Monday, March 21, 2016

[Stardew Valley] A Charming, Slightly Flawed Masterclone

The game on everyone's Steam account these days is the same one I've been playing: Stardew Valley. A one-man developer job over the course of four years, it is an extremely impressive undertaking. Even more impressive that he managed to ship something, anything, let alone ship a complete and enjoyable game.

Many folks liken it to Harvest Moon with combat and many of the irks removed, but many seem unaware of Harvest Moon's cousin series, Rune Factory, which is also described as thus. In fact, I'd liken Stardew Valley as a Rune Factory with more charm but shallower combat rather than a Harvest Moon clone. But I guess people don't call Diablo-Clones "Torchlight but with <blah>", so expecting folks to be familiar with every offshoot of a given genre is probably unreasonable.

But there's been no visible game like it in the PC gaming space, and Barone knew there was a huge hole to be filled. Stardew Valley is to Farmville like Puzzle Quest is to Bejeweled. At a 40,000 foot view, they might be described as similar games, but they diverge extremely quickly. And given the popularity of Stardew, we've seen just how big that hole really was.

CAULIFLOWER DAY! I made like 77k off all that cauliflower.

Indie Development

Four years is an immensely long time. When I first heard of that timeline, I looked at what Stardew delivered and scoffed. I could probably program 80% of it in 8 - 10 months. But here's the thing, Barone didn't just program it: he designed it; he composed it; he wrote it; he drew it; he debugged it; he iterated it; he marketed it; he patched it. The game evolved significantly over that 4 years. Programming is just the tip of the iceberg. I certainly couldn't do all of that, let alone in 8 - 10 months.

Barone redid the project numerous times over his 4 year stint, saying when he had "first started [he] had no pretty much no experience." And of course, that last marathon to the finish to getting the game out in a complete form is no quick and easy march. On Eon Altar we've learned what I like to call the 20/80 rule: the last 20% will take 80% of your time. We've had most of Eon's core systems programmed relatively early in the product cycle, what's eaten our time has been iteration and polish. I imagine Barone's experience is likely similar.

He also likely struggled significantly over his time period due to industry inexperience as in the Kotaku interview, he mentioned,
"I know that any patch I release or anything, if it causes problems for people, there’s thousands of people that are going to be experiencing these problems. I have to just make very sure that everything I do is precise. Which is kind of something I’m new to. My whole development process I’ll admit was pretty sloppy. I’m not that professional. It’s like it is true indie game development, not super streamlined and polished. I’m getting used to it, and I’m starting to learn how to do this in a good way, but it’s pretty stressful."
For Eon Altar, we have the benefit of professional experience: nearly every employee has worked in AAA gaming or a big name software company previously. We've shipped products before, and thus we can bring that experience to the table at Flying Helmet Games. Disciplined practices around risk assessment, reduction, and management; estimates and timelines; what to cut, what to ship. Oh, we make plenty of mistakes, but they're usually mistakes of judgement, not necessarily obfuscated and compounded by a lack of process and experience.

That said, while Barone might have made that 4 year stint way harder on himself than he really needed to due to reinventing the wheel as far as development processes go, he's still done something many indie devs have not: shipped. And to be honest, I think he kicked ass. Pretty sure 60 hours of Stardew Valley so far can attest to how much I enjoy the game!

My farm is pretty organized, I guess.


The core loop of the game--the day/night cycle--is a satisfying just-one-more-day mechanic that rewards making plans. Tomorrow your tomatoes will be done and you'll make a few thousand gold; Thursday is the festival and you have the perfect crops to show off; Friday you want to check the wandering vendor for miscellaneous goods, and then hit the mines for more iron so you can spend Wednesday's gold on upgrading your pick-axe. The list goes on.

Now, this core loop is lifted directly from Harvest Moon--Barone has no bones about it, and that's all right: don't mess with what works.

What makes it more engaging to me than Rune Factory--the closest comparison to Stardew Valley--is how I interact with the townspeople, and concrete goals.

