Don't Starve has been quite the survival phenomenon, taking the unforgiving nature of the outdoor elements and blending it together with a vaudeville aesthetic. Since its release in 2013, Don't Starve has been sustained by several free updates and some robust expansions. With enough content to sustain it, it appeared that Klei was finished and ready to move on.
As it turned out, there was still one more area for the team to explore: co-op multiplayer. The announcement of Don't Starve Together hit by surprise, especially since Klei flat out told Shacknews in July of last year that multiplayer was off the table. But a year is more than enough time for introspection, reflection, and also advancements in resources. Now Klei has set course for a full-blown multiplayer Don't Starve Together experience, but first, designer/programmer Seth Rosen was kind enough to take a pit stop and, once again, speak to Shacknews and its community about what's coming up.
Shacknews: Last we spoke about Don't Starve, you sounded pretty definitive about ruling out co-op. What made you ultimately change your mind?
Programmer/Designer Seth Rosen: The two determining factors were the staff we had available and the way that we like to focus our development process. Right around the time that we were wrapping up the Reign of Giants expansion, we had a few critical people become available on the programming side that made it possible to pursue a multiplayer mode. Mark Laprairie was a new hire with a extensive experience in network programming, Vito Sze had just finished shipping Eets Munchies and Kaj Eijlers was putting the finishing touches on the PS4 version of Reign of Giants. They put together a proof of concept for multiplayer Don't Starve, which culminated in 15 of us at the office jumping into a server and having a big brawl. It wasn't altogether surprising, but we were pleased to find that just this simple thing was already fun!
After we'd proved to ourselves that it was worth doing in the first place (thanks to the hard work of Mark, Vito and Kaj), it was just a matter of fitting the project into the studio's schedule. Obviously being able to dedicate a few programmers full-time to investigating the viability of multiplayer was an important step in the decision to pursue it, but the main reason that we hadn't done so before was because the way that we develop games at Klei tends to be quite focused. When our answer about multiplayer was "no", that was more accurately "not now, but we don't want to get your hopes up". The Don't Starve team at its largest was probably only 10-12 people. We wanted to concentrate on making the best and most complete single player experience we could. It was only after we were satisfied with our efforts on that front that we even entertained the thought of multiplayer. If we had made a multiplayer mode simultaneously to the single player mode, fewer people would be working on each and it would've likely resulted in worse experiences for both modes.
As an aside, I can't help but mention that when we finally decided to do multiplayer in Don't Starve, we didn't decide to do co-op. Sure, it's called "Don't Starve Together", but much like the rest of the game, it's very open-ended and self-directed. We never wanted to force people to play cooperatively. You can cooperate, you can coexist peacefully, or you can wage war on the other residents of the island.
Shacknews: How does the addition of three more players change up the core Don't Starve experience?
Rosen: One of the most surprising realizations as we started working on Don't Starve Together in earnest was how effectively the game organically scales to maintain a certain level of challenge for multiple players. Thus far, we've actually changed very little about the mechanics of the game (outside of logistical things that no longer make sense in a multiplayer environment, like time-skipping).
The core experience offered by Don't Starve Together is largely the same as Don't Starve's. And yet, the experience of playing Don't Starve Together is fundamentally changed from what it was in Don't Starve. We are social creatures and that has all sorts of interesting effects. Some of these effects are small but powerful: the same dramatic moments from Don't Starve become more salient because they're shared and can be reminisced about.
But, for me, the most interesting and exciting ways that the game is changing with additional players are the social interactions and dynamics that are completely outside of our control. The mere presence of other players provides tons of opportunities for emergent play. Players are taking the game's mechanics and using them to interact in ways we never intended: creating experiences that layer on top of those systems. Even just a few weeks into the closed beta, we're already seeing lots of interesting tales come out of these interactions!
Shacknews: There's an old adage when being chased that goes, "You don't have to be fast, you just have to be faster than the guy behind you." With that in mind, do all four players have to stay alive for the duration of the Don't Starve session? Or can one person sacrifice their friends when the time comes?
Rosen: Right now, we're working on a mode that is intended to be the default mode for Don't Starve Together. We have plans for a hardcore mode that will be a bit more punishing and for a sandbox mode that will be more casual and allow for infinite respawns. But for now, the mode we've got isn't quite as unforgiving as the single player experience. When you die, you become a ghost, which is basically a downed state: the other players can revive you. Since this mode supports drop-in/drop-out play, even if everyone in the game has died, there's always a chance for a new player to join and revive people.
With Don't Starve Together, people mainly want to be able to play with each other, so we're trying to enable that as best as we can. I do think, though, that some groups will definitely seek out that more hardcore "once you're dead, you're out of the game" type experience, once we've added that mode. But regardless of which mode you're playing, I'll just say this: a dead player means one less mouth to feed...
