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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

'Valheim' Is Changing How We Play Survival Games

With four million games sold on Steam Early Access in three weeks and overwhelmingly positive reviews, Valheim became a commercial and critical darling at an almost unprecedented speed. The viking survival game, developed by a small Swedish team at Iron Gate Studio, might appear to be an overnight success, but CEO Richard Svensson has been directly communicating with the gaming community about this project for years.

In September of 2017, Svensson posted a video to his personal YouTube page that captures what seems to be the infancy stages of Valheim and demonstrates Svensson’s philosophy of public communication concerning the game’s ongoing development. When the game’s working title was changed from Fejd (Swedish for “feud”) to Valheim in 2018, Svensson noted the switch in the YouTube comments section. Video game studios can often be tight lipped during the development process, but Iron Gate Studio took the opposite approach, directly listened to what their players wanted, and built a vibrant community on Discord.

According to Steam Database, Valheim had over 500,000 concurrent players on February 21, and this survival game could cross even further into popular culture. Meme makers and influencers in the wider gaming ecosystem are taking notice. Twitter account Can You Pet the Dog? shared a gameplay clip of a potential friendly interaction with a tamed, furry four-legged animal. The Valheim subreddit includes over 150,000 members, surprisingly constructive suggestions, troll cheeks, and Shrek references.

While it might be tempting to compare the rapid growth of Valheim to indie games that have achieved similar viral success during the coronavirus pandemic, like Among Us, a more accurate comparison is to the trajectory of Rust. When the survival game from Facepunch Studios was released on Steam Early Access in late 2013, the game only sold around 150,000 copies in the first two weeks, but the loyal audience continued to grow, and it retains an active player base to this day. Among Us is likely to fade from our collective memory by 2025; I would not be surprised if the Valheim vikings continued to thrive.

Reporting from PC Gamer indicates that the five-person dev team will expand to handle the immediate influx of players. While there have been notable bugs in the game, the community’s reaction appears to be fairly forgiving and placated by promises of continued work and expansion. Currently, the $20 price tag on Steam makes it an affordable experience that you can likely share with your friends.

Wanting to know more about this massively popular game and how it’s disrupting the survival genre, I reached out to Henrik Törnqvist over email. We chatted about their unique art aesthetic, how to get the most out of your first time playing, and what to expect in the next few months for Valheim.

Rogers/WIRED: How has your active Discord community contributed to the success of Valheim?

Henrik Törnqvist: We’ve had a pretty open dialogue with the community during most of the development of Valheim, we have some players that've been with us since the Alpha days. I’d like to say that they (the community) have influenced the direction of the game a lot. Not only have we implemented a lot of good ideas from fans, but also changed and tweaked most features based on their input. Hopefully they feel the same way, since it has always been our intention to keep our community in the loop.

In what ways do you think Valheim compares to previous survival games? In what ways do you think Valheim innovates the survival genre?

I don’t think we have innovated anything. That being said, I do think we have found an audience in making Valheim a PvE-focused survival game. We don’t really feel that we compare that much to the games you most think of when thinking about the survival genre. Don’t get me wrong, those games are great but we’re going for another audience. We just want you to have a cozy adventure with your friends, or solo for that matter.

How would you describe the art aesthetic of Valheim?

Playstation-Modern perhaps 😉 – Neoplaystationism?

With two million copies sold in under two weeks, how do you think Iron Gate achieved this level of viral success?

Not sure really, we were more or less confident that Valheim would be received favourably, but these numbers are quite bonkers. We haven’t been alone in this venture though, and I would like to take the opportunity to point the spotlight on Coffee Stain Publishing and SwipeRight. They have been a great help with producing kickass trailers, making sure press and influencers are happy, among other things. They have helped us reach a wider audience, for sure.

If I'm a brand new player who wants to try Valheim, what is some advice that might help make my first time playing the best possible experience?

Great question! And my answer would be to build the Hoe as soon as possible (need Workbench and some Stone and Wood). It will allow you to flatten the ground and make house construction much more enjoyable! I couldn’t live without it.

The map is huge in Valheim! Why such a large map?

To have lots of space to fill up with interesting locations 😀 As they say; it’s about the journey, not the destination. Also, here at Iron Gate we are very big fans of Daggerfall, many a beer has been drunk while extolling the virtues of that great white whale.

Personally, I really enjoy the music in Valheim. Could you please tell me more about the inspiration for this music?

Well, the music has been composed by a very talented musician by the name of Patrik Jarlestam. We have worked quite closely with him in order to get just the right sound. It’s hard to talk about specifics, there really is a lot of inspiration from all over the place that has gone into it, I mean there are obvious points of inspiration such as Wind Waker for the sailing music (the gold standard), but in general we just wanted a ‘vikingy’-sound without it being too ‘folksy’. Valheim is inspired by Norse mythology, but it is not directly related to it. Therefore we felt that a bit of leeway in the musical stylings would be just right for it.

Survival games can often be solitary experiences, but Valheim encourages you to invite friends over to your server. Why did you decide on this approach for a survival game? (Note: While popular survival games like Rust are multiplayer, the PvP combat fosters a more individualistic style of gameplay.)

It felt quite natural to be honest, we ourselves have always really enjoyed co-op experiences such as these, but more often than not it seems nowadays that the multiplayer aspect is capped at 4 players. We just wanted to try to get some more people in there, the more the merrier right? 10 vikings in a boat, steering their way through harsh storms to find a new shore to raid, encountering foreign wildlife and dangers! You could say that this is somewhat of a ‘dream-scenario’ here at Iron Gate that has influenced much of the development of Valheim.

What would you say is Valheim’s biggest weakness that the team at Iron Gate is working to improve?

Aspects of the networking code, suffice to say that the influx of players brought some very piquant problems to light in that department. Of course there are a lot of other issues also… We have a public bug tracker that we encourage players to use, and we try to fix everything as fast as possible.

The game is still in Early Access. What do you see in store for the next few months of Valheim?

Well, according to the Roadmap there’s going to be home improvements, some sort of spooky cult, and new options for maritime exploration. And then we have a whole new biome coming; Mistlands, a dark and foreboding place if you ever saw one! However, I would like to state for the record that we don’t plan on doing new content until we ourselves are happy with the current state of the game that is for sale, i.e for the foreseeable future we will try to get as many bugs squashed and issues sorted as possible.

Correction 3/3/21: This email interview was conducted with the understanding that Richard Svensson would be answering the questions, but based on statements made by Svensson and Coffee Stain Publishing's PR team after publication, it appears that the answers to these questions were written by Henrik Törnqvist, co-founder of Iron Gate Studio. This article has been updated accordingly.

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