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Doing Your Own Thing and Succeeding with Coffee Stain Studios

Developer Focus

Doing Your Own Thing and Succeeding with Coffee Stain Studios

We’re almost certain you know who Coffee Stain Studios are, but for those who don’t, they’re the developers of the interesting FPS/Tower Defense hybrid Sanctum and the retro “newspapers, please” game The Westport Independent, but odds are very high that you know them from that stupid game that we couldn’t stop playing for a while, the one, the only Goat Simulator. Between publishing video games and playing around with new ideas around the office, Johannes

Between publishing video games and playing around with new ideas around the office, Johannes Aspeby, former Lead Programmer and current Producer at Coffee Stain was kind enough to answer some of our questions and tell us what makes their studio tick.

Regular readers of our Developer Focus series might know that we like to open up our line of inquiry by asking studios for their sales pitch as if we were in a hiring interview and they were trying to convince us to work there. Coffee Stain had a solid opener: “I could go on and talking about good salaries and benefits, but I don’t think that’s the most important thing. First and foremost, you’ll be a vital part of our company and influence the games we are producing, no matter the position. We’re still a quite small company with fewer than 20 people on one game and that’s the way we like it. Each and everyone should feel that they have an impact on the game we are creating.“. A great way to sell a small studio!

We then asked for a mental trip around the office to see how everything is set up: “So we actually have our offices in an old cinema. When you first enter the door we have a small lounge area with a big coffee machine that produces whatever you can imagine more or less,” Johannes told us.

We have two rooms on the bottom floor, one big (the old theatre) and one a bit smaller. We also have one room upstairs which oversees the big room. All rooms have adjoining conference rooms. One which serves as board game room. We have arcade machine, pinball and a small theatre as well where employees usually watch movies every Friday. Overall I would say it’s spacious but cozy.“. We’ll have to take his word for it. While an old repurposed cinema sounds like a pretty awesome location, “cozy” is not the first word that would come to mind to most of us, I’m sure.

We care,” Johannes told us when we asked what makes Coffee Stain Studios stand out among other developers.

We’re founded by nine very different personalities and have often been told that we never would pull through with that many different owners. But we’ve respected each other and made it work, and I think that shines through our daily work. We’re also not afraid to do things differently. If we want to do something we do it, no matter in what regard. We do things our way. It might not be the best way all the time, but it’s still our way. During the development of Goat Simulator, we often said “try hard not to be try-hard” which sums up our attitude quite nicely I think.“. Oh wow, I’m stealing “try hard not to be try-hard”. Nine is a pretty big number for a starting team for a small studio, in my opinion, and it’s commendable that they’ve held out in spite of what everything around them thought.

Johannes goes on to say: “We’ve also managed to get a success without letting it get to our heads. Goat Simulator has allowed us to do what we want to do. Just make games and have fun basically. We don’t need to do what many of us consider “boring”, like making console ports. We can let people, who quite frankly are much better than us at doing it, do it.”

Coffee Stain Studios started out, as Johannes pointed out, as a team of nine and after the success of Sanctum, they started slowly hiring, growing to around 15 when development begun on Sanctum 2 and has been slowly but steadily increasing since then. As for why they prefer to maintain a small team size… ” We’ve tried having multiple projects running at once on several occasions but really never succeeded at it. If we were to grow more now we would probably do that with another wholly autonomous team somewhere else. It’s weird when one team is in crunch-mode and the other not when you’re under the same roof.

I would like to thank Johannes for this easy segue he offered us into one of our favourite lines or inquiry regarding deadlines, releases and crunch time. He was graciously open about it: “We’ve had very strict deadlines before and a lot of crunching. Mainly during the development of Sanctum 2 since we had strict deadlines from Microsoft and Sony. We tried not to underestimate the time it would take to get approved for console release, but we did. Luckily we’ve been free of such things in the last couple of years. We work hard to avoid crunching. We still set deadlines for the games we do but we have the luxury of being a bit flexible with them now if needed. That said we’re not Blizzard just iterating the same stuff over and over and over until it’s perfect.“. One hassle we’d wager no-one misses.

All the nastiness aside, we moved on to more pleasant things and wanted to know what the daily routine looks like at Coffee Stain Studios. Johannes ran us through a regular day: “People come in between 7 and 9 and start to work. At nine-ish people sit down for breakfast. At lunch a bunch of people go work out, others grab some lunch at a restaurant. During the day we have some sporadic discussions about the game or the development and at 5 pm people start to go home. That’s basically it. We have a short meeting Monday morning about what’s happening that week and bi-weekly end-of-sprint meetings. But those are the only set meetings we have. We very much roll with it.“. Well, that all sounds pretty laid ba- I’m sorry, was that 7 AM???

