The craft of survival
When Crashlands developer Sam Coster got diagnosed with cancer, his family rallied around. They happened to make the game of the year in the process.
Crashlands is one of those games that is easier to play than to describe. But I’ll try anyway. One Flux Dabes works for an interstellar delivery service, and her packages are priority number one. While cruising near the planet of Woanope, a bad-tempered alien named Hewgodooko makes her ship wipe out and blow up, stranding Flux and her cargo on the strange new world. To say that hilarity ensues would be true, but also totally insufficient. Playing as Flux, your job is to wander around the immense planet, meet and learn from the eccentric locals, build stuff that lets you build other stuff which lets you build still more stuff, all toward the all-important goal of getting off Woanope and making an on-time delivery. It’s a rabbit hole of a crafting RPG that sucks you in deep and seems to have an inexhaustible supply of strange quests, stranger jokes and bizarre sentient beings.
The game, released for PC and mobile in 2016 and now also on Hatch, ended up on multiple game-of-the-year lists and made the developer Butterscotch Shenanigans into a going concern – now working on a hotly anticipated new IP and flying the flag high for indie game development in the American heartland city of St. Louis, Missouri.
But there’s another side to the story. Founded by three brothers – Sam, Seth and Adam Coster – the studio had turned to Crashlands as a kind of family therapy project when Sam got news from the doctor that no one ever wants to hear: a cancer diagnosis, lymphoma. I spoke to Sam about survival, creativity and how the family went all in on the most insanely ambitious thing any of them had ever tried.
Tell me how the Butterscotch story got started.
The three of us were driving late at night in Iowa, where are our folks are from, on our way back to St Louis. At the time, Adam was getting a PhD in molecular biology, Seth was getting a law degree but wanted to get into making games, and I wanted to write and tell stories. And we were talking about how nice it would be if the three of us shared the burden of running an umbrella corporation that could somehow contain all of the things we wanted to make and do. Which at the time sounded like it would be lab tech, books and games. We ended up settling on “Shenanigans” because we were like “well, that covers everything.” The Butterscotch part came because we somehow then got onto a candy riff and “Butterscotch” sounded really good. Maybe we were hungry. But we incorporated as an LLC and that was that!
Initially, it was just Seth and I who decided to go full time on Butterscotch, making games, while Adam was still wrapping up his PhD. We had already made two games and were working on a third when I got the cancer diagnosis. That third game was an endless runner, and frankly it wasn’t super inspired. But we needed something to do next, and it was kind of the thing that stuck to the wall. But after the diagnosis came down, that put everything into perspective. We had a really long conversation, and killed the project. We started work on Crashlands instead.
Was that the point you decided, OK, we’re going to make this thing, and do whatever it takes?
A cancer diagnosis makes you step back and ask, what am I doing here? If someone told you that you had a 7 percent chance of making it through the next 6 to 12 months – which is what my diagnosis was – what do you want to do with that time? I decided that I had to be striving toward frankly what was an impossible goal, which was Crashlands. We didn’t have any of the tech, didn’t have any of the actual capacity to make it. But we were just like, “We’re gonna do it.”
It became a combined therapy project for us. It was really this rallying point for the family. Because one of the worst things about a cancer diagnosis is that the people around you feel helpless. And it was a really big way for Adam and Seth to constantly have something to work on that felt like it was actively helping, which believe me, it was. When you’re sick and undergoing chemo, you can’t really do much physically. But drawing was something I could do, and not such a physically exhausting activity for me. I could sit there and draw and contribute to the game. The game has over 900 objects in it – creatures, environments, UI elements and so on. Crashlands came out of the diagnosis, and it was the thing that kept us going during all the disgustingness that is cancer treatment.
Of the three of you, who did what?
Seth was the lead game programmer, Adam our web and tools guy, and I did all the art. I also wrote the story, with rounds of iteration and input from Adam and Seth. We’re also really heavy into tools development, in tools-assisted dev.
For Crashlands we had two breakthroughs that actually made it possible for us to finish the game, and were a huge deal for a small team like ourselves. The first was that Seth figured out how to use Perlin Noise calculations that allowed us to create a large enough world to explore, wander around in and be surprised by. It’s the same algorithmic mechanism that a game like Minecraft uses. The second one was on Adam’s side, which we internally refer to as the Creator, which is our homemade storytelling engine. It lives on the web, so the game can pull campaigns and stories – and we can make live changes – as needed. This allowed us to, in the span of 3 months, write more than 50,000 words for the story, including all the characters, dialogues, item descriptions, outpost locations, where various characters live and so on. This is the tool that allowed us to build Crashlands into the very differentiated, joyful crafting game that it is, heavily driven by story and personality.
