Life, passion, and ‘Crashlands’
An interview with Sam Coster.
This article was originally published on February 27, 2016.
To pre-order Forever an Astronaut’s first season of Dev Diary, which chronicles the inspiring story and creation of Butterscotch Shenanigans’ Crashlands, check out the official Dev Diary Season One page.
Crashlands is often called an amalgamation of the sandbox building of Minecraft, the top-down character view of Don’t Starve, the limitless inventory of Terraria, the hack-and-slash combat of Diablo, and the art style of Borderlands (check out some reviews on Steam and you’ll notice these references pop up consistently). Conceptually, Crashlands may resemble these games, but in execution, this story-driven action RPG excels well beyond the sum of its parts and crafts an utterly enjoyable player experience packed with nonstop humor, exploration, and wonder.
When I first accidentally stumbled upon an in-Steam ad for Crashlands, I didn’t realize the impact that it and its creators would have on me. I was quick to dismiss the game initially, but its striking visuals, obvious oozing of personality, and bold blocky text that screamed of the game’s features — a self-managing infinite inventory, over 468 weapon and item crafting recipes, and intriguing cross-platform play on mobile — began to sway me.
The deciding factor for my purchase of the game only two days after I saw the ad was a documentary promo situated on the game’s Steam page that automatically played after the overview video, which discussed in part Crashlands co-creator Sam Coster’s intense battle with cancer, an experience best read in his own words in a guest editorial piece on Polygon.
Though inspiring that Sam became cancer-free and would finish the game born from his own perseverance, meant to create a haven for enjoyment outside reality, the most inspiring portion of that video was the Coster brothers’ (Sam, Adam, and Seth) passion for Crashlands at every pixel — a passion that permeates the entire game, from the witty dialogue to creature design.
The odd experience of randomly encountering an ad for Crashlands, clocking in over 6 hours, and getting the green light from Sam to conduct an email interview with him, in the course of a week, was a whirlwind of events that pleasantly blindsided me.
I bought the game because its pitch was effective; I spent over 6 hours in a few days playing because the world of Crashlands is addictingly immersive; I requested the interview with the Coster brothers because I had questions that transcended Crashlands. Yes, I wanted to know their process for creature creation and world-building, but I also sought insight into their mindsets and methodologies: how they crafted an original world, stayed motivated, and maintained passion throughout Crashlands’ gestation period, until its birth on January 21.
I hope that my questions and Sam’s answers provided insight into the creation of Crashlands and inspire you the way they have me.
According to your guest editorial on Polygon, Crashlands was born through an urgent desire to make an impact and provide people a world to inhabit separate from their own. However, not everyone is fortunately forced to face life-or-death situations, even once in their lives.
What would you tell someone who can’t sustain motivation for their passions and projects? What if they can’t even find their passion?
Sam: I actually studied psychology before going into game dev and there was one study that I just loved that I think provides a good answer. If you think about your own death, really sit with it, for just a few minutes a day, study after study shows that it increases your overall life satisfaction and general actionability.
This is the same thing, to a lesser degree, that being forced to face your mortality does. In other words, you don’t need to almost die to get that kick in the crotch. You just need to realize that, someday, you’re going to be dead, and it’ll help spark you off the goddamn couch.
What is some advice you would give someone that you wished someone had given you when you were in your formative stages of finding and delving into your passions?
Sam: No one told me that I wouldn’t like it when I started. That it would be so hard that I’d get tired of doing it after 30 minutes. And that if I wasn’t forced to do it for some amount of time every day, that I’d never make it over that first hurdle and find that meadow of awesome that exists beyond it.
It wasn’t until year two of making art, in the middle of some chemotherapy, that I realized it had become something I loved doing. TWO FREAKIN’ YEARS! And now I like it so much I’d do it over any of my other game dev responsibilities if I could!
The overall structure of the design is meant to firmly root the player in an exploratory mode, and all of the design choices flow congruently into that.
Crashlands harkens back to a time in video games where unhinged joy and curiosity were central, and discovery and wonder were the norm. Were you aware that you might elicit this reaction from others?
Sam: Nailing that joy, awe, and sense of wonder is exactly what we were aiming for, though interestingly it’s not something we felt we had direct control over. The overall structure of the design is meant to firmly root the player in an exploratory mode, and all of the design choices flow congruently into that.
Art and sound wise, we just did what we do! I don’t think it counts as an art style if it’s the only one you can execute. It’s just what we do — make goofy, fun stuff that makes you go “WHAAAAAAT IS THAT!?”
The creatures — they’re full of personality. What was your process for creating Crashlands’ wildlife? Were you specifically inspired or were Wompits and Glidopi lingering in your heads all along?
Sam: Most people are kind of shocked to find out that we completely lack a concepting/build-up workflow for the art and story. It’s generally built out of necessity. With the Wompits as a good example, they were the first creature in the game and we knew we needed a simple attack mechanic so they wouldn’t overwhelm new players.
With that, the requirement was “We need a creature that does a circular attack pattern every so often.” Then, I went away for 4 hours or so and made this one-legged cow hippo, and that was that! All of the creatures are driven from mechanical necessity, and then we retcon their story/lore afterward.
How did you go about devising your robust crafting system?
Sam: There are over 500 craftables in the game and 1,000 items (resources, pickupables, etc), but we actually did it very much like how we approached the creatures.
When we’d begin a new biome Seth would look at the previous one and say “Okay, looks like we’re going to need 12 resources (tree-like things), 8 pickupables, 6 consumable pickupables, 4 regenerating resources, and some other weird stuff.” I’d look at the environment tiles I had made and just start making stuff that sort of fit.
Then, we’d line them up in a tech-tree, generate the resources they explode into (usually 3–5 per object), and then figure out what stuff was needed at each tier of the tech tree to fill out the recipe list. Only then would we know what components actually went into what, which is why sometimes you end up making weapons out of materials that, really, should not be weaponizable. Like Glaser stomachs. We just had to make due with the environment we made, kind of like Flux!
What is some guidance you would provide for designers seeking to create a vibrant world — with wildlife, resources, and diverse landscapes — for their game design projects or otherwise?
Sam: Big worlds, landscapes, and creatures can’t be entirely random. Early on in dev, we had a procedurally generated world that was 100% procedural. It was boring as hell to walk across, because as it turns out that’s what procedural worlds are! They’re basically the same thing everywhere.
Once you get that first layer down (the procedural base) you now get to do the fun part, which is to create all the situations in which you get to break the rules — things like the tarpits, shrines, etc. in Crashlands that break up the feeling of sameness.
Any other advice on world-building?
Sam: Otherwise, the biggest thing is just interactability. This is something we wanted to go deeper within Crashlands but that turned out to be achievable with even a tiny bit of effort. We made it so that each creature becomes aggressive toward the player when the player harvests a particular resource, kills one of their friends, or starts a fight with one of their friends.
Even that basic set of interactions suddenly made the world feel like it actually was alive, instead of just in a game, because it was reacting to the player’s presence and choices. It only takes a little bit to make it go.
What are some of the names of your pets in Crashlands?
Sam: I always name my first pet Boops Boops. Seth was randomly reading about sea creatures on Wikipedia way early on and found out that the scientific name of this little ocean fish was Boops Boops. Now it’s stuck with me forever!
I want to thank the Coster brothers and Sam especially for answering these questions with such thought and detail amid their hectic schedules.
For more information on what’s next for Crashlands or the Coster brothers’ other games, visit the Butterscotch Shenanigans studio website, follow them on Twitter (@BScotchShenani), or listen to their podcast, Coffee with Butterscotch.