Starcolt is a small New Zealand developer that's making a game about dogs and dating called Best Friend Forever. Since a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the world, now they’re also a developer making a gift of feels and community when people need it.
Just like all of us, Starcolt was hit hard by the COVID-19 threat. But everyone can find ways to adapt, and so has this team of indie developers. Their cute, puppy-driven game is now seen as a way to bring happiness to people in dark times.
Adapting to Isolation
If you’ve ever looked on a world map, you know that New Zealand is fairly isolated. Even going to neighboring Australia could be a flight over five hours. This comes into effect every time the developers have an international conference to attend. But ever since our current crazy times began, Starcolt has a new sort of isolation to contend with.
“We’d just moved into a really nice, really big and light space, and it was really, really cool working there, and we were kind of getting into a really nice flow,” said Calliope Ryder, Starcolt’s "Gamerunner" (as mentioned on their website). “The first week in lockdown was a bit tough for the team…After that, we’ve sort of settled into it a bit better [and are] getting onto more normal production timelines.”
But there are still new normals to adapt to. Ryder explained further: “[W]e have to do Zoom calls every time we want to discuss something, rather than just like turning around and being like, ‘Hey, okay, let’s have a quick catchup’ … It’s like getting a delay…a feedback delay. Everything takes a little longer to get confirmation or get done.”
Plans went up in smoke and expectations changed—I’m sure this sounds familiar to all of us. Even as places around the world gradually begin to ease lockdown restrictions, we are still a world knocked on our feet by the crisis.
But that’s where a feel-good game about adopting a dog and finding love comes into play. It sounds like the perfect recipe for an apocalyptic-lockdown tonic. I asked the developers what they hoped players would get out of Best Friend Forever given our grim circumstances.
“Generally, we feel like this is the most difference we can make at the moment,” said Lucy Morris, the studio and creative director at Starcolt. “The world’s on fire, and there’s a lot of negativity around us, but we have the power to kind of bring some positivity to people, and give them something humorous, and something positive and cozy … I think what we’re hoping for is to make people smile and … show us something a bit more utopian when all of this other stuff is going on.”
Ryder noted the effect other recent games have had and how that’s given the team hope for theirs.
"Seeing how much of a difference Animal Crossing [and other games] have made for people during quarantine, and how much it’s helped people … we’re just hoping with BFF we can do the same thing…we can bring a little bit of joy and a little bit of love and kind of bring back some of that fun fictional dating as well to create a more uplifting experience for whoever’s playing it.”
Under normal circumstances, we may have taken games for granted. They give us escape and focus while otherwise we are simply sitting at home. Game developers like Starcolt have realized over the past couple of months that they have a double mission they can realize: during this unique period of history, their creations can still find their way to people, and they can give us escape when we most need it.
On Dogs and Dates
It sounds like such a great idea: combine a pet simulator with a date simulator. So why hasn’t anyone thought of it before? I asked Starcolt what exactly led to the inspiration for this wonderful game setup.
“I get asked this a lot,” Morris said. “It’s kind of hard to pinpoint any one moment where I saw a person walking a dog and I was like, ‘Ahh, let’s do that.’ I kind of have a lot of ideas kicking around in my head at all times."
Morris has studied romance games in academia and understands their audience to be a growing niche. She also thought that a dating sim, as a genre not too technically taxing, would be a good first title for the small team at Starcolt to test their chops on. Plus, she thought it'd be interesting to weave dog-ownership into a dating game.
“We’ve got what we call a 'dogagachi' kind of system in the narrative with you so the dog is like an active participant on your journey … it feels a lot more dynamic to kind of subvert the genre in that way.”
In short? “I wanted to make a dating sim and dogs are great!” Morris said.
In Best Friend Forever you're looking for a dog at the same time you're looking for a date. The two journeys don't conflict with each other or exist in separate spheres, but rather intersect.
“At the start of the game you’re moving to a new city… you’re kind of reviewing your values in life and you’ve decided to make a fresh start, and you also decided to adopt a dog, because you’re moving to a city with the highest dog-ownership per capita in the world," Morris said.
“[A]s you’re going forth on your journey of discovery in this new place, you just happen to meet other people through this dating app that you’re using, Woofr, which is for people who love dogs who love people who love dogs… It’s almost like two main characters, because you’ve got yourself on your journey and you’ve got your dog on its journey to being trained and also acclimatizing to you, so I would say it’s in parallel.”
Woofr is a great app name. It should exist. I vote for a Meowr app as well (or Purrr?). If any of this makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, BFF may be for you. I asked the devs who they most wanted to target their game towards, and they revealed that from playtesting they discovered a diverse audience interested. The focus on cute dogs and good feels with an accessible genre explains the wide interest.
“I would hope that people that enjoy narrative games, enjoy romance stories, enjoy other living beings…people that are looking for kind of a light experience…We’ve definitely seen a wide range of people interested in it,” Morris said.
