We love Night in the Woods so much on The Young Folks it was the only game in 2017 that we gave a 10 out of 10 to. We visited the Finji booth at PAX East 2018 in Boston and met with CEO Rebekah Saltsman to talk about the development of the game, what to expect from their new post apocalyptic game Overland, recently released on first access through itch.io, and also showcasing their newest title, Tunic, to be released following Overland.
Our conversation with Rebekah is here published on our TYFOfficial YouTube channel, but she was such an inspired, open book and detailed in her answers, we’ve got it all in written form for you here too.
Check out Finji’s games, including the upcoming release of Overland on itch.io, and please play Night in the Woods because it’s literally everywhere on PC, PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
Evan: Hey there, this is Pax East day two on Friday; this is Evan Griffin with TheYoungFolks.com and we’re here with Rebekah from Finji-which is the publisher of Overland and also one of our personal favorite games among our whole website staff, Night In The Woods. (To Rebekah) So we’re just gonna ask you a few questions…
Rebekah: Sounds good.
E: …we appreciate you taking the time with us. So first off, what games are specifically showcasing this week and you want people to know about?
R: Yeah, for sure. I’ve got three games here: Night In The Woods, which is already out; we’re showcasing it with out PlayStation 4 demo. We also have Overland, which is currently in our first access, and that is a turn-based survival strategy and we’re developing internally-so now we publish games and make games. And we’re showcasing Tunic which is coming out after Overland; we have a really fun short demo to sort of give you a little bit..a little taste of the cute fox in a small world. It’s an action-adventure, it’s so good, oh it’s so good.
R: A little bit of context: We have Overland out on itch.io and there’s kind of a long development story with that, but we’re developing a strategy game, and developing a strategy game is sort of like [being] in a tunnel with our blinders on, means you’re not paying a lot of attention to UI. Because when you make UI you’ll kind of know how it works, but when you’re changing UI, which we’ve done with Overland, we needed to have access to players who are passionate about the strategy genre, needed to have the game right now, and were willing to play this in an alpha program. The game was funded, so we actually didn’t need the revenue from something like Early Access and my company is very very small, and when you put a game out in Early Access (on Steam) you end up with…especially with us having made games before, we were going to end up with too many players too fast and we had no ability to manage expectations. And that means we break save games all the time (Evan laughs) and if you break a save game on Steam Early Access, the wrath of hell will come down upon you-
E: Oh yeah, it’s done.
R: -from your players. You can’t do that! So we actually talked to itch, we wanted to start out selling just a few copies at once, just to sort of ramp up and onboard people slowly. We talked to Lief and Amos over at itch and they just sort of built this thing for us, cause we bring our own audience to itch.io, so value for us has been-I couldn’t develop this game over the last two and a half years without itch, and we have over 5,000 amazing strategy players who are just digging into Overland and their telling their own stories, and they’re having these close calls-and also god bless all of them not getting angry at us when we like, just change the UI and break their save files and we have hilarious bugs with giant dogs and textures.
E: It’s very specific stuff getting changed?
R: Oh, god yeah. It’s getting so close, we have so much of the game that we just haven’t shown publicly yet, but we have the first four regions just out, right now.
E: Now, as far as aesthetically in the game goes, what sets your version of post-apocalyptic America, which is a very common thing, apart from all the others?
R: Adam and I are giant genre film nerds, but we also read a lot of genre fiction. And one of the things, well a couple of things actually about our particular game, but the first one is we really like The Roadside Picnic, which is a book, it’s a sci-fi book written in like, the 70’s-ish, by some Russian brothers. And it’s really dirty, it’s really gritty, it’s like what happens when humans are put in this extraordinary situation but it’s like a sci-fi thing. So it’s not about they save the world, it’s black markets and and these communities that grow up that are sort of beneath the law…
E: Like the weird little economics of it?
R: Yeah, yeah. It’s super fascinating. So we had been reading that, and we saw Stalker, which I saw as a kid; odd movie to see as a child. But I saw it again as an adult within that same time frame and then at the time we were playing a tremendous amount of Pandemic, like a lot of Pandemic. And we started talking about why, I as a player, I love strategy board games-Pandemic specifically.
