The Leaders of Finji Want You To Remember People Make Their Games

The Leaders of Finji Want You To Remember People Make Their Games

On a temperate Friday afternoon in June, the sun flitted among the clouds creating the perfect day to sit outside and relax — except I was sitting in my childhood bedroom enthralled by Cofounder and Director at Finji Co. Adam Saltsman’s retelling of Star Trek (2009)’s surprise Fantastic Fest premiere. Like all of the games the company creates and publishes, the story was full of humor, drama, and passion; simply put, it was a story about something real.

As they spearhead development and publishing through their Grand Rapids-based studio, husband and wife Adam and Rebekah Saltsman have helped usher many award-winning titles out into the world. On the development side, there’s Adam’s 2009 solo project Canabalt, a Flash-based endless-runner, and 2019’s post-apocalyptic strategy game Overland. Looking at games they merely published — although they provided developmental aid in some cases — there’s the highly acclaimed Night in the Woods, the BAFTA-winning art-venture Chicory: A Colorful Tale, and the recent success of the enigmatic Tunic. Within their diverse catalog full of disparate settings, tones, and genres, one thing truly unifies them as Finji games: they are human stories that tackle themes like mental health, imposter’s syndrome, and childhood wonder.

In between their many tales and wisdom gleaned from 15+ years in the industry, the Saltsmans radiate amiability — the type that makes you feel like you’ve been longtime friends even if you only met virtually that very day. If we weren’t trapped within the digital confines of a Zoom call, our interview could have been mistaken for a chat on their porch during a lazy summer afternoon.

Born and raised in rural Michigan, Rebekah and Adam dated in high school before both attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After graduating, they relocated to Austin, Texas for an extended period of time during the early 2000s before returning to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they currently sit within their office, dog in lap, chatting with me.

“We’re weirdo Midwest kids,” Rebekah says. “We don’t do drugs. We don’t want to burn people out with crunch culture. We like dogs and hanging out on patios and eating breakfast tacos and watching weird genre films.”

Many consider Finji a boutique publisher, a new breed of independent publisher who focuses on quality over quantity. Annapurna Interactive (who have been accused of ignoring workplace hostility at partner studios Funomena and Mountains) and Devolver Digital are icons of this new class, and the homes of many of the Saltsmans’ friends within the industry. But Adam prefers to call Finji a “micro-publisher” — where Devolver may publish 10 games in one year, Finji focuses on releasing only one, sometimes even none, placing them more in contention with This War of Mine publisher and developer 11-Bit Studios.

Their smaller output allows them to pick projects they’re truly passionate about, regardless of the bottom line. They want cool devs with cool ideas to have such a good experience making their current game that they want to make another. Adam believes this thinking protects vulnerable, smaller developers from the inherently exploitative capitalist nature of the industry: “I think when you start making games because you love the project and you love the people, you have no incentive anymore to try to derive profit from a tumultuous relationship.”

At Finji, no idea is too far out there; no situation is too unremarkable so long as the story tries to explore the changes within our lives. “If the story itself is talking about real people and real things,” Rebekah explains, “that’s a story, in my opinion, that’s worth telling.”

Although they have garnered a reputation for finding games that focus on difficult topics, deep emotions are not a requirement. In fact, pigeonholing them as “mental health games” diminishes their effect and devalues the thought and care that went into crafting them. The Saltsmans argue that games should be treated like film or literature, where works often juggle multiple complex issues instead of being reduced into a box for the ease of “good representation.”

None of this is to say that games cannot be centered around mental health, but that what the industry views as mental health is often people getting through their day to day. Just as people with anxiety or depression are not defined by their affliction, games are often much more than their darkest themes. Even when their protagonists are anthropomorphic animals, Finji wants their stories to focus on their characters’ humanity — or, more specifically, their coming of age.

“That’s near and dear to us as parents who were, not terribly recently, also people who are trying to come of age,” says Adam. ”The idea of transformation and learning are things that are baked into every project that we do.”

Citing BioWare and Sony’s Media Molecule as influences, the Saltsmans strive to create an environment far from the specter of burnout and crunch. Keyword Studios, a BioWare QA division, has recently voted to unionize, while Media Molecule has humane approaches to game development within their studio. Being a publisher and developer, the Saltsmans ideally want both their internal and partnered developers to feel stable and taken care of. Adam calls their search for a less ruthless way to create games an “active process.” The end goal is a healthy community where everyone has equal pay, works the same amount of hours, and most importantly, has access to health care.

