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Credit: ConcernedApe

Stardew Valley turns 5, and the little farm sim that could is more beloved and bigger than ever

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Feb 24, 2021, 5:30 PM EST

Ever wish you could pack up, leave the corporate world, and run off to an idyllic valley with a farm of your own? Well, in Stardew Valley, you can do just that. This open-ended country-living roleplaying game is about creating the life you want, all while accompanied by a soothing soundtrack and quite a few supernatural surprises and colorful characters. Everything about Stardew Valley is low stakes. Whether it's deciding on the right product to manufacture at your farm, which animals to adopt, or slowly building up relationships and creating real connections with the people around town, this is a game that draws you in with a warm blanket and a familiar style.

Yet despite all the comforting bells and whistles, Stardew Valley begins as many farming sims do: Your customizable character inherits a piece-of-junk farm in a small town filled with all sorts of quirky townsfolk, and it's the player's job to make a life and help build up the community. It's a formula that has worked for decades — think Story of Seasons, Harvest Moon, and My Time at Portia — but something about Stardew Valley was different when it was released on Feb. 26, 2016.

Originally released by then-unknown indie developer ConcernedApe, what started as a solo-coded game in C# has become a star of the video game world with countless dedicated fans. Upon release, Stardew Valley sold 2 million copies in just the first month.

What was originally created because Seattle-based developer Eric Barone wanted to try and make a game has long since become a cornerstone of cozy gaming such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons and A Short Hike.

Now, five years and 10 million sold copies later, Stardew Valley has grown not only in the scope of gameplay but in the gaming community itself, with players logging hundreds and even thousands of hours puttering around their farms, fishing at the docks, and befriending the local blacksmith. There's even a board game. To celebrate Stardew Valley's five-year anniversary, SYFY WIRE spoke with the game's creator and one particularly dedicated fan to get to the bottom of what makes an 8-bit farming game so attractive.

THE LITTLE GAME THAT COULD

No one could have predicted that Stardew Valley would take off like it did, least of all Barone. He had long been a lover of Natsume's Harvest Moon series, but felt it had lost its heart as the years and titles went on. He wanted a farming game that got back to the basics, and so he got to work. Developed over the course of four and a half years, Stardew Valley was a passion project meant to improve Barone's coding skills. Everything from the pixels to the music was solo created, and that, plus the gameplay, really resonated with curious players.

"The first few months were nuts," Barone tells SYFY WIRE. He worked hard to fix bugs and provide technical support to his players, as the developer saw it as his responsibility to provide users with as seamless an experience as possible. A one-man team, he felt he had to fix any and every issue he could. Combine this with a sudden barrage of interview requests, a growing community, and endless emails, Barone says it was a very busy time. He found it difficult to grapple with his newfound fame and position in the video game world, as well as the opportunities and possibilities that were presenting themselves.

"At first, I always had this nagging feeling that I wasn't capitalizing on this rare opportunity to become some kind of indie celebrity, or taste-maker or something," Barone admits. "But the reality is, I don't really want to be that. I've always been a bit of an outsider, and I'm cool with that. I just want to make games and be able to share my ideas and art with people."

Credit: ConcernedApe

Five years later, Stardew Valley is still going strong. Since then, there have been multiple updates that have expanded the world and drawn even more players into his world. The game is now available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, mobile, and in a number of languages. Two years ago, Barone finally gave in and started a small team to assist him with keeping Stardew Valley up to date and running. While he says it was a challenge to get used to not doing all the work himself, he is happy for the help and says it has allowed him more time and mental space to create updates and run the day-to-day business.

Given the success of Stardew Valley and the fanbase he has built up, Barone is now working on other games, though still built in the same style as his first.

1600 HOURS IN STARDEW VALLEY

The fandom for Stardew Valley is enormous, spanning multiple online communities — including the official Chucklefish forum and Tumblr — and a thriving modding community that creates everything from a handy elevator in Skull Cavern to a full-on expansion of the game, including 26 new locations and over 100 new characters.