E: I love Pandemic!
R: Oh my god! And the idea of arguing with people is a really pleasing [sic] I’m not argumentative but arguing in a cooperative way is a really fun way for me to play. And we started talking about why I bounce really hard off of something like X-COM, which I think came out in 2014-ish or maybe 2013, (Probably Enemy Unknown, which came out in 2012 but had DLC in 2013.) but I was watching Adam play that and I was like, “Man, I like the game, I like the idea of the game, I like all the pieces of it, but I’m bouncing really hard off of this.” And like, yeah, it has guns, that’s not really my jam.
E: It’s like this wall, and you’re not getting in.
R: Yeah. As we started talking about why do I like strategy board games versus strategy video games-I don’t like most of them, it’s not even that I don’t like them, I bounce off of them really hard as a player-and kind of what came out of that is Adam’s obsession with UI our obsession with making hardcore strategy games accessible. Meaning people like me who bounce off of other strategy genre because of topic, because of UI, because of digital noise on the screen, how do we pull that out and hide those pieces?
E: How do you make it readable, understandable?
E: You know, that’s one of the things that always stood out to me about Skyrim, a part of maybe why it was as successful as it was, a very straightforward understandable UI.
E: That’s a good goal to have, with something that’s such a grand concept.
R: Well, strategy has this thing; “Well, it needs to be complex,” and it is, the systems are a nightmare to design, but as a player it doesn’t have to be opaque. When you approach it, you should be able to look at it and it’s legible, it needs to be legible. That’s been a focus for our team, is to make a situation where anyone who approaches it can one, have depth of play-so a new person could come in and have a lot of fun with the game but also somebody who plays these games like, y’know, Dwarf Fortress, just deep level dives of of crazy also have a lot of fun with something, we call that depth of play. We come at it from multiple angles to be like, “Can we onboard somebody and can we help them get better but also can we have somebody who’s pretty hardcore into the genre also go through and be like ‘Oh man, this is great!” And a lot of people walk up and be like “Well this looks really simple” and I’m like, “Haha!” (She rubs her hands together?) “Burn it down, burn it down sweetheart.”
E: That being said, what’s on your to-do list right now that seems to be-
R: Oh good lord.
R: My to-do list is longer than this convention center.
E: As far as Overland at this point in time?
R: So, we’re about a year from launch, I’m probably going to be done with the game this year, but it’ll be done kind of in the fall…ish, which I can’t launch it. I’m indie, I can’t launch in the fall. Or the winter. So I’ll hold it until next spring. The nice thing is that it’s paid for. So I can sort of pick the best launch date for the game.
E: That’s good, so you have the push to build it as it needs to be.
R: We’ve been building it for years, but we just brought on a new programmer and we’re doing the big giant code refactor (?) so we can start our console port, and, and, and.
E: Now, I know you don’t have a whole lot for us for Tunic today…
R: Secrets, you guys.
E: …but it’s slated for console for release and there’s this thing by this company that we all know and love where you can put it in a thing (Rebekah grimaces) and take it to another place?
R: I’ve never ever heard of any company that makes a handheld device that plays games. I just…which one, which one is it?
E: Oh, The Nintendo Switch.
R: Oh, that one. Yeah, god bless all y’all and the damn Nintendo Switch. So, we love it, obviously. Whether it’s coming to the Switch or not, no comment. Partly because we haven’t made a console announcement for either Overland or Tunic. Do we love the Switch? Yes. Will it come there? Eventually…maybe. Who knows? Does it run? I don’t know. I already did a port for the Switch on Night In The Woods, and it was a hell of a project. So, until things are optimized and finished and what am I dealing with, and, and, and. We don’t know kind of what console. Do I have a single first console? Maybe. Have I announced it? No. Will I? Yes.
E: That recent port of Night In The Woods to Switch, that’s actually where I played myself-
R: Oh, such a good place to play it.
E: Have you gotten a lot of feedback with it on that platform specifically?
