There’s an common narrative among gaming forums and fans that says the success of one game is often detrimental to the hopes of another. In 2021, that massive hit is Valheim, the Viking-themed survival simulator that abandons many of the orthoxodies around survival games. So it’s normal for people to look at Valheim‘s success and fear what that means for other survival games. And that’s true enough for Icarus, the PvE sci-fi survival adventure from DayZ creator Dean Hall. But in an hour-long chat with the Kiwi creator, Hall explained that Valheim‘s stratospheric success actually validates some of Icarus‘ ideas.
It’s an interesting evolution for Hall, because that natural competitive fear of seeing a rival in your genre pop off is something he’s dealt with before. “I knew a bit about video games [before DayZ],” Hall said, talking about his experience working on Speed Racer for the PS2 and Clone Wars on the PSP.
“Marek [Španěl], the CEO of Bohemia Interactive, had come to em and said, ‘Let’s make [DayZ] into a standalone product.’ And I knew I needed to sit down and do game design; not that it would necessarily be the bible of how we do stuff, but I actually needed to go through the process of what are your pillars, what are your principles.”
But just as Hall was doing that, WarZ was announced. It was a huge scandal at the time, and WarZ would later be pulled from Steam amid claims of forum censorship, suspicions microtransactions and a lack of quality. Steam even went as far as to apologise for listing the game and offered refunds, the latter of which Steam famously refused to provide back then.
“I panicked,” Hall said. “Someone else is going to get out there, we need to get out there, I don’t have time for this. And I started coding with Ondrej, Marek’s brother who wrote the ArmA engine, and I just started cutting code. And it was a bad thing to do: you haven’t gone through that process.”
To counter that on Icarus, Hall and the team sat down early on and identified what the pillars and principles of Icarus would be. “And those to me are assumptions that must be true: that’s a pillar. That made making a plan and sticking to it, and the answers you need to provide to the community, more obvious.”
Having that experience, I asked Hall if there was some kind of validation for the studio when Valheim started to explode. “I’m so impressed you picked up on that,” Hall said, excitedly stopping me mid-sentence. “I think even internally, a lot of people were like, ‘Oh wow, this is scary.’ And I was like, ‘This is awesome!'”
“We went back through our design and a bunch of things we said, ‘Oh, players will never deal with this.’ I’ll give you an example. You build structures: that’s the core of a survival game. How do we make you care about that? And we were like, ‘We should make different crafting benches require shelter.’ And we were like, ‘Ohh, we can’t do that. We tried it and people didn’t quite get it.’ Valheim comes along, validates that. That’s now acceptable. And we’re like, awesome, this is so good. And there’s four or five different things where we were like, people will never do that.
“Because we’re not only doing some of the things Valheim is doing, we wanted to do a bunch of other stuff,” Hall added. “There’s only so much — I learned this from DayZ — there’s only so much you can throw at your players before they’re like, ‘I don’t get this.’ This is Stationeers‘ problem: it’s quite hardcore in some ways, but maybe it just went too far in that direction. We wanted to make something quite approachable. That’s Valheim‘s genius. It’s our favourite cousin — it just steamrolled this path of acceptable things that we’re able to incorporate.”
Over the course of an hour, Hall and Stephen Knightly, Rocketwerkz chief operating officer and a board member of the New Zealand Game Developers Association, spoke quite highly of Valheim as a project. But apart from enjoying what he described as Valheim‘s “beautiful concept flawlessly executed”, the biggest benefit Hall saw was how it helped expand the audience base for the survival genre.
“I think a lot of people go, oh, you must be worried about that. But it’s not a zero-sum game: each of these games that comes out adds to the lexicon of survival games. Valheim did us some massive favours, and in fact if you look at their source materials, they reference Skyrim a lot. [So] there was some commonality in where we were starting as well.”
Interestingly, however, that success of Valheim and what it means for the genre isn’t something that investors necessarily understand. “I would say publishers and investors have learned nothing at all; all they’ve learned is that they missed out on Valheim,” Hall said.
“I guarantee you that none of them would have greenlit Valheim, never in a million years, other than smaller ones and stuff like that. They’re only capable of picking up on it afterwards. And this is, I think, the great challenge our industry faces. Early Access looked like it might help us with that by allowing customers, who are the only ones that matter. What I think, what you think; we’re just along for the ride. It’s the customers who decide whether something’s validated or not.
“I don’t know what the answer is. I hope it’s us as developers pushing and accepting some failures along the way — of which I’ve had plenty — to try and find the right answer. We have to continue pushing and doing things that are different, and I hope when people look at Icarus, they say, ‘Hey, they’re trying something different here.’ And I’m really proud of that. But unfortunately, investors and publishers will not draw the correct conclusions from Valheim, which is: Hey, we should be looking at the games that are made, looking for the things that are resonating, and coming up with new ways to deliver them. I feel like everyone’s going, yeah, Valheim was an obvious idea. It wasn’t. Those guys really pushed out on the edge, and full credit to them. That was 5 people who pushed out this vision of a game that I bet you publishers wouldn’t really touch. And it’s those 5 people who drove stuff forward.”
Stay tuned for more from our long chat about Icarus, and game development, with Rocketwerkz and Dean Hall.