Monday, July 27, 2015

SPC Interviews: Butterscotch Shenanigans (Crashlands)

Watching the trailer for Butterscotch Shenanigans' upcoming release Crashlands sort of tells you everything you need to know about who this trio of brothers is and what they are like. That is to say that they're funny, hardworking, know how to make an impression, are a bit wacky, and are a little crazy at the same time, but the right mix of crazy. If you don't believe me, check out this interview with two of three brothers of Butterscotch Shenanigans, Adam and Seth Coster. We talk about their independent venture, the trials and tribulations of development (including the fact that one of the brothers suffered from two bouts of cancer during development-- sort of a big deal), future projects, and various other topics.

Phil Stortzum: First off, I’ve got to know-- where did the name “Butterscotch Shenanigans” come from?

Adam Coster: Pretty much random word association. During a road trip between our hometown in Iowa and St. Louis we decided to make the company. This was a year or so before Sam and Seth started game development. The original intention of the company was to be a catch-all thing for whatever we wanted to do (hence, “shenanigans”).  We just somehow ended on the word Butterscotch after playing word associations for a few hundred iterations, and it stuck.

Phil: How did you three brothers decide to form an independent game studio?

Adam: That’s a long, convoluted story. But here’s the short version: Seth always wanted to be in game dev but thought he couldn’t since he didn’t know how to program. Sam came across YoYo Games’ platform Gamemaker Studio, which lets you start programming with drag-and-drop, and let Seth know about it. Seth started making games, spending hours every single day and most of the hours every weekend, for over a year, until he became a proficient programmer and game developer. Sam and Seth did a game jam in STL and by happenstance were grouped with the CEO of a local studio, who hired them after the jam. They worked in that studio for 9 months but wanted to do their own thing. They had a 6 month runway of savings, and went for it. I had no role in the formation of the game studio, since I was busy with grad school. But after graduating, I jumped into the fray as well. And now here we are.

Adam Coster
Phil: Which of your past games did you find the most fun to create?

Adam: All of our games were made before I joined, so for me it was “I Know CPR,” a ridiculous jam game we made while I was still in grad school. A close second would be Narwhal Online, a prototype we also made during a jam that we’ll turn into a full franchise sometime after Crashlands.

Phil: Other than your current work-in-progress, Crashlands, is there a game which was particularly difficult to create?

Seth Coster: No game is difficult to create as a whole, once you get the basics down. Every now and then we’ll come across a crazy problem that we have to solve, but when that happens, we just sit down for a couple hours, come up with a solution, and then spend a couple days getting it done. For example, when we first set out to make Crashlands, the game was supposed to be an infinite world. But I didn’t have the understanding or technical capability to make that a reality. At first, the game took 7 minutes to generate the world, and the world only took 4 minutes to run across. So I spent a week researching random world generation until I knew enough to come up with a better way, and now we have an instantly-generated world that’s so big it might as well be infinite.

Seth Coster
Things are only as difficult as you allow them to be. If you can’t figure something out, approach it from another angle. Consult with friends and peers. Do some research. Keep hacking away at it until you get it right. Grit and determination make everything easy.

Phil: Is there a past game of yours that you wish you could have spent more time, or weren’t exactly the most proud of with how it turned out?

Adam: Most of our titles were born in game jams and not fully fleshed out, but we still published them on Google Play. Late last year we decided to clean the crap out of our portfolio, so we unpublished everything except for what are now our core 4 games, which we then spent months remaking. Of those, I still wish there was more to Roid Rage. It’s just too small of a game with almost no meta gameplay. But we’ve also learned that you can’t resurrect a financially dead game, so we’ll just keep moving forward.

Sam Coster
Seth: For me, I have to say... NO REGRETS! We have to always be looking forward. Every game we’ve made has taught us a lot, from both a game development perspective and a business perspective. I’m proud of that fact alone, so it doesn’t really matter how the games turned out in the end. Making games is like doing science. There’s always more to learn, and you just have to keep coming up with ideas and experimenting. We’re always learning with every game we make, and that’s enough.

Phil: How does your team of three brothers come up and all decide on a game to make? What makes all of you agree and say, “Yeah, let’s work on THIS!”?

Adam: Basically free-form, filterless improv. The more ridiculous the better, and the more fun it sounds the better. We just assume we’ll eventually figure out how to implement any of the ideas that come up, so we only say “no” to something when practicalities obviously prevent it (e.g. when the facts of piracy and hacking would break a particular kind of multiplayer experience, or the chance for financial success). Our games typically start as a single mechanic and situation, and then we just start making and iterating.

