At PAX South 2020, OnlySP had the opportunity to sit down with Finji CEO Rebekah Saltsman. Saltsman discussed Finji’s catalog of games, her experiences living in Texas and Michigan within the games industry, her experience as a female CEO, and what the future holds for her studio.
OnlySP: So I want to understand Finji as a publisher. Finji published several notable games, such as Night in the Woods, Wilmot’s Warehouse, and now Tunic. When it comes to publishing, what are you looking for in a game that piques your interest when it comes to publishing?
Saltsman: An interesting thing about Finji, which a lot of people don’t understand, is that we’re developers first. We make games, that’s our background. Overland was our last game. We published these other titles, and we’re like a low quantity. We don’t publish a lot of games and that’s because we usually work on them in some sort of way. Each one of our titles needs something that we’re good at. With Night in the Woods, they needed a lot of business help and managing the console relations. But Adam Saltsman, my partner, helped start Finji with me. Similar to across all of the other publishing projects, we only take on things we want to work on. It sounds hipster but our philosophy is that we have this one life and we’re allowed to make so many projects and beautiful things. Do we want to spend time on our one chance of making things or work on a project? That’s kind of the initial step. The second step is that are we needed to work on this game? Do we see a hole in this project where we can make it better?
After that, you get into more Finji stuff. Does it have a distinctive art style? Can I show a screenshot of it? Usually, it has a really really strong art direction. Is it doing something interesting with design? Maybe it’s breaking lots of rules, or cross genres. So it tends to be a little bit riskier? Is it made by cool people who want to work with other people, including us/ Our collaborators are the type of people I will invite into my home, introduce them to my children.
When we travel together, we stay in hotel rooms together. My Tunic team will represent Night in the Woods who will represent Overland, who will represent Wilmot. That’s really important because when we launch something. We’re hoping that it succeeds and we’re behind the team that’s currently launching
OnlySP: I want to talk about Tunic a little bit. The game’s trailer premiered at Microsoft’s E3 conference in 2018, and then I believe it was also at PAX South last year. In the past year, what kind of feedback did you receive for Tunic and how was the feedback implemented?
Saltsman: So Tunic has always been pretty high profile in terms of an indie project. It used to be called Secret Legend so if you go back to 2015, you can see a lot of articles about Tunic and how it’s been made by this one guy. Secret Legend was kind of an unfortunate name. If you remembered it, you could Google it and it would be the only hit, but nobody ever remembered the name, so we knew we had to change that. We’ve been mentoring Andrew for a couple of years, and at a certain point the game got so big that when we were doing our catch-ups with him, Adam and I came out of it saying, “We worried about our friend who’s making this game.” We thought it got too big and felt there was a lot of anxiety in the design decision, which happens when you’re a one-person team. After our meeting, we thought that he needed someone to take business development from him. It’s the part he does not enjoy the most and he needs someone to help offload these design decisions. Tunic is the only game we’ve ever pitched to, “we will take this game from you”. All of the rest of our games kind of game to us. We rebranded it and negotiated the console partnership. We never did an E3 spot before with our past games, so we knew it was going to be a big deal. This was our chance to tell people it was not a “Zelda like”. Yes, you see the fox in the forest, but the game is about combat and a non-linear experience and it’s a world that we won’t tell you about. It was incredible for Xbox to have our back and really supportive of the project and understanding that this is a very small team.
We can take it all over the world because it doesn’t need to be localized except for menus. The localization needs are so low. It’s been very cool and having an audience getting behind this adorable fox, it’s a game for everybody.
OnlySP: So what about Tunic interested Finji to consider publishing the game in the first place?
Saltsman: We had already been mentoring the game over the years. There were some projects over the years where we would have loved to publish it, but the [developers] didn’t need us. Our philosophy is that when we take on projects, our goal is having our developers able to make another game. You don’t make games because you don’t want to make a billion dollars. You want to make games because you need to make games. This is their creative outlet, artform, building systems in their heads. In Andrew’s case, he needed to bring other people to work on the game, or we could take this. He has already trusted it because he had known us for years, and it felt like a natural fit in many ways.
OnlySP: I want to ask the same thing about Wilmot’s Warehouse. Basically, the first time you saw the developers, Richard [Dick] Hogg and Ricky Haggett were with Poto & Cabenga, and then you were also impressed with their work on Hohokum. Can you go into more detail about why you decided to publish Wilmot’s Warehouse and kind of what’s the story behind it?
