Eric Barone is the Cinderella of indie game developers. He started out working in a basement with a cardboard box for a desk to selling 10 million copies of his game, Stardew Valley, worldwide. Oh, and he did it by himself. 10 million in sales is a number usually achieved by AAA studios with hundreds of employees and Hollywood-sized budgets. He’s only released one game, but he has supported the game for over four years and cultivated one of the most wholesome video game communities I’ve ever seen. Get your insulin ready, because this is one saccharine story.
Feast and Famine: Stardew Valley‘s Early Development
Eric Barone’s fairy tale began in 2011. He had graduated from University of Washington Tacoma and was living in his parents’ basement trying to find a job in computer programming. After several rejections, Barone decided to try and create a video game in order to improve his programming skills and write a strong bullet point on his resume. He decided he would create an improved version of his favorite game of all time, Harvest Moon, with elements of another up-and-coming indie game Minecraft to add variety. The initial plan was to whip the game together in six months and have something under his belt to talk about at job interviews.
By 2012, the game became his full-time job.
For the next several years Barone would toil away at his computer, up to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, learning and designing all of the elements of the game. Music, art, programming, all of it was done by his hand. He dangled a carrot in front of himself that the game would be finished in just a few more months, and it was what he always told concerned friends and family. He showed elements of the game to other Harvest Moon fans online and felt encouraged. He showed initial gameplay on Steam’s Greenlight program and garnered even more interest. Then he decided all of the art assets were ugly and rebuilt them all from the ground up. And then he did it again.
As hard as he worked and re-worked on the game, Barone hardly had a long-term plan besides just finishing the game “soon.” One day he would write a song, another day he would tweak the fishing minigame, and yet another he would fix bugs. He often burned himself out and spent days recuperating and doubting whether or not it was worth finishing the endeavor. Coming to his rescue was his prince in shining armor — or in this case, princess in shining armor. His girlfriend, Amber Hageman, both attended school and worked part-time in order to help their finances stay afloat. Not only that, but she offered a listening ear, a critical eye, and oceans of emotional support. Barone would’ve likely never finished the project if it weren’t for her.
Barone pushed on, determined to perfect his game to the best it could possibly be. Unlike other indie developers that we’ve covered, Barone didn’t strive to make major departures in game design; instead, he simply wanted to evoke the relaxing atmosphere of Harvest Moon. His contributions were more subtle and iterative. He worked to immerse the player in the small community of the game, writing characters that had more realistic and relatable social scenarios. He included the option to have LGBT relationships in the game, a feature not seen in many games at the time. To make the game relaxing and inviting, he left the goals to be open-ended with some time-limited tasks for those who wanted more of a challenge.
While Barone certainly went through days full of frustration, he also saw growing excitement and attention coming to his game. The UK indie company Chucklefish noticed Barone’s game on Steam Greenlight and offered to be the publisher so that Barone could focus on development instead of PR and marketing. He gained a devoted following on his dev blog where fans offered feedback for him. In 2015 Chucklefish streamed the beginning portion of the game to an intrigued audience. By that point Barone decided to limit what he would put in the game in order to polish up the assets that were completed. In February 2016 Barone released the game on Steam, and the rest is history.
Seasons of Updates
Stardew Valley sold extraordinarily well, and it struck a chord with many people. The relaxing atmosphere, the compelling gameplay loop, and the cast of characters all became common sources of praise from fans and critics alike. For Barone, one chapter ended while another one began. He worked harder than he ever had before after the game’s launch, listening to the community’s feedback and reports about bugs, fixing them with patch after patch. Soon afterward the game was ported to consoles by an outside studio. Mobile devices followed afterward. More sales followed every port.
Despite his success, Barone remained as unassuming as ever. He could have left Stardew Valley as it was, but instead he penned a list of updates and features he wanted to develop on his blog, including online multiplayer. Multiplayer became yet another massive undertaking, this time involving the help of programmers from Chucklefish. Since the game was originally designed to be single-player, almost the entire code base of the game had to be re-written to allow the presence of multiple players cooperating on the same farm. Fans also helped pushed the longevity of the game with mods and wiki guides, and Barone encouraged the use of all of them. Eventually Barone would even recognize the wiki and made it officially a part of the game’s website.
Multiplayer wasn’t the only major piece Barone added to the game. Over the years Barone included several quality of life items, story events, and post-game challenges. This dedication to free post-launch content is another hallmark of most beloved indie developers. The most recent content update included new areas to explore and new farm types for the player to start out with. And as always, he constantly patched out bugs in the game. By 2019 he hired an official team to help manage the work so that he wouldn’t have to continue working an unsustainable amount of hours. He has mentioned that he’s working on a new game unrelated to Stardew Valley, but no news about it has been revealed yet. It seems like Stardew Valley not only keeps the players coming back, it keeps the developer coming back as well.
My Impressions of Stardew Valley
It’s been a while since my Stardew
addiction phase. I played the game around when it first came out, and haven’t touched it much since then.
Stardew Valley still has one of the most balanced set of game mechanics I’ve ever seen. It begins on the slow side, but soon you become this circus performer spinning multiple plates at once. Farming, foraging, mining, building relationships, it all keeps me in this perfect state of flow. Once I start playing it can be quite hard for me to stop. The game now has even more goals for me to reach, from new additions to the town hall to several post-game quests.
Among all the new additions and changes, the social quality of life changes are my #1 new feature. No longer do I have to pull up the Stardew Wiki as I play, because the game can keep track of what characters like which gifts; and since it’s been so long since I’ve played, it’s like learning about these characters all over again. It even tracks if I’ve talked to that character for the day. The rest of the new content is sprinkled out enough that almost every day I’ve found some small new discovery.
I adore the multiplayer update. My wife and I run a farm together and my wife plays with one of our friends every week. Multiplayer adds a whole new way to multitask, optimize, and create an even more robust farm. With multiplayer and the new ways you can replay this game, Stardew Valley is now the first pick for the game I would take to a deserted island. I would happily waste away on a lonely sandy beach working towards those elusive Golden Chickens.
I feel warm inside knowing that Eric Barone’s years of work and dreaming paid off for him. He has achieved this happy ending that so many burgeoning indie developers strive for, and he has opened the door wide for people developing nonviolent games. At one point after Stardew Valley‘s release, Barone met the creator of Harvest Moon, Yasuhiro Wada, and Wada commended Barone for creating a spiritual successor that he was proud of. Someday I hope a new indie developer can sit beside Barone the same way he sat beside Wada, and he can pass along the torch to someone that he inspired.
Further Reading / Sources
- Schreier, J. (2017). “Stardew Valley.” Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-265123-5.