Stardew Valley’s phenomenon: What can we learn from it?

Stardew Valley was an unexpected indie success: one developer, four years of work and almost 800K players within just one month after release. But should aspiring game developers use it as a go-to example?

Movie-like Success

It may seem that Stardew Valley followed the path of many indie games. Eric Barone, or  ConcernedApe, the developer, worked on the game in his spare time. In 2012, the game was published on Steam Greenlight, previously standard path for indie games to get onto the Steam platform. Finally, Stardew Valley released on PC on February 26, 2016. However, unlike most other indie games, it sold 800K copies in just one month. This was an amazing success, but the community made it even more special. Just a few days after launch, Redditors created a thread (now deleted, but screenshots can be found here) to help people who were pirating the game to purchase legitimate copies instead. This was unprecedented, and Stardew Valley’s community continues to be highly engaged with the developer. The game has now been ported to the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and the Nintendo Switch and has sold over 3.5M units. On top of this, the developer is releasing a highly requested multiplayer mode in early 2018.

Behind the Curtain

In January 2018 Stardew Valley still has 700K active monthly players, which is a year-over-year increase of 13%. One of the reasons for such long-lasting success is that the game is heavily influenced by Harvest Moon, a 1996 Super Nintendo title that grew into an entire series and had over 1M players globally. However, this success is also the result of an incredible amount of work and dedication. ConcernedApe spent 10 hours a day, seven days a week for the entire four years of development working on Stardew Valley. He was active on Reddit and on the game’s website since the very first playable build was available. After the game was released, he kept working on fixing bugs and rebalancing many areas of the game. Chucklefish, the game’s publisher, did the heavy lifting with marketing as the release day came closer. Reaching out to popular Twitch streamers early allowed Stardew Valley to break into the top 50 games on the day of release and attract even more new players. All of these efforts paid off and the game won multiple awards and became a financial success.

Reality Check

Unfortunately Stardew Valley is an exception in many ways. Few aspiring developers have the starting capital or steady income to spend eight or more hours a day working on their dream game. For indies, a potential solution would be turning to crowdfunding, but that is an incredibly competitive space. For example, as of January 3, 2018, there were 11K projects in Kickstarter’s video games category, 80% of which met less than 75% of their funding goal. Optimistically, only 30% of all projects will run a successful campaign, leaving the others to find different ways to pay for development.

Funding and developing a game is not all it takes to make it successful, though. Hundreds of games hit stores every month, but even catching the eyes of a few influencers doesn’t guarantee success. A great example is the 2017 winner of IGF (Independent Games Festival), Quadrilateral Cowboy. Although critically acclaimed, the game sold less than 30K copies on Steam since its launch in July 2016.

It is becoming increasingly clear that breaking into the games industry is hard, especially for first-time developers. However there are things which helped Stardew Valley reach its success that everybody can do. ConcernedApe was extremely passionate about the game concept and worked hard on bringing his vision to life. He built a trusting relationship with his players, who later in development helped to test the game, and brought in an even larger audience after release. Finally, relying on knowledge and expertise of fellow game developers and publishers, like Stardew Valley’s publisher Chucklefish, helped the game reach even more players. Although Stardew Valley is an outlier, there’s always room for more games and talented developers in the industry.