R: It’s actually been really interesting. I knew I it needed to come to the Switch, wasn’t sure if I’d be able to run it on the Switch just because we’re in Unity and we have to optimize a lot and we’re like, “I don’t know, how is it even doing?” A lot of people are pretty opaque about numbers and stuff so we’re like “Well, we are riding on a little bit of extra cash, so let’s just get it out” cause I need y’all to stop emailing me or shouting in our DMs or whatever or on my Facebook pages to bring it to the Switch. So we were able to afford a port and all we wanted to do was payback for the port. Actually it did really well, but the coolest thing that came out of is that people started talking about the game and the type of game it was in the way they were playing it; specifically on a very personal level with the Switch. So people that are outside of our company started referring to playing on the Switch as they’re cozy…it’s their cozy console. Which is…you don’t hear cozy in games. And it’s like normal gamers saying “No, my Switch is cozy!”
E: On no other platform would you be able to play it in a bean bag!
R: Yeah, in your jim-jams in bed! Especially with something like Night In The Woods, where it’s so personal. People have a lot of nostalgia, like they have a lot of visceral reactions, like in the way Mae interacts with her family. What came out of it is people started using a term that we talk about internally, in the way they talk about playing their Switch. Which is really…I mean it’s fascinating. It’s this weird crossover super powerful handheld thing. It’s interesting; if you talk to people and ask “Do you only play it in handheld or do you hook it up to your TV?” And some people just don’t hook it up to their television.
E: I did it both ways, and it’s funny how you can actually experience certain segments. Once I realized I got to the third act, I was like, “I have to dock this! I gotta make sure I’ve got the sound and everything.” Our site adores it, we’re a bunch of millennials, it resonates a lot with millennials, obviously. When you guys took to distributing Night In The Woods, did you expect it to have that resonating power with people?
R: So we weren’t part of the initial Kickstarter, outside of we vetted it to our friends. I remember seeing the trailer the very first time, before it was even out on Kickstarter, Alec had sent it over to us because he’s been a friend for a really long time. And I just remember thinking, “My god, they’re making a game for me.” Everything about the music, the colors, and the art, and I’m like “Nobody makes a game for-at that point-a 34 year old mom of two or whatever. Nobody makes a game for me. I’m not a demographic.” And we sort of took that out-once we had a demo and everything-started showing it around and I would have dudes in Slipknot shirts laughing their asses off at PlayStation Experience just playing the demo. And then I would have women drag their boyfriends over, again sitting down and their boyfriends going “No, this is really good!” And yeah, it has a cat. Yes, it’s a cartoon. But it’s barely not rated M. And that’s because we don’t curse! If I dropped an f-bomb in there, we’d be out. It talks about real things. And it does so with honesty and humor. And I knew what they were making, because I’ve taken it everywhere. But the team were like “I just-it’s just not gonna do well.” Two months before launch, Scott was like, soliciting for contract work on Twitter and I was like, “Take that shit down, you don’t need it.” And he’s like, “No I really do, this is not gonna make-” And I’m like “I promise, trust me, this is gonna do fine.” And I am the biggest Debbie Downer on everything, I’m like you cross your T’s and dot your I’s and everything. So I knew that it was going to resonate, did I expect the wide range? No, but I did expect it to at least do well. But that’s because I have seen the responses. And like, the [people] “I only play first person shooters” and they’ll play the game and love it; “I only play strategy” and they play the game and love it. The only people who told me they didn’t love it were-I’m not kidding-the people who told me they didn’t like to read. Eh, fair game. You’re good, yeah.
E: There’s been a lot of talk recently about game development unionization; we’ve talked about it ourselves, it comes up sometimes, and we know you guys have policies that say you support “quality of life and significant revenue shares for team members.” Has that impacted development with any of the teams that you’ve worked with?
