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Video game developer creates video game to help in his fight against cancer

Courtesy of Butterscotch Shenanigans
A cropped version of Crashlands' game art.

Sam Coster had an unusual inspiration for his hit computer game – his fight against cancer.

“The game is designed specifically to deliver a feeling of awe and wonder and immersion so it’s literally designed to be the place that I wanted and needed to go during cancer treatment,” Sam said.

Two years ago, Coster was diagnosed with stage 4B Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. During his cancer treatments, Coster and his brother Seth decided to scrap the game they were designing and start a new one --  something Sam would be happy to leave as “the last thing I make before I die.”

Over the past two years, Sam has been treated, entered remission, suffered a reoccurrence and received a bone marrow transplant. All while he has been working with Seth, with whom he runs the design studio Butterscotch Shenanigans, on the game that would become Crashlands. The brothers released the game last week to record-breaking reviews and high sales. 

The brothers’ appreciate Crashlands' success but find another kind of response more rewarding.

Sam Coster, left, and Seth Coster, laugh while talking about Crashlands at the University City apartment they work out of.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Sam Coster, left, and Seth Coster, laugh while talking about Crashlands at the University City apartment they work out of.

“Hearing someone say that it was helping them in an identical situation in a really powerful way meant that that goal of making something more meaningful, for everybody else to enjoy when I would be gone, had been brought to fruition,” Sam said.

Before his diagnosis, the the 23-year-old had been experiencing strange symptoms that he mistakenly  attributed to Lyme Disease. He hallucinated a red “blood dragon” escaping his chest. He got exhausted easily, needing two full French presses of coffee and a nap to get through the day. He suffered night sweats so pronounced he’d wake up to soaked sheets. Instead of their usual banter and jokes, Sam found his interactions with his brother Seth increasingly tense. 

“This is, of course, extremely abnormal," Sam said. "It should have been a hint, but as a healthy 23-year-old, you’re not like, 'Oh yeah, I probably have cancer.'”

Sam Coster, foreground, works at his University City apartment with his brother, Seth.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Sam Coster, foreground, works at his University City apartment with his brother, Seth.

As a young person in good health, he wasn’t inclined to treat his initial symptoms as serious. But as the symptoms worsened, Sam knew he had to see a doctor.

“He said 'How old are you?' and I said 23, and he just breathed really deeply and said, ‘Well I believe this is cancer, and you need to go get a biopsy right now,'” Sam said.

Once Sam was given the diagnosis, he began treatment immediately.

The information came as a blow to his brother, friend and business partner Seth. 

“When the diagnosis first came down, it almost seemed like it should be a prank or something,” he said. 

It wasn’t long before Sam declared that he wanted to abandon the game they’d been working on to develop a new one. The work helped Seth cope with the diagnosis as well.

“It’s infuriating to watch because you want to protect that person, but you just can’t do anything about it,” Seth said. “By working on this game with Sam, I could keep programming new things for the game and adding new features. All of a sudden, there would be an all new group of things for him to make art for.”

Since beginning the project, Sam and Seth have brought their third brother, Adam, into the business. Adam will soon be moving up from Texas to work out of the same apartment office as Sam and Seth. Their company began when Sam found a development platform that allowed users to design games without being computer experts. Seth was completing a master's of business administration and a law degree when he was presented with the program. After that his studies literally took a back seat. 

“I had moved to the back of my law classes so I could just work on programming games during the lectures and it was pretty much over at that point,” Seth said.

The brothers are part of a growing community of independent game designers here in St. Louis. They participate in “game jams” where developers come together to discuss projects and develop games in rapid collaboration. Their first jam included four like-minded developers but one upcoming Global Game Jam is expected to draw hundreds of people.

“We don’t have these thousand-person studios that are housed in St. Louis and so if people want to get into games here, they just have to do it on their own," Seth said. "That makes it really hard, but for those who want to brave it and try to make it on their own, the opportunity is there,” Seth said.

Sam is in remission. He’s doing well at the moment and the brothers are already working on their next set of games.