Don’t Starve in Monaco: Two established indie devs share their path to success
Ben's note: I'm in LA seeing super-secret games before E3, and I asked some developers I respect to share some thoughts to help with content while I'm away. The following is a conversation between Klei CEO Jamie Cheng (Don't Starve) and Pocketwatch Owner Andy Schatz (Monaco), where they discuss their respective games and the process of making them.
Both men have been in this business for a while now, and they're worth listening to. You also can't argue with the numbers: Since launching, Monaco and Don’t Starve both topped out at #1 on Steam. Monaco has now grossed over $1 million on PC and has recently launched on the Xbox Live Arcade. Klei has seen over 300,000 pre-orders of Don't Starve prior to launch, and remained in the top ten even through two weeks of sales.
It's odd to think that we're becoming the “old” indies, or even the “establishment” indies, but there's probably some truth to that. You and I have been around the indie development community for about the same amount time, starting back in 2005. My first game as an indie was Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa (PC/Mac), and yours was the incredibly charming and remarkably successful Eets (PC/Mac/XBLA).
But let's start with the present day. Given that Don't Starve is remarkably different from Eets, Shank, and Mark of the Ninja, the question arises: could Don't Starve have been as successful two years ago as it is today? Are there any lessons to be learned from the order in which your studio developed the titles you did, or were they all simply a product of time and place? If you were a new studio starting today, would you choose to make Eets or Don't Starve?
Wishing you a fire in the darkness,
Great, thanks for making me feel old. Honestly I think Minecraft has done amazing wonders for the industry, and in many ways Don't Starve has benefited from the trail that it blazed. Perhaps the most important thing it's done is shown a huge number of players that self-directed goals and intrinsically interesting games are extremely interesting and satisfying. Given that, I'd say that Don't Starve has certainly arrived at a very serendipitous time.
I see Klei's history as a journey in learning to make a game. I have no doubt in my mind that Don't Starve is a far better game than the original Eets. When we made Eets, the team basically asked surface questions like “wouldn't it be cool if a pig shot out an exploding little pig out of it's butt?” and answered with “yeah that'd be hilarious! Let's put that in!” Not to say we'd never add another exploding fart, but we're a lot more deliberate with our decisions now.
It seems like you're the same way these days. Monaco is a very precise game—each mechanic has a very specific purpose. Did you have a similar journey?
My journey as a designer took a 90 degree turn when I started on Monaco. My first indie game did pretty well for 2005…the retail (boxed) version of the game sold somewhere around 65K units. The early success was quickly deflated, though, when I realized that many of those units were “sold” to the retailers, but didn't move off the shelves and so they were returned to the publisher. I made very little from that game considering the number of units I “sold”.
For my second game, I had been getting deeper and deeper into the indie scene and I went intentionally more “interesting and artsy” with Venture Arctic. I think I succeeded on those fronts, but it sold even worse. It's hard to describe the feeling in the pit of your stomach when the game you work on for a year and a half merits only 2 press mentions and about 100 sales on launch day.
So for my third game I wanted to make something that was both interesting AND marketable, which is why I went with dinosaurs. But after working on it for a year, I never found a game that inspired me. I moved on to Monaco, simply on a whim… and the development of Monaco followed that philosophy for the first 6 months. I worked on whatever inspired me that day… I was unfettered and unplanned and inspired and incredibly productive. I was eventually forced to transition out of this mode once I started working with a team, and that process was a little painful.
For my next game I'm determined to find that energy and that spark again, but with a team this time. Sure, we'll have to transition to production at some point. But that kind of inspiration is like the fountain of youth of game development.
So, old man, what's your fountain of youth? What singular moment in your years at Klei was the moment when everything just worked? When you were a god amongst men?
Nothing “just works,” but of course you already knew that. My path as an indie is a bit weird in that I decided to actually build a company and a significant sized team around it, with all the risk that goes with that. There've been these milestones that transformed our company, though.
Starting out on Eets, we were a team of 4, and it sold just enough to keep us going. We crammed into a sweaty 100 square feet office (literally the air conditioning would turn off just as the sun starting shining directly into our office, there were no openable windows, and it was the middle of summer), and typed away. We caught a couple lucky breaks during this time—one of the most significant ones was selling the retail rights of Eets to a European company. We ended up taking an advance of something like $80,000, which allowed us to pay for costs and keep going for another year or so. I remember looking at the royalty reports and sheepishly realizing that the publisher had only sold a hundred copies or so.
