With the beloved Stardew Valley, Eric Barone discovered the alchemy of quiet gamemaking. All it took was nearly life-ruining levels of obsessiveness.
Article word count: 4125
HN Discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18095246
Posted by benbreen
(karma: 21535)Post stats: Points: 177 - Comments: 60 - 2018-09-28T17:33:40Z
We don’t think of popular video games—the kinds that sell millions of copies—as peaceful or intimate. But with the beloved Stardew Valley, Eric Barone discovered the alchemy of quiet gamemaking. All it took was nearly life-ruining levels of obsessiveness.
It’s just after lunch and Eric Barone, a 30-year-old developer, is at his computer in his Seattle apartment. It’s a place he rarely leaves: only to go get groceries, for walks to clear his head, or to drive his long-term girlfriend, Amber, to college. Even his three-times-weekly workout takes place downstairs in his basement—alone, away from other people. Most of his days are spent much like today: an indeterminate spiral of reading articles and perusing the comments below, eventually starting work at some unspecified point in the afternoon. After seven years, the pressure is off. Eric can afford laziness today. He could afford it for several lifetimes.
We’re speaking a few days before the second anniversary of the release of Stardew Valley, the video game Eric spent nearly half a decade making. It all started with a modest idea: a renaissance for Harvest Moon, the long-running Japanese farming simulation series that, in Eric’s eyes, had lost its way. He kept wishing a better version existed. So he made it himself—all by himself, having never made a game before.
“I think it makes sense that I worked entirely alone,” Eric says. “I wanted to do all the music, the art.”
Quiet and contemplative, Eric might not be recognized by the Seattleites who see him walking to the store. He’s no Hollywood bigshot. But he’s the prodigy behind the unlikeliest independent-video-game triumph since Minecraft. Oh, and now he’s beyond rich.
To appreciate his work, you first have to understand the scale of the task he undertook. Modern video-game development is an absurd thing, an enormous creative endeavor that requires millions of dollars. Publishers employ hundreds of developers, producers, artists, animators, designers, writers, and actors to work punishingly long days for several years at a time, some working on the most minuscule of details to create immersive worlds. There are game artists who draw rocks all day, separate audio designers who record the many different sounds made when you throw those rocks, gameplay designers who determine how much damage those rocks will do when they strike an enemy in the head.
Blockbusters of this scope take a few familiar shapes. Grand Theft Auto, Madden, Call of Duty—guns, sports, more guns. Then there’s Stardew Valley—a humble, intimate farming adventure about the monotony of domestic life, in which you spend dozens of hours parenting cabbages. Eric was a team of one. It took him four and a half years to design, program, animate, draw, compose, record, and write everything in the game, working 12-hour days, seven days a week. His budget was the part-time wage he made as an evening usher at the local stage theater. Games like Minecraft may have paved the way for the democratization of indie-game development, yet despite the tectonic shift in the scene, entirely solo projects like Stardew Valley—financially unviable and creatively overwhelming—are still very rare. And of course they are. Even putting money aside, the demands of making intimate art of this scale are enough to break a person: obsession, isolation, ambition. But as just one man, Eric Barone tested the limits of video-game ambition and unintentionally created something that resonated with an audience of millions.
Stardew Valley begins with loss. Your grandpa, old and frail, lying on his deathbed, hands you an envelope. Your immediate instinct is to open it. “Have patience,” he says, “there will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life.” Years later, grandpa long since passed, you are beavering away soullessly at his desk in a faceless corporation called Joja. “Life’s better with Joja” adorns the office wall above you. A flashing light blinks under the word “Work.” The light next to it, under “Play,” never shines.
You reach into your drawer and retrieve the envelope:
If you’re reading this, you must be in dire need of a change. The same thing happened to me, long ago. I’d lost sight of what mattered most in life…real connections with other people and nature. So I dropped everything and moved to the place I truly belong. I’ve enclosed the deed to that place…my pride and joy. It’s located in Stardew Valley, on the southern coast. It’s the perfect place to start your new life. This was my most precious gift of all, and now it’s yours. I know you’ll honor the family home, my boy. Good luck.