Saltsman: It’s a good one! I was traveling for PAX East. Dick worked at a warehouse in the 90s and he loved it. He had an idea for a game where none of his friends would make for him saying, “we can’t make a game about organizing a warehouse, it’s the worst idea you ever had”. At some point, Ricky went on holiday and came back with a prototype for Dick, and it was good! Dick had already been designing the game in Photoshop and making all the icons. Ricky took that and chopped it up into a game. Eventually, they pitched that prototype to Humble and got some financing to make it into a Humble original. We’ve been friends with them for a long time and Adam was obsessed with Wilmot’s. They submitted Wilmot’s to the International Indie Games Festival and they were up for a bunch of design awards.
We took the game and found a life for it on Steam and Switch. That was in 2018 at GDC. And then spent the next 1.5 years honing control and making sure its Endless Mode was in there. The heart of Wilmot’s is so engaging that everyone can organize their warehouse how they want. We thought it’d be cool if there were 2 player co-op and make it work with a controller. We did a lot of feedback and QA. They lived in the UK, and so they can’t take it to shows.
OnlySP: Overland is one of the titles that Finji developed and published by itself. One of the things that stuck out to me about Overland was the difficulty, and it seems like I wasn’t alone on that. How did you address these kinds of concerns for Overland, and what were some of the lessons you learned that you could apply to develop future titles?
Saltsman: We had a lot of people playing Overland before it came out and the main feedback was not about difficulty, it was eligibility. When we launched, it was surprising to us what was so difficult about it. There were some legible things that we addressed quickly. A narrative designer said something on Twitter, “I can’t believe I just played this. This is the best end of the world story generator I’ve ever experienced.” That’s a really scary thing when you watch a movie like that, you can distance yourself from the story. When we designed Overland, we asked how we could encourage people to play a turn-based game but also care about the characters on screen.
Players get very uncomfortable with the fact that they will die. We designed it so the UI was approachable, and that the game wasn’t only for certain people. When we went back through our talking points, we realized that we shouldn’t change them as they were accurate. But people saw that it was an inviting world because Heather Penn’s art direction was so lovely. It was a very simple, low poly 3D [artsyle]. Having all of these things together, people made assumptions on what the game was, with words we never said.
When we approached Overland, we signaled that anyone can play this. It’s going to be hard but it’s beautiful. There was one piece that we did miss, and it was more puzzle-like than it led on. We changed our wording around that. It is a turned based strategy game but you have to approach it like it’s a heist. If you go in and think you can get everything without dying, you’re going to lose and your run is dead. If you scavenge only for the things you need as quickly as possible, you will be fine. There’s no situation in Overland you can’t get out of. It’s not a power fantasy. We intentionally made you feel vulnerable. That was the design decision from the beginning. When people yell at me for being so hard, I say “Yes it is”. I’ve watched people learn the mechanics of the monsters and come out of it going “yeah it was easier than I thought”. They had to learn how to meticulously survive in the game.
OnlySP: I want to ask something about you, Rebekah! So you’re originally from Michigan, and then you moved to Austin, and then came back to Michigan. Austin has really grown over the past few years, and it’s home to a lot of different developers like EA, Bethesda, Retro Studios. Was there any particular reason why you decided to move back to Michigan?
Saltsman: Adam and I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2003. Adam wanted to work in video games and I worked in public relations. The industry literally didn’t exist in Michigan, still. Adam wanted to work for Retro. He couldn’t get a job in AAA when we were in Austin. He was a programmer so he was able to get a job at a normal software company. Eventually, we started launching our small iOS games. We grew up in Michigan. We hated the winter, and if we lost our jobs, we would get stuck in the auto industry churn. It just wouldn’t be interesting work. Austin was great and we would have access to more industries.
When we got there, we got married, we had our children, and now we were marooned in Austin. But now we’re traveling a lot for video games, trying to run a company while trying to raise babies. I’m still shocked at how hard it was to find a babysitter in Austin. Having no backup or family, it was a shock. My mom was there, but she didn’t live close and her work hours were terrible. Anytime we traveled, we would have to plan 6-9 months ahead and fly out our family to take care of our children. One of our children has ADHD, and we needed to put him in a more flexible school. He’s intelligent, above grade level, but we needed to put him in a non-traditional classroom set up. That was way on the east side of Austin. At a certain point, it was really stressful, and we already sold our old house. There’s this school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, close to Adam’s family. It’s also cheap, and so if we got our kid into this school, maybe we should go to a house there. We managed to lottery our son into the school, and when we visited Michigan over Easter, we found a house we loved. We would be saving so much money going back to Michigan. Adam’s parents would watch the boys. And I travel so much. As an indie, why would we live in Austin spending triple my budget?
