Game Design

don’t starve together, with a little help from my friends

I was introduced to the ominous ink-drawing world of Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve by two bona fide experts, who invited me into a custom server of Don’t Starve Together one lazy winter afternoon.  Between them, my friends had more than 2,000 hours of playtime in Don’t Starve and Don’t Starve Together, while I was stepping into it completely naïve.

“Do I need to try playing Don’t Starve beforehand to get familiar with the game?” I asked them, referring to the single-player mode.

“Nah, don’t worry,” my friends assured me.  “You can learn as we play.”  They then sent me a list of their favourite mods to download.

I did learn as we played, though it was very confusing. What the heck is a “beefalo”, and why are there shadowy creatures only I can see following me around?  Are these pigs good or evil and why do they keep yelling at me when I get too close?  What happens if I pick the evil flowers?  So.  Many.  Questions.

Before I knew it, we had a base set up with all the bells and whistles, a science machine, then an alchemy engine, a crock pot, farm plots, drying racks, an ice box and so forth.  But even after a couple of hours of playing, my friends were bustling around gathering materials, fighting increasingly difficult monsters and making things, while I was just standing there, asking questions.

I tried to contribute, followed their instructions and ate food they gave me or put on a winter hat they crafted for me when it got cold.  To be honest, most of my gameplay was simply being an extra body for my friends to take care of, while I badgered them incessantly with questions over voice chat.

Despite my feeling rather useless , the session was actually pretty enjoyable.  I liked learning little things by watching or asking questions, and felt a sense of progress whenever we built a new structure or made it through another night.  Enamoured by the game, I left the session determined to play on my own to improve and discover more things for myself.

Playing a Game with Experts is a Great Way to Start

A number of hours of Don’t Starve solo later, I learned some interesting things from its design.

First, Don’t Starve is a difficult game.  At the outset, you’re left to survive in the wilderness, without any instructions.  There is no tutorial, and it’s not straightforward how exactly you don’t starve.  Like in any roguelike with permanent deaths, starting out is tedious, full of repetitive busy tasks like mining rocks and chopping down trees.  Wandering the world is slow, and building up a base is always the same.

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I don’t think I would not have continued playing through all the dull moments had it not been for first playing Don’t Starve Together with my expert friends.  During that session, I got to see the cool things that could happen, once I had enough materials, in fast forward because of how good my friends were.  It gave me goals and a taste for how fun the game could be once I got past the initial drudgery.

Image from: Klei Entertainment.

Player Onboarding and Tutorial Tradeoffs

Onboarding players is an important part of game design.  In many games, this happens in the form of a tutorial, which points out the controls, provides tooltips, and describes the game’s goals.  Game designers can get creative with the onboarding experience.  For example, characters can be introduced to provide some backstory, or the first level can be all about learning the mechanics of the game.  The way naïve players are introduced to a game determines whether or not they continue playing.

The single-player Don’t Starve is punishingly hard without a tutorial, and yet, having a tutorial would almost certainly ruin the game, or change it into a different sort of game entirely.  How it ends up becoming a fun game while being so harsh on newcomers is down to two things:

  1. Well-developed items in the world that combine in unique interactions, which provide deep gameplay, and
  2. The Internet

The first is a given.  Having a world with complex interactions means that there’s a lot to discover, and explorers thrive on this sort of trial and error.  But Don’t Starve‘s high barrier to entry means that it would only appeal to a small fraction of players, namely hardcore explorers who don’t mind dying and restarting dozens of times just to unlock little secrets.

This means that its popularity depends on something entirely out of the developers’ control: the growth of a community of players, made possible by the Internet.  Don’t Starve exemplifies how a game can become accessible and succeed in this day and age due to a community that creates wiki pages, help articles and video guides on YouTube.  We’ve come a long way since the phone-in hints from the phone numbers printed in game manuals that used to be provided for puzzle games.

In this sense, tutorials nowadays often occur outside of the game itself, whether that’s playing with friends, watching a Twitch stream or “Let’s Play” video, or reading about the game online.  For Don’t Starve, game designers relinquished control over teaching players how to play the game, instead putting the onus on the player to figure it out.  Due to remote multiplayer capabilities and the ability to share resources online, Don’t Starve‘s designers could make the game as difficult and obtuse as it is without alienating as many people as it would have done prior to the Internet.

Passing the Responsibility of Teaching on to Players

This is a huge advantage for modern game designers, who can save resources and time that would be used on creating a tutorial and use it on creating deeper, more elaborate gameplay.  However, it’s a double-edged sword.  Transferring responsibility of onboarding to the players means that the game designers no longer have control over how players first experience the game.

My experiences learning and then trying and failing to teach the game are a prime example.

I was so excited by my first time playing Don’t Starve Together that I suggested it as a game to play together with another group of friends.  At this point, I had only a few hours of Don’t Starve under my belt, but I was the expert with three others who hadn’t played the game before.  It turned out to be a disaster.

In short, I wasn’t able to convey to my friends the same amount of joy for the game that I got from my first playthrough.  Although I was slightly more knowledgeable than them in this case, I wasn’t able to carry three other people who were completely new to the game.

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Everyone was frustrated by how difficult the game was.  Since there were three of them to take care of and I was still barely competent at taking care of myself, I wasn’t able to alleviate the pressure like my friends did for me in my first session.  In the end, I honestly feel like I ruined their first experience of the game, and now they probably wouldn’t return to Don’t Starve.

Because there was no built-in onboarding for new players, the same game had totally different first experiences across different playthroughs.  And the game designers had no control over how they panned out.

Image from: Klei Entertainment.

Game Design Learnings

What I took away from my experiences playing Don’t Starve and Don’t Starve Together:

  1. Onboarding players is important, and first impressions matter.  A player’s first foray into your game world will largely determine if they continue playing and if they return.  Without a tutorial, the game gives rise to interesting emergent and exploratory gameplay but designers give up control over how players first experience their game.
  2. The most valuable and engaging parts of a game can occur outside of the game proper, and rely on other factors like who you’re playing with, what tutorials you read online, and the attitude of the game’s community.  Designers should consider this, but also accept that they cannot always control it.
  3. For modern video games, planning, supporting and listening to a gaming community should be part of the game development process, even if it’s a single-player game.

Don’t Starve Together was released in 2016, three years after the original single-player Don’t Starve.  In my opinion, Don’t Starve Together is the stronger offering of the two, if you have the right people to play with.  For better or worse, the game designers have put the onboarding tutorial experience into the hands of the players, and this can be an effective way to build friendships and even communities around games, even (and maybe especially) ones with purposefully steep learning curves like Don’t Starve.

Image from: Klei Entertainment.