The Mak­ing Of...

How one man went back to na­ture for an un­likely vi­ral hit

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING For­mat PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One De­vel­oper Con­cernedApe Pub­lisher Chuck­le­fish Ori­gin US Re­lease 2016

How one man went back to na­ture to cre­ate un­likely farm­ing hit Stardew Val­ley

“THERE WAS DEF­I­NITELY PRES­SURE TO MAKE MONEY, SO I GUESS THAT WAS ONE MO­TI­VA­TOR”

Eric Barone’s favourite game se­ries was stuck in a rut. By his reck­on­ing, Har­vest

Moon had lost what had made the ear­lier games – the SNES orig­i­nal for which he’d first fallen, and his per­sonal favourite, PlayS­ta­tion en­try Back To Na­ture – so spe­cial. He be­gan to look for some kind of re­place­ment, trawl­ing through var­i­ous fangames to lit­tle avail. There was only one thing for it: he’d have to make one of his own. “I guess I just hoped there were other peo­ple out there who felt the same as me, who were look­ing for this sort of thing,” he tells us.

It was a nat­u­ral next step for Barone, who had al­ready con­sid­ered games as the ideal way to sat­isfy his cre­ative urges. An avid artist, mu­si­cian and writer of sto­ries and poetry, he’d never quite imag­ined that he’d be able to make a liv­ing from his hob­bies. But with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in com­puter sci­ence un­der his belt, he re­alised he had all the tools he needed. And now he had an idea to drive him for­ward.

Stardew Val­ley did, how­ever, take quite some time to come to­gether. As he started de­vel­op­ment, Barone had lit­tle mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, and a Steam re­lease seemed beyond his ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Xbox Live’s Indie Games ser­vice ap­peared to be his best op­tion. Barone was al­ready us­ing Microsoft’s XNA pro­gram­ming frame­work, which was well-suited to mak­ing con­sole games, and he be­lieved he could clear XBLIG’s com­par­a­tively low qual­ity bar, sell his game for a dol­lar or two, and move on. Ob­vi­ously things didn’t quite pan out as he’d planned. Af­ter work­ing on the game for a while, Barone built a web­site to doc­u­ment his progress, post­ing reg­u­lar up­dates and at­tract­ing a small au­di­ence of reg­u­lar fol­low­ers. “That there were peo­ple out there who were re­ally in­ter­ested in what I was do­ing, and see­ing that they would love a game like this, in­spired me to go fur­ther,” he says.

Be­fore long, he’d no­ticed a clear im­prove­ment in his skills as a de­vel­oper. His pixel art was get­ting bet­ter; like­wise his pro­gram­ming. Which meant an ob­vi­ous dis­crep­ancy between ideas he’d worked on ear­lier in de­vel­op­ment and those that came later. “At some point I re­alised that this game wasn’t good enough; that I could do bet­ter,” he re­calls. “So I went back and re­did it all. I went through that process many times through­out de­vel­op­ment – I’d go back and redo ev­ery­thing again to get it up to the level that I was at presently.”

Cash­flow was a con­cern, of course. Barone had a part-time job as a the­atre usher to sup­ple­ment his girl­friend’s grad-school in­come so they could scrape by, but the rest of his time was spent work­ing on the game. “There was def­i­nitely pres­sure to make money, and so I guess that was one mo­ti­va­tor,” he laughs. Barone had con­sciously iso­lated my­self from the in­de­pen­dent scene through­out de­vel­op­ment, but he was aware that the likes of Minecraft and

Ter­raria had ben­e­fit­ted from its mak­ers be­ing ac­tive on­line. Hav­ing pub­licly an­nounced the game in the au­tumn of 2012, he took to Twit­ter and Red­dit to fur­ther dis­cuss his work, and to more di­rectly en­gage with the com­mu­nity that was steadily grow­ing around the game. “I had a sense that this was what you were sup­posed to do, but it was just nat­u­ral for me to do it,” he says. “I like to be per­sonal with peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in my game, to treat them like real peo­ple. And a big part of the charm of Stardew

Val­ley is that it’s a per­sonal game. I felt that in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple in a straight­for­ward way, with no PR-speak, made sense.”

Still, he did have some help get­ting the mes­sage out. By now, Stardew Val­ley had at­tracted the at­ten­tion of pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Chuck­le­fish, which of­fered to help Barone with pro­mo­tion and mar­ket­ing. “They weren’t in­volved in de­vel­op­ment at all, just the busi­ness side of things,” he says. “Them tweet­ing about the game and pro­mot­ing it a lit­tle bit helped start the ball rolling, and at that point peo­ple who knew Har­vest Moon started to learn about it, and many of them thought it was cool, and shared it with their friends and so on.”

