A cult fandom has already formed around Steam's hottest farming game, Stardew Valley. At the centre of it all is the game's designer, Eric Barone. Also known as ConcernedApe, Barone is a beloved figure who is stealing the hearts of virtual farmers everywhere. Barone made Stardew Valley on his own, and that feat plays a big part in his fans' narrative. "One guy made this over the course of four years," is something you will often hear from other Stardew Valley players. "ONE GUY." It's an observation tinged with awe and disbelief that a game as massive as Stardew Valley could be made by a single person.
I've been playing for nearly 40 hours and have barely scratched the surface. I've still got plenty of livestock to unlock, cuties to romance, fish to catch and mines to explore. I'm on the lower end of the playtime spectrum, too. The game has actively been designed to be played for as long as the player wants, and many people are already clocking in hundreds of hours of game time.
Stardew Valley costs $US15 ($20), and that money goes a long way. The game has been out for a little over a week, but the game has already gotten four different updates with a variety of different bugfixes, tweaks and even added secrets. ConcernedApe made it clear from day one that he was listening to players, and it showed. Shortly after release, many players complained about a quirk relating to the player-character's walking speed. A day later, ConcernedApe fixed it, along with a bunch of other things people were having trouble with. Two days later, there was yet another patch with more changes.
And if the bigger updates aren't helping, players feel like they can reach out to ConcernedApe directly to get help:
Most of his Twitter timeline consists of exchanges like that. The developer directly responds to people and troubleshoots their issues with them. He's pretty active on Reddit, too.
ConcernedApe has also been building goodwill through the promise of additional content down the line. Four player co-op is in the works. Additional romance options may be coming, and the combat may get more fleshed out. Right now, he's mostly focusing on bugfixing, but once he's done, he says he's looking to add more "substantial content". As if the game weren't massive enough already.
Players have noticed all his hard work. Over in the Stardew Valley subreddit, you can find a ton of posts where players are thanking ConcernedApe for his attentiveness:
If not outright worrying about his well-being:
It's been a special time for the game's players. One day, all of what Stardew Valley has to offer will be catalogued in great detail in a Wiki somewhere. For now, though, the game feels so huge and unknowable that first-time players are experiencing the magic of discovery. Think of what it must have been like to be the first players getting to know how Minecraft worked. That's Stardew Valley, right now. And since the game will continue to evolve and change through updates, there's the feeling that the $US15 ($20) price tag is a long-term investment.
ConcernedApe is just the sort of singular creative figure video game audiences are hungry for. People want more Hideo Kojimas, or at least, they want the myth of Kojima. We want auteurs who allow us to marvel at seeing their strong, clear visions brought to life within a video game. We want to feel like the digital worlds we explore actually have an attentive god who actually took the time to handcraft every single stone, tree and river -- or in this case, every single pixel -- just for us. To play Stardew Valley is to feel loved, or at least grateful, that somebody cared enough about the player to make a game with so many small, whimsical details.
ConcernedApe's approach to development isn't particularly unique. Any game launch is 'all hands on deck' time for a developer, triple-A or scrappy indie alike. This brand of community outreach is also common for small teams who can't just farm out bugfixes to a QA department.
Stardew Valley has the benefit of narrative, though. It's not just that one guy built this humble game that's tearing up the Steam charts, or that PC gamers were probably hungry for Harvest Moon-type game. It's also about the nature of the game itself. Stardew Valley is all about farming. Think about the image that brings up: I picture a humble guy, in overalls, tending to his crops day in and day out. It's hard work, sweltering under the sun and tending to his soil, but he's growing something real and nutritious, not that junk you can buy at a fast food place.
Farming is decent, honest work, and it's easy to see ConcernedApe as a decent, honest worker. He tends his game, always listening to his customer's needs, taking the time to personally respond to individual complaints. He stands in contrast to the factory farms and corporate business of his big-budget competitors, rolling up his sleeves and doing his best to grow something good. In an era where people are constantly feeling vaguely screwed over by big-budget video games, it's a narrative a lot of us can get behind.