How far apart are you in age? When you were growing up together, did you play video games together?
Adam’s the oldest, he’s 31, Seth is 30 and I’m 28. We grew up out in the country, in Iowa, and we didn’t have fast Internet because of that, and actually we weren’t even allowed to have computers or video games of any sort for a very long time. We primarily spent our formative early years running around, out in the woods. We made a lot of explosives, I recall. It’s what kids on the prairie do! When I was about 10 or 11, we finally got a computer in the house, and started playing games like Diablo and Starcraft. Each of us had a 30-minute egg timer – that was all the time you got. So between the three of us, we had an hour and a half. So after your 30 minutes were up, the only way for me to get more exposure was to sit and watch Seth’s and Adam’s turns. I guess we kind of absorbed a lot during those sessions.
As far as working together, the joke is that we already got our face punches out as kids! We know how to talk to each other, we know how to work together – and how not to work together.
For a questing game, especially one whose ultimate objective is on-time package delivery, Crashlands is pretty relaxed about the marching orders. Inventory is infinite and there are no painful permadeaths. Is that the secret sauce to making the game not feel like “work”?
The way we did it comes down to how we handled the quest text. We sometimes get requests from people asking for a quest tracker – “Can you just show me how many quests I have and what stuff I need?” Yet simultaneously, from the same person we’ll often hear that Crashlands is one of their all-time favorite RPGs. The fact that we don’t tell you exactly how to go about doing everything eases up on the feeling that it’s work, precisely because you don’t have a to-do list. You have your quests, but all we show you is the goofy dialogue history you’ve had with the relevant characters. It puts a certain layer between you and the task that gives you a sense of freedom and discovery. It also kind of forces you to engage with the story and have fun with it, instead of just following a tedious list, which is a fatal flaw in a lot of RPGs.
How about the Woanope storyworld, which manages a neat trick of feeling immense yet somehow still easily navigable and discoverable.
“Woanope” is what I imagine you’d say as you were about to hit a planet – “woah nope!” It’s the center of the Butterscotch universe. All of our games, Crashlands being the most recent, take place in the same universe, and all the villains are the same species as Hewgo is. Woanope is like a penal colony for that particular species. There are these really powerful, demigod-like aliens running around, who tend to go crazy on occasion. Hewgo is one of those.
The whole point about Woanope was we wanted a place that was so alien, we could do anything we wanted – because we didn’t know what we wanted to do! And we reasoned that with tons of sentient life forms living there and working on various problems, we could end up with a rich world just teeming with stories and opportunities for conflict or cooperation. Our next game takes place on the same planet, but it’s not Crashlands 2. It’s called Scuffle Buddies, and it’s a completely new and different game spun out of the same crazy place.
Crashlands is a very deep, story-driven single player experience. Could you ever envision a multiplayer mode? Or would that break the design?
Multiplayer is one of the top requests we get. The problem is, we were so dumb when we built the game that it would literally take as long to make the multiplayer version as it took to build the original game in the first place. And yeah, from the design side it would kind of break the whole game too. But multiplayer is something we’re tip-toeing into with our next title!
You’ve beat back cancer, and Crashlands was ultimately an awesome success story. Now the studio is growing. How is that going?
About six months after Crashlands launched, we realised we had to set out on solving a new problem, which is the fact that when you have a successful game, it can actually be no fun at all. What happened was, we got crushed by admin work. As a three-person team, especially where two of the three people are the ones primarily building the games, if one of us is knocked out because, say, we’re handling a burning marketing thing, we can’t make forward progress on anything. We realised that we needed to hire some people to take some of this stuff off our plates, or we would just kind of tread water. So we hired up, we’re up to six people now. The joke is we doubled our size! And we’re really keen on maintaining the culture that we want, the work environment that we want to be in every day. We believe in growing our people into powerful members of the studio, not just cogs in a machine doing a job.
What’s the game dev community like in St Louis?
It’s great, there’s a lot of driven and creative people here. But while the game-jam and hobbyist scene is really thriving, there’s still a gap in getting people from that hobby stage to the fully independent, professional level. We’ve started our own game jam – the Shenanijam, which last June had like 300+ participants, and 130+ games came out of it. We’ve been out giving talks, and we’re really trying to figure out what’s necessary to get more of these studios with great ideas off the ground. The drive is here, the talent is here, it’s a question of closing the funding gap and getting things to gel.
We’re out of time. Any parting words?
We have a weekly podcast we do, called Coffee with Butterscotch, which is just the three of us brothers sitting down with some coffee and talking about life and making games. It’s the best way for people to get a direct line to us and ask us anything. We do swear a lot though, which I hope you’re a fan of!