Ryder talked about the insights from their play-testing: “The audience was more diverse than even we were expecting, so we’ve been pretty happy with how that’s turned out…it means that we’ve hit the money, we’ve got it right.”
Starcolt has whipped up a game recipe anyone can enjoy, in other words. Well, unless you’re strictly a cat person. (I’m half cat-person and am hoping for a feline-themed DLC, but love my doggies as well.)
Missing that Human Connection
If you’ve chanced upon Starcolt’s blog, you’ll know that they had quite an exciting and interesting adventure at PAX West. At other game conventions, too—like PAX AUS—they’ve found long lines around their booth and high levels of interest. But now all convention plans have, of course, gone dormant. I talked with the devs about what this means for their promotional strategy, and what they miss the most about getting out in the world and connecting with devs.
“Selfishly, I really miss seeing all the other game developers…especially other indies or other people who are working on the same kind of games as us,” said Ryder. “At PAX West we caught up with all the Monster Prom folks, and we hung out with them quite a lot during the week … and I think just that that community of people who are making sort of like a similar scope and similar problems to you….having that kind of support and making those connections and relationships is really important…From a marketing point of view, obviously, we were really really shocked by how busy [our booth was]….so dating sims and narrative games typically wouldn’t be expected to do as well or be quite as busy at a loud trade show, but we were really pleasantly surprised with lines around our booth to play the game almost the entire time we were at PAX West … PAX AUS was also really successful for us in those senses.”
But just as trade shows have gone away for now, digital engagement has gone up. Ryder further explained that the lockdown has given them a chance to do more for their Discord community.
“Like a lot of studios, I’m sure, we had plans for PAXes, and E3s, and Bit Summits, and all sorts of events…Historically we’ve done really well wishlist-wise and stuff from our trade shows, it’s a huge marketing tool for us… it’s really easy for us to see a response basically if we just look at steam wishlists from the times we were at like for instance PAX West.
“The other thing is a lot of stuff is slower…so we had to adjust to that…We haven’t really changed much of the messaging, except we have tried to bump up our Discord engagement, because a lot of people have more time at home now, so we’re playing a lot more games with our community in the Discord, and doing a lot more competitions and things like that…people have a lot of time for fan art challenges now!”
Morris also added that they had the opportunity to jump on LudoNarraCon, a digital showcase of narrative games hosted on Steam. When physical events and promotions go away, a digital option surfaces.
Perhaps what’s most hit Starcolt hard was the lack of GDC. But as I learned, they already had an alternative for that.
Morris had made a website called notGDC.fun earlier. It's a platform for sharing essays, podcasts, code, and other expertise or assistance on game design. It was driven by a feeling that GDC should perhaps relocate occasionally, being in the very expensive San Francisco. This digital platform, then, gives more people access.
“We’ve actually been running that for three or four years…Originally started by another developer [and myself]…and we were like, cool, this is like decentralized knowledge-sharing that costs zero dollars, this is a good idea.”
So what drives this small New Zealand developer to bring the world joy, spread community and engage gamers digitally? The values they were founded on, listed on their website, explain much of their motivation: Perspective, Innovation, and Community.
“They’re just things that we kind of value as individuals and as a company," Morris said. "Perspective is important, we’ve tried really hard to tell different stories in BFF, we’ve got this platform and we want to use it to kind of normalize different stories being told. We’ve got a diverse range of characters that is still not something that’s super common to see in games. We broach topics that are also super uncommon to see in games as well….Games is this amazing medium that we have the power to use…Innovation [is important], we really enjoy subverting genre, and BFF is an example of genre subversion.”
Starcolt’s commitment to community springs from their peculiar situation. So isolated from the largest areas of the games industry in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, New Zealand developers have all the more need to promote themselves.
“Community’s really important for us, because games can’t exist in a vacuum," Morris continued. "We’ve built a really amazing community around BFF, who are super positive and been really supportive of us and of each other and they’re a really nice group of people to interact with…We also believe in the importance of the real-life community of developers as well ... We do what we can to give back to the community with things like mentorships…[we have been] mentors for young women in the industry…We definitely want to do our best to give back because we’ve been supported a lot by other New Zealand studios and Australian studios…we’re just really invested in this positive ecosystem.”
Finding Connection with Best Friend Forever
Starcolt’s motto is “we deal in feels.” BFF is a game all about feels. Starcolt is all about reaching out, connecting, and establishing those “feels” with people.
“We want to make games that make people feel things, empathetic titles," Morris said. "We want to create that connection between the game and the player, and I think that underlies a lot of how we approach our design and our community.”
Starcolt’s mission makes you think about what feel and connection really is all about. We’re mired in circumstances where almost all of us are cut off from the connections we once had with others. BFF is a game built from community for people who need a warm-and-fuzzy element in their life right now. It can help everyone see the sunny side of life.
When it launches June 18, perhaps you’ll be the one discovering new best friends and seeing that even in crisis, connections can be made.