Adam Saltsman on making a game out of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire is what film company Lionsgate calls a "teaser game" for the upcoming movie, based on the popular books. iOS indie superstar Adam Saltsman (Canabalt, Capsule) is leading a team of other indie superstars for the App Store release, including Mark Johns and Kevin Coulton (aka DOOMLASER), Paul Veer, and composer Danny Baranowsky.

It's a different world now, one in which the official tie-in video game for a major motion picture is a game for phones, designed by a tiny team of people best known for games they made without publishers. It's a game with a deliberate retro aesthetic, as you can see in the new "pixel poster" for the upcoming game (visible in full after the break). Author Suzanne Collins even chimed in with suggestions. How on earth did this all happen?

The rise of iOS gaming is a separate, and larger topic, but pinpointing the design of this particular one was much simpler. "From the get-go my inspiration and motivation for this, aesthetically, has been to just pretend I am making a movie tie-in game for the Super Nintendo, only actually fun to play," Saltsman told Joystiq, explaining the look.


"So as far as the setting, and the story, and the things that are in the game, these things are all sourced directly from the film, and by extension the books, and we even got some guidance on specific ideas from Suzanne Collins herself. But visually our inspiration comes from classic Sega Genesis games, especially Treasure games, and even more modern pixel art games like you see coming out of WayForward the last few years."

Visually our inspiration comes from classic Sega Genesis games, especially Treasure games, and even more modern pixel art games like you see coming out of WayForward the last few years.- Adam Saltsman


The use of pixel art helps cement Girl on Fire as a "game," separate from its source material. "I feel like if we're going to make a video game based on a film," he said, "then it shouldn't pretend to be anything else but a video game. Like to me intentionally using a pixelated style of presentation is a maybe not-so-subtle way of saying 'this is its own thing.'" As its own thing, Girl on Fire takes place within the universe of the books, but covers new events.

As an avowed Hunger Games fan, Saltsman had no trouble finding an aspect of the story to adapt. In fact, he had more trouble narrowing it down. "A hardcore survival simulation? A political thriller adventure game? A resource management thing? There are so many metaphors and so many ways to approach the kind of emotional or thematic core of the story that it was a bit overwhelming," he said.

I feel like if we're going to make a video game based on a film, then it shouldn't pretend to be anything else but a video game.- Adam Saltsman

The limitation of making a "teaser game" for the first movie helped the team figure out where to go. "This placed some constraints on the game: it should be small, and it must take place BEFORE the actual Hunger Games themselves; before the actual arena event in the story," Saltsman said. He continued, offering the first real hint of what the gameplay will be in the iOS title: "So the specific almost systemic things we decided to work off of based on those constraints were things like the heroine's talent for archery, her tendency to go for long walks in a sort of forbidden forest area, and her brains-over-brawn approach to solving problems." He intends for the game to carry the "urgency" of facing the consequences of the choices made by the character Katniss -- after she chooses to take part in the violent, deadly Hunger Games.

As for the apparent disconnect mentioned above -- a tiny iOS team being put on the only game adaptation of a giant franchise -- Saltsman doesn't see the matchup as unusual at all, after applying the model of other art forms to video games. "So for almost every other art form, right, the idea that a big creative license or franchise would team up with a small creative studio to make a new work that is also commercial in nature is just commonplace," Saltsman said.

"You don't hire, I don't know, some monolithic advertising giant if you want to design a great poster, you hire Saul Bass (or Olly Moss, for us hip youngsters!)" Saltsman believes digital distribution, middleware, and "a more mature independent game making community" allow video games to be commissioned in the same "boutique" capacity as other design work. "And I think that is good for everybody."

Lionsgate told us that The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire "will come out timed to the theatrical release." The theatrical release takes place March 23.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.