Success comes at a price - Butterscotch Shenanigans
How the PC and premium mobile hit Crashlands kept its creators from actually making games for a year
Ordinarily, a successful game is what allows a developer to make another game. But in the case of Butterscotch Shenanigans, the studio's success with Crashlands did nearly the opposite.
The game launched in January of 2016 simultaneously on Steam and smartphones with a pay-once premium approach for all three platforms. Co-founder Sam Coster covered the difficulties leading up to launch in a guest editorial last September, but recently caught up with GamesIndustry.biz to discuss the challenges that came later.
"So much of our time has gone into wrangling the consequences of the success of the game, which I would say we were utterly unprepared for, and is something nobody seems to talk about too much in the industry," Coster said.
"Suddenly we had this huge amount of admin work to do, and the primary value we thought we were adding as founders of the studio, or even just game developers, was stripped out..."
The demands on the team's time started with something developers actually do talk about a fair amount: managing feedback.
"We had basically seven disparate contact systems between Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, the Steam forums, iTunes forums and all that stuff, and we were basically getting burned out because we were checking all these different places day by day trying to find bug reports and that sort of thing," Coster said. "So we built a system for that, trying to streamline that process."
Crashlands' success also brought about a level of administrative overhead unfamiliar to the studio, which at that point still consisted of just Coster and his brothers Seth and Adam.
"When you have a game that does well, there is a large number of other businesses that will see this and want to offer you deals of various sorts," Sam said. "Whether that's something you know is probably good--like Humble or something from major platforms like Steam or iTunes--or if it's 'integrate this SDK to do this particular thing on mobile!' Or is it Indie Gala asking for bundle keys or that sort of thing? So we built a system for that, trying to streamline that process."
However, those systems weren't enough to mitigate the demands on the team's time, and the brothers were increasingly finding themselves working on things that weren't the game.
"It had only been the three of us before, and all the work we had done had only been making or marketing the game," Sam explained. "And suddenly we had this huge amount of admin work to do, and the primary value we thought we were adding as founders of the studio, or even just game developers, was stripped out because all of our time was going into these various admin things."
To free themselves up again, they decided to grow the studio and bring on people to help handle administrative tasks.
"Of course, doing that for the first time was a lot of the same thing," Sam said. "We were reading books, spending most of our time talking to people or building out a hiring pipeline, reading applications, all this stuff. We're very happy with where we've got to now, as of about February of this year, but it literally took a year of not much game development and mostly studio development to get all these new systems built and all this new infrastructure built so we could actually work again as a game studio without having to be handling all this admin stuff at all times of the day."
"So much of our ability to move sales, whether it's on Google Play or iTunes, has to do with the featuring. So in that regard, we certainly did leave money on the table by not providing content updates every six to eight weeks or so."
Fortunately, Crashlands has still been performing for the studio while it figured all this out. Sam attributed part of the game's longevity to plaudits like a DICE Award nomination for Best Mobile Game of the Year in a crowded category featuring titles like Clash Royale and eventual winner Pokemon Go, or its inclusion in Time Magazine's Top 10 Video Games of 2016, ahead of hits like Battlefield 1 and No Man's Sky.
"What that seemed to do for us was open up the opportunities to do those later lifecycle things, but with the best distributors for them. So Humble, for example, asked us to be in their bundle," Sam said. "The work we've been doing in the last eight to 10 months has been a lot of that later lifecycle stuff that we were just scared to approach eight months after launch last year, when we did the editorial. What we've seen from that is that it's done a great job in terms of keeping the studio's finances flowing really well, but it's a good way to regularly bring in a new base of players and people who didn't even know the game existed. And as an independent developer, marketing is just the hardest part of this whole scenario."
Even though Crashlands has done well (the game recently surpassed 500,000 copies sold across all platforms), Sam knows it could have done better, particularly on mobile. All that time spent dealing with admin work and away from game development put a damper on any ideas of adding new content to the game on an update schedule resembling anything like most mobile titles enjoy.
"So much of our ability to move sales, whether it's on Google Play or iTunes, has to do with the featuring," Sam said. "So in that regard, we certainly did leave money on the table by not providing content updates every six to eight weeks or so. Because providing a content update lets you submit a 'new and noteworthy' update to the iTunes team, which allows them to resurface the game. So that most certainly was us leaving money on the table. But we didn't have any illusions about that. It was us looking at the cash flow we had, looking at where we were trying to take the studio, and making the call of, 'Do we work on the game?' or 'Do we work on the studio?'"
As Butterscotch Shenanigans prepares to unveil its follow-up to Crashlands (also a premium multi-platform title simultaneously launching on mobile and PC), Sam said he's taken away one big lesson time and again from his time in the industry.
When he co-founded Butterscotch Shenanigans and the team had less than a year of collective industry experience between them, people said they couldn't do that. When they wanted to make premium games, they were told premium was dead. When he went to a gaming conference and asked the keynote speaker for advice on how a team in the Midwest can find a good mentor, he was told "Just move." When they wanted to launch Crashlands simultaneously on iOS, Android, and Steam at two different price points, they were told it would result in outrage and cannibalization.
"In essentially every single dimension we operate in, most people we interact with have told us we can't do the things we do."
"In essentially every single dimension we operate in, most people we interact with have told us we can't do the things we do," Sam said. "Just straight up accepting industry knowledge, or a lot of these claims that are touted by people... Just the fact they're reiterated a bunch in the industry doesn't make them true.
"We see this all the time with the whole 'premium is dead' argument. It's been a constant death knell for the last five years. And certainly, we might be the extreme outlier in this particular case, so it's not to say that everybody should go into premium games. I wouldn't suggest that at all. I'm just pointing out that it's not blanketly true that you can't do some of these things people are claiming you cannot do anymore."
Even with the success of Crashlands, Sam says he's hearing people tell him "You can't do that" just as often. However, it's not exactly the same refrain. These days it's more likely to be because of how the company is growing, hiring people who might not have any prior experience in gaming, paying them well (in Sam's estimation, at least), and working a four-day work week capped off by 12-hour "jam days" each Thursday.
"It's like the bar just gets moved constantly. If we manage to succeed, naysayers keep pushing the bar forward," Sam said. "We know there are some people who truly won't listen to us until we have a string of successes under our belts and have already built a successful, small, really healthy independent game studio. And even then, they'll say, 'What you're doing with seven or 14 people works for you, but just wait. That can't work at 25 people or 50 people.'"
The doubt from others has become such a common thing, Sam said he might miss it if it ever really went away.
"Humans are creatures of opposition, to some degree," he acknowledged. "So having at least a little bit of the feeling that we're underdogs in any sort of scenario is good. It's always a good driver."