Seth: Pretty much what Adam said. Coming up with ideas for a game is the most fun part, because you can do whatever you want. It becomes much harder to add stuff to a game after it’s already well along, because you have to make new ideas jive with existing systems. But at the beginning, during those first few days of idea generation, it’s magical. There are no limits.

Phil: Where/how did the three of you learn to do all of the work required to make such sophisticated games?

Adam: We’re all self-taught in our particular roles, and we work our asses off every single day. We are fairly siloed in what we know how to do, so that allows the other two the freedom to come up with cool ideas without realizing how hard it would be to actually implement them. Then the third person just has to go figure it out, and is given the time and freedom required to do that. But we also need speed, so if a hurdle comes up that would take a bit too long to get over, we pivot immediately and make a new plan. Our game development process is 100% iterative, and each of us is willing to abandon an idea in a moment, without hard feelings.

Seth: If you want to teach yourself something, it’s purely a question of time. You have 24 hours in a day. You put 7 of them toward sleep (6 if you’re hardcore), 8 toward your day job, or school, or whatever, and you’ll lose another 4 or so to general maintenance of your life. That still leaves 5 hours in the day to do whatever’s most important to you. For me, the most important thing was to learn to code so I could make video games. So that’s where my 5 hours went, every day for a year. And on weekends, it was all day every day. I put in well over 3,000 hours of self-teaching in my first year of game development alone. If you put in that kind of time, you’d be surprised how quickly you can teach yourself just about anything.

Phil: Which games have inspired you guys the most throughout your game making and game playing careers?

Adam: For me it’s been successful mobile and small indie games in general. Because I look at those and know that I/we can make something at least as good, and those successful games prove that such a thing can be done as a real job.

Seth: World of Warcraft. It was a game that changed everything, both for me and for the games industry. That game is proof that you should never listen to people who tell you that something can’t be done -- MMO’s were thought to be a niche game type that only the most truly hardcore of nerds would ever play. Blizzard put a cork in that within months of launching World of Warcraft. And for me, as a player of that game, it showed me that games could be a lot more than a simple little burst of fun, or a good story. A game can form friendships, teach you things, and it can even become a way of life.

Phil: Crashlands, as many folks know, is your latest title that is approaching the end of development and impending release. What can you tell SuperPhillip Central readers about the game? What makes it so special compared to games in its genre?

Adam: It’s a crafting game with story and without inventory management. And it has a web-based editor for players to make entirely new experiences inside the game world. Add to that the complete cross-platform save system and social network and there is nothing else like it!

Seth: I’d also say... the same thing that makes every Butterscotch game special! It’s colorful, it’s packed full of jokes and humor, it’s ridiculous, and we put a lot of passion into making it the best thing we could possibly make it. I think people get that sense when they play our games -- we really care about them.

Phil: What have been some of the most difficult parts to developing Crashlands?

Adam: For me it is the Crashlands Creator, which is the web tool that we’re using to build the in-game story. It’s basically a high-level programming interface for story, so you can make characters, boss fights, and complex quests and bases. But that tool also has to be useable by Crashlands players, so it has to be intuitive, robust, and secure. Every single thing I had to do for that tool was something that I had absolutely no idea how to do!

Seth: Balance... for sure. I love the challenge of balancing game systems. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever had to do. But Crashlands has so much stuff in it, that it goes to a whole new level of crazy.

Phil: For those unaware, one of the Butterscotch brothers has had serious health issues, but is currently kicking cancer’s ass (ed. Note: Sorry for the swear, but it was needed in this case) in triumphant fashion. What happened to development during these especially difficult times?

Adam: Honestly I might not have joined the studio if it wasn’t for the cancer nonsense. It forced me to reprioritize my life and act quickly on those priorities. And so I worked my ass off and graduated really quickly (a normal molecular biology PhD is 5 years and I finished in just under 4, which was 6 months after Sam’s diagnosis). I was already working full time for Butterscotch the week following my graduation. During chemo and other rough patches I would usually just throw myself harder into the work, though sometimes Seth and I would work on side projects as a form of distraction. Development was hugely affected by it all, but not in a way that is easy to quantify. Things just came out a lot differently than they otherwise would have.

Seth: Sometimes it made things easier to work on, because there was a constant sense of determination being infused into the project. Especially at the beginning, when we had no idea what was happening other than “this is really really bad,” The sense of urgency for the project was huge, and I found it very easy to just go full-force into working on Crashlands. Plus, it was therapeutic and gave me a sense that I was helping.

