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Road to the IGF: Klei Entertainment's Don't Starve Exclusive
February 10, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

February 10, 2014 | By Alex Wawro
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    4 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Art, Design, Exclusive, Video, IGF



Don't Starve is a delightfully dark, comedic take on the survival genre. Speaking to Gamasutra in 2012, Klei Entertainment's Kevin Forbes readily admitted that the studio drew heavy influence from games like Lost in Blue and Minecraft, but the vaguely unsettling art design and stark treatment of death and survival in Don't Starve helped set it apart from its inspiration.

Don't Starve has done well commercially, garnering more than a million sales in 2013. It's also earned a pair of IGF award nominations, for both the Excellence in Design award and the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. As part of our Road to the IGF series, we caught up with Klei's Kevin Forbes to talk about how the game came together and why Klei decided to chop off handhold-y bits like tutorials, achievements, and save systems.

Tell me a bit about your background making games.

I made silly little games in BASIC as a kid, and then went to university for computer engineering. A couple of degrees later, I ended up working as a gameplay programmer on a triple-A sports title. I learned a lot, but I wanted to make the type of games that I like to play. After a couple of years I sought out a position at a smaller indie company, and ended up working for Klei.

What development tools did you use to build Don't Starve?

The Don't Starve engine is custom-built in C++, and has been ported to a bunch of different platforms. Most of the gameplay code is written in Lua, which is great for portability and iteration, but means that we always have to keep an eye on performance. The art was mostly made in Flash, and and then exported into our own animation format. We use FMOD as our audio backend.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

I started working on Don't Starve in December 2011, right as Shank 2 was wrapping up. We shipped the retail PC version in April 2013, and then updated it with free content for another six months. We finished working on the PlayStation 4 version at the end of 2013. I'm working on a new prototype right now, but a lot of the original Don't Starve team is working on its first DLC.

How did you come up with the concept?

We held a company game jam in 2010, during the last couple of workdays before the Christmas break. My team made a game about starving to death while defending a campfire from anthropomorphic pigs. It was a very simple game, but there was the kernel of an idea there that we eventually expanded into Don't Starve.

Survival is becoming a popular gameplay challenge, but Don't Starve was punishing players for failing to keep themselves warm or fed long before games like Rust or Starbound came out. What inspired you to make a game whose titular objective is simply to stay alive?

It was a very iterative process -- we went through several early concepts that skewed a lot more casual. That stuff just didn't feel right for the game, though. Over time the game got harder and more obscure, and eventually something clicked and we decided to embrace the more punishing aspects of the design. It really became a rallying point for the whole design, and led us to reject modern trappings like tutorials and achievements.

I've read of some players bouncing off the game because it doesn't offer a standard progression model: people will die after hours and hours of play and lose everything they have accumulated in-game. They ask: "What was the point? I have nothing to show for my time!" Well, they had the experience of playing the game, and the knowledge that they gained from it. If that wasn't fun or worthwhile while they were playing, no amount of digital trinketry will make it so. I think that a lot of the social cruft that we've added to games in the past console generation is a distraction that detracts from the joy of playing. Don't Starve was built to test this hypothesis.

Don't Starve sports an eminently charming sense of style. Tell me more about how Klei settled on the game's Gorey-esque art design, and the artists who created it.

We wanted the game's setting to be creepy and just alien enough to keep the player guessing about the true nature of the creatures and the items that they find. Jeff Agala, our creative director, worked with the art team to come up with something to communicate that. We're all big animation fans at Klei, so we also wanted the style to be super-expressive and have lots of appeal. The Burton/Gorey/Addams look that we settled on fit the bill.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

I really liked Papers, Please. It was incredibly stressful to play, and it captured a very unique aesthetic. Towerfall is the best local multiplayer game I've ever played, and I can't wait to see it in wider release. I haven't played The Yawhg yet, but I love Emily Carroll's comics, so I'm looking forward to it.

What do you think about the current state of the indie scene?

I think it's a great time for indie games. Computers are fast enough that you can do silly things like write your whole game in Lua, and it will still run. Tools like Unity are lowering the technical barriers to entry, and providing great opportunities for cross-platform deployment. Things like Early Access, bundles, and Kickstarter are funding exciting, niche products that big studios won't touch. All of this is going to let more people make games, which will the scope of types of games that get made.