Founding Finji, however, was far from straightforward. When Adam attended the University of Michigan in the early 2000s, there was no game design major available. Inspired by the release of Metroid Prime, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in games but didn’t have the resources to do so. Thus, he crafted his coursework around anything considered adjacent to game-development, such as writing, programming, and animation.

He spent time as a programmer and freelance artist before fully committing to game development after finding turnkey work — a freelance contract where a company outsources an entire project to a separate team — creating games centered around  windshield wiper fluid brands and rubber factories before eventually landings gigs with real developers like Electronic Arts This work eventually snowballed into the creation of Last Chance Media in 2006, a name I was assured was much less dramatic than it seemed. “We mostly thought it just sounded cool,” he says.

Rebekah’s path was even more of a zigzag: She transferred into the University of Michigan hoping to study sports medicine before a “terrifically terrible” semester forced her to re-evaluate. “I went from like a 3.9 student to a 1.9 student in a single semester, which I think I should get an award for,” she says with a smile on her face. “I was going to class — I just couldn’t pass any of them because I was working at night instead of studying.”

She switched into communications, finding work post-graduation with PR firms and software companies, but it never felt right. Although she would help out with Last Chance from time to time, Rebekah admitted to never feeling ownership over it. The company originally was an “incredibly, idiotically ambitious” excuse for Adam and his college buddies to make video games, concept albums, and comic books together. Most of these projects never came to fruition and people quickly began to find jobs elsewhere, so Last Chance Media — along with Adam’s iOS development group Semi-Secret Software — eventually served as convenient legal entities for Adam’s various freelance projects to be created under.

It wasn’t until she underwent a “27 year-old crisis” that Rebekah approached Adam about rebranding Last Chance Media into something they both had equal say in — something they could co-pilot together.

Wanting to keep it within the family, they chose the name Finji, their youngest child’s nickname, while the crowned weasel mascot represented their eldest, whose blatant mischievous “weaselness” leads him to explore everything. They knew they were on the right track when they were informed that the name serendipitously also stood for “purpose” and “make-believe” in Maltese and Portuguese, respectively.

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“On the outside, people are like ‘this just looks so cool.’ They think it doesn’t mean anything,” Rebekah explains. “But for us, this is our thing. This represents our family union and the kind of way we want to live our life.”

Family has always been a focus for the Saltsmans, extending far beyond their blood relatives to include co-workers, colleagues, and most importantly, friends. Their previous tenure in Austin, Texas — once a vibrant hub for game developers like Retro Studios, Origin Systems, and Ion Storm Austin before housing prices soared and state reputation plummeted — is sprinkled with P. Terry’s burgers, breakfast tacos, and coffee shops frequented by aspiring devs. Beyond that, they emphasize community outreach by speaking at different universities, mentoring at the New York Game Center Summer Incubator program, and serving on the Game Developers Conference advisory board.

With their success and constant traveling, you might think they would relocate from the Midwest, an area that many view as a no man’s land for game development. Adam posits this belief persists because they aren’t situated near either of the coasts — the West benefits from easy access to Japan, the East from the populous tri-state. Staying put, they may have to deal with people regularly saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re in Michigan?” But for them, it’s home. Their friends may be scattered across the country but their family is only a hop, skip, and a jump away.

Adam and Rebekah Saltsman are weirdo Midwestern kids through and through, and for them, humanity and love rule. It’s what points them toward compelling games from aspiring developers, and it’s what leads those developers to return for a second round. It’s what drives them to mentor those in and outside of Finji, using their own experience to help guide them along and make the development process as fluid as possible. It’s what allows them to maintain so many friendships throughout the industry.  And, if you can believe it, it’s what makes two soccer parents from the heart of Michigan some of the most highly-awarded developers in the industry.

“Our simple goal is to just release the best games ever made,”Adam says, completely serious. “That’s all we want. The best games ever made in the whole world every year. That’s all we want to do. It’s simple.” And y’know? With the Saltsmans, I believe it is.