Why Don't Starve moved away from free-to-play

By Ozzie Mejia, Mar 22, 2014 2:00pm PDT

Klei's Don't Starve grew into a gaming phenomenon last year, with its whimsically unique take on survival. But the wilderness survival game didn't always look like it did when lead designer Kevin Forbes first presented the idea to Shacknews back in 2012. In fact, Don't Starve was originally envisioned as a free-to-play adventure.

"We were just gonna get something out there, see if people like it, see what kinda sticks when you throw stuff at the wall and then start to iterate," Forbes said during a panel at this year's Game Developers Conference.

Forbes said that Klei had hoped to create a low-cost project that they could retain full control over, using a small team and a limited schedule. By employing new ideas, like analytics and new distribution platforms, the studio decided to move forward with a simple game jam idea that would eventually morph into Don't Starve.

"Also, as kind of the singular design constraint for the game, we wanted to make it free-to-play. This was, if you had been at GDC around at that time, if you had talked to anybody in the industry, we were all scared. Our lunch was getting eaten by these free-to-play upstart people and it seemed as though it would be good for us to at least try and see what that design space was like."

Don't Starve would eventually launch on Chrome browsers before player and in-house feedback would ultimately shape the gameplay elements closer to the Don't Starve we know today. However, Klei was still figuring out the monetization aspect of free-to-play, with Forbes stating that the studio had considered selling cosmetic customization sets, monster sets, and even hats.

Forbes pointed out that the game's economy was going to be monetized, meaning that if players ever found an exploit, it would require an ungodly amount of resources from an extremely limited team. With that in mind, the free-to-play idea was completely discarded, with Forbes citing that this business model wasn't best for the game, its players, or the developers themselves.

"It was making us very conservative in our designs, we weren't going to add a lot to the game, we weren't going to take very many risks, because it had to be so defensively coded," Forbes added. "And for a game like Don't Starve, where it's like this open-world, rollicking 'Watch what crazy things can happen with emergent gameplay,' that's kind of death. You can't really have that happen. You lose the soul of the game."

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