When he found out he had cancer, Sam Coster was working on developing a mobile endless runner with his brother. Although devastating, the news made a sort of weird sense.
For months, he'd been listless and irritable. He'd lost his passion for making games. Uncharacteristically, he was arguing with his brother and showing up late for work. He lost weight and experienced weird, disturbing visions. He knew something was wrong.
So he saw a bunch of doctors. The first few fobbed him off with painkillers, but his health kept deteriorating. Then it was confirmed. T-Cell Rich, Large B-Cell Lymphoma, stage 4b cancer.
Sam was a strong 23-year-old man who looked after himself. He had no history of serious illness.
He went into the hospital and, as the grueling chemotherapy treatment began, he tried to comprehend what was happening to him. It was all too much.
He wanted to think about something else, anything else. He turned his mind to the endless runner he was trying to make, but it only depressed him more. He thought, "If I am going to die, I want to make something other than yet another endless runner."
He retreated into a fantasy of his own, a game world that he wanted to inhabit and that, in time, he knew he wanted to make. Lying in bed with his laptop, he knocked up a demo and showed it to his brother Seth. They agreed to immediately cease work on the endless runner and begin work on the new game. They called it Crashlands.
Last week, the Coster brother submitted Crashlands to Steam. It was greenlit within two days.
Sam in hospital with fiance Diana and brothers Adam and Seth
"A diagnosis like that gives you clarity," says Sam. "You think about your time a little bit differently."
In 2013, when Sam received the diagnosis, the Costers' studio Butterscotch Shenanigans had released a few reasonably successful games. Its most recent hit was an endless brawler called Quadropus Rampage. The brothers figured that they could build on that success with an endless runner.
But Sam was bored with the idea. "If the next thing you did was the last thing you did, would you be happy about that fact?" he asks. "I just didn't want this endless runner to be the last thing I make before I die."
The new demo that Sam showed Seth was little more than a top-down view of a Roomba moving around a field and picking up leaves. The Roomba turned the leaves into shoes. That was the basis for Crashlands, which is about covering ground, exploring and gathering.
It's a crafting RPG with lots of goofy humor. Players move around a world interacting with weird characters, collecting and creating stuff. "People really like the zaniness," says Sam. "There's a lot of character and story-based stuff, but crafting is at its core. There's an infinite inventory that manages itself. That's something people have been wanting from Minecraft and Terraria and all these other games forever. We hit a nail on the head with that."
Sam's responsibility is creating the art assets for the game, of which there are thousands. Seth handles coding.
"Crashlands follows a similar trajectory to any crafting game," says Sam. "You go out and find resources, mine them, and use those resources to build better tools and weapons in order to mine better stuff. It follows the a survival-crafting loop system, but it has a bunch of weird things that spice it up."
Crashlands (pre-order link here) is coming out on Windows PC and Mac, most likely towards the end of summer. Sam and Seth are working every available hour to get the game finished.
Sam's cancer abated after his first chemotherapy treatment. But earlier this year, it returned. Right now he is in the middle of an aggressive medical regime.
"I was in remission for about seven or nine months," says Sam. "If the chemo fails the first time you move into what's called salvage chemotherapy, which is really intense stuff. I spent the entire month of May in the hospital getting a stem cell transplant. That's paired with an extremely rough chemo regimen that blows out all of your blood counts. You're not able to produce blood or an immune system during the time you're in the hospital.
"After that they let you recover for a few months. Then I go back in August to get my second run. I'm completely bald. I don't have any eyebrows. That's where I'm at right now."
Earlier this year, Sam posted his story via a blog post on Touch Arcade. It talks about some of the details of his cancer. It also shows his humor and resourcefulness. He is entirely matter-of-fact about his illness without diminishing its effects and enormity. He makes dark little jokes that don't feel forced.
He talks about the cancer as both a blight on his life and as a place from which he mustered the strength to find inspiration.
"There were stretches of days when I was not able to do anything," he says. "I was having what the doctors call ‘significant bone pain' which is probably the most hilarious understatement I've ever heard in my life. It's caused by a shot to make your bone marrow produce more white blood cells. It literally feels like someone's crunching your spine and your hips.
"I was transformed into an old man in a matter of a few hours. Those days were certainly hard. But it did that thing where the whole distance makes the heart grow fonder, right? When you're forced to not work on something, because of an external factor, something you have no control over, it makes it so that when you get back to it, you are much more ravenous to do the work and do it really well.
"I mean this on a minute-to-minute level. I didn't want to think about the cancer. You don't want to be in the hospital while you're there. You don't want to be the 23-year-old with cancer. It's about focus.
