The games industry sometimes works in mysterious ways.
When Stardew Valley launched on February 26th, who would have guessed that the indie farming simulation title would end up in Steam's Top 10 games the following week, out-selling pre-orders for The Division?
The game has amassed a devoted community, which might even be the sweetest in the whole video games industry, as players on Reddit kindly offered to buy the game for others to deter piracy.
And there's one person who is more surprised than everyone else about all this fuss: the game's creator Eric Barone.
Under the pseudonym of ConcernedApe, he spent four years on the development of Stardew Valley, entirely by himself, from the first artwork to the soundtrack.
I thought the game would do alright, but I had no idea it would reach this level of success. When you've been working alone on one game for many years, you lose your objectivity... I didn't really know if it was a good game or not,” Barone reveals.
Stardew Valley, which is published by UK firm Chucklefish, has already sold over 830,000 copies, he says. Still, that's not enough to reassure the Seattle-based developer.
I think it's a good game, but I'm also the type of person who is never satisfied with their work,” he says.
I'm always going to be thinking about how I could've done certain things better, or how I could still improve it. Also, I'll never be able to experience the game as it's actually intended to be played: without prior knowledge, discovering everything for the first time. So I'm not sure I'll ever truly know how good the game is.”
If Barone still doesn't have enough self-confidence to consider Stardew Valley a good game, he sure had the right tools and ideas to create a project that was able to differentiate itself from other titles.
I think there's a huge amount of competition in the indie sector right now, with a growing disparity between a select few successful games and everyone else. You have to make a game that really stands out from the crowd,” he asserts.
In order to be a part of the happy few, Barone did not position himself as a developer, but as a gamer: his starting point was his disappointment over what the Harvest Moon franchise had become. So he decided to work on an alternative.
I felt like the quality of the Harvest Moon games had been declining steadily after [PSOne game] Back To Nature,” he explains.
The gameplay of the first few games was very simple, but strangely addictive and satisfying. My original idea with Stardew Valley was just to take that classic gameplay style and bring it to PC. Over time, I became more ambitious and decided to expand on it with modern elements like crafting.”
"When you've been working alone on a game for years, you lose your objectivity. I'm not sure I'll ever truly know how good Stardew Valley is."
Barone's ambition allowed Stardew Valley to become an intelligent mix between Harvest Moon, 505 Games' Terraria and Starbound, the latter being developed by Chucklefish.
The British publisher actually approached Barone just before it launched Starbound in 2013, the developer explained during a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything' session (the website's famous Q&As), during which he answered fans' interrogations for over four hours.
At the time, I was an indie nobody and they were getting ready to launch Starbound, which was getting a huge amount of attention,” Barone wrote on Reddit. I figured I could ride their coattails a bit and get some exposure. They ended up helping me with a lot of non-dev stuff, which I'm thankful for, like hosting my site, setting up the wiki, etc.”
Chucklefish's offer arrived just at the right time, as Barone did not want to put his beloved Stardew Valley on Steam's Early Access. It seemed like nearly every indie game was doing Early Access at the time,” he tells MCV.
I wanted my game to stand out from the crowd, and I knew that many people were growing tired of paying for unfinished products. Furthermore, I felt that Early Access was better suited to very open-ended sandbox games, but was not ideal for a game like Stardew Valley.”
Now that Stardew Valley has been successfully released and has a well-established community, we would expect Eric Barone to be overwhelmed by publishers' offers to start working on a new project.
But the developer is still pretty busy with his first title, constantly trying to enhance the gamers' experience.
I'm currently spending all my time improving Stardew Valley, fixing bugs, and dealing with Stardew Valley related business,” Barone says.
He has been actively addressing the game's bugs and always takes time to respond to users' requests on Steam.
For example, by popular demand, Barone says that he will begin to work on porting the title to Mac and Linux.
So what about expanding the game's community even further by launching the title on consoles?
I'm currently in discussion with several companies that are interested in helping me bring Stardew Valley to consoles,” he cautiously answers, before adding that he can't discuss any of the porting stuff at this point.”
"There's a huge amount of competition in the indie sector. You have to make a game that really stands out from the crowd."
However, he reveals that digital download cards will soon be available in stores, even though he doesn't plan to release physical copies of his RPG.
He adds: And I plan on releasing free updates for the game, including multiplayer. I have no official plans for paid DLC or expansions. And I'm actually really looking forward to starting on my next game.
It will probably have some similarities to Stardew Valley... I learned so much from making the game, and I want to apply that to my next project. However, I don't want to make another farming game. I hope to have many years of game development ahead of me, and I'd like to make all kinds of different games.”
To achieve this, Barone hopes to avoid some of the obstacles he encountered during Stardew Valley's development.
The most challenging obstacles were psychological, social, and financial in nature.
And the stress of having my professional and personal hopes all riding on one wildly ambitious, uncertain project. I had to convince myself and those around me that I was special, that I was truly destined for greatness and not just delusional.”
Stardew Valley's success proves just that.