We’ve talked to a lot of developers over the past month, but I don’t think anyone has had quite the story to share like Adam Saltsman in regards to the development of Overland.
Very little about Overland’s development is what you’d consider…traditional, and you might find it surprising how Saltsman’s team came together.
Saltsman and his team at Finji are currently putting together a squad based strategy game that breaks a lot of traditional conventions and wants you to be continually stressed out as you play, forever having you guess at what’s the right move to make.
GAMEUMENTARY: You have quite an interesting story around Overland and how it came into development. Can you tell me the background for your development team and how things led to where you’re at currently?
Adam Saltsman: Oh man, where to start exactly!
Overland started as a 2D iPad prototype back in December 2013. Well, actually it started as a tweet of a piece of pixel art that was kind of like Dawn of the Dead meets a Michael Brough-like compact roguelike kind of thing.
I was playing a lot of the XCOM reboot and a lot of 868-HACK, and somehow magically I started thinking about squad-based roguelikes that would play out in a really small space, more like a little board game or whatever.
GAMEUMENTARY: So, literally, the idea and development of this game started from pixel art?
Saltsman: Yea it was just a sketch, where I basically took a screen from 868-HACK, and then replaced all the cool glitchy visuals with some little pixel art zombie movie tropes, and that was about it. I’m pretty much a creative genius!
The first prototype was just a Unity and iPad thing, and it was pretty broken, but pretty promising too. The things that were promising about it were there were a bunch of like…genre conventions that were falling apart, and it wasn’t super obvious how to resolve them the best way.
Squad-based games tend to play out on really big levels with a lot of granularity, like, “Hey, you guys split up, you two search this building, you two go fight these guys, then we’ll regroup over here,” etc. They’re built that way for lots of good reasons; you’re making interesting decisions at different sort of timescales or whatever, and it gets you in a good mental space. In this this prototype you couldn’t do any of that, and the limited UI space meant that a lot of the super-stats-heavy stuff that is common to this genre was not a good or likely option either.
But in practice when you were playing it, it emphasized the micro-management to a degree that felt really surprising or fresh or something. Our goal for a long time was like, “I really want this game to be ‘do I move Jeff up or to the left’ and for that to be a life or death decision.”
I felt like a lot of games in this genre didn’t do that all the time. They would do that SOME of the time. Like in XCOM you might have 3 or 4 turns of super hesitant leapfrogging just in case you popped a pod or whatever. Those are meaningful in their own way, but its also this chunk of time where you’re sort of executing a known thing and not necessarily in the thick of it.
What we’d produced mostly on accident was a strategy game where you were kind of always in the thick of it. And this had like a billion weird problems, but again, I felt like for all of them, the solutions, even though we didn’t know which solution was the right one, all of them seemed like interesting possibilities.
The biggest problem we had was when we shrunk everything down to small-board-game-scale, and immediately lost the ability to like differentiate difficulty levels. Everything was so compact that if you had maybe three bad guys on a level, it was thrilling. If you had two, it was boring. If you had four bad guys, it was impossible.
How do you make a game that doesn’t feel super samey if every single level has to have exactly three bad guys or else it’s no fun?
GAMEUMENTARY: So it was a matter with working in the limited UI, tweaking design mechanics, and playtesting to get a build where there was a happy medium?
Saltsman: Yeah — I really wanted to get something built that you could play for, like, an hour at least, get into like 5 scenarios in a row, and feel like each of them was interesting in a different way. Part of that meant changing the difficulty or something, and we couldn’t do that.
We’re still kind of working on this problem even a few years later too. It’s a big, weird thing, and totally the whole reason I’m working on this game, but the big early breakthrough was having this reinforcements mechanic for the enemies. It basically boils down to: if you kill a monster, then in a few turns, two monsters will show up.
There’s some nuance to this that would take longer to explain, but basically this suddenly added a bunch of interesting granularity. A level with just one enemy might not be a level with one enemy forever.
GAMEUMENTARY: So a kind of “kill the enemy quickly, or else the game will spiral into insanely difficult?”
Saltsman: The opposite, actually. If you kill all the monsters right away, you’ll make so much noise and many reinforcements will arrive so quickly that you’ll need to rush out before really scavenging everything in an optimal way. We actually built a paper prototype to test this initially
to make sure we weren’t crazy, because it’s a weird approach in some ways.
But it started to open up all these unexpected things and suddenly defensive items were just as useful as offensive items in your medium-term strategy, pacifist runs took on a really different character from more aggressive runs, etc. And again there were a lot of other components here too, but this was the turning point where we were like, “Oh crap, I think this is a very key part of how we’re going to make this work as a full game.”
GAMEUMENTARY: Interesting. Let’s get away from the general design for a moment and focus on the premise. What do you do in the game? How do you win?