Rune Factory is a JRPG at heart, and thus often falls victim to anime conventions as far as personalities are concerned. That's not to say Stardew doesn't have its own stereotypes, but as someone who lives in North America, I fully admit I find the North American stereotypes more relatable--which really should show folks the importance of localization. But no localization required for me, as it's been developed in North America. Makes me wonder how European or Japanese folks would interpret the cast were it to be translated to those locales.

Also, I fully appreciate being able to romance characters of my gender. Getting the football--er, sorry, gridball jock out from the clutches of the vapid cheerleader was definitely an enjoyable experience once I got past his assholish exterior. Actually, most of the characters have really interesting back stories once you get past their mopey, day-to-day doldrums.

Farm wedding in my farm hat. Also, too bad, Halley. That boy is mine!
The other aspect that I really appreciated was the Community Center. It only took me about a year to get everything done for it, but having concrete goals to complete to guide my farm's initial growth was very helpful. The Rune Factory series has quests, but most of them focus on the combat aspect, and less on the farming aspect. Ideally I'd like something that has some sort of combination of the two, but I definitely enjoy how the Community Center was set up: here's a bunch of goals, you know them all in advance, have at 'em!


Of course, no game is perfect, and while I love Stardew Valley to bits, there's one aspect that made me nearly quit in sheer frustration multiple times: the controls.

I use the gamepad controls, but there are some things that pretty much necessitate me switching to mouse/keyboard: buying stacks of items requires a shift-click; placing wallpaper in my house requires my mouse to target the wall; placing trellis-based crops like beans is pretty close to impossible without the mouse; placing anything like paths or sometimes even just talking to NPCs basically starts wonking out unpredictably.

A lot of these control issues boil down to the fact that gamepad support was tacked on after the fact. Most of the UI is mouse-based. In fact, the right stick controls the mouse cursor on screen, and you pretty well have to manually shove it in a corner to get the gamepad controls to act in a consistent manner, or your targeting tries to follow where the mouse cursor is on the screen. This is somewhat ameliorated by the "show target" setting, but it's still extremely messy and unpredictable. Menus are inconsistently controllable via the controller: most times them involve manually pressing an arrow on the screen with the mouse cursor rather than a simple button to scroll.

Rune Factory provides controls to crab-walk for easier crop watering/planting/hoeing, and that sort of control is sorely missing here. The number of times I've accidentally watered the middle of my crops rather than from the edge because my target jumped a square as I lined myself up is innumerable.

Controls for me are the biggest bugbear. By hour 10 I was ready to give up until I realized that the controller couldn't be used standalone, and I was stuck with some sort of chimaera control scheme. Once I figured it out, it was easy to eventually compartmentalize certain tasks to mouse vs. controller, but this is extremely frustrating.

The other issue for me is combat. Combat is extremely simplistic. There's no depth, aside from the literal depth of the given mine you're in. It's an okay diversion from farming, but I'd like to see more here. Rune Factory provides this in spades: special attacks, spells, severe weapon differentiation, boss fights. Stardew doesn't really press my button as far as combat goes. It's a serviceable system, but I bet Barone can do so much more with the tools he's put together for this stuff. I'd say he's at that last 20% place as far as combat is concerned. It could use more iteration in my personal opinion.

Taking a leek.
The Future

Stardew Valley has sold by the bucketload. Over half a million copies. That's nearly unfathomable to me to be honest. And frankly, he absolutely deserves the success. Despite my issues above, Stardew is an impressive and fun game without taking into account it was a solo job.

Given his inexperience, I'm a little concerned about how he's going to bring multiplayer about. Honestly, that's going to be a many-month job unto itself, with many frustrating bugs and desyncs. Trust me when I say multiplayer networking is a very difficult task. But it'll be a fantastic learning experience at the same time.

I'm happy he released the solo game though, before sitting down to do multiplayer. It shines brightly without it, and I'm absolutely enjoying my time on my farm with my husband.


#IndieDev, #StardewValley, #FirstImpression

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