From there, we had a few key points of transformation—once when we worked with Nexon to develop Sugar Rush, and the next when Jeff and I decided to develop Shank. In my mind, Shank as a game had a lot to be desired, and the experience of shipping that was the most stressful thing I've ever been through. We simply didn't have enough time, and I made a bunch of decisions that were needed in order to actually get a playable, decent game out. Ultimately it was a very instructive experience in that I'll never put us in that position again. Things really starting turning around when we simultaneously developed Shank 2 and Mark of the Ninja, it felt that we were no longer had all our eggs in one basket, and that we actually knew how to build a game. We were much more in control of our own destiny.
The philosophy I take is that every year we just need to be 20% better than the last, and I'm still of that mindset. Everyday, we simply try to push the medium a bit further, and when it clicks—when players say metaphorically “wow, that was meaningful,” that's the instant we realize, yes, we made something special. Like when a parent came to me and said that his autistic son couldn't communicate well, but could use the Eets level editor and make puzzles for him to solve. Or when a player tells us that Don't Starve has changed the way they see motivation in games.
Your ability to deliver on that goal of steady growth is one of the things I actually admire most about you. Of all the indies I know, I think I can sincerely say that if I could pick a CEO to work for, it would be you.
However, I also know that you never expected Don't Starve to take off like it did. I saw a pre-release version and admittedly missed some of the magic. My excuse is that balance and depth are two of the things that make the game intriguing, and with the in-progress build it was hard to feel that sense that anything was possible. But my own mis-read of Don't Starve actually has made me reevaluate how I look at in-development games. While of course it's important to critique and provide feedback on games in development, it's also important to really try to discover and focus on the spark that may eventually turn into a barn-burning flame (like Don't Starve has become). The IGF judges saw that spark with Monaco, and I'm grateful for it!
Many of my favorite moments during Monaco's development came with beta testers that seemed to “get” Monaco even better than I ever did. I spend a lot of time trying to identify and reach out to those people. We surveyed all of our beta testers and found significant differences in the way they played or enjoyed Monaco based on the site that conducted the beta key giveaway. Reddit and RockPaperShotgun users were our best. Twitter, Facebook, and users from a Destructoid giveaway were our least engaged.
I don't know if the game will SELL better to those passionate people, but I do know that they create community, which creates buzz, and makes the whole process of development more fun. I expect that my choices in the future about what types of games I make will largely be centered around which fans I like the most. Nothing sells a game better than a dev who can be friends with his or her community.
You're right that I didn't expect Don't Starve to resonate like it has, but I did very much believe that it was a game worth making. And that's kind of what matters, right?
Indeed, involving the community in the development of Don't Starve is probably the best thing that ever happened to it. Interestingly enough our best beta testers came from all walks of life. By the time you played it, I think we were just beginning to see players get into the groove of the constant discovery and challenge in the world. One of the best anecdotes we have is stumbling across our game in a knitting blog. A charming middle-aged lady online runs a blog that teaches others how to knit, and for that week she confessed that there would be no lesson because she spent all her time playing this weird game called Don’t Starve. She then went on for 20 minutes describing her escapades.
Even though we designed it to be a self-directed game, we were still really surprised to see how compelling that was. Even early on, It wasn’t uncommon to see players have characters that have lived several hundred in-game days, which translates to dozens of hours, on a single playthrough.
The constant feedback allowed us to refine our ideas and continue to test our assumptions, but in general it never fundamentally changed what we felt our game is about. I'm actually looking back at little notes we wrote about Don't Starve last summer prior to our Beta, and indeed it's still remarkably accurate.
As an aside, I actually think there's some major risk in having a “fun spark” in the beginning of development. We had that in Shank, the first level is just awesome fun, and it lulled us into a false sense of security. It also made us reluctant to do anything that removes any of that spark, even if it's actually detrimental to the full game. It put us in a local maxima that we never got out of.
That's a very interesting point about Shank. With Monaco, we've designed about 50% of the levels to be “core” Monaco levels, while the other 50% are more on the outskirts of the design space. Fast levels, levels without an object to steal, levels that feel more like puzzles. While people don't typically choose those outskirts levels as their favorites, we do find that it helps us to break up the rhythm of the game. I'm guessing that the RPG-ish missions in Starcraft are there to fulfill a similar purpose.
And so that brings us to our launch days. April 23rd and 24th for us. I imagine Klei probably has plenty of other irons in the fire at the moment, but for me, I'm looking forward to exploring an “outskirts” moment of my life…one in which my cares and worries and concerns of daily life are quite different from the everyday grind of game production. Still filled with hard work (and likely support cases), but quite different from the last 8 years nonetheless.
And so with that, I must wish you “adieu”, just as Monaco prepares to say “bon jour” to the world. Good luck with the launch of Don't Starve, and thanks for sharing your thoughts with me!
Thanks for the scintillating discussion, Andy! Good luck with the official launch, and I'll see you on Steam.