Apocalypse Now, Then MoMA
game developer Adam Saltsman Pairs Mayan Panic with Dikembe Mutombo
By James Renovitch, Fri., Dec. 14, 2012
Local video game developer Adam Saltsman discussed the success of his minimalist take on the run-and-jump genre back in 2010 like this: "I think part of why Canabalt worked was people could play it right away and feel awesome right away." It's his carefully considered mixture of accessibility and challenge that makes Saltsman's games appealing to both the uninitiated and hardcore gamer. Following Canabalt's success, there was a period of silence from Saltsman, which, judging by his current and upcoming output, was a sort of cocooning before a creative explosion right here at the end of 2012 ... and possibly, the end of the world.
Mayan-inspired dread lies at the center of a series of games Saltsman is producing for Old Spice, but then again, so does towering basketball star Dikembe Mutombo. Advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy – who is behind the deodorant's outré ads featuring a laughably hypermasculine spokesman and slogans like "Believe in your smellf" – tapped Saltsman to lead a small team and create a series of browser-ready games called Dikembe Mutombo's 4½ Weeks to Save the World (www.oldspicesavestheworld.com). W+K and Saltsman collaborate on ideas before Saltsman calls in the troop of artists, including local sound designer Robin Arnott and Powerhouse Animation Studios. Together, they whip something up in four to six days, just enough time to unveil another calamitous situation for Mutombo to defuse. Four of the games have already been revealed; the last one hits the web on Monday, Dec. 17. The site has gone viral thanks to the quick and playable work of Saltsman and his team, topical plots (e.g., Korean dance crazes, vampire romance movies), Mutombo's thickly accented and charmingly stilted voice acting, and a hilarious and inexplicable ode to the imperiled line of Hostess treats. The points earned during the game magically transform into additional time before the end of the world. Don't ask me how, but you can thank Saltsman when you see him.
If product tie-ins make you question an artist's legitimacy, perhaps New York's Museum of Modern Art will change your mind. Canabalt was acquired by the museum, along with 13 other titles, to be exhibited in March of next year as part of its Architecture and Design Collection. The list is expected to expand to 40 or so titles, but already announced works include Tetris, Pac-Man, and Myst. Saltsman describes keeping such illustrious company, not to mention having the youngest game on the list, as "the highest of high fives."
Another game on MoMA's short list is Keita Takahashi's strange and alluring Katamari Damacy. Saltsman will be collaborating with Takahashi to create an original game as part of the rewards package for the backers who donated to LA Game Space's Kickstarter campaign. "This is just one of those things you don't even put on your bucket list," says Saltsman about working with the industry luminary. "You don't want to be disappointed." Talks about the game's design are in the very early stages, but it's really happening.
Significantly closer to fruition is Semi Secret Software's Hundreds, scheduled for release to the App Store very early next month (assuming Mutombo does his job with the whole saving the world thing). The game was first conceived by Greg Wohlwend as a simple browser game; he then teamed up with Saltsman to create an iPhone/iPad app that maintains the original's sleekness while offering enough variety to keep minds and fingers happily occupied. The game's aesthetic is even more minimalist than Canabalt, but there are echoes of Saltsman's hit app. He showcased the game at a recent meet-up of the Juegos Rancheros indie game collective, which revealed Hundreds to be immediately understandable and continually challenging. The allure of the game – which involves touching circles to make them bigger – is difficult to describe, but rest assured, touch screens will be getting a workout soon.