Monday, June 27, 2016

SPC Interviews: Ben Cook (Last Stitch Goodnight)

I generally interview developers from all over the world on SuperPhillip Central, but this next interviewee is a special one. Living in the St. Louis metropolitan area and being a fellow game developer myself, I find it important to seek out talent within the area and promote it. One of the developers I know within the St. Louis game development community is Ben Cook of Well Bred Rhino, his own upstart.

His latest game, Last Stitch Goodnight, is available to recommend on Steam Greenlight. The game looks both exciting and intriguing. Thus, I felt the desire to ask Ben about the development history behind the game, what makes it so worthwhile, and delve into his own background as a game developer. Welcome to SPC Interviews!

Phil Stortzum (PS): What is your game development background?

Ben Cook (BC): Spacemen and pterodactyls.

In 5th grade a friend and I made a game called Flair and Bock.  Bock was the pterodactyl, Flair the spaceman.  It was built in World Builder on a Mac Plus, and had static images coupled with some simple text parsing.  Flair fell down a hole, and it was up to Bock to… it was terrible.  Actually, I think it was long enough ago that I can rewrite history on that one.  It was awesome.

I’ve been captivated with game design ever since.  Small, quick games evolved into group projects (that may not have taken off but were still a blast), and then those projects evolved into All the Bad Parts, a brawler I released on Xbox 360.  The whole experience has been an incredible learning opportunity, but working on Last Stitch Goodnight has been the most fun, most rewarding part of the journey.  I feel like I finally have built up the vocabulary I needed to design the game I’ve always wanted.

PS: Since you’re working alone on Last Stitch Goodnight, how did you gain all of the skills needed to make this game on your own?

BC: I am a giant fan of screwing up.  Repeatedly.  Whether it’s a new art program, writing code for collision detection, or even recording voice over work, I’ve always approached any task with the mindset of “I could probably figure that out”.  Then I would spend 3 months running into obstacles (except for the collision detection one) until I finally had a break through.  In that sense, working solo is almost a benefit.  There is no one to lean on, there is no one to help make excuses, there is no one to blame.  It’s all me.  SO I HAD THE POWER INSIDE ME ALL ALONG!  It was just buried under years and years of screwups.

The biggest gift from all of this is that it reignited my passion for drawing.  I think right now we are being trained at a really young age that we should be just one thing.  THIS GUY is an artist.  THIS GIRL is programmer.  YOU are a motorcycle stunt driver, NOW JUMP THROUGH THE FLAMING CIRCLE OF DEATH!  It’s all rubbish.  It lets people put us in convenient boxes.  If we really love something, and we are willing to push ourselves to keep improving at it, then we can do nearly anything, be it code or art or writing.

PS: How long has Last Stitch Goodnight been in development?

BC: Last Stitch Goodnight is the biggest, most ambitious, most sincere game that I have ever made, and so far it has mercilessly devoured about four years of my life.  You always run the risk of losing yourself into a project, the eternal passion project.  In this case, however, I think the four years sacrificed were well spent to summon it into existence.  Last Stitch Goodnight has grown bigger than me.  I will be very proud when it starts stomping small villages.

PS: What have been the hardest challenges with making this game?

BC: Learning Unity?  Marketing?  Mixing humor and horror?  Never giving up?  Never surrendering?There are a ton challenges, but the biggest is probably to keep pushing yourself.  Part of it is the day to day, pushing yourself to keep plodding along.  But a bigger part of it is pushing yourself past “that works”, pushing yourself to find something new and unique.

PS: Where did the inspiration come from for Last Stitch Goodnight? Are there any games that you’ve played that influenced its design?

BC: Game Development is a great opportunity to take a hard look at the world.  First you try to figure out HOW the world works so you can code it.  Then you can explore the space you created to figure out WHY it works.  That’s my biggest influence.  We live in a huge, expansive universe, full of mystery and the unknown, and I’ve only got five measly senses to experience it.  Last Stitch Goodnight lets me examine some of the weirder corners of the unknown.  It’s basically an existential crisis, except it’s one you can work through by hitting robots with a lead pipe.

As for games, we have such a rich history of games, I like to think all of the great ones have left a subtle mark on me.  The deconstruction of relationships in the Bioshocks, the universe building of Dark Souls, and the breathing worlds of Witcher and Elder Scrolls all spring to mind.  The two that stand out the most, however, have to be the tone and exploration of the Castlevania and Monkey Island series.  They seem completely different, but they both established a world you visit, as opposed to a world built just for a game.

PS:The visual style of Last Stitch Goodnight is very appealing. What can you tell me about how you went about going with this style? Was it the first style you settled on, or did you have more you decided not to use?

