X to Talk: James Silva, Ska Studios

I first saw Salt and Sanctuary at PAX Prime two years ago. Its stylish, over-saturated colours combined with controls that felt immediately familiar to new players was enough for me to become a fan. The game has also attracted Dark Souls fans for tense combat where stamina management is key to avoiding the loss of precious salt. Beyond that, basic Google-Fu will net you charming tidbits about its makers, Ska Studios,  led by James Silva and Michelle Silva. They're not siblings, but a married couple with an atypical romance that began with her QA-ing his game; growing into long-distance dating; and, culminating a proposal at PAX Prime 2011. It's been quite a story. With less than a day away from Salt and Sancturary's release on PS 4, I got to chat with James over email about the game's development.

Being in a two-person company with your wife, how has the last few months been?
Stressful! We’ve done this together three times now: The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, Charlie Murder, and now Salt and Sanctuary, and we’ve never quite figured out how to approach launch without feeling like we’re on a burning rollercoaster surrounded by headless chickens. In terms of day to day work, I think the most distressing part for me is having to lock down content to focus on polish. One of the most genuine joys of making Salt and Sanctuary was in creating content -- weapons, armor, monsters, movesets, attack patterns. In those final months I wasn’t really allowed to do that -- any new addition could break any number of carefully arranged features.

As an indie company, you have more leeway to create something personal to both of you. What does Salt and Sanctuary mean to Ska Studios?
I really enjoyed the world building aspect of it, particularly in how religion held different roles for different fictional cultures throughout their histories. Gods and their mythologies are borrowed, renamed, repurposed from one culture to the next from one century to the next. Leaders insert themselves into pantheons. Scholars develop pseudo-science-based approaches to the supernatural.

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Salt and Sanctuary’s gameplay is heavily inspired by Castlevania and the Dark Souls series, but what are some of its mechanics that distinguish it from other Soulsvania-style games?
As much as Salt and Sanctuary looks like Castlevania, it plays a lot like our older Dishwasher games -- lots of I-frames, lots of air combo hangtime.
 

A surprising addition to the gameplay was the couch co-op mode, when did it become a feature, and why?
We always wanted to have some kind of co-op component to Salt and Sanctuary, but the farther along we got, the more apparent it was that online multiplayer would be too much of a hurdle. So I started experimenting with couch co-op, and it stuck. It’s integrated organically as well -- through the sanctuary Sellsword NPC.

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You both host many livestreams on the development of the game; how was that like, and looking back it now, would you do it again for future releases?
Live streaming development was a really interesting approach. It’s got pros and cons: having to break from normal development to only show development that’s interesting and spoiler free -- typically hero animations -- is a little disruptive to the process. But it was really motivating, and genuinely exciting to be able to connect with viewers. I’d like to do it again for the next game, whatever that may be.

How has getting press coverage for this game been? Was it more or less like previous games?
The streaming community really disrupted gaming press for the better. Not only did we get put up on the map due to a modest feature by VaatiVidya, a prominent Souls-centric lore streamer (and genuinely amazing guy), but we’ve been fortunate enough to have made a lot of great friends in the Souls streaming community. We received a bit of traditional press, but nothing was nearly as awesome as working with streamers.

You wear many hats from creating music to marketing, which aspect of developing a game do you enjoy the most?
For me it changes from week to week, which is fortunate because I’ve got a pretty poor attention span. A ton of time on the game was spent just animating, which I do with a 2D skeletal animation tool I made. A lot of time went into working on the map, which I did through another custom tool. The rest was world art, character art, coding, and music.

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Are there any other genres that you would love to do?
Always! I really like the idea of a tactical, turn-based RPG, but I don’t know if I’ll ever act on that. I’d like to revisit the isometric survival horror style I made with Survival Crisis Z, a game I made in 2004 or so.
 

What is the future for Ska Studios post-Salt and Sanctuary?
We’ll have to figure that out! Our immediate next task is getting our old catalog of Xbox360 games and Salt and Sanctuary on Steam. We’ve got plenty of ideas, but there’s only two of us!

Image Credit: Ska Studios
Salt and Sanctuary will be released on PS 4 on March 15, 2016. With a PS Vita, and Steam version in the future.