It’s a somber beginning that acts as a perfect transferral of responsibilities. This is your farm—yours to grow and develop through hundreds of hours of play. You wake up, sow seeds, water crops, nurture your livestock. You gather, cutting down trees for lumber and mining veins for ore. You also explore the nearby town and speak to its locals. Everything you do drains your character’s energy. Whether you’re growing rows of cabbages to sell at the local market or expanding your stables and coops for livestock, an ever-depleting bar counts down the time left before you have to go to bed. The next day, you wake up and repeat the same tasks. Stardew Valley is a perfect loop, one that turns repetitive monotony into therapeutic compulsion.
The game’s main charms are its marriage of workmanlike play and sentimental atmosphere, but the themes get pretty dark. Barone explains: “To me, that includes going beyond the normal confines of what is expected from a video-game character. People struggle with personal issues, and I wanted to portray that. I think it makes the characters a lot more relatable...not just these ideal abstractions of people that are sometimes found in games.” For Eric, it was another way of ensuring the world of Stardew Valley felt truly alive.
The funny thing is that Eric never wanted to make video games, at least not professionally. He liked computers, dabbled in basic programming, but it was never a career ambition. “As a kid, I remember I made this little Choose Your Own Adventure,” he says. “Then I was in a band when I was 18 or 19. It was this experimental electronic-pop duo called 17 Colorful Feathers. One of the ideas I had was, when we released our album online, I would include a video game with it. I crafted this dumb little game like The Curse of Monkey Island. It was called The 17CF Game, or something like that.”
“It’s pretty embarrassing now,” he says, laughing. “I’ll send you a link.”
Born in Los Angeles, young Eric was whisked away to Washington before he could form memories of the Californian haze. He spent his childhood a little way out of Seattle, on the outskirts of the city limits near the woods, in a semi-rural area called Auburn. Much like Eric, it’s an unassuming but pleasant place. It has a Wikipedia-worthy array of parks—28 of them—and Eric has never strayed far. School, college, his immediate family and all of his friends. It’s here that he also met Amber, while they worked together at a local Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop.
Eric’s relationship to games is familiar to anyone who grew up in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. His older half-brother introduced him to the Super Nintendo—Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound—and Eric checked out copies of Nintendo Power from the library. But it was Harvest Moon that stuck with him as he got older. He adored how it eschewed violence in favor of domestic normality. “I liked that you could have relationships with the townsfolk, and even get married and start a family. That was something you couldnʼt do in most games I played as a kid, and it made the experience much more personal. That you were living in a world that felt alive, time moved forward with or without your input,” Eric says. “It was easy to imagine that the world was very much alive.”
As he moved through school, Eric read more about the video-game industry—with its underpaid, overworked culture—and he took a swerve. He chose instead to study computer science at the University of Washington Tacoma, graduating in 2011. He tried several times after he left college to get what he perceived as a “normal” job, the kind of job that would’ve allowed him and Amber the everyday life he expected to build. Maybe get a bigger apartment, get married, have a few kids and take them to Auburn’s parks on the weekend. But he was repeatedly unsuccessful, failing to get the jobs he was applying for, and with no clear direction for how to correct his trajectory.
Eric was practical. For a better shot at a job, he needed to improve his skill set. Learning to code made the most sense, and he started teaching himself to program video games. It was supposed to be just practice, the most creative way he could teach himself. He and Amber never even had a conversation about abandoning his job search. This was never supposed to be the thing. And it was at his desk, the same one he’s sitting at, speaking to me now, that he began making Stardew Valley.
The first moments of the game’s life were plain and uneventful. A single avatar—you, the player—floating in an empty void. “I didn’t really have any sort of deliberate plan or anything,” says Eric. “I just had my intuition as to what was the next important thing I should work on.” He started small (Eric’s focus is always on the player) and expanded from there, creating a basic navigable area (the place that would become your personal farm). He then built on the fundamental farming mechanics (crops, livestock, minerals), all of which he researched extensively to authentically re-create their behaviors and scarcities.
