Stardew Valley has reaped what it sowed — that is, 3.5 million copies of the Harvest Moon-like farming simulator. It also boasts an impressive 700,000 monthly active players, according to industry analyst SuperData Research. Solo developer Eric Barone, aka ConcernedApe, partnered with publisher Chucklefish to debut the game on PC in February 2016, and has since launched it on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and most recently, Nintendo Switch.
A huge part of Stardew Valley’s appeal is how it evokes the nostalgia of Natsume’s Harvest Moon. It borrows a lot of the mechanics and some story elements as well: the player inherits a farm, plants and harvests crops, and wins the love and affection of townspeople. Like in Harvest Moon, magical spirits of the land can grant you boons and you can romance the non-playable character of your choice by earning what are essentially friendship points. However, Stardew Valley does depart from the script a bit by including some modern-day commentary with Joja Corporation, a global company that’s threatening local business with its cheap, mass-produced products.
In the first month on PC, Stardew Valley sold 800,000 copies, which makes it a standout hit in a crowded indie-gaming space. However, other developers can still learn lessons from its success. SuperData’s senior analyst Elena Fedina examines what contributed to the game’s high sales, suggesting that the enthusiastic fanbase is a major factor. On the Nexus Mods website, the community has created and uploaded 1,513 mods. Some grant minor additions, like tooltips to help players keep track of quest items. Others overhaul the game’s art style, replacing its small-town aesthetic with Victorian mansions or changing its character portraits to anime-style illustrations.
“ConcernedApe was extremely passionate about the game concept and worked hard on bringing his vision to life,” writes Fedina in a post. “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.”
And that close relationship bore fruit in the form of a Reddit thread where fans bought copies of the game for folks who said they couldn’t afford it. The community has also been patiently waiting for the multiplayer mode, which is slated for release later this year.
SuperData warns that Stardew Valley’s outsize success may be more of the exception than the rule. ConcernedApe worked 10 hours every day for four years to develop the title, a work schedule that simply may not be possible for everyone. Similarly, not everyone has access to a publisher who will help get the word out in the crowded games market. And indies who are seeking funding so they can market their projects as well as devote more time to development have a tough road ahead of them.
“For example, as of January 3, there were 11,000 projects in Kickstarter’s video games category, 80 percent of which met less than 75 percent of their funding goal,” said Fedina. “Optimistically, only 30 percent of all projects will run a successful campaign, leaving the others to find different ways to pay for development.”
But it’s not all grim. Stardew Valley shows what rallying a tight-knit community around a game can do. And though it would be nice to sell millions of copies, that’s not necessarily the only way to define success for an indie game. Plus, many developers are finding ways to work around their financial constraints — balancing a day job, or cutting down on overhead costs. In an interview with GamesBeat, Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone, Subsurface Circular) noted some of the solutions that he’s seen developers come up with that work with their situations.
“The financial situation in the U.K. in particular is pretty unpleasant right now because of all the Brexit stuff, but you’re seeing more and more remote working situations,” said Bithell. “People not doing the office thing. I’m interested to see how that affects the stuff that’s coming out. We’re going to see some games made by international indie teams, or weird mishmashes of people collaborating. You’re already seeing a number of people in the indie space who are working on several projects with different teams.”
The games market is noisy, and that makes it difficult for developers to get their titles in front of people. But a ton of creative work is coming out of the indie scene — such as the games that have been recently recognized by the Independent Games Festival. And since the launch of the Switch, Nintendo has been welcoming of indie titles to its platform. The opportunity of a new platform along with more discovery options, like the curated game subscription service Jump, will hopefully yield even more indie success stories in the future.