Saltsman: So the basic premise of Overland is you travel with a group of randomly generated survivors across post-apocalyptic United States on a kind of road trip from hell. Think FTL meets The Last of Us, sort of.
The levels are different every time you play: different characters have different skills and abilities, you scavenge for items (especially fuel), and most of your decisions all happen on a kind of Final Fantasy tactics style, turn-based diorama.
The old elevator pitch was XCOM meets Oregon Trail; maybe that’s more helpful. Anyways, the TL;DR version is we made this cool iPad prototype that we didn’t hate, we sat on it for a few months while we saved up some extra money, then we staffed up and started making the version in the trailers.
We set out to hire a lot of people who maybe hadn’t worked in video games a lot before, pretty intentionally, because I’ve been doing this for a few years and am boring.
GAMEUMENTARY: When you say “staffed up,” can you go into detail about how your team was created?
Saltsman: Yeah — So, normally my approach to making a game is to approach a friend and be like, “We should make a game together! What are you doing this weekend?” and then if it snowballs, it snowballs. If it peters, then that’s fine too.
But a bunch of things were happening: Gamergate was happening, and obviously I wanted to help counteract some of that mess, but also there were some new games and some new studios happening that were really inspiring in a positive way.
We were looking at what Fullbright was doing with Karla Zimonja, but also Campo Santo, and also Cardboard Computer. All these studios doing weird, new things, and there seemed to be a corollary with either industry outsiders and/or more traditionally diverse staff.
That made sense to me, I guess. Like I said, in video game terms I am, I think, a pretty boring dude. I like John Carpenter and Blade Runner and, I dunno, like, 80s space-age, all that stuff. I grew up in that and I have some weird ideas, but it’s kind of an uphill battle for me.
I felt like maybe a good next step for us and a way of making our work more likely to stand out would be to hire people who maybe aren’t as represented in the game industry, either through input or output.
So we did open calls for applications. We got a lot of helpful feedback from Bento Miso in Toronto, especially Jennie and Henry Faber. We did art tests with blind reviews, some other stuff, and just tried to find folks that were capable of and passionate about making something weird with us.
The core team now is my wife, Bekah, and I, as well as our art director/co-designer Heather Penn, and our audio-everything person, Jocelyn Reyes. And in one form or another we’re also working with Chris Dwyer (PR), Yurika Nishi-Imai (animation), Leaf Corcoran and Amos Wenger at itch.io for platform stuff, and so on — all people I never knew before we started the project.
Which, again, is slightly different than the process on every other game we ever made. But I’m so happy with the process. We found such amazing people, and I want to work with them forever now.
I’m a little worried that that summary makes what we did sound hyper-intentional and mistake-free, which wasn’t the case at all. We learned a lot as we went, but in general this stuff was very important to us and something we did mostly on purpose.
GAMEUMENTARY: Right, but ultimately it strongly seems that things are going in the right direction for you. What plans do you have for the game? Release, DLC, platform expansion, etc.?
Saltsman: Yeah, it’s 100% the right direction for us. We are so jazzed about how things have been going. We’re planning on a 1.0 release sometime this year. The only platforms we can announce right now are itch.io and Steam. DLC and updates depend a lot on what 1.0 is. Making a game this big is weird, and I definitely have mixed feelings about that.
But, there’s a lot of stuff left to put in. As far as future platforms, we definitely have plans, but a lot of them hinge on me managing to do a good job of gamepad mapping, so hopefully I’ll know more about that in the next month or two.
GAMEUMENTARY: Do you have anything you’d like to add? Any development hurdles you’ve had, experiences you’ve had you want to highlight, or just something for the readers?
Saltsman: I guess just that I’m really looking forward to this year. Based on internet comments and things, I think a lot of people that play games, but don’t actually make games, sometimes have some confusion about how long some game-making tasks can take.
Like you sometimes see a random comment about “How come there’s not online multiplayer? What does that take, like, 3 days? Come on game devs!” which are funny, but also the difference is so extreme. In your favorite games, somebody probably spent three days just getting one of the menu buttons to look right.
This stuff is so much work. It’s crazy. Last year was weird for Overland because we committed so much time to trying to make all the UI and controls as good as we could, but because of that we didn’t really add a ton of new environments or enemies or anything. There’s really just the few of us trying to make a world class 3D strategy game.
So the reason I’m looking forward to this year is we’re finally switching back to content mode. So much of this year is really solely dedicated to making more and more cool stuff and adding it to the game, and I’m just excited about it — been waiting for this for a long time and it is going to be really cool.
I am not sure if that’s a humble brag or a regular brag or what.
Interview originally conducted by Jeffery Wright, who has since left the Gameumentary team. Thanks, Jeff!