How a terminal cancer diagnosis inspired comedy crafting game Crashlands

When Crashlands co-creator Sam Coster took the stage at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, he warned us he might get a little choked up. His talk, 'The Last Game I Make Before I Die,' culminated in the most moving moment of GDC.

When Sam was diagnosed with cancer, he was working on a game that didn't mean much to him. Among all the other thoughts that must run through your mind at a time like that, one of his was: "This endless runner is not the last game I want to make before I die."

"I wanted to make something that mattered," said Sam. He started chemotherapy, which he describes as like an especially bad hangover that just keeps going. "I needed something to get my mind off the feeling of doom that was creeping in." To distract himself, Sam fired up Game Maker and started making something.

This endless runner is not the last game I want to make before I die.

What he made was a roomba, moving around a lawn, hoovering up leaves and turning them into... sandals, I think? It wasn't clear. But he was aiming higher. He wanted to work with his two brothers Seth and Adam on something "so ambitious we'd keep ourselves alive just so we can do it." An enormous game in an enormous world, a mix of Diablo and Pokemon with a funny story. 

"This was reckless by every standard," he acknowledges. "It was not a business decision."

The project filename was

Sam's diagnosis made him reprioritise everything. "It turns out that recognising you're going to die has a few benefits." He decided to cut everything out of his life that was distracting him from what he truly cared about. "If someone tried to pull me into something that wasn't important, I could always fall back on the fact that I was dying."

This attitude had an unexpected effect. "Making games while going through treatment makes treatment easier," he says, "And weirdly, treatment made making games easier." It also gave his brothers a way to help him through it. "Seth would take time in the evenings to add things to the game to make me excited again." Soon they had a large, randomly generated world and a crafting system. They named the game Crashlands.

The inventory screen.

Everyone we met was completely unimpressed.

But when they took the game to GDC, they got bad news of a different kind. "Everyone we met was completely unimpressed." The trip "ripped the wool from our eyes about whether it was any good... it was really a boring toy with some crafting."

Sam's treatment ended, and his doctors ran more tests. What followed was a rollercoaster of results: first he didn't have cancer, then he did, then he didn't. During the awful turmoil, he proposed to his girlfriend, who said yes. "Turns out I didn't have cancer, but I did get a fiancee out of the deal."

"We had a problem: I wasn't going to die." Great news, which meant facing up to the less serious bad news. "It turns out being alive means you have a lot of work to do."

Sam and Seth's brother Adam finished his PhD and joined the project, contributing an idea that would shape Crashland's crafting system: scrapping the inventory screen, making inventory itself unlimited, and only showing you what you had when it was relevant to what you wanted to make.

But the game still didn't have enough to stand out. "Crashlands wasn't anywhere near done, and it turned out my cancer wasn't anywhere near done either." Showering, Sam found a lump.

Sam looks back on this as one of the darkest times, and struggles to recount it. But as he restarted treatment, the brothers did at least figure out a twist for their game: "There weren't any crafting games with a long form, hilarious story." They worked on that, and by GDC 2015 were ready to show what they had.

Sam's doctor warned him he'd be attending at the low point of his therapy, and advised him not to go. But Sam was too invested. He demoed to the press while trying desperately not to touch his own hair, because it was falling out. Their last GDC had been a despiriting disaster, and Sam's health was worse than ever now.

Crashlands in its finished form.

Having nearly died a few times, you can imagine I was quite impatient to get this fucking game out the door.

But the press reaction was different this time. The coverage was glowing. It "lit a fire of hype around us," and they returned reinvigorated. Around the same time, Sam's eyebrows fell out.

His immune system was so weak from the treatment that his brothers couldn't visit, and for a time Sam couldn't help with the game. He could just about manage to play games, though: "On the sixth and final day of chemo, I completed Dragon Age Inquisition. Spoiler alert, you fight a dragon at the end."

"I got out of hospital restless, and ready to build some shit." Inspired by his own situation, he decided to make the game's story about "someone just trying to do their job when the whole world tries to fuck them over."

"Having nearly died a few times, you can imagine I was quite impatient to get this fucking game out the door," Sam says. The game sailed through Steam Greenlight in less than 48 hours. But early tests uncovered over 2,000 bugs, so there was still masses of work to do.

In December 2016, Sam went back to hospital for more tests. He'd never had a clean scan, even when he was told he was cancer-free. He decided in advance he wouldn't let the results phase him either way. "I'd been thriving under the thumb of cancer for two years, and I'd arguably done some of my best work. If I wasn't gonna be dead, I wasn't gonna be done."

The blood dragon that had plagued me for two years was finally dead.

Finally, the results came back. "There was nothing on the scan. Nothing. The blood dragon that had plagued me for two years was finally dead."
Sam says the lead-up to the game's launch was almost like the lead-up to the results of his scan: "We had done the best we can for nearly two years, and now we were simply waiting."

The launch was fraught. Much of the press was unresponsive to their outreach, and when they did get positive coverage from a big YouTuber, it was in a video that broke their embargo date by a week. Other YouTubers sent angry e-mails, thinking they'd been left out of an exclusive, and threatened to cancel coverage. The bad-will got worse with every passing day. Soon the team realised they just had to lift the embargo altogether.

And then they realised this mess had been hiding a bigger upside: people were pissed because they cared about the game. "Videos were popping up with hundreds of thousands of views, people were having a genuinely good time with the game."

If you're not dead, you're not done.

Steam got in touch to offer them a prime promo spot. Google Play put them on the front page of the store. They sold 131,000 units in 10 days, making 10 times their dev costs. "More importantly, people loved the game." People who knew nothing of Sam's cancer wrote in to say how the game had helped them get through tough times.

Today, it's sold 374,157 copies and was in Time's top 10 games of 2016. "It's the single biggest fuck-you to cancer that we can deliver."

Sam closed with what he learned from the exhausting ordeal: "If you approach work as the way you make meaning in your life, the work you create will get better."

And more simply: "If you're not dead, you're not done."

As we applauded, some of us got to our feet. Soon, the whole room rose in standing ovation. Sam broke down, tearing up and hiding his face in his hand. He seemed caught completely off guard. It was the most touching moment of this or any other GDC I've been to—I'm tearing up a little just thinking of it.
Then it was questions time and someone asked him how their e-mail capture system worked. God bless game developers.

Tom Francis is a former PC Gamer writer turned game developer. He released Gunpoint in 2013, and is currently working on Heat Signature. Tom offered to write up his thoughts on some of the GDC panels he's attending this year.