A Bus Full of Dogs in El Salvador

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  • As Telltale melts down, the plight of videogame developers once again flashes across Twitter and blog headlines. It’s a familiar story, a taste of success spun too thin, employees toiling until their spirits are spent and cast off into the night to fend for themselves. Some say that videogame consumers should educate themselves about the products they enjoy, others claim that short of a massive boycott knowledge won’t really change consumer behavior and save ground-down developers. It’s likely that the tiresome truth is found somewhere in the middle.

    This is where the nimble, globally-minded game crafting team strikes most true. One such outfit is Stonebot games, out of El Salvador. Self-described company “business guy” Alessandro Biollo was recently at the Boston Festival of Indie Games demoing his team’s current project, The Last Friend—part tower-defense and part boots-to-the-street beat ‘em up, this game pits you as one of the few remaining sane humans in a post-apocalyptic desert. You are the last friend to an RV full of intelligent dogs facing off hordes of former humans turned canine-ivore mutants rushing the bus to turn puppies into chow.

    It’s visually slick already, which isn’t surprising for a team of less than ten, comprised of mostly animators and artists. Biollo says more than half are working on the visuals, which are flatly flashy and distinctively bright with a cartoon flare steeped in sharp angles and expressive brows. It’s not exactly attempting to redefine the look of the current videogame zeitgeist, but it stands shoulders above a lot of the chaff already. And the hybrid format has you laying turrets, shields, and other contraptions during the breathers between waves of spittle-caked monstrosities, and when they descend you best remember your Streets of Rage instincts because you’ll need those uppercuts and roundhouse kicks too. It looks like a solid mix, and it’s no surprise that Nintendo picked it up as a future Switch title even though Stonebot wasn’t working with a publisher or distributor. This is a pretty rare move for the Big N, even as they talk up their “Nindies” program, as only six other games were chosen like this, according to Biollo.

    And while The Last Friend looks great, hoping to come though with a charming and robust story mode when eventually released, Biollo’s larger story about the game and Stonebot has larger potential ramifications for the industry. Though videogames are still primarily a Western and Japanese affair, the globe is swiftly catching up. In part this is thanks to mobile platforms, the ubiquity of cellphones making games more relevant than ever before. But according to Biollo, mobile is also a wasteland, where hard work will only float you so far before the tide of tens of thousands of other games overwhelms you. This is why Stonebot has really begun to focus on consoles, as Sony and Microsoft are also encouraging independent development, and multiple platforms give smaller studios more avenues of attack. And beyond this attention and support from the heavies, there’s also been some two-faced friendliness from the American embassy.

    Biollo tells me that Stonebot was contacted by the US government with the express purpose of asking them to stay in El Salvador. He said they had no plans on leaving anyways, with deep local roots and a desire to pour any taste of success into cultivating their own local scene. And what with the internet and digital platforms, there is no real need for them to pack up and head out. The irony of the US administration selling the “American Dream” abroad as frosted xenophobic immigration policy is not lost on Biollo, but he rightfully doesn’t care to parse the particulars. If the US wants to give him and his team money to stay home and make great games to share with the world at large, they’d be fools to turn away.

    Stonebot hasn’t cashed out yet though. They still have a game to deliver, along with all their other non-games related work, and food to put on the tables for their families. But by keeping the team small, growing their own community within the smallest country in Central America, and living up to the potential of the demo of The Last Friend, perhaps they can be a shining example of a successfully lean and lithe dev team. One that respects its roots, and can lead the charge against large companies that treat their studios like factory farms, protecting their furry doggo friends until the last corporate mutant falls.

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