Dikembe Mutombo's 4 1/2 Weeks to Save the World is, by admission, one of the weirdest games Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman has ever worked on. Each week he and his team of four other developers (Paul "Pietepiet" Veer, Jukio "Kozilek" Kallio, Sven "Ptoing" Ruthner and Robin Arnott) are given a brief by Wieden and Kennedy, an ad agency representing Old Spice. They then have five days to turn around a game.
"It's super bizarre," Saltsman tells Polygon. "After I get my brief from the ad agency I always have to send out a brief to my team at the start of the week."
The email he sent out to his team for their first game, released last week, went something like this:
"Hey guys, I just got the brief. We're going to be doing a Battletoads-style level where you're descending down the throat of America through the use of a jetpack throwing election ballots to people dancing 'Gangnam Style' on little ledges in the throat while avoiding disco balls before having a boss fight with the state of Ohio. Any questions?"
Needless to say, the team has fun with it.
"... Throwing election ballots to people dancing 'Gangnam Style' on little ledges in the throat while avoiding disco balls before having a boss fight with the state of Ohio."
Saltsman was first approached in the summer by Wieden and Kennedy to start working on a project for Old Spice. After months of going through ideas and having things change and fall through, they settled on a series of Adult Swim-style games that would be made on such a tight schedule that they could also serve as commentary on current affairs. It's not just Saltsman and his team who have tight deadlines — Powerhouse Animation, the studio that creates all the game's cutscenes, also receives a brief from the agency a week before the game is due to make its online appearance. Driftlab then ensures it all makes it onto the website.
The Week 2 game that was released earlier today was only started a week ago. The game released a week ago was only started the week before that. Saltsman says that while they've been able to reuse some assets from previous games, most of what is seen in the games are built week to week. And while they may receive briefs from Wieden and Kennedy, the games' specific controls, win/lose conditions and the moment-to-moment mechanics are the ideas of the developers.
"In my experience, when they've gone to work with game designers it's because they know they're not game designers."
"I've actually really enjoyed working with advertisers," Saltsman says. "In my experience, when they've gone to work with game designers it's because they know they're not game designers. So the first chat that we have frequently is: 'OK, you're hiring me because I'm a game designer, but I want input from you guys.'"
Saltsman says he also wants to teach advertisers about game design so that they know what can and can't be done and what is feasible and what isn't. Creating games for Old Spice has involved a lot of back and forth between the game developers and the advertiser and everything happens very quickly. A day after receiving the brief, Saltsman's team will have a rough prototype to the agency so that it can go through a feedback loop.
Saltsman describes the entire process as a little crazy, with everyone involved working late nights and weekends in order to turn the games around quickly. The latest game in the series — The Blurgpocalypse — is now online, and Saltsman says it probably features his favorite game mechanic to date. There are three games left in the series, with the final game releasing Dec. 17.
Begin helping Dikembe Mutombo save the world here.