Other times, it wasn’t so easy. When Sam was going through his first stem-cell transplant, there were a few days in which he was especially vulnerable because he had no white blood cells. For those uninformed, that means he had no way to fight off infections. He also wasn’t producing any of his own blood because his bone marrow had been wiped out by the chemotherapy, and he was developing fevers and coughs and was so weak he couldn’t stand for more than 30 seconds without throwing up from the exertion. And I couldn’t go see him, because the risk of me getting him sick with something was too great. When I knew all that was happening, it was impossible to concentrate. So I would just take a day to try to decompress by going for walks with my dog, watching stupid shows on Netflix, or reading.

So yeah... definitely a mixed bag.

Phil: Which part of Crashlands’ development have you guys thought to yourselves, “Okay. We’ve finally turned the corner on this savage beast”?

Adam: I joined when Crashlands was already a complete game. Since then, we’ve overhauled every damn mechanic in the game once or twice, and every time I thought “WOW, this thing is ready to ship!” Looking back, I was wrong every time. Just a week ago I finished the Crashlands Creator, and within the past week Sam used it to build the story for half of the entire game. That was the most recent corner-turning, and I totally believe it’ll be the last.

Seth: Yep. The story. It’s something that we’ve been working toward for a long time, but we needed the Crashlands Creator to be complete before we could do it. Now that it’s there, the story is just BLASTING into existence, and it is changing everything. Crashlands takes inspiration from a lot of other crafting-based games, but the presence of a narrative (and a truly insane one at that), and how that narrative complements the crafting and progression, is going to give people a whole new perspective on what a crafting game can be like.

Phil: Who is Crashlands being marketed towards? What kind of players are you expecting to download this game?

Adam: EVERYONE. But seriously, we wanted it to be an overall friendly game (hence the absurd humor and minimal consequences to in-game death) that is still challenging and fun even for avid gamers. With so many mechanics, harvested from so many genres, there really is something for everyone. The combat system is super fun, but challenging, so the only it’s the only thing I see pushing more casual gamers away. I hope they play it anyway.

Seth: People who don’t take life too seriously. Is there market data on that?

Phil: What engine are you making Crashlands in? What software is being used for the incredible art?

Adam: The engine is Seth + Gamemaker Studio. The art engine is Sam + Inkscape. My brothers are experts at their respective crafts, and are so intimately familiar with the software that it’s a little creepy sometimes. Sam can make a new art asset in 10-15 minutes, and Seth can recode an entire game system in half a day. It’s just weird.

Seth: Adam forgot all the tools he’s developed, though. Crashlands would be a much different beast if we didn’t have him in the mix. For example, whenever we add a new item to the game (like a weapon, or a chair, or resource, or whatever), there are a ton of things that need to be encoded for it to work. Adam automated this process by creating a Python script that writes Game Maker code for us by hacking the XML files that the game’s data is stored in. So where it used to take 30 minutes or more to hook a new item up, now it takes 3 (with a little bit of testing time). And, of course, there’s the Crashlands Creator, which is the web-based tool Adam created to allow us to rapidly build the game’s story. I think he used five different languages for that one, but I don’t even know.

Phil: What will you guys do once Crashlands has been completed? Are there other game ideas you’ve been tossing around or projects you have put on the backburner?

Adam: We have a lot of plans, though the order in which they occur will heavily depend on the consequences of launching Crashlands. Narwhal Online is still the next brand-new game we have planned, though we may finish up some already nearly-complete games before that, or port some existing games to other platforms.

Seth: Once Crashlands is done, I’ll be crapping my pants and sending out emergency patches for a month. That’s my plan.

Phil: What advice do you have for people that are interested in making games and possibly going independent as well?

Adam: Work your ass off and be ready to accept when you have failed at something. Take it as a learning opportunity and do it better the next time, and never stop moving forward. If you’re going to go independent, accept the realities of the games market. Competition is extreme and so making a good game is required but not sufficient. You can’t just plop a game down, no matter how good it is, and make money off of it. You won’t make any money for a long time unless you have a really good marketing plan, a really good game, and a lot of luck. You’ll need a financial safety net (either enough savings to live off of or a financially secure partner willing to take the gamble with you).

Seth: Adam said it. I’d also just add that I’ve talked to a lot of people who claim to want to be game developers. But to be honest, most of them actually don’t want it at all. I know this, because if someone really wants something, they go and get it. And only about 1 out of 100 aspiring game developers I’ve met have actually put in the time and effort necessary to make it a reality. So my advice would be... don’t just want it. Be one of the rare ones who makes a plan and actually does it.

Phil: Are there any final words you’d like to offer to my readers?



I'm going to quit typing and get back to gaming, too, on that note. My special thanks to the busy Butterscotch Shenanigans crew for taking time out of their schedules to answer my questions.

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