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Comments


Rob Wright
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"If that wasn't fun or worthwhile while they were playing, no amount of digital trinketry will make it so."

Yes. Oh sweet baby Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt YES. I've been meaning to pick up this game for some time, and the developer's perspectiv on designe -- and Forbes' hypothesis test -- make this game even more appealing. Heading to Steam now....

sean lindskog
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Don't Starve is a very good game. Give it a couple hours to settle in. At the start, it may seem very simple - running around collecting food and chopping firewood - but as the game progresses and you delve deeper into the crafting it really starts to shine.

My only one (small) critique is that, once at the more advanced stages of the game, you'll get more out of it if you spend some time on the Don't Starve wiki and other online sources of info.

When I play "Don't Starve", I think to myself, this is exactly the kind of awesome game that could have only come from indies.

Rob Wright
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Thanks, I'll keep that in mind. I'm okay with having to check in with the occasional walkthrough or wiki for a game (*cough* Swapper *cough*).

Carter Gabriel
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I would like to start by saying that Don't Starve is perhaps my favorite video game of all time. Certainly one of them, if not THE game for me. I have hundreds of hours in it, rave to everyone about how amazing it is, and it is the only game I'd ever consider making something inspired from it (rather than developing an original game inspired by nothing but an idea).

With that said, take the following criticisms of the developer in perspective. One does not have to be flawless and without fault to be a great human being. In other words: a few bad things to say about someone is irrelevant to them being a great person, or in this case developer.

The farther you go in Dont Starve, the less good returns users will get out of permadeath and the more bad returns users receive.

This is just a fundamental flaw of permadeath, and something Don't Starve's developer seems to ignore.

Permadeath is great for the first 20 or so hours of play. After that, it becomes a neutral feature up until about 40 hours of total playtime with the game (across multiple saves). Once you are at 40+, it becomes a flaw in the game.

The point is that once you make it past 40+ hours of experience, you know pretty much everything you need to about the game. So your deaths become meaningless (you dont learn anything, because you cant anymore), more tiresome (you died because you were lazy, errors in interfacing, or just plain got bored; NOT because you made a bad decision or weren't skilled), and less fun (the more advanced the player, the more fun they will have in building big bases, obtaining rare insignificant achievements, etc. Losing all this progress doesn't inspire people to reroll. It inspires them to retire entirely.)

I am not alone in this factual observation. This is one of the biggest weaknesses of the game, according to many who review it. After awhile, permadeath becomes stupid, even if it originally was a great, fun component. To not know this, is to not understand the layers and components of playing a game fresh, played (learned), and 'played to death' (alteration of what is fun and why in continuation of play). This is less a matter of opinion, and more an observation of system functionality relative to fun and enjoyment. Most people, even fans on the forum, have agreed that permadeath in dont starve gets worse as you progress. While this is not true of every permadeath game or design, it is true of dont starve.

There was also a huge amount of complaints about how mods are broken after every update, and there were numerous, rapid updates to the game at one point in time- with no option to refuse an update or rollback. This resulted in tons of mods being created, then becoming useless almost immediately. With my client being forced to use STEAM and no way to download older versions on their website, there were no possible roll-backs. This means I could start up the game, and because of DRM- all my mods would be destroyed because of an update I didn't care for.

On a positive note, they may be forced to go contrary to their close minded forced-permadeath stance and improve on their mod system due to the addition of multiplayer (something they said (almost promised to fans) that they wouldn't do.) Although I am happy for the decision, I know many fans are upset, enraged, or at least annoyed at the reversal. Some even feel betrayed. I myself am glad for the multiplayer addition. You may think my words are harsh, but the developer decided to spend hours of precious dev time during the release of the game to make it more difficult to scum-save. It is very typical of permadeath developers to force their playstyle down other's throats, almost like a religious fanatic. You can see this style of thinking in some of the quotes, and if not there then in the patches intended to circumvent player scum saving.

With that harsh near-insult said, this is the only developer I forgive in this regard despite the typical permadeath mindset. Although I usually detest those developers (as I detest anyone who forces things down other's throats- especially in a singleplayer video game which could easily have options for the player to decide how they'd like to play), this game is too great to think anything but highly of Klei and their otherwise extremely talented team of developers.


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