Shacknews: You mention in the FAQ that caves and the adventure mode haven't made it into Don't Starve Together. Do you hope to add these features in at some point?
Rosen: Yes, absolutely! We don't really have a timeline for when that might happen, but we intend to add those features into Don't Starve Together. In addition to being a lot of re-factoring work, there are some deeper technical issues that we'll have to address before we can support caves and adventure mode. We're focused for now on continuing to make the game as stable and smooth as possible before we start investigating those solutions.
Shacknews: Has there been any progress made on larger servers? Do you see Don't Starve Together turning into something more along the lines of DayZ or Rust, in terms of massive multiplayer survival?
Rosen: We've had internal tests with as many as 15 people in a server (using the "real" version of the game: not the proof of concept I mentioned above). Even though you can only make a server with space for 4 through the UI right now, it's actually dead-simple to modify the files to allow for larger servers. We do a weekly dev stream called Rhymes with Play on our Twitch channel and we've run public 8-player servers for the stream a few times. Kaj's main task right now is optimizing performance (and, as part of that, see how larger maps impact this) as he looks into support for much larger servers. We don't know yet exactly how big we'll be able to go, but we're hopeful that we can support those larger experiences more akin to DayZ and Rust. These larger dedicated servers are the main place that I anticipate people will make use of the sandbox mode that I mentioned above. If we do get there, I'm confident that there will be a contingent of players that really enjoy playing that way. That said, I expect that most people want to play in a relatively small game with their friends and try to survive and build a base together.
Shacknews: Is there any content (maps, items, etc.) you hope to add to Don't Starve Together at some point that would be fully exclusive to co-op?
Rosen: You bet! In fact, we've already made some items that really only make sense in Don't Starve Together (i.e. co-op only). The first such item we added was the Telltale Heart, which is a craftable that you can give to another player who has died and become a ghost in order to revive them. We've been brainstorming a lot to come up with things that we could add to Don't Starve Together. Some of it is already in progress and some of it is still something of an unknown, but we'll definitely be adding to the game as time goes on. Our goal with any of the content that we do add is that it be designed specifically for multiplayer: it's a whole new dynamic in the game and there's plenty of opportunity for new things that play into that.
After answering the staff's questions, the Chatty community of Don't Starve players had a few of their own to pitch at Rosen. Some of them have even taken part in the Don't Starve Together beta already, so with that in mind, here's what they wanted to know.
watcherxp asks: Will Don't Starve Together act as DLC or will be a standalone product once it's finished?
Rosen: Don't Starve Together will be a standalone multiplayer expansion for Don't Starve once it's finished. In fact, it already is (but still a closed beta)!
MagicWishMonkey asks: Were you surprised with how popular Don't Starve turned out to be? Are you going to work on more survival type games?
Rosen: Don't Starve started as a prototype made during our yearly internal game jam, an event we call the "Klei Kiln." It was immediately apparent that there was a nugget of something special there, but we've been pleasantly surprised by just how strong a response the game has gotten! It can definitely be a frustrating game, but I think that plays into why it's so compelling. As for our future projects, we like to take lessons that we've learned from previous games that we've made and apply them in new contexts. There are similarities between Don't Starve and Invisible, Inc. Since we like to experiment and generally make a wide variety of games, I don't know if we'll necessarily make more survival games, but we'll definitely be carrying the experience of making Don't Starve forward with us.
Sailore of Fortune asks: Do you consider yourselves "feature complete" once Don't Starve Together is out?
Rosen: Much like with Don't Starve, there will be a day that Don't Starve Together gets officially released. But that day will not be the last day that we add something to the game. I suppose I'd say that, yes, once Don't Starve Together is out, we'll be "feature complete". However, I would not say that we'll be "content complete", if that makes sense?
marmite asks: It seems a lot of people have tried to follow the model of Don't Starve but don't manage to release updates anywhere near as frequently. How are you able to release so many new features so often?
Rosen: It's a mix of things, honestly. First, we strictly adhere to our update schedule. By putting the countdown timer on the main screen of the game, we have to stay honest--we can't let an update slip by a few days because the community sees our schedule laid bare. Second, the regularity of the updates makes it easier, not harder: you get into a routine. If we were to constantly change how long we had to develop each update, it would be harder to know what was attainable for a given update and scope appropriately. On that note, not all updates are the same size: rather than committing to making X amount of content for every update, we aim to make updates for impact, rather than magnitude. The number of bullet points on your list of updates doesn't matter -- the experience you're creating is what matters. Lastly, we're a small team and we're agile, so it's relatively easy for us to respond to changing demands or notice inefficiencies and fix or address them in a timely fashion.
Look for more about Don't Starve Together as Klei continues the game's closed beta. The closed beta will soon open up to all owners of the base Don't Starve game, which you can pick up right now on Steam.