Do you like cute dogs? Do you like cute people? Wellington-based Starcolt Studios’ first game, Best Friend Forever, might just be the one for you.
When you think game studio, you picture dark rooms with menacingly beeping black machines with Tron blue lights, not a lovely office that shares a floor with a counselling service. But Starcolt Studios isn’t exactly your stereotypical gaming studio. Its motto is literally “we deal in feels”, so the curtains match the community here.
The studio’s first game, Best Friend Forever, comes out on Steam and Nintendo Switch today. The concept is simple and immediately appealing in these dark, bleak times: you play a character, that sits wherever you want them to on the identity spectrum, who moves to a new city that may or may not resemble Wellington. That character then adopts a dog and raises it, while meeting and dating people around town. That’s it. That’s the concept.
The idea for the game came after studio founder Lucy Morris pitched a few titles to the Starcolt team and asked them what they would rather work on. They decided to commit to Best Friend Forever. Not only did the concept seem relatable, but it would be easy to market and less technically intense to produce.
“I don’t believe in creating games that people don’t care about,” Morris told me when we sat down at her Wellington studio back in March.
“All I knew is that I wanted to make a dating sim with dogs in it, and then have a platform to design outwards from that. Game design is often either designing from a core mechanic outwards, or concept in. I’m very much the second kind of person that develops from the outside in.”
In keeping with her goal to create games that people care about, Morris has sought to make Starcolt a place where people actually wanted to work. Morris has been working in the games industry for nearly a decade now, starting off as a community manager for Ubisoft before working at the Media Design School as a lecturer of creative technologies. She would later recruit some of her students when she formed Starcolt Studios, and had a clear vision for what she wanted the company to be.
“I really want to make sure that everyone is happy, first and foremost, because if you’re unhappy and working on a game, it’s going to show through like it does in any kind of art. Most of all, I want people to look forward to coming to work rather than dread it.”
Alex Woodward, who was brought in as the lead writer on Best Friend Forever, found working for the studio on their first game a dream come true. Although Woodward was the sole writer for most of the project and worked remotely from Auckland, he never felt alone. Anytime he needed input, it was a call or a Slack message away.
“Often with freelance work, you can sort of end up feeling like an outsider, but the whole team welcomed me warmly. Not just through their lovely personalities, but with processes as well. Lucy and Cal (the studio’s gamerunner) were both really happy to be flexible with me and work out the best processes for collaborating and communicating.”
Those open lines of communication extend to the community they’ve cultivated around the game, which is essential to every indie developer. You reap what you sow, and if you sow the seeds of a supportive, enthusiastic community, you reap the benefits. The first seeds were sown during Nintendo’s Indie World Showcase in August last year where a preview of the game was tucked away in the showcase’s B-roll footage. However, it managed to immediately resonate with people with the company getting emails asking for a press release just half an hour after the showcase –
4am in drowsy Wellington. “The game was just something that stood out, compared to what else was going on, probably just because of the style,” said Morris.
From there, the game continued to build a considerable fanbase. It proved a success at trade shows like PAX Australia despite it being notoriously hard for narrative games to get a foothold at these sorts of events. Best Friend Forever had queues as long as an hour and a half which attracted “really, really lovely people” at these shows, which Morris attributes to the game’s content. It also helps that the venn diagram of people who like dogs and people who like dating sims not only have a big overlap, but a profitable one too.
The trick now is keeping the hype going post-release.
After spending a few hours with the game ahead of its release date, what’s most incredible about it is the joy it holds in seemingly every pixel. It’s easy to get bogged down by the nature of triple-A gaming, where narrative-heavy games can be driven by dark plots and darker design. But from the very first moments of Best Friend Forever, when your bus crests the hill of Rainbow Bay (which is definitely not Wellington. Nope, no way) and you build your character through picking your horoscope and answering questions in a tongue-in-cheek quiz, it’s clear that the game wants you to just have a goddamned nice time. Date some cute people, meet some adorable dogs, and get amongst the community. The dialogue is sparkling, the characters are vivid, and the gameplay is engrossing without ever making you feel like you’ve lost your entire night to it.
One of the huge assets that both game and studio has is its intentional diversity; the cast, though quite small, reflects a real-world spectrum of people, and ends up being far more diverse than games with dozens of characters on-screen and hundreds of people working behind the scenes. Morris front foots this in our conversation.
“It’s very rare to find a studio as diverse as ours, not just in terms of make up and orientation, but also because there’s so few women in senior management in games. So being able to direct our story towards something that’s more diverse has been really really good and having the team’s input in that has been super invaluable,” she says.
One problem with a lot of dating sims is that they tend star people in the 18-20 age bracket, and they all look broadly the same: skinny, Caucasian and ripped like they’re starring on a CW show. And when they’re cosmetically different, the relationship options tend to be geared towards the same direction. (A game like Dream Daddy, probably the most prominent dating sim in the Western world, is an exception to the rule.) The problem isn’t that many dating sims don’t look like the real world, it’s just that they look like the world of somebody with a very limited imagination of who they might want to date.
The human cast of Best Friend Forever is definitely an attempt to reflect diversity in every imaginable way. The intersections of gender, race, sexuality and ability are spanned in a manner that puts other games where player choice is tantamount in stark relief. The characters here actually look like profiles that you’d swipe through on Tinder, rather than the pages of a magazine from 20 years ago.
“It’s basically like taking 10 people off the street in Wellington. There are people that are tall, short, chubbier, athletic, and it’s nice to be able to visually depict that because you don’t always get that in games,” said Morris. “I would find it creepy dating someone who’s 18 in a game now because I’m almost 30. Having a section of dateable characters that are mid-20s to mid-30s is actually more comfortable for me, and it much more reflects my taste, the age that I am and all that sort of stuff.”
“If you’re on dating apps in your [late] 20s, you’re going to find people who have kids or people who have complex relationships outside of whatever you have together. We’ve got a character that has two kids and a full-time job. We’ve got a character that has a guide dog and is visually impaired. It’s been really nice normalising these traits because disability is not something you see a lot in video games, especially in dating sims.”
That diversity is reflected in the voice cast as well, with everybody cast in relation to the role they played. For example, for the role of a trans man, there was no intention to cast anybody but a trans man in real life. Similarly, all the people of colour in the game are voiced by actual people of colour. (You might think this would be standard practice in gaming but unfortunately, it’s not.)
Despite how careful they’ve been with representation – to the point where the studio has consulted with vets to make sure they were accurate with the personality of certain dogs and representing ethical breeds of dogs – this isn’t a game that feels like it’s stepping on eggshells. Starcolt has done the reading, done the work, so that their players can have the most fun. “It’s not like we have to do this to make sure we don’t get called out. We want to see these voices and date these people in games,” said Morris.
That’s one of the most remarkable things about Starcolt and this game – the work that it’s put into making Best Friend Forever inclusive only shows up in a positive way, with accurate and responsible representation leading to not just good business, but also better work.
Morris downplays this. “I’m just glad that I have a really good team who are committed to this vision, and what we’re trying to do,” she says. “The rest is hopefully history.”
You can play Best Friend Forever on Nintendo Switch and Steam now.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.