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

Fun fact: Klei first envisioned Don't Starve as a free-to-play adventure. So what made them change their minds? Lead designer Kevin Forbes discusses Klei's mindset during a recent GDC panel.

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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."

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
  • reply
    March 22, 2014 2:00 PM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Why Don't Starve moved away from free-to-play.

    Fun fact: Klei first envisioned Don't Starve as a free-to-play adventure. So what made them change their minds? Lead designer Kevin Forbes discusses Klei's mindset during a recent GDC panel.

    • reply
      March 22, 2014 6:26 PM

      Great artcle, thanks Ozzie!

      Loved Don't Starve when it came out on Steam. I'm not a huge fan of the art asthetic, but that's just my own taste... the gameplay however, is really fantastic. I'm not sure what Kevin meant by "economy was going to be monetized"... as I recall, the game has no economy, because it is just single player. If that just means hats, monster sets, etc... I don't know why they didn't just go ahead with it. If 10% of the people exploit it some how and get free shit, who cares? The people who really love your game will probably pay a couple bucks for some cosmetic stuff.

    • reply
      March 23, 2014 3:21 AM

      Thanks for this INF article.