How Stardew Valley Keeps Building On Success
Stardew Valley released on PC in 2016, captivating players with its idyllic vision of simple farm life. In the four years since, the game has been ported to consoles and mobile, and sold more than 10 million copies across all platforms. However, the success of this relaxing retro simulation isn’t a past phenomenon – it’s an ongoing effort. Since launch, developer Eric Barone (a.k.a. ConcernedApe) has continued creating significant updates for Stardew Valley, improving and expanding the gameplay and story without charging players anything extra.
In today’s gaming landscape, post-launch updates are common; studios release patches to fix bugs, as well as add new features or content. But even considering those practices, what Barone is doing with Stardew Valley is exceptional. He has given the project years of sustained support, refining the experience even after all of the acclaim it received at release.
“It wasn’t until the game came out and most people loved it that I was like, ‘Okay, I guess the game is actually good,’ but that’s kind of how I am,” Barone says. “I always have doubt about whether it’s good. I always think it’s bad. But I actually think that is a tool to my benefit, because it compels me to always go above and beyond and keep trying. I want it to be perfect, because I always feel like it’s not good enough.”
Past updates have included a variety of major and minor tweaks, including new farm buildings to buy and upgrade, additional romantic interests to marry, and more annual festivals to celebrate. However, the single biggest new feature was the addition of multiplayer, which allows four people to play together cooperatively. “[Multiplayer] was something that I had promised originally – that was one of the big selling points,” Barone says. “I had to make the hard decision to release it without multiplayer and patch it in later … Thankfully, now multiplayer is in, and the promise has been kept. That was a big relief.”
If co-op isn’t your thing, you aren’t left out in the cold. One of the great things about Stardew Valley is how it accommodates a breadth of playstyles. If you are mainly interested in making money for better upgrades, you can pursue that loop. If you love the life-simulation angle and want to befriend all the townspeople, that’s another option. When determining what changes to pursue in any update, Barone tries to balance the needs of all kinds of players. He compares the process to preparing a meal: “You can’t just have the meat; you also have the potatoes, and the salad beforehand, to make a perfect meal. And then it all needs a lot of sauce on top, and salt. If you don’t have all that, it’s not going to be good.” In short, a good update needs something in every category: end-game activities for experienced players, engaging content for new players, and quality-of-life changes for everyone.
For example, the most recent 1.4 update included a clothes-tailoring system, new hairstyles for your character, a “trash bear” that demands specific items and only appears after the second in-game year, a new farm map with co-op in mind, and much more. It’s a lot of varied content, and because it’s all free for people who own the game, you can always come back to Stardew Valley after time away and find something new.
But is it possible to change too much? The core Stardew Valley experience is a carefully paced introduction to the systems and world, and messing with that could disrupt some of the game’s magic. “I’m very cautious about making changes to the base game,” Barone says. “I really don’t want to mess with the early-game experience; I don’t want people to boot up the game and say, ‘Wait, where’s my Stardew Valley?!’ I always try to make sure that if there are big new things you can do in the early game, it’s extra. It’s peripheral. It’s not affecting the core experience of the game. And if there are things that change that, I want to make sure they’re optional. There’s some new stuff in 1.5 that I think will be a good way for people to replay Stardew Valley and get a fresh experience, but it’s optional. If you’re new to the game, you’ll have the classic Stardew Valley experience. But if you’re are an experienced player, you have this option to play something fresh.”
Considering it takes dozens of hours to build a truly flourishing farm, starting over from the beginning might seem like madness. However, plenty of dedicated players do that regularly, revisiting Stardew Valley like a home away from home. The game has a passionate and positive community, and Barone has a good sense of the kinds of things players want to see added. However, it’s not a majority-rules scenario. He developed Stardew Valley himself, and though other team members have worked on the game since launch, he still views it as a personal project. “I think of the community like advisors,” Barone says. “They’re giving suggestions, but ultimately, I want it to come from me. I feel like if the game was just ruled by committee, it wouldn’t be Stardew Valley anymore. I try to accommodate the fans as much as I can, but there are certain things where I feel like, even if it’s a popular request, it’s not what I want to do.”
More marriage candidates and more options with your kids are two common suggestions, but implementing either of them carries different complications. Time is at a premium for such a small development team, and creating all of the necessary dialogue and scenes for marriage candidates requires an enormous amount of work. “If could just push a button, and it would do that all perfectly, then I would make many more of the characters marriage candidates,” Barone says. Without an easy solution, however, any time spent creating new romance options is time that can’t be spent improving the game in other ways.
As for making the kids more interesting, that situation veers into uncertain territory when it comes to how players see themselves in the world. The main character is intentionally left with an undefined personality, so players can more easily insert themselves into the events and setting. Strong, pre-defined characteristics and dialogue can make you feel like an observer rather than a participant. “When it comes to your own children, I feel like it’s the same thing,” Barone says. “It needs to be left vague, or it will run into that problem.” However, that doesn’t mean the current implementation is set in stone; Barone has ideas for modest improvements he may make to the kids in the future, but whether or not those will make the cut for the 1.5 update is still undecided.
Stardew Valley can’t possibly include everything every player wants, but you merely need to look at the notes for any update to see the huge list of things that are regularly added to the game. It’s an uncommonly generous approach in an industry full of microtransactions and season passes, but it also feels consistent with Stardew Valley’s considerate and wholesome tone. “I know it sounds like I’m just saying this, but I really do care about the fans, and I want to make them happy,” Barone says. “There’s a whole Stardew Valley community that loves the game, and I don’t want them to stop loving the game. People ask, ‘Why don’t you charge for the updates?’ But in a way, people are paying for the updates with their appreciation and love for Stardew Valley.”
An abridged version of this feature appears in Game Informer issue 329.