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GDC 2014: Don't Starve Building an Anti-Social Game

GDC 2014 Blog Header

Klei Entertainment Devloper Kevin Forbes recently gave a talk about indie hit Don’t Starve, detailing the game’s roots as a free to play prototype, and the huge impact the community had on bringing it to fruition.

The concept for Don’t Starve actually stemmed from a game jam where a 16 bit Link asset from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was surrounded by an increasing number of pigmen that did damage to you. It took 2 days to make, and had the same nighttime proximity lighting effects and isometric view as Don’t Starve would, but that was pretty much it. A simple start to be sure, but it served as the ground work for an experimental Free to Play(F2P) game that Klei was interested in pursuing.

The original game prototype was called the Mayor of Pig Town and, keeping in line with the F2P model, the player would buy truffles to befriend pigs and complete other tasks. The gameplay was mostly the Pig King giving the player RPG style quests to complete, but the game was taking way longer to play that the initially planned 15 minutes per session. The idea of constantly having to make additional RPG quests on an almost daily basis was also unrealistic for such a small team.

Dont Starve Update Posters

Don't Starve’s survival theme also wasn’t meshing with the F2P idea of the player being able to pay for in-game resources. The difficulty of acquiring them yourself and that feeling of just barely scraping by was pretty much the whole point. The only thing that made sense to monetize was visual customizations, such as new biomes, UI tweaks, monsters, and of course, hats. Even then, the team couldn't justify it, and decided to scrap monetization and the F2P model all together. The team was simply too small to manage the issue of ensuring that the game economy was balanced at all times.

At this point the game was revised into a Roguelike, as the team was playing a lot of them at the time. Klei then added perma-death to the game which was, and still is among some players, a controversial decision. This addition helped give the game the character the team was looking for though, and stood by their decision. Don't Starve's signature art style is also hugely responsible for the game's uniqueness, but even that didn't appear until much further along in the process. Check out these early versions of the game's main character, Wilson:

Dont Starve Wilson Prototypes

Kevin shared another interesting story, explaining what happened with one of the game's earlier builds, which featured tutorials and missions. The team quickly found that once the initial missions had been completed, players who were then left to their own devices and creativity got confused. Instead of exploring the world and figuring things out on their own as the team had intended, players would simply build a base camp and wait for more missions to appear.

The game’s strengths were starting to emerge at this point, and the team highlighted a few of them to focus on: Dark Humor, Constant Scarcity, Player Discovery, and mysteries.

It was also, at this point, with the game in a mostly playable state, that the team started looking at analytics and player feedback to see what was working. Most conversation with the fans happened on the forums, but they also used the community Wikis as a reference point for consistency and feedback.

In addition to providing valuable feedback for the developers, Kevin also highlighted the astounding level of direct impact community efforts can have on sales. He showed this sales graph and highlighted the two massive spikes:

Dont Starve Sales

The first spike was when TotalBiscuit posted one of his WTF videos about the game, and the second massive spike was a result of a Yogscast video featuring the game.

As its official launch approached, the game was getting periodic updates every 3 weeks for 6 months, which the team would tease with puzzles and ARGs between releases to keep player interest high. This method of leaving something hidden, and promising additional content encouraged community efforts and dramatically lengthened the game’s visibility, as opposed to the traditional model of not releasing a game until its final version has been completed. With programs like early access and Steam Greenlight subverting the traditional games development process, Kevin’s statement rang very true: “It doesn’t really matter to them (the players) if it’s final or not.”

What is Don't Starve?17:28

What is Don't Starve?

The early access to the game also improved the quality of life for the devs themselves, as by the time was officially released, virtually all the problems had been ironed out and the additional content had already been planned.

One of the biggest takeaways Kevin mentioned was “Dont be afraid of polarizing design." The game may not be for everybody, but as a result it will resonate strongly and have a longer hold on the players that do enjoy it.

Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter @thekrf.

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