He’d do all of this again and again: build a slice of the game and develop it until it was “around 80 percent done” before adding depth, reworking bits or fully redesigning them if he became unhappy with them. The peripheral features—the townsfolk, social aspects, mining and cave exploration, as well as combat—would be added later in the development, but the creative ethos stuck with Eric throughout the entire process.
Create. Move on to something else. Go back and re-create.
Create. Move on. Re-create.
The game’s character portraits—small avatars that appear when you talk to any of the game’s 30 or so townsfolk—were redesigned at least ten times throughout development. First, they were more traditional line drawings. Then Eric tried basic pixel art. The portraits got more detailed—better-looking hair, a different shade of hair, add a headband to the hair. He kept making and remaking, the changes becoming smaller and more intricate with every new redesign until, to most people, the differences were so subtle youʼd think they weren’t important. He’d lose whole days just fiddling with things he’d made days, weeks, or months ago.
“I put in thousands of hours on pixel art just to get better at it and better at it,” he says. “I just persevered and forced myself to learn. You realize the thing that you thought was good actually isn’t. You realize why and you improve on it. And that’s just an endless cycle.” Every part of the game was made with this kind of maddening meticulousness. Eric needed hundreds of lines of dialogue for the three dozen or so townsfolk you can interact with. He wrote and rewrote those lines for several months straight, over and over, every single day. He also created over a hundred individual cut scene moments for them—all of which needed to be tested. Each tweak, of which there were thousands, required him to reboot the game to refresh the game’s code. “It was definitely a struggle to keep my sanity,” he says.
Eric never considered easier alternatives, even if sticking to his vision meant months of painstakingly boring and sometimes infuriating work. “Ultimately, I wanted the game world to feel like a living place. I wanted you to forget that it was a video game and to feel like these people had a life of their own.”
This avid perfectionism permeates Stardew Valley. Eric is addicted to it—in his video-game life, at least. “He’s certainly not neat and orderly, his desk is always messy,” Amber says, laughing. “He would be working all day till 11:30 P.M. and I would be like, ‘Hey, you have to get off the computer. You have to do something with me. We have to eat dinner. We have to watch an episode of Star Trek.’ I needed more interaction with him.”
Eric’s duties as partner had slipped drastically behind his personal ambition to perfect the game. He guiltily recognizes Amber felt lonelier and lonelier as he pushed on, but he did little to address it—he still worked 12 hours a day on the game, often going straight from his desk to the theater for an evening shift. He was all-encompassingly committed to Stardew Valley: “When I’m deep into a project that’s consuming my entire life,” he says, “that’s what makes me feel the best.”
There were obstacles—some that he didnʼt know if he could get around. Often a tweak Eric made would break something in the game, or he wouldn’t know how to translate ideas into code. But throughout the four and a half years, he never once reached out online by asking questions or speaking to another developer for advice. He hates asking for help. He prefers not having the subconscious feeling of owing a debt for a favor, so instead he does things all himself. Everything—literally everything—he learned about making games came from poring over pre-existing comment threads on forums and blogs until he found the solutions he needed to move forward.
The only work that never felt tedious was composing the game’s soundtrack—an escape from staring at his computer monitor and a chance to let loose on his instruments. He composed dozens of individual pieces of music; at least eight tracks for the game’s Winter Festival alone, all but one of which went unused.
In the months leading up to Stardew Valley’s release, Eric struggled. He talked often with Amber and his friends about giving up on the game. His confidence had slipped. “Imagine playing the same game, every day, for four and a half years. All day. I was just absolutely sick of it, I was bored,” he says. “I didn’t even have an objective sense of if the game was good or not. In fact, I thought it was bad.”
Traditionally, video games are playtested extensively—dozens, if not hundreds, of people kicking the tires, looking for bugs and issues. But even more than that, games are a form of art built on complex systems and code. Playtesters are often asked, Is this game even fun to play?
