How Stonebot Brought Real Dogs into The Last Friend’s Post-Apocalyptic World

The studio is putting up to 400 fans' dogs in its tower defense game.

When The Last Friend fan Thom Truitt met his black labrador retriever, Mac, it was as a rescue. Mac had been chained up all summer by his previous owner and wasn’t really suited for his new home at a friend’s house. There was no fenced-in yard for him to run around, and the friend was already overwhelmed by a home overflowing with pets. Truitt, by contrast, had recently lost another dog and wasn’t looking for another. But Mac helped him weather his grief.  In the last three years of his life, however, Mac suffered from a recurring growth and open wound in one of his legs.

“It would grow, then burst, go away, come back,” Truitt told Fanbyte in an email interview. “His last time it never went away and just kept getting bigger [until] it burst and was a bloody mess all the time. His life was daily bandage changes and wearing a cone all the time so he would leave it alone… there isn’t enough skin on their legs to just remove and stitch up.”

After three years of care, Truitt was faced with a choice to either amputate Mac’s leg or have him put down. As the dog was nine years old — which can be considered late life for the average lab — Mac’s quality of life would suffer without the leg. His family made the difficult decision to say goodbye.

“My oldest son and I were with him as he passed on,” Truitt says. “That was one of the hardest things I have ever done. […] He was full of life till the very last day and will be sorely missed.”

Enter The Stonebot Studio. The developer has recreated Mac (and is working on a few hundred other dogs) in its tower defense/beat-em-up game The Last Friend as part of a pre-order bonus for its “True Frens Edition.” Truitt had been a fan of Stonebot’s work since 2017, when the studio released Stereo Aereo, a rhythm-action game with a sci-fi backdrop. He streamed the game frequently and eventually met members of the team at E3 2019. As a fan of dogs and The Last Friend’s art style, Truitt says it seemed like the perfect game to pay tribute to Mac. The decision to have him appear in the game was made before his passing. Now, it carries a different weight. 

“Mac was still alive when I decided to add him, but him being gone now and then also being immortalized in-game is pretty awesome,” Truitt says.

The Last Friend stars Alpha, a rough and rugged survivor of the post-apocalypse with a soft spot for dogs. Such a soft spot, in fact, that the entire game centers around saving canines captured by baddies. The game is out today on PC and Switch.

Producer Carlos Martinez told Fanbyte that the initial idea was to integrate fans’ dogs as part of the game mechanics. In The Last Friend, rescuing a new dog provides a new type of turret, defense, or passive buff to add to your arsenal. This was exciting to the team, but when the prospect of adding players’ dogs to the world in a mechanical sense came up, Stonebot realized that was probably beyond the scope of what the team could do.

“It all started with the core mechanic of the game,” Martinez says. “We wanted a lot of dogs. And then we came up with this idea with the help of Alessandro [Biollo, Business Development Manager of publisher Ludus Games], and said ‘okay, why don’t we ask real players if they can share their dogs with us and include that in the game?’ The first approach was to try and build those real dogs to be the actual dogs that you use, but based on our scale, we were going to produce those mechanics and we couldn’t integrate the real dogs.”

Another idea was to use photos of fans’ dogs in the game’s final credits sequence, but the team decided against that, too. Doing so would require those players to beat the entire game before seeing their dogs in the game. Eventually, the team decided to create an entirely new feature called the Hall of Fame — a terminal including complete artistic recreations of up to 400 dogs, all keeping with The Last Friend’s distinct art style.

“Of course, that is a lot of work for our side,” Martinez says. “Because the artists have to jump each time a gamer supports us. We have to recreate that dog as soon as we can to be part of the game, and to try each time to make a patch so that new dog becomes part of the whole thing. But we felt it was a way to integrate the dogs better and thank the gamers that were supporting us.”

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As of publication, Stonebot hasn’t yet reached its 400 dog quota, but its artists have been working to get early adopters’ dogs in the game before launch. The team’s three artists are working internally on some, while also looking for outside help. Should the queue get out of hand. 

“We settled down on that number based on how many artists are working with us currently, and how many other artists that can work with The Last Friend’s style can help us,” Martinez says. “It’s always complex to have too many dogs in each queue, on the other hand, the artists really enjoy drawing them.”

Stonebot’s artists include Producer and Character Designer Americo Andrade, and Animator Artists Julieta Perla and Saul Orellana, all of whom are still working to add more dogs through future patches as orders of the True Frens Edition come through. Martinez says that those who ordered the edition closer to launch will likely have to wait until a future update.  Yet the studio is committed to reaching its goal of 400.

But that’s a lot of dogs to draw. Not to mention there are bound to be repeats when it comes to breeds recreated in The Last Friend art style. So the studio is asking fans who send in photos of their furry friends to give them a sense of their personality, as well.

“We got several corgis,” Andrade says. “But they show some kind of character, and sometimes the owners send photos with them with a tie or something like that that makes them more recognizable. And they have some features [that serve as] inspirations. That’s part of the photo that we can take.”

While the team goes out of its way to make each piece distinct, the artists also work to keep things feeling “in world.”. This means simplifying colors and appearances so they’re consistent across the board, as well as aiming for a certain baseline cuteness to all breeds.

“We have been drawing dogs from the beginning of development within our style,” Andrade says. “So we have to first simplify the dog breed, and that was a kind of challenge because, in terms of color you have black dogs, brown dogs, light-brown dogs, and light-orange [dogs]. So we simplified the shapes of the dog so they can fit in the art style in the game and still be part of this action-adventure game about dogs and still have the cuteness from the pets.”

Below is a timelapse of Mac’s recreation in The Last Friend by Andrade, including Truitt’s reference photos. This is one of many dogs that appear in the game’s Hall of Fame, accessible through an in-game terminal at the player’s campsite. 

Beyond that, The Stonebot Studio is keeping each dog’s appearance as a future surprise for fans. None have been shown the art before the game’s launch today. Martinez and Andrade say they’re excited for fans to see the final products, though, as the entire initiative has helped them feel closer to their players. And in a sense they are, because some of the teams own dogs are part of the Hall of Fame as well.

“It’s a way to share the love of the dogs [with players], I think,” Andrade says. “That relationship between the developer and gamer feels a little bit closer with this.”

For more on The Last Friend, check out Fanbyte’s review.