Arts

Game on

For developers, it’s more than a game

Forever an Astronaut

As someone who writes and thinks a lot about video games but who lacks coding or design skills, I’m always very interested to learn about their development. Developers, like artists in general, tend to be a bit quirkier, more interesting, and a little more . . . you might say, off, than the rest of us.

So I’m very intrigued by “Dev Diary,” an upcoming documentary series from Forever an Astronaut, a St. Louis-based production company and film studio. It’s launching Jan. 21 on Steam, Vimeo On Demand, and the production company’s website, www.foreveranastronaut.com/dev-diary. Each season will follow an indie game development studio, and the first season centers on the St. Louis-based team Butterscotch Shenanigans — great name — which is run by brothers Seth, Sam, and Adam Coster.

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“The Coster brothers are some of the fastest game developers in St. Louis, but they’ve spent the last two years working on only one game,” explains the series’s promotional material. “Dev Diary season one focuses on the release of Butterscotch Shenanigans’s Crashlands, and how it has been saving Sam Coster’s life while he battles cancer.”

In the trailer episode that Forever an Astronaut gave me access to, we are introduced to the brothers, who founded their studio in 2012. The trio started small, making mobile titles with modest ambitions, but at the time the action picks up they have grown into a fairly successful small studio and a fixture in what feels like a growing St. Louis indie game scene.

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That scene is a major subject of the pilot — Adam telecommutes from Dallas, but Seth and Sam take an obvious pride in the extent to which they have helped build up a burgeoning network of game developers in St. Louis. There are regular meetups (and drinkups), and the different teams clearly feed off each other’s energy. The episode quickly imparts a lot of information about the brothers’ upbringing and influences.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, “Dev Diary” reminds me a lot of “Startup,” a podcast series from Gimlet Media that tells stories from inside various Internet startups. I think the series has a lot of potential, simply because the life of a developer is so stressful, jam-packed with ups and downs and unreasonable work schedules. There are many stories waiting to be harvested in this world. And this development story in particular features the added benefit of watching three brothers work together. “I think it’s very unusual,” says their father at one point. “I’ve not seen brothers work together like they do before.”

One other interesting aspect of the pilot has to do with the Herculean effort often needed to market one’s wares. As the Costers point out, given the current glut of straightforward development tools that allow just about anyone to make a game, the market is absolutely flooded. It’s very hard to stand out if you don’t put in the effort to not only make a good game, but also to get noticed. One of the Costers explains that the old logic of “if you build it, they will come” is “just not true.” Rather, developers need to constantly network, constantly tend their brand, constantly show customers and other developers exciting snippets of what’s to come. The Costers do all these things, in part, by regularly giving talks about their company and development process — talks that both serve as a resource to other developers and would-be developers, and help get the Butterscotch Shenanigans name out there.

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While the pilot offered only a brief glimpse at the series, I’m looking forward to learning more about the Costers and their title “Crashlands.” Game developers are an interesting breed and deserve more attention. Not only could “Dev Diary” turn out to be a strong docu-series in its own right — which it will, if the pilot is any indication — but it could also inspire more people to try their hands at creating a video game. That can only be a good thing.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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