Remarkably, Eric was the only person to play Stardew Valley until the very last stages. Not even Chucklefish, the game’s publisher, had played it when they signed Eric. Amber had played a few hours here and there—Eric would ask if she thought new parts were any good, but it wasn’t nearly enough to gauge objective quality. “She’d give me a vague answer,” he says with a laugh. “She thought it was fun, but she didnʼt know enough about games at the time to really give me a detailed answer.”
He couldnʼt escape from the pressure and even dreaded seeing Amber’s parents because of the inevitable questions he’d get about his progress:
“How’s the game coming along?”
“When are you going to be done with that?”
Did they look down on him? He couldn’t be sure. But the pressure ratcheted up several notches in the final weeks. “I had to prove that I wasn’t just crazy, that this wasn’t just a pipe dream, and that I was actually gonna follow through on it. That was really getting to me, psychologically, thinking about whether I was wasting my life, wasting my time. So part of my strategy was to convince the people around me that they should believe in me,” he says. “But that was difficult. I was definitely embarrassed.”
Amber urged Eric to finish more quickly, arguing that a slight compromise in quality would be better than never releasing the game at all. But she regrets putting that on Eric. “I think she realized that my level of pickiness was actually important. Maybe the individual pixels on one portrait don’t matter, but the general approach of being meticulous and caring about details—that approach overall led to it being a good game.”
But it would be when Eric relinquished the privacy of his game that his confidence in it would return. Having been introduced to three Twitch streamers—called Bexy, Siri, and Prens— by a mutual contact at Chucklefish, he enlisted them to play Stardew Valley privately. Siri in particular had been following the game’s progress for quite a while: “I went out of my way to make it abundantly clear I was interested. Thankfully, [Eric]hadnʼt forgotten, and I was one of the first he reached out to when the time finally came.”
They’d help Eric catch and log bugs for him to fix, as well as offered feedback. “It became almost a game seeing if we could keep up with how quickly he was fixing things,” Siri explains. It didn’t always help Eric’s compulsion for perfection, though, having this dedicated trio of players giving him their opinions. It pushed him to tweak the game right up until release. A day within Stardew Valley lasts around 17 minutes, but Eric kept tweaking it until the end. (It’s probably no surprise that he’d lost all sense of time.) But the careful adjustments were crucial to the game working. “The psychology of it and how, by keeping the days short, it always felt like you had time for ʼone more day,ʼ no matter how long you had been playing. Before you realized it, hours had passed.”
Before the game was even released, Bexy, Siri, and Prens had each played Stardew Valley for more than 500 hours.
On the evening of February 25, 2016, a few hours before Stardew Valley released to the public, Eric encountered a game-breaking bug, the kind of major technical problem that would severely damage people’s ability to play. He doesn’t even remember what it was, exactly—just that it sent him into crisis mode. Usually, an entire team of developers would be on hand to fix problems like this. As always, though, here it’s just Eric. “I stayed up very late in a panic to fix it,” he says. “I was in a sort of daze the whole time. It was very stressful but also exhilarating.”
He spent the following days working nonstop, releasing patch after patch. He felt a huge weight of responsibility to everyone who’d bought it and had issues, so he put yet more time into perfecting them, fixing save files that had corrupted or become unplayable, and continuing to ensure the best quality-of-life improvements for the game in its first few days and weeks.
It sold 500,000 copies in a fortnight. More than Eric, Amber, her parents—or anyone—could ever have imagined. Eric remained the sole fixer of all of the bugs and blips that cropped up, even as the audience ballooned exponentially in front of his eyes. By April, the sales numbers had risen to over a million and showed no signs of slowing down. Critics loved it. And on Steam, the largest game-distribution platform, fans had rated it a 10/10.
Siri and Bexy both continue to play the game to this day, streaming it live for their audiences. “The game has brought myself and so many people joy,” Siri says. “It has gotten me through some of the toughest of times these last two years, just by being a relaxing, charming game. Truly, it has touched countless lives and will always be close to my heart.”
