Stardew Valley is the humble farming game that's taken Steam by storm. People are in love with it to the point that they're buying legit copies of the game for pirates. They're also modding the crap out of it. All because one guy decided the PC needed its own grown-up version of Harvest Moon. Yes, one guy.
Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone worked for four years to create Stardew Valley. He spent around 10 hours a day working on the game before it came out. Now he's working 15 hour days to fix issues and add new content. It's a torrid schedule, the sort that would destroy many mere mortals. But he can't pull his foot off the gas-powered tractor, not when so many people are relying on him. I spoke with Barone about where Stardew Valley came from, his reaction to the launch, unexpected mods, and what's next.
Kotaku: You have a notoriously crazy work schedule. What's driven you for all this time? Why for this game in particular? Why was this your, for lack of a better term, hill to die on?
Eric Barone: [laughs] I just really wanted to be a game developer, and I knew that the only way I would make that happen was to work really hard and create this game. I had a lot of faith in this game. I knew that if this game came into existence it would be a success. Or at least, I convinced myself of that.
I guess I just really wanted the outcome of it. I knew that this sort of game needed to exist on PC, a Harvest Moon style game. It was a hole in the PC market that needed to be filled. That definitely drove me to want to make that a reality.
Kotaku: Why a Harvest Moon type game in particular? What made Harvest Moon so significant to you?
Eric Barone: Most games that I played as a kid, they were kind of linear in a way. You went from one area to the next. I'm thinking of Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, you just go from one area to the next. Each area doesn't have that much importance. It's not that deep.
With Harvest Moon, it was totally like a new idea, taking just a small game world, one area that you're in the entire time and then just seeing that area change over the seasons and the characters in town changing over the years. You get really attached to it.
That was I think kind of special to me. It was almost more of this domestic game. It wasn't this huge sprawling adventure. It was this kind of quiet, humble, but really deep focused world. There was just something special about that that really got me immersed into it. I felt really attached to it. That was kind of a special feeling as a kid that I wanted to try and capture with my own game.
Kotaku: What exactly was the balance in your life making this game before it came out? Because I know you had a full time job, didn't you? Or at least a job that you were doing in addition to making the game?
Eric Barone: Yeah, I was working part time at the local theatre as an usher. It was actually this special club. It was called the Paramount Club and it was where the rich people would go. I was the host of that club, like I put out the food and cleaned up the dishes and stuff like that. I was doing that part time while working on the game. My life was just… mostly work: I would get up. I would have breakfast and then I would just work all day until after dinner. Then maybe I would watch an episode of Star Trek with my girlfriend or something and go to sleep. Then repeat that over and over.
Kotaku: How did you avoid burning out? How did you avoid coming to hate Stardew Valley?
Eric Barone: There were periods where I had an idea or something that I was really passionate about, and in that moment I would work like crazy. I actually just literally wanted to see that thing come to life as quick as possible because it was fresh in my mind. I had this fire to create that.
Then there would be other periods where I just kind of didn't feel like working, so while I would sit there and attempt to work I probably did a lot of alt tabbing and just browsing Reddit and stuff like that. I would waste time, and I would be a lot less productive.
Kotaku: Aha, so you are a human being! Anyway, one character that really stood out to me is the homeless guy, Linus, living on the outskirts of town. I live in San Francisco, and it's hard not to encounter moments where people ask you for money, and you wonder if you should do something, or you feel bad that you can't. There was a scene in Stardew Valley where you encounter Linus digging through a trash can, and you can sort of either reprimand him or be like no, it's cool. I won't tell anyone. Or a couple other options that are more in a grey area. After you leave someone else gives him food and stuff, but he's sort of, you can tell he doesn't like that very much.
Eric Barone: I wanted the characters to feel like real people, like they're human. I imagine what would, if these were actual real humans in these situations how would they react? Also, the kind of options that you can chose, your dialogue options, I tried to capture the different kinds of ideas that many people would have with regards to someone digging through the trash, then have Linus respond in a way that I just think that he would based off who his character is.
Kotaku: Has that always been a thing for you? Making characters in your head, writing stories and things like that?
Eric Barone: Yes, I've always been into that. My primary hobby or form of entertainment has always been making stuff. Games is relatively new in my life. Before games it was mostly music, like I used to play guitar — I still do.
Kotaku: What kind of bands were you in?
Eric Barone: In high school I was in this new metal band. Then me and my friend, we made this two-man synth pop experimental electronic pop music experience. We played some shows and stuff. It was pretty interesting.
Kotaku: Do you have any idea what exactly it is that drives you to create so much?
Eric Barone: I think for me I've always been kind of a lonely guy, kind of a hermit. I keep to myself. I don't really have that many friends, I don't go out much. I'm an introvert. Art is a way to connect with other people. It's a way to communicate and for other people to see who I really am. I think everyone wants to feel like they belong or that they can connect with society in some way. This is just my way of doing that.
