If you want to understand video games, start with loops.
“It’s the basic human psychology of habit creation,” explains Sam Coster, the 26-year-old co-founder of Butterscotch Shenanigans and creative spark behind its latest hit, Crashlands. Inside the cramped-but-tidy University City apartment that serves as the startup game studio's headquarters, the Washington University alum sketches a simple game design on a whiteboard. He draws a rough circle in green marker, then two small ovals on either side. He labels one oval "action" and the other "reward."
“So, pacing would be the distance between these two points,” he says, pointing with the marker. “As the game progresses, your loops get bigger and bigger, because the player naturally gets sucked into the motion of how these things work."
The trick, Coster adds, is that these loops can be linked or embedded inside other loops, thus forming complex systems that dedicated players can spend dozens (or even hundreds) of hours exploring and mastering.
And, at least initially, that’s all Coster ever wanted out of Crashlands — a world to disappear into. An escape. A refuge from the cancer eating at his bones, liver and spleen.
Sam and Seth Coster discuss the basics of video game design.
Coster's diagnosis for non-Hodgkin lymphoma came in October 2013. At the time, he and his brother Seth had only recently started their company, but they were already working on their second mobile game, an intentionally silly “endless runner” called Slothcycling. Like Butterscotch Shenanigans’ debut game, Quadropus Rampage,Slothcycling was geared for mobile users with short attention spans.
Now that he was facing his own mortality, however, Coster found himself pulling away. He didn't want to spend his remaining time on Earth making a shallow mobile game like Slothcycling. He wanted to do something big.
“If I’m only going to be around for another year,” he remembers thinking, “could we maybe try to do something that isn’t going to disappear in the blink of an eye?”
Development for Crashlands began mere weeks after Coster's diagnosis. Over the next two years, Coster, Seth and their other brother, Adam, crafted a sprawling world where players must build their own shelters and fight strange enemies — like the Wompit, a hippo beast that hops around on one foot — all while pushing through a 40-hour narrative that follows the game's main character, Flux, as she's thrust into a planet-wide conflict between various alien races.
Between chemo treatments and weeks-long stays in the hospital, Coster illustrated more than 1,000 unique items for Crashlands, from fauna to weapons to whatever the hell this is.
“We were cooking so fast that I just don't remember what the fuck I made,” Coster says now. The team's only aim was making a game about over-the-top sci-fi adventuring.
Crashlands was never supposed to be about cancer. Still, the game was designed with a specific purpose, Coster says: “To allow for this really deep immersion, because that’s essentially what I wanted during treatment. What I needed was to not fucking be where I was.”
Coster's treatment took several turns. Declared cancer-free after seven months, the disease roared back, necessitating further chemotherapy and two stem cell transplants. Months passed as Coster and his brothers began marketing and testing the game.
Not all the Crashlands news is good. Around half of all iOS and PC downloads have come from stolen copies of the game, Coster says. The piracy rate is up to 95 percent for Android downloads.
But after two years of turmoil, the Coster brothers aren't about to let a little internet piracy get them down. They're preparing to tackle their next project, an ambitious multiplayer game tentatively called Narwhal Online.
And Coster says his most recent cancer scans, in December, came back clear.
"One of our testers in the UK is going through cancer treatment right now," Coster adds. "There's another one from the US and he’s got PTSD. Both of these guys sent me notes, unbidden. The guy who has cancer was like, ‘I was literally throwing my guts up yesterday, but all I could think about was getting back to playing Crashlands.'"
Coster knows the feeling.
"I think that was my favorite thing," he says. "That Crashlands was doing exactly the job we designed it to do."