How did you get into the industry?
I was trying to make games as a hobby for the longest time. After I graduated college I accepted that I wouldn’t be able to make games for a living, because doing it as a hobby never panned out. A few months before graduation, I submitted a prototype for The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai to Microsoft’s Dream Build Play contest. I thought for sure that it had no chance of getting anywhere. A few months after graduation, I got a quote-unquote real job doing applications development, and accepted that that would be my life. Shortly after I started that job, Microsoft announced their winners and The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was one of them! I got an Xbox Live Arcade contract, a huge feat at the time. Microsoft threw a lot of marketing behind the game, which was huge. I quit my day job and worked at home until I got the game out. It did well enough that I’ve been able to make games as a living since then. I was fortunate enough that when The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai released, indie games on Xbox were in their prime; it was that time after Braid and before Super Meat Boy when the Xbox Live Arcade was really thriving.
What are some influences on the gameplay and art style of Salt and Sanctuary?
Well, I was obsessed with Dark Souls, and I started wondering what a 2D Dark Souls would look like, and started playing around with it. Everyone I showed it to gave me super positive feedback so I decided to pursue it as the next project. A lot of it has been figuring out how the Dark Souls-type mechanics would work in 2D as a platformer. The interesting thing is, in approaching the Souls formula as a 2D game, you end up where the Souls games started: as a 3D Castlevania. Except, we’re in 2D, so it’s a 2D Castlevania! We’re bringing all these mechanics and systems and difficulty – being very attentive to attack patterns and boss strategies – full circle back to Castlevania with an emphasis on Souls mechanics. I took a lot from lessons that I learned from our own development, so it’s got a lot of shades of The Dishwasher games in it. You can do air combos and there’s an emphasis on invulnerability frames. It’s a bit of Souls, a bit of Castlevania, and a lot of us. Art wise, I’ve always been a sketcher, and the art is very much right out of the sketchbook. The good thing at being adept at Photoshop is being able to take rough sketches and make them viable. I also have this animation tool that’s been worked on since The Dishwasher days that’s been a huge help.
The other half of Ska studios is Michelle, who happens to be your wife! What’s it like being a husband and wife development team?
The most generic yet honest answer is that it’s challenging but rewarding. A lot of our work doesn’t overlap; Michelle is an artist and she also does community stuff. For close to four years, I was the artist, so when Michelle does art she has to style-match to me otherwise there’s a style mismatch. That can be frustrating for her sometimes, but eventually we’ll do a game with her art style. The challenging part is that sometimes she has suggestions and ideas that may not work in style of this game, or may be a huge investment of time and resources, and we have to make the decision to not use those ideas. Sometimes she’ll take that personally, but that’s never the case! None of them are bad ideas; oftentimes their scope is too large. We have to ensure that everything is bug free and that we work within our resources, which means that we have to make some sacrifices. It’s really nice to be able to travel to conventions and show off our game together; it’s a dream come true for me!
Does taking all this influence from the Souls games and Castlevania and acting as ‘spiritual successors’ come with pressure?
Yes, it’s a weird sort of pressure because there are far more devoted fans of the series than I am, and I’m mindful that people will be upset that Salt and Sanctuary won’t pull off certain things that the Souls series did. We want to make a 2D Dark Souls for Dark Souls fans, but we also don’t want to come across as too derivative; it has to be an original work. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m trying to please everyone, and I kind of have to turn that off and make the game that I want to play. That’s where I started; to make the game that I want to play, to create the universe that I want to explore. As a game developer, that’s what you have to do: make the games you’ll want to play. That’s where the passion comes from, and without the passion you end up with mud.
Music is an aspect of games that I find super important, so what kind of music will be in the game?
The music is electric guitar and synth filled but still mostly ‘classical’ music. I’m still playing around with it. I’m making it on my own; I do music kind of okay. I like experimenting with different styles, but here I’m going for a very gothic kind of feel. We basically have one boss track and a number of mood tracks thus far, and it all has this dark feel to it. The music is one of the things that’s not currently in a good enough state to show off all that much, but I’m happy with the direction it’s going in.
Do you consider yourselves indie even though PlayStation is publishing you?
Yes. I think we’re pretty much as indie as it gets. The definition of indie is weird. In music, if a major label signs you, you’re no longer considered indie. With game studios, I think it comes down more to issues of scope and budget and ownership than publisher. There are two of us and two cats working out of a repurposed room that we turned into an office. The reason that we’re open to exclusivity deals is because of the immense support it nets you from the publisher. It’s not easy to release on multiple platforms at the same time and having a publisher can help with that. Sony came through for us in a really big way, and I’m honored to have their support. I do, however, feel bad for the Xbox gamers who stayed loyal to us through the 360 generation and now feel betrayed. It came down to our survival. We had to make some tough decisions, and at the time Xbox was not coming through for us, and Sony PlayStation was. As an indie, it’s difficult to self-publish your game and console exclusive development is a great way to get into game development. I personally think that whether or not something is indie is irrelevant – games are games are games. For an indie developer, I don’t play many indie games, which is kind of weird. One of the only indie games I play is Rogue Legacy! That’s an incredible game; one that’s actually better on Vita than PC! I couldn’t get into Spelunky, oddly, it just didn’t work for me. Interestingly, there’s this debate on whether a rogue-like should start you off with all the tools you’ll need to beat the game of if there should be some amount of grind. Spelunky is set up so you can always beat the game with no grind, although I personally prefer games with a sense of progression. If I felt like I was getting better every time, I would be more inclined to play a game like that. It’s just personal preference though, some people prefer games like Spelunky over games like Rogue Legacy.
Salt & Sanctuary’s release date is TBA..
It’s interesting, when we worked with Microsoft, we’d have a producer who would be giving us deadlines. I would always miss the deadlines, but they would cause me to scramble. With Sony, we have a huge amount of freedom, maybe too much. My personal goal was fall 2015, but a good game is better than a rushed game, so if we have to push that back, we’ll push it back. We’re fortunate enough to be in a position in which we don’t have to rush to pay the bills; we can take our time and ensure everything is how we want it to be.