BC: I started with a clean, crisp, fresh drawing pad, and then I drew the same character over and over and over.  For about 200 pages.  I tried a handful of different angles, a top down, a full side shot, bigger hair, but in the end I settled with something I could live with and I could crank out. Then I started filling the world with characters and abnormalities as fast as I could think them up.

Fast forward a year later, I’m showing off the game to some local game developers, and suddenly I found myself making excuses for a few pieces of art.   That’s a big sign in game design– any time you feel like you need to make an excuse, you need to fix it.  OR you need to drive across the country and explain your excuse to everyone who plays your game.  So I went back to the drawing board and redrew all the characters.  It set me back about 3 months, but it helped teach me an insanely important lesson on game development:  if you really want to make something as great as you can, nothing can be sacred or set in stone.

PS: How will you encourage players to keep playing the game after it’s finished? Do you have any replay value in mind?

BC: At launch I plan to have the full storyline, tons of side quests, and as many secrets and treasures as I can cram in.  So hopefully people will keep going back to explore every spidery corner.  But I also have BIG, DIABOLICAL PLANS!

If people genuinely like the game, I would love to keep living in Last Stitch Goodnight with them.  I would love to add new quests after release, new chunks of story, new things to interact with.  Video games can be viewed as disposable, so I want to give them a game that can stick with them, a game that can give them something to think about long after they’ve finished it.

PS: What do you hope players feel while playing Last Stitch Goodnight?
Intense, burning curiosity.  The kind of burning curiosity that needs a topical cream, and you can’t

BC: Intense, burning curiosity.  The kind of burning curiosity that needs a topical cream, and you can’t help but show it off to your friends just to get their reaction.

The one thing I hope they DON’T feel is safe.  Or trusting.  I want to keep surprising them the whole way through.

PS: How difficult is it to distinguish yourself from other independent developers out there?   What are you planning to do to garner attention towards your own game?

BC: Streaking, primarily.  I figure I’ll focus on small sporting events and work my way up to visits from foreign dignitaries.  If I want to be serious about this, I’ll have to get “Last Stitch Goodnight” tattooed somewhere, but I guess that is to be expected; I’ve been told that branding is very important.

Beyond that, I’ll be screaming about it from the rooftops, sharing it at conventions, and playing it with podcast hosts.  I plan on putting in a lot of legwork, but my biggest ambassador will always have to be the game itself.  I just have to keep pouring as much dedication and love into it as I can until I can prove it’s worth everyone’s time.

PS: How challenging is it to have your game on Steam Greenlight when there are so many others seeking approval by the community as well? Any tips for other independents out there?

BC: It’s crazy exciting that so many people are finding a way to express themselves through video games.  That said, standing out really is about solving two problems:  letting people know you exist, and making people care. Gamers are savvy; you have to earn their respect

My recommendation to other folks would be to plan a few announcements.  Pour as much of yourself as you can into the game AND into the announcements.  Share your progress with the world.  Talk to Phil.  Above all else, let the world know you are a human, and not just some corporate machine.  I have to believe that people like authenticity.

PS: What thing or things are you most proud of concerning the development of Last Stitch Goodnight and in general with the game?

BC: My proudest moment is probably when it gained sentience.   I always think of anything artistic as a chance for you to (FIGURATIVELY) lop off a bit of yourself and see how it lives on its own.  This project has gone out of its way to show me that this is true.

I came into the project with a rough idea, but it keeps growing in ways I could never have predicted. Enemies, weapons, and rooms all spring to life.  Whole subplots show up out of nowhere and demand to be part of the bigger story.  When I finally got to writing the final scene, I had a blinding epiphany out of nowhere, and suddenly the entire project made sense.   The whole game was leading me to something, and I just needed to give it enough time to tell me.

PS: If there is one takeaway you want players to have after playing Last Stitch Goodnight, what would that takeaway be?

BC: Hope in the face of adversity, monstrosity, and absurdity.

PS: Do you have a future project in mind for after Last Stitch Goodnight is complete? If so, what kinds of ideas do you have rolling around in your head?

BC: I’d love to explore space more, and investigate humanity’s significance in it.  Space is the perfect irony, a giant empty void that is filled with EVERYTHING.  I just need to find a way to work pterodactyls back in.

PS: Is there anything else you’d like to add or anything you’d like to say to my readers before we wrap up?

BC: Last Stitch Goodnight has been a giant journey for me, and I cannot WAIT to share it with you all!


My special thanks to Ben Cook for taking time to answer my questions. To reiterate, his game, Last Stitch Goodnight, is available to recommend to Steam via Greenlight, so if you like what you see, please do so!

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