Barone was a lit­tle un­com­fort­able, how­ever, with Stardew Val­ley’s grow­ing vi­ral­ity. The game was in a dis­tinctly un­var­nished state at the time, and in­evitably he’d be­gun to at­tract his fair share of in­ter­net vit­riol. “There were plenty of peo­ple back then that were say­ing, ‘Oh, this is just a Har­vest Moon rip-off, it’s garbage’,” he laughs. “But I kept im­prov­ing it and the more I did that, the more I pol­ished it and made it its own thing, I no­ticed peo­ple were say­ing that sort of thing less and less.”

Among the barbs,

he found plenty of con­struc­tive feed­back, which helped shape the di­rec­tion of the game. Barone’s monthly up­date posts would at­tract a bar­rage of com­ments, and he’d read ev­ery one and try, wher­ever pos­si­ble, to ac­com­mo­date any pop­u­lar fea­ture re­quests. Com­mu­nity pres­sure took him down the oc­ca­sional cul-de-sac: he’d stoked ex­cite­ment among his com­mu­nity by telling them he was build­ing pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated open-world mines, but hav­ing spent sev­eral months work­ing on them, he had to scrap them in favour of a more hand-crafted ap­proach. “I’d got about 75 per cent of the way with that; I had goblin cities and all kinds of things in there,” he says. “But then it turned out that it wasn’t fun, and it was full of bugs.” Still, he feels the feed­back he got from his au­di­ence was a net pos­i­tive. “Some­times lis­ten­ing to the com­mu­nity led me astray a bit, but over­all it was im­por­tant to get some out­side per­spec­tive on what I was do­ing, and to in­cor­po­rate that into the fi­nal prod­uct.”

Even while re­spond­ing to – and act­ing upon – fan re­quests, Barone was keen not to lose sight of his orig­i­nal vi­sion. He res­ur­rected the eas­ily un­der­stand­able tile-based farm­ing of the ear­lier Har­vest Moon games, but he was also chas­ing some­thing rather less tan­gi­ble. “It’s hard to even put my fin­ger on, but there was a cer­tain magic to those ear­lier games, just a feel­ing you got when play­ing them, that I wanted to cap­ture,” he says. Frus­trated at the se­ries’ lapses into cliché and anime tropes, he aimed to

evoke the ide­al­is­tic out­look of Back To Na­ture, but also to echo its the­matic ma­tu­rity – though he con­cedes that per­haps its hid­den depths are roset­inted mem­o­ries. “Maybe it wasn’t ac­tu­ally that deep, but when you were a kid it felt like it was hint­ing at a lot of stuff. There were adult problems that char­ac­ters had – some peo­ple drank too much, things like that. My in­ten­tion with Stardew

Val­ley was that it was for peo­ple my age, so I wanted to have themes that were com­pelling to adults but at the same time main­tain a cer­tain light­heart­ed­ness to keep it fun and re­lax­ing.”

Though he was hop­ing to re­cap­ture the spirit of Back To Na­ture, Barone didn’t sim­ply want to re­make the game; rather, he wanted to add to it, to re­fine its ideas. One of the key changes he made was to the cook­ing me­chan­ics. In­stead of cook­ing for profit, farm­ers are en­cour­aged to make meals that con­vey a range of char­ac­ter buffs, mak­ing their daily rou­tines more ef­fi­cient. “I wanted things to have pur­pose,” he says. “In

Har­vest Moon, the point of mak­ing dif­fer­ent meals would re­ally be to ship one just so you have a com­plete ship­ping record – and of course some of the towns­folk might pre­fer a spe­cific meal. But I felt it would be more fun if you had a real in­cen­tive to do it.”

