Very rarely do we see a game designed by a solo developer, and even more rarely do we see that game become successful, but Stardew Valley proves that this seemingly impossible feat is possible. Developer Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone began working on Stardew Valley in 2012, but the game wasn’t released until 2016. Since then, Barone has added multiple free updates to the game, including features like online multiplayer, new character interactions and additional areas to Pelican Town. The story of Stardew Valley’s development is a beacon of hope for those who dream of creating their own indie video games.
Stardew Valley originated from ConcernedApe’s desire to improve one of his favorite games, Harvest Moon. While he loved the series, he thought the games had room for improvement after Harvest Moon: Back to Nature was released. Some aspects of Harvest Moon are very visible in Stardew Valley, especially the basic game mechanics and setup. Players interact with villagers in the same way, talking to them each day and giving them gifts to grow their friendship. Crops have the same life cycles and both games share the same calendar with 28-day seasons.
Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada noticed and admired his game’s influence on Stardew Valley. In an interview with GameSpot, Wada praised ConcernedApe and Stardew Valley, saying, “Instead of Harvest Moon being forgotten, it has become powered up and it has gotten even better. It’s still living on, even though I’m not working on it anymore.”
All the features from the Harvest Moon series kept in Stardew Valley worked well, but ConcernedApe wanted to go further than the base game. His main complaint with Harvest Moon games was that they always ended. In Stardew Valley, he wanted to make sure players had enough to do to keep playing for as long as they wanted. While there’s no clear conclusion to Stardew Valley, most players see getting married and completing the Community Center’s tasks as the unofficial finale of the game.
However, this prompted ConcernedApe to add in many different updates; it was, and still is, very important to him to keep players occupied and increase the game’s replay value. This was a large reason why production for the game went on for so long — ConcernedApe refused to publish anything unfinished. He had the vision for what Stardew Valley was going to be, and he wouldn’t ship the game until it was completely ready.
ConcernedApe’s success was hard-earned. After graduating with a degree in computer science from the University of Washington Tacoma, Eric Barone found himself wary of joining the tech sector. He saw an unfulfilling future where he would be forced to work in a cubicle on boring projects. Instead of jumping into a computer science job after he graduated, Barone took a part-time job at a local theater in Seattle and started developing his own video games. His girlfriend took up paying most of the bills for their apartment, and it seems like her trust in him has paid off immensely. Barone is reported to have a net worth of $34 million and was named in Forbes’ 30 under 30 in games in 2017 after sales of Stardew Valley took off in a way he never could have imagined.
After only two weeks of release, Stardew Valley had already hit half a million downloads. Two months after launch, the game had sold a million copies, making it one of the biggest 2016 releases on Steam. In 2017, it was the most downloaded game on the Nintendo Switch, even against competitors like Rocket League and Minecraft. As of May 2022, the game has sold 20 million units across all platforms. On top of being known for the major success of Stardew Valley, ConcernedApe is recognized in the video game community as one of the most talented creators, rightfully earning a spot in the hearts of hopeful solo developers everywhere.
Barone explained that he had to put in 10-hour workdays during development and regularly put in 15-hour days after launch to keep up with big patches and player feedback. This “self-imposed crunch” of creating the game was hard for Barone, but being able to freely pour himself into his own project helped him to keep his head up and continue working hard. In talking about his experience with the long workdays behind Stardew Valley, Barone expressed, “You should be free to work yourself to the bone, but not to force someone else to do that for you.” Crunch time has become a large problem in the video game industry, where developers are forced to work long hours, usually off the clock without adequate pay. For Barone to control his own project meant that crunch had a different definition for him.
Luckily, ConcernedApe’s story doesn’t end with Stardew Valley. Barone has announced plans for two future games that already have fans’ full attention. Haunted Chocolatier is the first game being teased, which will be Barone’s second solo-developed venture. And while flying solo appears to be Barone’s style, it seems that he’s working with a team on an unnamed new title. He’s cautioned players that his other games will be different and has talked about how he feels anxious about the expectations fans have for him.
In an interview with Game Informer, Barone admitted, “I’m not trying to make the next big indie hit. I realize and appreciate that, when my next game comes out, I’m going to have a lot of people who play the game, just because it’s from the guy who made Stardew Valley.” He went on to reveal he’s even thought of releasing the game under an alias, to see if his project could be popular unattached to his name, but quickly waved off the idea as being “a bit disingenuous.” Keeping an open mind toward the appearance of ConcernedApe’s future titles will allow loyal Stardew Valley fans to be excited now and surprised later.