A self-declared super-fan, Sarah Hughey has logged 1,200 hours in Stardew Valley on PC and 400 hours on the Nintendo Switch. Hughey plays the game on a variety of platforms, always having it nearby on her phone when she needs a Stardew break. It's the creativity aspect that really sucks her in, giving her the opportunity to be productive and create her farm, but also allowing her to chill out when the real world gets too hectic.

However, at the beginning, Hughey admits to hating the lack of direction and open-worldness of the storyline. What was she supposed to even do? It was just a bunch of mindless planting, watering, and talking with often-apathetic neighbors. After some time, though, it clicked, and she has been playing regularly ever since.

"As I kept playing, I found that, as you went along, there were always more things to find, more secrets to unlock, and more items to collect," Hughey tells SYFY WIRE. "I remember at the beginning looking something up on the Stardew Wiki and being shocked that there were just more and more things in the game that I hadn't discovered yet."

It's this constant stream of discovery that has kept the game fresh for Hughey and so many other players. She commends the updates that never skimp on content, for free no less, as a huge factor. The first added new farm maps, marriage options, and content, while the latest has gone so far as to add a co-op multiplayer feature.

"Just the other day, I stumbled upon a character cut-scene that I hadn't ever seen — it was fun to watch and learn more about the character that I had never known before!" she explains.

"Eric Barone's dedication has paid off — as dedicated as he is to the game; he also has a dedicated fanbase in return who will play his game over anything else, and even turn to it in times of need," she continues.

The numbers certainly match Hughey's sentiment. Barone reports that sales for Stardew Valley on Steam went up 30 percent in March of 2020 at the start of the pandemic.

"I think Stardew Valley offered a really good escape for many people, and I'm glad it helped people feel better," he says.

Hughey considers herself an anxious person, a feeling exacerbated by the pandemic and work-from-home situation she and many people have found themselves in. Stardew Valley is familiar and comforting, a place she can unwind after a hard day, or even a stressful moment. It's also a place removed from the present, a timeline in which she doesn't have to think about COVID-19, politics, or anything else happening in the world.

Immersing herself in Stardew Valley's simplicity and good nature is a balm to the soul, not to mention enjoyable — a place where she can turn her brain off, more or less. To catch a break, she'll often play one day cycle on the farm — which lasts 774 seconds (or about 13 minutes) — to give herself a chance to calm down. There are no goals, no real competitions, no hard time limits; your character wakes up to the rooster crowing each morning and then goes to work in a quiet town full of pleasant mystery and a wizard who lives in the woods.

Credit: ConcernedApe

Barone says many people have told him they find the game therapeutic, and while he didn't consciously design the game to be as such, he does believe it has to do with the way Stardew Valley rewards its players.

"I think a lot of games knowingly or unknowingly abuse the reward pathways in our brains, by giving positive feedback too rapidly. Stardew Valley slows that down, and doles out those kinds of rewards at a human pace," he explains. "I think people put so many hours into it because it just feels good to exist in that world, doing the humble but important tasks you do, just like real life. We're meant to enjoy that lifestyle."

DEDICATION AND APPRECIATION

There is a common denominator amongst players and Barone. Dedication. Whether it is checking the Stardew Valley Reddit to see if there are bugs or issues and getting those fixed — sometimes within a matter of hours — or answering emails from fans, Barone is always there for his game and those who adore it.

"I think that both my dedication to the game, and the dedication to the game from other players, comes down to the fact that Eric Barone is so dedicated to the game in turn," Hughey explains.

Barone's dedication isn't limited to the base game either. The vibrant, bustling modding community for Stardew Valley includes mods that add entirely different towns and an extended universe. Barone has actively endorsed and kept modders in mind when it comes to updates and patches for the game, allowing them to work on their mods a few days before the update release.

"Once you realize how much time and love Eric put into making this world. It's a world I hope never goes away and just continues to improve and become better with time," Hughey says.

Barone has no plans to close the book on Stardew Valley, admitting that there is always a possibility for another major update.

"However, I do think that with all the updates since 1.0, Stardew Valley is in a place where I wouldn't mind calling it complete," he says. "With that being said, there's always more I could do with the game, and areas that I think could be improved... we'll see."