OnlySP: And truthfully, I actually don’t get the chance to speak to many female CEOs of game companies. I believe you’re actually the first I’ve spoken to. Is there anything in particular that you’ve learned in this industry through your experience as being a female CEO?
Saltsman: A lot of things work in my favor. I’m pretty tall, 5’9” and pretty athletic. My counterparts deal with being the smallest person in the room, and that doesn’t really happen with me. I get misjudged a lot. I won’t be spoken to, or I will only be asked about my children. It’s weird. I will make note of it. Adam would be asked about video games and I would be asked about raising children. Adam sees it too and goes “yeah that’s strange”. Our friends do that too! It’s just unconscious bias and a lot of traditional conditioning.
I was keynoting an event, and Adam is more well known than I. He said: “I’m Bekah’s husband, Adam.” He didn’t say “I’m Adam Saltsman, the lead designer of this, co-run this studio, and so on.” It was a cool way to set yourself intentionally in a shadow. He was like “why would I take that from you? You’re keynoting this event, people are there to hear YOU talk”. So now, when Adam goes to speak, I’m proud to say, “I’m Adam’s wife, Bekah.”
I have odd experiences if I’m being translated into Japanese at business meetings. I have a feminine voice, but I speak very strongly and directly. I wish they would translate me in a male tone in Japanese. The female tone makes me uncomfortable because I would never sound like that normally. But I know it’s more of a cultural thing. It’s something that my male counterparts would not engage with. I don’t wear floral or low cut shoes. If I go into a party by myself, I would put on wedge boots that make me 6’1”, and make me look slightly scarier. People then step back.
I don’t generally wear skirts, and that’s more of an adaption thing. At home, I’m wearing summer dresses and I’m fine with my femininity. But here, I’ve had enough weird things happen that I just downplay it. I’ll wear black jeans and hoodies just to downplay as much as possible so I don’t have to deal with anything creepy. However, my physical presence allows me to do that. Some of my counterparts are like 5’0” and don’t have that option. There’s a lot of leaning on people or stepping on people. I see the “downward” thing, and I’m like “that dude needs to step back”. You’ll see people tower over and lean down. If you’re going to have a business meeting with a woman who’s a little shorter, then sit down. Put yourself on more equal footing so there isn’t a visual display of power. I could go on forever on this sort of thing!
OnlySP: So it was originally announced that Limited Run Games would be doing a physical run of Night in the Woods. However, in August, it was delayed. Have there been any updates on the physical copies yet?
Saltsman: A big portion of that is that we lost our tech lead. To put out a game on physical, we need a tech lead. Also, there were a lot of speed bumps on the business side that we had to figure out. The Limited Run version is definitely going to happen. We’ve lined up all the pieces. Jon Manning knows Night in the Woods in and out, so we’ve been setting up Jon’s ability to take over the maintenance of the game. It’s great because, in order for me to make sure that Night in the Woods can come out on physical, I need to ensure that the game has a tech lead. Jon was finishing up [the game dialogue tool] Yarn Spinner, and now there’s a bunch of ESRB videos I have to do. I needed to get Overland out anyways, so now Harris and I are going to put together the ESRB stuff. I’ll be working with Limited Run just to figure out where on the schedule they want and get everything set.
We lost somebody that we cared deeply about, flaws and all. Untangling everything that came out of it just takes time. I’m really grateful for the grace of all of our friends and fans who have given us that time. We love the game too, and it has meant much to us as it does to them. The physical will be coming out and it will be this year, but I’ve got to get these pieces lined up again and move forward with it.
OnlySP: What’s next for Finji?
Saltsman: To be honest, it’s Tunic. We have some cool stuff coming out for Overland. We have some iOS things too. Night in the Woods iOS isn’t out yet. We’re moving into a bunch of testing. We have a cool Wilmot’s thing coming out. We just did the Overland vinyl so we’re having our extra copies at shows in the future. We’re kind of punching ourselves through Tunic’s launch. I don’t have a date on that yet. I almost do, but getting really close to locking it down. We have some unannounced stuff that we are getting set up that is about 1-2 years out. We’ll start prepping announcements that it exists, what it is, and who’s working on it. For my internal team, we’re going to be wrapping up Overland this year, aside from maintenance, but we’re going to start prototyping again which we haven’t been able to do since like 2013. I’m excited to do something new and my team isn’t junior anymore. Everyone on my team has launched a game and I’m excited to launch a new project with all of these creators that I trust deeply.
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