand canyon with sunglasses on- you couldn’t tell what I looked like, if I was male or female.
By the time I had my second kid, I was so far into the “real life” wringer that I didn’t give a shit anymore about what people thought of my looks. I am now 37 years old and I don’t have time for that trash. I like my body - It has done some amazing things- had babies, run marathons, climbed rock walls, trained in classical ballet, hiked through mountains, rafted the grand canyon, built sand castles and forts and carried my beautiful boys.
The fact that I had to even think about these things because I work in games is a testament to how effed up games can be everyday when you happen to be anything other than a white cis male. And lets be honest, I am talking about the stupidest thing I have to deal with aka people’s cruelty about my appearance and not the creeps slinking into my DMs.
But like with all of the baggage, all of the toxic communities, all of the times we are hit on by men at every event we ever go to- we work in games because we have to be here. We have to make games and the pieces that we are adding to these huge AAA projects and tiny indie vignettes are starting to tell our stories if only sometimes in a small way. The world is made up of 50% women and it seems insane that in one of the major forces for storytelling today, the majority of storytellers are men.
This means we are ignoring the experiences of half of the world’s population. We are telling worse stories because of it.
As a game designer, what are the biggest challenges when building a game?
Bekah: I am going to let Adam answer this because me as a designer mostly starts and ends with Adam. My main goal is to provide support and insight and feedback that will help our team solve the questions we need to solve.
Adam: A lot of game design is like going out in a big field to find some treasure, and all you have is a shovel. So you start digging, but maybe you don’t find any treasure in your first hole. Now you have a couple of options: keep digging, because maybe it’s buried deeper than you thought, or else climb out of the hole and look around and dig somewhere else. It’s this weird combination of being critical and thoughtful about whether or not the current dig is going to pan out, but also optimistic about the fact that there is treasure around here somewhere. And it might not be what you think it is - you might find some other treasure you never expected, and it’s good to be able to recognize that.
Learning to dig faster, and to read clues in the soil, these are the weird skills that will keep you afloat in the long run I think.
What are your thoughts on the free to play model and how the mobile gaming market has developed?
Bekah: That it was inevitable. The only issues I have with the FTP market are the following:
1) As a parent I get VERY VERY annoyed when kids are preyed upon. My kids stumble into storefronts all the time and I keep my password on my phone all the time so they don’t buy stuff. It is incredibly frustrating.
2) I also get uncomfortable with the psychological manipulation that is utilized to create anticipation- it is the same rules that casinos use. None of this is surprising- and a lot of really great FTP games exist- some of the best game designers work on some really sticky FTP mobile games. But the gray area can get really really gray when you are counting money. The excuse is always- well the players are adults, it is their fault. But like, we aren’t dumb and we understand how to encourage our brains to drop the right chemicals to make us feel good. Games can do this and using that to encourage a certain type of play can go too far.
3) I think games that intentionally put in a gate, aka grind or pay, are just bad. I will shut it off and delete the app instantly when I come across something like that because it feels like they are intentionally wasting my time. I don’t have a lot of free time and that bait and switch sends me instantly into a fury. As a rule, I play premium games and I will buy new content DLC, new
What’s your biggest challenge after launch?
Bekah: Launching a game takes so much of you with it. And on the other side- when you are seeing people play this thing that you have been living with and keeping a secret for years, it is like you are living in some kind of alternate reality. I remember talking to people after Night in the Woods launched and thinking- WAIT, HOW DID THE GAME LEAK? And having a moment of panic before I remembered- ‘Oh right. We launched the game.’ This went on for months. I woke up and religiously checked social media before getting out of bed for months post launch because I was so afraid that something had gone wrong and it was all imploding and there was some emergency to fix as soon as possible.
So yeah, my biggest challenge is to not lose sight of what is important post launch. Take some time off. Turn off the computer. Maintain good hours. Have playtime with my kids. And sleep. That way the mental overload of emotions that are churning inside can find a healthy outlet and don’t burn me.
Do you ever talk to your players?
Bekah: All the time! Finji runs a Discord where we encourage all of our developers to hang out when they have time. I also interact with people on Twitter (although to a lesser extent). I also go to almost all of the shows that Finji exhibits at. I actually have met some people I now call friends because they were first fans- they aren’t game developers, they are just cool people who came by the booth and we chatted about movies or dogs or kids or living in Austin. And we would meet up at my booth year after year at PAXes or PSXes. After awhile fans become friends. At the end of the day- people are people and the whole point in living is to build relationships with people.
Who do you design your games for?
Adam: I definitely think of our audience as less “hardcore” than some other studios, even though we sometimes make games with “hardcore” systems. It’s fun to make the feelings a “gamer” can have in a traditionally very challenging genre available to people who maybe don’t have quite the same vocabulary or experience (even though it’s a lot of work to bridge that gap haha).
I think the other people we make games for are people who like places? Which is a weird idea, but something that’s come up more and more lately. People with fond memories of that weird floating town in that one RPG, or about how the music sounded in the forest of that one adventure game, or the ruins behind the waterfall in that other action game... Feist and Panoramical and Night in the Woods and Overland and even Tunic are pretty explicitly games about specific and atmospheric places, and I love those kinds of games. I think we make games for people with the same preoccupation as us, some of the same fixation on places.
Any new projects down the line?
Bekah: We always have a lot of unannounced projects! I can’t tell you about any of them either. As it stands Overland is our next release, and we are in the last 12 months of development. After Overland we will be launching TUNIC as an Xbox Console Launch Exclusive (this will also sim-launch on pc/mac).
What are your current favourite mobile games?
Bekah: I keep all of my faves on my phone- and most are old-ish. I love Threes, Mini Metro, and Drop7. I still have Pokemon Go on my phone and I play that with my kids multiple times a week (they have discovered Pokemon, Rest in Peace us.) Usually Adam will tell me when I need to download something new because he is always on the lookout for really good short playtime time wasters for me. On my phone I tend to only play games like I mentioned or things that can be done in very very short time sessions (tbh I call them checkin games)
Adam: I’m on that Aaron Steed / Joe Gribbins kick pretty much all the time. Rust Bucket, Spike City, Six Match, and so on. Also recently enjoyed Part Time UFO, Blackbar, and Grayout. Very big fan of Phillip Stollenmayer’s games lately too - supertype and Zip Zap are genius. I’m still playing Zookeeper DX, somehow? Trying to beat the normal mode with no binoculars. And obviously still collecting a few clovers in Tabikaeru.
We've got great things coming up soon! In the meantime, check out our previous interview with Chile's biggest indie game studio.
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About The Author: Caroline Corbett-Thompson
Caroline is the Marketing Director at Itavio. You'll find her listening to NPR and scowling 99% of the time.
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