De­spite th­ese ad­di­tions,

Barone was still con­cerned Stardew Val­ley might be con­sid­ered a lit­tle too close to its big­gest in­spi­ra­tion for com­fort. “Yeah, I was def­i­nitely wor­ried,” he ad­mits. “For a long time I thought I was go­ing to get sued. Though this was be­fore I fully un­der­stood copy­right law.” It was, then, a re­lief when he even­tu­ally met Ya­suhiro Wada,

Har­vest Moon’s cre­ator, and found not only a kin­dred spirit, but an ap­pre­cia­tive fan: “I thought Mr Wada would be mad at me. But he was a re­ally nice guy, he liked Stardew Val­ley, and thought it was great that some­one was tak­ing his idea and con­tin­u­ing it.” Per­haps, we sug­gest, Wada had moved on from the se­ries with which he’d made his name for sim­i­lar rea­sons to Barone. “He ba­si­cally said as much, yeah,” he nods. “We dis­cussed the tile con­cept and he said that in the more mod­ern games they keep get­ting smaller and smaller, whereas in the orig­i­nal Har­vest Moon the tiles were nice and big and easy to work with, so you could wrap your head around it.”

Barone wrapped up de­vel­op­ment in early 2016, re­leas­ing the PC ver­sion of Stardew Val­ley in Fe­bru­ary. His ini­tial hope that there might be enough like-minded peo­ple seek­ing an old-school farm­ing game was not mis­placed: by the end of 2016 his game wasn’t far short of sell­ing its two mil­lionth copy, hav­ing com­fort­ably out­stripped the likes of Dis­hon­ored 2 and Mafia III in both sales and rev­enue on Steam. He’d al­ready told friends he’d be “ec­static” if the game man­aged to shift 100,000 copies over its life­time; this was well beyond his wildest dreams. “At that point, I had no idea what was go­ing on,” he laughs.

He was still keen to con­tinue work­ing on and im­prov­ing Stardew Val­ley, but suc­cess quickly proved over­whelm­ing. Barone was too busy with bug fixes, patches and up­dates to think about the fu­ture of the game, or to de­velop any kind of busi­ness plan. Chuck­le­fish duly stepped in and of­fered its as­sis­tance, which he gladly ac­cepted. The pub­lisher ported the game to PS4 and Xbox One – with Barone merely hav­ing to ap­prove any changes – and trans­lated the game into six languages be­sides English. It also con­nected him with mer­chan­dis­ers, while the mul­ti­player com­po­nent he’d hoped to in­clude with the orig­i­nal re­lease is on its way, and will fea­ture in the forth­com­ing Switch ver­sion. “It’s all the stuff I ba­si­cally don’t want to do, be­cause I just like to make games,” he says. “I like to cre­ate the art, the mu­sic, the story – that’s the kind of thing I like do­ing, not the highly tech­ni­cal stuff. Chuck­le­fish has taken over all of that for me and I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it. It’s been a big help.”

He ad­mits, with dis­arm­ing can­dour, that even now he’s sur­prised at Stardew Val­ley’s re­cep­tion – es­pe­cially when he plays other indie games. “Like Hol­low Knight, which I’m play­ing right now. Some of th­ese games are like beau­ti­ful works of art, whereas Stardew Val­ley is very scrappy, it’s very am­a­teur, and some­how ev­ery­one loves it.” We sug­gest that in that re­gard it has some­thing in com­mon with the likes of Ter­raria and Minecraft, both of which proved phe­nom­e­nally pop­u­lar de­spite – or per­haps as a re­sult of – their com­par­a­tively rudi­men­tary looks. “Yeah, I agree with you,” he replies, “And that was cer­tainly in­ten­tional.” He pauses mo­men­tar­ily. “I guess it makes some kind of sense in ret­ro­spect. I ob­vi­ously love games like Har­vest Moon and An­i­mal Cross­ing, but I wasn’t sure that it would be main­stream pop­u­lar, you know?”

In a sense, Barone’s jour­ney mir­rors that of Stardew Val­ley’s pro­tag­o­nist. As an out­sider you must build your farm up from scratch, toil­ing away over a sub­stan­tial pe­riod of time, suf­fer­ing set­backs and mak­ing mis­takes be­fore you can even­tu­ally reap the re­wards of your ef­forts. It’s a game that re­wards pas­sion and good old­fash­ioned graft: two at­tributes that got Barone where he is now. “It didn’t re­ally come to­gether un­til the very end,” he says. “I spent a few months adding lit­tle flour­ishes and de­tails to things, like wood­peck­ers peck­ing on the trees and stuff like that. That was when I started to think, ‘OK, this game is pretty spe­cial, it has that [ Har­vest Moon] magic to it’. And it’s a big game. I mean, it’s kind of crazy how much con­tent there is.” He laughs, al­most in dis­be­lief. “Man, it was a lot of work.”

Barone says he didn’t want to be in­flu­enced by play­ing other indie games while mak­ing Stardew Val­ley

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