R: Well, there’s a thing that-in our relationships there’s mutual respect. I value my collaborators as developers, and I refuse to let them destroy their lives for a game. And if there’s a question of money, I will find money. I will find a way to fund it. If we need to delay something, I will figure out a way to do this. I will send out my spider web of whatever and I will come up with something to ensure that we don’t die. We made some mistakes with like, Night In The Woods, where we came in real hot, but for the mental health of the team…they needed to finish the game, we made a lot of concessions and it took us quite a long time to recover from it. But we work normal hours on Overland. And if it takes real long to get done, at least we’re alive at the end of it. And happy! I wanna make another game, I want my collaborators to make another game, I don’t want to burn out. Why the hell would I burn out making video games, that’s insane. Same thing with Tunic. The reason we make games is because it’s more important for us to make them than play them. And that’s a special kind of crazy?
E: It’s a specific kind of thing, that’s entirely different than playing a game.
R: Imagine burning out on the thing you’re most passionate about. That reality is so devastating for me-
E: It’s crushing.
R: Yeah. Yes, we support quality of life. We don’t ask questions if people need to take time off. Even my new community manager, it’s just like [to them] “Man, if you wanna go on vacation, just, just go! Get all your stuff lined up and, peace. Let me know when you’re back. Work decent hours. If you don’t want to work during the day, you need to pick up some hours at night, I don’t care. Flex time. If I find out though that you’re working all your weekends, we’re gonna have a chat, cause I’m not gonna tolerate it. I take my weekends off. I go to the beach with my kids. I just take my cell phone with me. If you need me, call me. I’m at the beach.” That’s a really nice way to have…you respect my time, and I’ll respect yours and we’re going to make something amazing together. That doesn’t say we don’t often times do work sprints, we do…but they’re like, 48 hours. We do two days where we work thirteen hours. Which, is like, that’s not even…that’s not crunching.
E: No, it sounds like it’s a step in the right direction away from sleeping under your desk for fifteen nights in a row.
R: Oh god, no, no. When Night In The Woods came out, I was testing it. I got to GDC last year and I hadn’t slept in a bed in like twelve days. Because I was testing the game overnight, we would get a build, I’d test it all night long and pass it off to [the team] what was wrong with it, then they would develop it during the day, I would sleep on the couch or wherever because I was also taking care of my kids at the time, and then I would start the testing again overnight. And then we went right out of that to TrainJam, to GDC, and by the time we got to GDC I was like, “We’re renting a hotel, I’m not staying at a friend’s house, I love you all, I gotta get a real bed.” And that was dumb. That was insane, that was stupid, that was dangerous, don’t do it! That’s not like, ha ha ha, we lived-no, it was stupid. I have to forever answer to why I allowed my team to do that. That’s a burden I have to carry like an adult. That was not okay. That’s for all of us, as well. Everyone on the team, because I didn’t push them to that. It was we were there, and we did something dumb, and it worked. But it was stupid and dangerous; and I won’t do it again. There’s no way I would ever, ever allow my teams to do that again.
E: I have just one more thing. Is there any takeaway here at PAX that people have had coming to visit you guys at the booth here?
R: I always have the fun reaction of “Wow, everything here is so beautiful, what is it?” Which is always my favorite response because I’m like, “That implies that I have bad taste? No, I have great taste; my stuff is really pretty and it’s also really fun.” So we’re small, you probably don’t know who we are, but we make really really smart games. Some of my designers are some of the best indie designers around, a lot of them have sort of weird pedigrees like, say, making the first endless auto-runner. Especially in the indie space, we are the ones that are allowed to break genre and break a lot of rules. And it’s really fun to go around and play a lot of indie games, because we are taking chances on a lot of things that aren’t proven by the market. So, give us a chance, we make really cool stuff!
E: Cool. Well, I’ll let you get back to it, we appreciate you taking the time, and we wish you a happy PAX!
R: Day two! Or, it’s more like day 9,000.
R: I was actually telling a friend, “Yeah, so at the end of PAX, I just leave a part of my soul behind. Just fuckin’ haunts this convention center until next year.”
E: I think everyone does, and it turns into that sweat musk the next year.
R: I just leave a part of myself at all these convention centers to fucking haunt the building until I come back.
E: That’s two interviews we’ve done this weekend about ghosts.
R: Oh yeah, I’ll fucking haunt this place.