Kotaku: What happened to your friends, family, and relationships while you were pouring so many hours into Stardew Valley? Did you disappear a lot? Were they cool with that?
Eric Barone: I think that it did cause some tension with some of my relationships, but people were kind of already used to me being this way. I am kind of, I don't know, I do disappear for a while, or I get into these kind of moods where I keep to myself a lot. They're kind of used to it. It wasn't really anything all that new. They stick with me even through kind of my darker period, so I think it works out.
Kotaku: People have been buying copies of your game to give to pirates. Why do you think Stardew Valley attracts such a dedicated crowd?
Eric Barone: I think it's awesome that people are doing that with people pirating the game and stuff. The community that's built up around Stardew Valley is honestly probably the kindest and most supportive community I've ever seen in PC gaming at all. I think it's maybe just Stardew is such a peaceful kind of relaxing game that it maybe attracts certain kinds of people who are just really nice, but I'm really blessed with this community. It's really awesome.
Kotaku: With all this love and support and adoration, does that add pressure now that you're tweaking the game post-release? When your ceaseless work bones and friction-eliminating work lubricants finally falter, will you be able to take a break?
Eric Barone: It's definitely a lot of pressure, yeah. I just feel personally responsible for everyone's experience with Stardew Valley. The more and more people that are playing the game, hundreds of thousands of people now, that's a lot of pressure. I know that any patch I release or anything, if it causes problems for people, there's thousands of people that are going to be experiencing these problems. I have to just make very sure that everything I do is precise.
Which is kind of something I'm new to. My whole development process I'll admit was pretty sloppy. I'm not that professional. It's like it is true indie game development, not super streamlined and polished. I'm getting used to it, and I'm starting to learn how to do this in a good way, but it's pretty stressful.
I'll admit I already feel a little bit burnt out, but I'm not going to just quit. I do feel like I could use a break, but I also feel like this is such a rare opportunity to have your game that you've been working on for years become a big success. I don't want to mess it up. I just feel like if I take a break, that's just wasted time right now, you know?
Kotaku: You said you feel personally responsible for everybody's experience. Talk about having the weight of the world on your shoulders. I think many developers feel that way, but perhaps not so intensely. Where does that come from for you?
Eric Barone: I think when you have a big team that is doing something each individual member of that team feels a lot less responsible. It's an actual observed thing that when there's a big group of people standing around, if one person is drowning no one will do anything because no individual there feels like they should be the one. If it's only one person there and the other person is drowning, then they will do something. I think that basically explains kind of why I feel this way, because there's no team to spread that responsibility around.
Kotaku: What do you think Stardew Valley's biggest problems are? What are the first ones you plan to address?
Eric Barone: Post-marriage life is definitely an area that I'll admit I didn't flesh out as much as I could. Mainly it was just due to time constraints.
Kotaku: What else? What is your road map for the game at this point?
Eric Barone: My top priority right now is to fix any bugs or issues that people are having.
Then after that I haven't exactly decided yet, but I might want to do a pretty big content update for free first before I start working on multiplayer or porting it to other platforms. I'll address a lot of these issues that I'm talking about where the game isn't perfect or it could be improved upon.
Kotaku: How will multiplayer function, exactly?
Eric Barone: My idea for multiplayer has always been basically just a four-player co-op. Basically you'd be playing on the same farm, a lot like single-player Stardew Valley except there's other people doing everything with you. One person can be in the mines, one person can be farming, another person can be fishing. I'll have to scale some of the difficulty up depending on how many people are playing in the game world. There's a lot of gameplay issues that I'll have to consider.
Kotaku: You've said you want to add Steam Workshop support to the game, but how much attention have you been paying to the mods that are already out?
Eric Barone: I've looked at them a bit. There's a lot of pretty fun stuff so far. A lot of people are doing stuff that's just visually changing different aspects of the game. Someone made a horse look like their own horse. I thought that was cool. Anything that people can do to make it a more custom and personal experience, I think that's fun.
Kotaku: What do you think when you see people giving characters sexy anime makeovers, or restoring versions of characters from early in development, or kind of, like, imposing their interpretations of your characters on the game?
Eric Barone: Personally I find some of those things a little bit uncomfortable. I do have a personal attachment to some of the characters, so it is weird to see people change them like that. I'm not going to necessarily endorse that sort of thing myself like you said, like sexual portraits of the female characters or anything like that. I find it personally weird and uncomfortable. But I'm not surprised that people have done that, and it's not like I'm going to try to do anything to try and prevent people from modding it however they want.
Kotaku: One I found especially… specific is that someone made a mod to make Maru look white. I found the reasoning behind that to be extremely telling because it wasn't overtly racist in the traditional sense. It was more like someone saying, "Well, I want to be more attracted to this character, so I changed her appearance." I'm not sure they understood what they were even implying. There ended up being a lot of backlash, and the mod creator took it down.
