We talked with Sam Coster—artist, designer, and co-founder of Butterscotch Shenanigans. They are a small team that created Levelhead, a game about tapping into a player’s own creativity.
(Ed. note: Sam’s two brothers are also core members of Butterscotch Shenanigans.)
How did you and your brothers get involved with game development?
We grew up in rural Iowa, in a town of 10,000 people, and our parents were definitely not into video games. We got a max of 30 minutes of screen-time per day, and were generally pushed to play outside, read, create, or otherwise goof around with our free time. I think, because of that scarcity, video games became this mystical thing to us—this rare opportunity to dive into another world. As we grew up, none of us had an understanding of what it would take to make games, and in fact none of us were trained to do so. Adam became a PhD in Molecular Biology, Seth became a Chartered Financial Analyst, and I was on-track to practice Psychology.
That all changed when we stumbled into Game Jams: these 48 hour game-making events. With our ability to self-teach, we started making games in this lightning-fast format and quickly got hooked.
What kind of game is Levelhead? Why create this kind of game?
Levelhead is the kind of game you can turn into a hobby. It's a creative toolkit that lets players become designers and offers up infinite replayability and room for creative expression--all within the bounds of a classic platformer experience. We wanted to make something that would let a new wave of creators experience game design and maybe see themselves not just as players, but as designers, too. That realization—that each of us has the power to make games—was what set us on this path, and we wanted to try and recreate that for others.
What was challenging about making Levelhead? Conventional platformers are hard enough to make…
Ha! Can I say everything!? The wild thing about creating a game like this is that it must deliver not just as a great game experience - the platforming - but also as a social platform and as a creative toolkit. It's like building a social network + professional creative tool + platformer all at once, and if any piece of it isn't up to par, the whole endeavor falls apart.
This was our team's first time building a toolkit and letting players run wild with it. As a designer working in a studio, if you know that a particular thing in the game is poorly optimized, like a particular enemy, you'll purposefully not use too many of them in a level. With players, we wanted to not have any arbitrary restrictions on what they could do - which naturally meant that players can (and have!) filled entire levels with enemies, just to see what happens. Optimization has been the hardest part of this game by far, because we want players to be able to dream something and build it!
What kinds of surprising things did players create using your tools?
Levelhead's had a PC beta for a year, and in that time I'd say I've been impressed, surprised, or dismayed by our community's creativity at least once every week! I think the most surprising levels for me have been homages to popular indie games (some with procedurally generated layouts and rewards that change each time you play), working calculators, a Tic-Tac-Toe playing AI, and the many, many instances of players using objects in ways I would never in a million years think of.
Levelhead is very systems-rich, so players are still uncovering weird things they can do to bend the mechanics, even after 1,000+ hours of play, and we're learning alongside them every week!Learn more about Levelhead