"My art improved so vastly. The cancer gave me the focus that I just could not have had otherwise, to really pour all my energy into this. I got into a flow state. I lost myself in the work. That was how I gave myself therapy, by doing art and doing such a volume of it, with such focus, that I forgot about the fact that I was supposed to be dying."
Sam's brother Seth remembers that, prior to the diagnosis, Sam was not himself. "He went from being positive, lively, and good-humored, to being generally tired and easily frustrated. Design discussions devolved from crazy, hilarious, over-the-top improv sessions into arguments with an undercurrent of irritation."
Following the diagnosis, that all changed.
"After all those tests and stuff, we decided to do the thing we do best, which is make the shit out of some games. Sam pitched his idea for Crashlands to me, and I hopped on board immediately. I figured, if Sam was going to go through the hell of chemo, I wanted to make sure he had something to work on that he was really passionate about. Crashlands was his dream game idea. It needed to happen.
"I felt totally helpless. It's one of the most fucked-up things to happen. He was just living life, minding his own business, and all of a sudden he's thrust into a hospital bed, having needles crammed into his bones, getting tubes snaked into his veins and having his body filled with poison.
"At first, I felt like I couldn't do anything about it. All I could do was sit there and watch. But there was something I could do. I got to help by working on Crashlands. I got to push Sam's dream game further and further into existence. If he had days when he was feeling too shitty to stand up, he could rest assured that Crashlands was still moving forward."
Part of their collective dissociation from the illness was working on specifics in the game, on simply visiting the hospital and talking about the game. Seth recalls one visit.
"We chatted about what to do next in Crashlands and we agreed that it'd be really cool to have a day-night cycle implemented. I went home and stayed up overnight, and through the next morning. By the evening of the next day not only was the day-night cycle implemented I had also created a lighting system and implemented all the torches and lamps he had created artwork for. So we suddenly had a very vivid, colorful nighttime scene.
"I showed it to him, and he was so damn pumped about it that he spent the next day in the hospital cranking out more lamps and cool glowy things we could show off at night.
"For me, Crashlands has been my way of helping Sam along and keeping him excited even when he was feeling awful, and it has been my way of feeling like I've been able to help him get through it. It's not much, but it sure is better than nothing."
Sam and Seth live in St. Louis. They have another brother Adam, who lives in Texas and recently joined Butterscotch Shenanigans to help finish the game. His focus is back-end and tool creation.
"I wasn't a part of the studio during the first six months of all this cancer nonsense, since I was getting my PhD [in Biology] at the time in Texas," he says. "I just thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing?' Sam and Seth, my two favorite people, were taking huge risks to do something they loved. Sam looking death right in its stupid face. I was doing things that suddenly didn't seem very important."
Adam fast-tracked his studies into molecular biology so he could join the team.
"I had something much more important to do: spend time with Sam while making games." He says working on the game has helped him to cope. "This was my form of escape from the emotional toll and the general helplessness I felt. Sure, I could talk Sam's ear off about how cancer works, how chemo works, why chemo is the fucking worst. But I couldn't actually do anything. Except help make the games that Sam had been pouring his soul into.
"Crashlands truly is Sam's soul bottled up into something that everyone in the world will get to experience. He's an awesome, hilarious guy, who enriches the lives of everyone he comes into contact with. Through Crashlands, every person in the world can be infected with that awesomeness. And that's an amazing, powerful thing."
Although Crashlands is born of a horrible illness, it is a work of great humor. The game's trailer is funny and sharp.
"People always mention the idea of finding silver linings in terrible things," says Sam. "This idea of twisting a bad notion around and turning it into a positive. At this point, I call myself a master silver lining miner because for the most part, I honestly think very positively about the whole thing.
"I think my humor's gotten a little less routine. I'm not funny as much as I used to be, I would say, just in personal conversations and stuff. But I recognize I make games for a living and I have found things that can entertain people and give them the same sense of fun that I got from making the game."
Sam says he is in an OK place as far as paying for treatment goes. At his age, he can still use his parents' insurance. There have been some money-raising efforts by friends. Income from Butterscotch Shenanigans' previous games is also helping.
"Whether Crashlands does well financially or not I'll be OK," he says. "I live very simply and have the important things close to me like my fiance, family and friends, so I don't need much. But damn, would it be a nice way to end things if it sold like hotcakes."
"I've had my mortality shoved in my face and I've found this ability to allow people to fall into something and not have to worry about the world around them. I can honestly say it's the most polished thing I've ever made.
"If I die after this thing is done, I frankly would be pretty frickin' happy with the last thing I ever made."
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