Eric Barone: It's hard to really even say how I feel about that. I want people to love Maru for who she is. That's how I feel, but if people feel differently I don't really know what I can do about it. It kind of raises these philosophical questions of the digital age.
Kotaku: Yeah, you get into these discussions of what even constitutes canon anymore. If a mod were to take off so significantly that more people were using that mod of the character than your original version of the character, what's the actual conception of that character? Which is canon?
Eric Barone: Totally. It's a lot to think about.
Kotaku: Maru is also an interesting character to focus on in that one of her parents is white, and the other is black, right? I feel like that's a demographic not often represented in games — or a lot of things, for that matter. Why did you decide to go in that direction with her character?
Eric Barone: Part of it was that I don't even think that any Harvest Moon has had a non-white marriage candidate, at least as far as I know. I wanted my game to be more inclusive and not just follow these anime tropes. I can't even really explain why I chose that background, specifically. It's just kind of why not? I created these characters in my head, and Robin and Demetrius happened to be married. They have this kid, Maru, and so she's half black, half white.
Kotaku: When you're making a character romanceable, what special considerations do you make? Which characteristics do you imbue romanceable characters with versus characters who aren't?
Eric Barone: I wanted to represent as many different types of people as I could. It's like, yeah, they tend to fall in a way into slight cliches or tropes, but in real life people often do fall into those categories as well.
I think a lot of people would want me to add Linus as a marriage candidate — more older people. I'm open to that. Harvest Moon doesn't really have older marriage candidates. They're always young adults. I followed that tradition. Do I have some regrets with stuff? Yeah. I would do things differently if I could do it again. It's kind of hard when I started out a long time ago with totally different ideas for how the game was going to end up, and I created these characters. It was hard to change that after the fact.
Kotaku: Do you think you'll make anyone new romanceable in future updates?
Eric Barone: I think so, yeah. I don't want to say anything official, but I might even just let the community have a vote because I would be fine with anyone. I pretty much like all the characters; I could come up with events for all of them.
I think Shane or Linus would be fun. They're a little different than everyone else. They have more problems, I guess you could say. That would be interesting to work with. In terms of female candidates, let's see, I don't know. I kind of like Robin even though she's already married. I think that might be interesting if people might want to do that, break up the family. I don't want to necessarily shy away from harsh stuff.
Kotaku: Wow, I can't think of a game that's let you end a marriage before. On a totally related note, have you seen the better pig mod? Do you think that pig is objectively better than your own pig?
Eric Barone: I think I saw one image of the better pig. I wouldn't say it's objectively better than my pig. I could understand why subjectively people might like it better. I'm fine with that pig. My pig is pretty depressed looking and lumpy.
Kotaku: What happened to your pig? Why is it so down?
Eric Barone: I don't know, actually. One of my strategies as a developer in general is not to make everything perfect, to just maybe leave things a little strange or just unknown. Not everything quite makes perfect sense. People would even say, "Is this a bug or something? Or is this intended?" Yeah, it's intended.
I wanted to leave things ambiguous and strange. The reason I feel that way is just from playing a lot of JRPGs as a kid that were really poorly translated. You don't really understand what a character even means sometimes; you have to create your own interpretation. Part of what I tried to do very consciously is make it so people had to come up with their own interpretations for things.
Kotaku: That's really fascinating. Do you have any other specific examples of that?
Eric Barone: Daily quests. There's a bunch of different possibilities for things that people can say, and then you stick a certain item in there. "I need this specific thing for this reason." I knew that certain strange combinations would come up. It would be kind of funny or you could at least come up with some funny explanation for why they need that. I've seen a bunch of images shared of different things people encounter.
Kotaku: Does that intention also spill over into secrets in the game? Things people might discover, only to not truly understand the meaning of for days or weeks or months?
Eric Barone: Yeah, totally. That was actually my intention with the secrets that haven't been found. Now that the game is so popular, I think that people will find them, though. At the very least they will data mine all the game code until they find it. It's kind of like you almost can't keep things secret at some point. I think it's good for there to always be a mystery out there. There's even other stuff that I didn't even talk about in that other interview that I haven't seen people really discover yet.
Kotaku: Is it kind of a double-edged sword, in that sense, to become so popular in this day and age? You've got so many people digging to the very bottom of your thing that any mystique disappears.
Eric Barone: It's disappointing, but there's nothing I can do about it. I guess I could try harder to obfuscate the code and stuff, but I don't really want to do that. This also raises interesting philosophical questions of our age. It's kind of like, what's more important: transparency or privacy? Should things be completely open or should things, I don't know, be difficult? I feel like it's better for things to be open so that people can look through it and see it for themselves and figure everything out rather than me trying to put everything under strict lock and key.