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Is crunch time still unconscionable even when it’s self-imposed? You have to wonder when you hear about one 28-year-old Seattleite's grueling four-year quest to make the ultimate farming sim.
"On average, I probably worked on it 10 hours a day every day of the week during development," says Eric Barone. "Now that the game is out, I'm probably spending more like 15 hours a day on it."
He’s talking about his one-man labor of love Stardew Valley, which began as an homage to the classic franchise Harvest Moon. Eventually, Barone dreamed of creating the ultimate apotheosis of Harvest Moon--a game that was equally soothing and idyllic, but vaster and more ambitious than anything Natsume ever dreamed of.
"My experiences playing Harvest Moon are priceless and have had a deep impact on me, and I wanted my own game to have that kind of power," says Barone. "However, I know that to make a great game you can't just create 'art'... the game needs to be fun."
The first step was admitting that the game he idolized could be improved upon. "The gameplay in Harvest Moon was usually fun, but I felt like no title in the series ever brought it all together in a perfect way," says Barone. "My idea with Stardew Valley was to address the problems I had with Harvest Moon, as well as create more 'purpose' with tried-and-true gameplay elements such as crafting and quests."
Players eventually discover a deep crafting system, as well as dungeons and mines beyond the sprawling farmland and the well-populated town. Bored picking vegetables? Go slay some monsters or forge something from precious metal.
Eric Barone says he spent approximately 70 hours per week hammering on Stardew Valley for the last 4 years. Now that it's out, he's spending far more time responding to player comments. [via PC Gamer]
"I think I'm stuck in the past. But it's a past where game worlds were creative and magical"
It's an ambitious project, especially since Barone was only 24 at the time he announced it on Steam Greenlight. "I've always been obsessed with creating stuff," he says, "For as long as I can remember, I spent my spare time doodling, making music, writing... basically all the different aspects of making a game. I just didn't know at the time that I would find a way to combine all those things to bring a cohesive vision to life."
He created every bit of the game's art and graphics and code, and it has a lovely retro aesthetic that suggests...well, it suggests a creator who immersed himself in a 20-year-old franchise for most of his twenties. "At some point, I got older and lost touch with the games 'scene;'" he says.
There's no time to keep up with everything happening when you're pouring 70 hours a week into your raison detre. "In many ways, I think I'm stuck in the past," adds Barone. "But it's a past where game worlds were creative and magical... a celebration of that special, overwhelming feeling of wonder that we experience as children."
His passion project was released on February 26th, and it's already a massive hit. It's received excellent reviews and over 300,000 sales (according to SteamSpy). Part of this might be credited to his attentiveness to his fan community. He sought feedback on the game concept via Steam Greenlight, then refused to do an Early Access campaign or accept money till it was feature complete.
"You should be free to work yourself to the bone, but not to force someone else to do that for you"
All the while, he kept fans informed of how he was progressing via Reddit and Twitter. Now that the game is out, he has ratcheted up his dedication, attempting to patch away every flaw that players have discovered. And he promises expansions and updates galore.
Barone has amassed so much goodwill that even people pirating his game are posting on the torrents about how the fully intend to buy it someday. Other fans responded by buying extra copies to give to anyone who can't afford the game, or was planning on pirating it.
"My strategy with the community is simple: no strategy at all!" says Barone. "I think that, as an indie developer, you should just be yourself and be a real human. I try to act online like I do in real life: treat everyone with respect, and be as honest and straightforward as possible."
The only dark cloud hanging over this pastoral paradise are misgivings about just how much time Barone spends on the game. In this post-EA Spouse world, it's hard not to wince when you hear about someone has condemned himself to years of perpetual crunch. What drives him to do that?
"It's both passion and discipline," says Barone. "I think it's a lot easier to stay driven when you're doing your own project, knowing that there are no limits to how far you can go."
"I'm choosing to do this much work because I want to be an indie game developer and see my project come to fruition," he adds. "While those developers at EA were, in effect, forced to work against their will. I don't think it's right. You should be free to work yourself to the bone, but not to force someone else to do that for you."
There were times during development that I didn't feel like working, that I even wanted to quit entirely," he concedes.
"Looking back, I think the development was characterized by phases of insane productivity followed by phases where I hardly worked at all," says Barone. "I'm not sure if there was any technique to it or if it was just a quirk of my brain chemistry. I did always have a ridiculous amount of faith in myself and in the game, and yet I knew that I was still a nobody and the only way I could change that was to work super hard."
"It does help if you can absolutely convince yourself that you're destined for greatness," says Barone. "It's not even an ego thing--it's just a way to prevent doubt and insecurity from hindering you."