Eric’s enthusiasm was rekindled by the game’s immense critical and commercial success. He created a free update for the game, released about six months after launch. He added new crops for players to cultivate, the ability to marry other characters, a new quest at the end of the game, several new farm buildings like a few magical obelisks, and five different farm layouts (the original game only had one) to expand Stardew Valley.
It was only now that Eric was finally, and completely, burned out. In August of 2017, he took a vacation. He went on a road trip with Amber and his housemates, completing a huge cross-country loop down from Washington state into Oregon to see the solar eclipse. They traveled through Idaho and Utah, stopping off to explore the national parks, before making the trip to see the Grand Canyon. In California, Eric reveled in the beach lifestyle he’d been wrenched from as a child and visited Disneyland. The return trip took them back up the coast, home.
He told himself he would never touch Stardew Valley again after that.
Multiplayer is the last thing you expect from a self-affirmed recluse like Eric. He can’t remember exactly when he half-announced it as a feature—he mentioned it in a blog post, however many years ago, while he was still in the midst of development. (“Do I regret [promising]that? Yes. I think I do regret it.”) It’s the next and potentially final stage of Stardew Valley’s life. Out in the next few weeks, it allows up to four players to combine their efforts and play together in one farm. It’s the first part of the game that Eric hasn’t been that involved in. All the multiplayer coding sounded “really unpleasant” to him, so Chucklefish, who up until this point had handled only the admin and marketing, subcontracted the development of multiplayer to another party.
Eric himself has now moved on to his next so-far-unannounced game. He wants you to know that it isnʼt a direct sequel to Stardew Valley. He also wants you to know it’s nowhere near ready; it’ll be another three years, he reckons. It’s more focused but still a deep, immersive experience. Optimistically, Amber thinks his newfound development expertise means he might get it right first try this time around, without the need to obsessively redesign and change every little bit of the game: “Weʼll see,” she says. “No promises.”
Eric is excited, buzzing about his sophomore project, even if he’s deliberately vague in describing specifics. “It’s a relief to finally be working on something new after six and a half years,” he says. “I’m definitely going to go more extreme [this time]. You’ve gotta do something outrageous to justify your existence in the video-game world. I want every moment of the game to be delighting the player with things that they would not expect, things that go above and beyond what normal games do. To shatter expectations of what one person can do in an indie game. With the graphics, the sound, the music, the characters, with how interactive the world is, or how alive it feels.”
Stardew Valley could well be the game he comes back to for the rest of his life, but he recognizes it’s time to at least try to move on. He says, “I feel less connected to it than I did before release. Because the game has kind of left the nest and taken on a character of its own that’s more than just me. It’s also the interpretations from all the other people who’ve played it. I would imagine it’s like if you have a kid and they leave the house and they start a life of their own. You still feel like this parental connection. But it’s a different sort of feeling.”
Working on the new game, he has spurts of motivation and inspiration, all while he bums about, reading articles and the comments on days like today. He hates the dilly-dallying trap that he’s fallen into, but he’s not indulging in the high life he could very easily afford, either. He loved his life before he got rich—“So why would I change that?”—and has no interest in doing other things.
Eric says what he means. He knows Stardew Valley’s success was, in part, due to a lack of “PR bullshit.” With game number two, it’s no different. “I’m just making the game I want to make, in the style that I want, without worrying whether it’s going to be successful or not.” He doubts the new game will come even close to his debut in that regard, but now there are far fewer restrictions and absolutely no financial worries to hold him back. “In Stardew Valley, I felt kind of constrained because I was basing it off of [Harvest Moon]. For my new game, there’s no specific game that I’m emulating or building upon. I have a lot more creative freedom to do it however I feel like.”
He’s not finished—not nearly. He’s doing it all again, the only way that he knows how: alone.
HackerNewsBot debug: Calculated post rank: 138 - Loop: 246 - Rank min: 100 - Author rank: 156
With the beloved Stardew Valley, Eric Barone discovered the alchemy of quiet gamemaking. All it took was nearly life-ruining levels of obsessiveness.www.gq.com