A Conversation with James Silva, Creator of Salt and Sanctuary

His remarkable journey provides valuable lessons for aspiring game developers

A Conversation with James Silva, Creator of Salt and Sanctuary
Source: Steam.

Here at SUPERJUMP, we are constantly trying to peek behind the curtain of indie game development, examining how studios get started and the nuts and bolts of how small teams take games from ideas to your living room.

James Silva is the embodiment of that process, starting Ska Studios as a one-man operation and producing a slew of games that led up to the release of Salt and Sanctuary in 2016. The 2D Souls-like adventure has sold over 1 million copies and is held up as one of the best examples of 2D action RPGs available across any system.

We’ve asked James a wide range of questions, covering everything from sound recording to screen shake, and a lot of other stuff. You’re going to love what he has to share!

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Editors note - This interview was conducted in 2020, well before James released Salt and Sacrifice, so the questions only reference a new project because the second game had not been revealed at the time

SUPERJUMP
Good morning James, thank you so much for joining us for this interview! With the pandemic and lock-downs that have been a part of daily life since March, have you found it easier or harder to be creative? How has your daily routine been altered, and has it affected your work on your current project?

JAMES SILVA
It’s interesting — I’ve been working out of one home office or another ever since I founded Ska Studios by myself over 13 years ago, so I’m completely used to this. In fact, when the pandemic hit, I had actually been working through a personal crisis for months, so a horrific global pandemic kind of made my own problems seem a lot more manageable.

SUPERJUMP
Obviously, your games have a very unique graphical style. Would you consider yourself an artist first that learned programming, or did you develop the art once you started making games?

JAMES SILVA
I’m absolutely an artist that learned programming. When I was 9 or 10 I used to obsessively plan out video games with no real means of producing them: maps, enemies, items, controls; everything but the game code. In a few years, I got the hang of making text adventures in BASIC, but that was still a pretty far cry from the goal of 8-bit games. It took over a decade to reach a point where I could actually build out the games I imagined as a 10-year-old, but hey — I got there in the end!

SUPERJUMP
One of the things that stuck out to me for all your games was the sound design, specifically the sound effects. From the clank of grenades along the ground in ZP2K9 to the thunk of the weapons in Salt and Sanctuary, it’s all very lifelike. Did you record those with Foley, were they digitally generated or was there some other process?

JAMES SILVA
Sound is probably my weakest area — I usually just buy and tweak them. I did record some sounds for Salt and Sanctuary, specifically the sounds around writing messages and placing bottles. I also record all of the voices — zombie screams and so on.

Source: Game-Wisdom.

SUPERJUMP
Another hallmark of your games is the violent, bloody action and aesthetic. Did you ever get push-back on the violence, from family or other people in the industry? Have any of the platform holders where your games are published ever asked you to tone it back or change the games?

JAMES SILVA
I think way back when Microsoft was considering The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai for Xbox Live Arcade, there was some internal debate on whether XBLA should draw a line on violence; before Dead Samurai it just worked out to be a pretty family-friendly platform. I can also say that my mom’s still not wild about it; she doesn’t think it’s too late to pivot to a career in children’s books.

SUPERJUMP
One of the elements of many of your games is screen shake, to some varying degree in each title. That can be a divisive feature among gamers, but in your design, it doesn’t seem to be overpowering. How did you balance that, getting it to a point where it adds to the visceral nature of the gameplay without becoming disorienting or off-putting?

JAMES SILVA
Screen shake is one that I hadn’t given much thought to, I just did it. I’ve only had one person complain about it. I think like all design, it’s just about tweaking things that don’t feel good until they do. There’s a neat little talk by Ira Glass called The Gap in which he contrasts creative skill with “taste,” illustrating how one’s creative skill must catch up to what their taste tells them is good work. I find this resonates with a ton of stuff I do, except I still don’t think my skill has hit a point where I can consistently crank out good stuff on the first try, but I can comfortably listen to my taste as I iterate on work until I’m satisfied with it.

SUPERJUMP
Up until Salt and Sanctuary, all of your games were done on Xbox and PC. What was the impetus for that change to Sony’s platforms?

JAMES SILVA
That was a result of the console generation shakeup. From 2005–2015 or so, indie development grew into its own, and it took a little while for major platforms to embrace this. Steam didn’t publish its first indie game after I’d published The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai on Xbox 360 in 2007. Microsoft’s XNA framework was something of an indie vanguard, creating a bridge for hobbyists to release on consoles. XNA is what I used to make everything I released on Xbox360; in fact, I’m still using an open-source implementation of it. In time, Steam transformed into a Valve-only platform to an anything-goes platform, and Sony pushed their indie platform into high gear for PlayStation 4.

When PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launched, Microsoft had already discontinued XNA, effectively orphaning my years of engine code. But the news was that PlayStation 4 would be supporting Monogame, an open-source implementation of XNA. So I opened a dialog with Sony’s indie guy, and he was really, really interested in getting my next game on PlayStation 4. Things just fell into place from there.

Source: SVG.

SUPERJUMP
On a similar note, you created a PS Vita port for Salt and Sanctuary, even though Sony had long since stopped first-party development for the handheld, and many feel they completely abandoned it. What led to your decision to publish on the Vita?

JAMES SILVA
This was something we agreed with Sony about in advance in our publishing terms, and the port was actually completed by the incredibly talented Tom Spilman and Sickhead Games. Fun fact: Tom’s first build that he sent me was a pretty much perfect 1:1 recreation of the PS4 build…and it ran at around 0.5 FPS.

SUPERJUMP
When the Salt and Sanctuary port for the Switch was done, it was handled by the port studio Blitworks. Did you personally seek out the studio and arrange for them to do the port, or was that something arranged by Nintendo?

JAMES SILVA
I’ve actually been in touch with Blitworks since the Xbox 360 days, but platforms have become a lot more open since then, so it really made sense to approach them about a Switch port.

SUPERJUMP
For your game, I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1, you sing the song that plays throughout the game. I’m wondering about the order of things with the development, did you have the idea for the “game with a song” first, or did you create the game and then decided it needed the song?

JAMES SILVA
I made the whole thing in about two weeks, and as I remember it, the idea was that the developer of this game is serenading you through his process while you play it. I think the song absolutely came first, as the game had to be synced with the song. There isn’t that much game to it. It’s mostly a song.

SUPERJUMP
You have said that you are working on a new project but, so far as I could find, you have not gone public with any details. Are you able to give us any clues as to what the project is all about?

JAMES SILVA
Have I said that I’m working on a new project? I’d like to release a new game someday, but I can’t really say if I’m even working on something at the moment, which is truly tragic. I’ve learned that anything in the tag realm of stylistic/2D/action/RPG/platformer is where I’m most comfortable, so I probably won’t try to unleash a kart racer or deck builder on the world anytime soon.

SUPERJUMP
Thank you so much James for making time to answer our questions. Best of luck with your upcoming projects and we look forward to talking with you again soon!

JAMES SILVA
Thank you too, stay safe!

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