We try to do as much as we can in-house, but we’re game devs and not actors, so voice acting is one thing we’ve outsourced.” Johannes tells us about the work they do in-house versus what they outsource occasionally “The biggest things we have outsourced are the console ports of Goat Simulator and now the continued development of Goat Simulator. We’ve found great teams in England and Stockholm respectively. Double Eleven have done a great job with the console ports and we’re really glad to be working with them. Their level of expertise in the area greatly overshines ours. Gone North Games which made “A Story About My Uncle” have been great for the continued development of Goat Simulator. They’ve both done some great DLCs and done some awesome improvements on the mobile versions of the game.“.

Regarding the current semi-next-gen console cycle, Johannes tells us that it’s too early to know what’s going to happen and that we should wait and see for the time being. However, they have been dabbling a bit in the realm of VR without any concrete plans for the moment. “Internally we haven’t had any drive to produce content for the VR-platforms. But we realize the potential of the platform ofc. That’s when we decided to hire Sebastian Badylak. He is the toe that we are dipping in VR. The main problem of VR is that it’s still a niche platform. It can definitely be the future of gaming, but we don’t know when.

Other than playing around with VR tech, Coffee Stain Studios employees enjoy a wide array of amenities: “We have stuff like generous bonuses, letting people work out and paying gym costs, telephones, pension payments etc. We’ve also gone on kick-offs for the last three years, visiting  Reykjavik, Tuscany and Berlin so far. We usually have Thursday evenings for board games and Friday nights for watching movies in our little cinema. We also allow people to take some time working on whatever they want here at the office. Maybe a small side-project, new techniques or whatever.“. Additionally, each year since their success with Goat Simulator the studio holds a big anniversary party where they invite people in the business and friends to come and get drunk together.

There is quite a vibrant Indie game community around Sködve in Sweden, with whom they occasionally interact. “We have an incubator here which have helped many startups (us included). We actually moved away from them in 2013. I know that the smaller companies there hang around a lot and help each other which is really nice. The incubator also arranges travels and booths at conventions and conferences. That way smaller companies get the chance to go to these things and show off their games without spending too much money. Most of the companies sit in the same three buildings, so there’s bound to be a lot of interaction between them.” according to Johannes.

He goes on to say, “Then we have a few bigger interactions between us and other local devs. First the one with Double 010 who made Westport Independent. Then our latest collaboration is with Stunlock where we invested a lot of money in Battlerite and helped out with a lot of things. I’m so happy to see how well the game is received and how successful they have been with it. So yes, we interact a lot with each other.“. It’s great to hear that studios in such a dense community prefer to work together rather than compete. It seems to be a staple of smaller studios.

Image Credit: Steam

Johannes is looking forward to Mass Effect Andromeda (as am I) but is afraid that he’ll hate it (as am I). As for the other members of the team, “We have such a diverse taste here in the office. We have those who mainly play competitive games like Dota, Battlerite and Rocket League but many people who enjoy RPGs as well and a few who play everything. We even have those who like racing games!“. As a whole, the studio loathed to name a single or several developers or studios they admire, but at least for Johannes, he admires “all game developers that are trying to break the conventions set by the big companies. People that leave their safe works to bet everything on a new studio. That’s the people I admire. Oh, and even though she’s not a developer I do admire Anita Sarkeesian, for keeping fighting the good fight.“.

Winding down, we had to ask about Goat Simulator and how it came to pass, as it was one of their most high-profile games for a while. “We had a company-wide brainstorming session where everyone pitched in new game ideas. When Armin told us the idea of Goat Simulator many of us thought it was way too silly. We wanted to make “good” games. We were quite tired of Sanctum at that moment having worked with the franchise for several years so in the end, we decided to just waste a couple of weeks and make the game. Mostly just to let off some steam.” and let off steam they did:

We felt quite funny for all the development time actually and not just that one day. It was a crazy fun time where everyone just did what the hell they wanted. And on the other end came Goat Simulator. We were so scared before the release since we had no clue on how people would react to it. We invited some of the other companies here in Skövde to see how they played the game and if they thought it was funny. It was a mixed reaction, but we went on anyway. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Coffee Stain works on a single project company wide at the moment. They’ve tried working on several in the past but they encountered difficulties, as they stated earlier. “We’re currently focused on our upcoming project that I hope we can continue working on for a couple of years at least. And eventually, when we or our customers have grown tired of it we will come up with a new exciting project. The gaming landscape is always changing, so there’s no use in trying to plan too far ahead. We will make games that we want to make at that exact moment. We need to be flexible as a company and be able to grab opportunities when they arise.

In closing, we asked Johannes what he would do if he were a goat for a day and he offered us this: “Probably just lick a lot of random things. Maybe go to space.

Same.

We wish Johannes and the fine folk at Coffee Stain Studios the best of luck in their endeavours and we’re looking forward to their next project.

Paul is mainly a PC Gamer with an affinity for interesting or unique gameplay styles or mechanics. He prefers a good story and engaging gameplay over polygons, and frame rates. He’s also going to make a game one day, just you watch. Just as soon as he gets some time. Any day now.

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