Klei’s Kevin Forbes on introducing new players to Don’t Starve

Klei Entertainment, most well-known for the Shank series and Mark of the Ninja, released their newest game Don’t Starve last week. We sat down to talk to designer Kevin Forbes about how they approached permadeath, taking away players’ work, and how to introduce new players to such a harsh environment.

Where did the decision to make a game so focused around permadeath come from?
We started from the concept of the game. You’re lost in the wilderness, and you have to survive. Starting from that nucleus of surviving, what makes that experience compelling is the potential to lose everything. It’s why we watch Survivorman and that sort of thing. It’s that element of danger.

Video games don’t do a very good job of having that element of danger usually. Take, for example, BioShock Infinite. Every time you die, you just start again in the world as it is, with a little less health. Everyone else has a little less health as well.

In order to give the player something more tangible to lose, really the only thing we have that we can take away is their save game.

Taking away all of their work like that seems rather harsh.
I think that work is essentially meaningless if you can’t lose it. Not everyone agrees with that. There have been some pretty epic discussions on our forum and on the Steam Community forums, filled with people reacting vehemently against the idea of permadeath. They say things like “How dare they? I lost all my work!”

It all goes back to the question of why we play video games. Do we play them so that we have something at the end of it like a list of achievements or a save game with an awesome base? Or do we play it for the sake of playing it, for the experience of actually progressing through those worlds? I’m very strongly of the latter camp, as you might guess from the game that we made.

I find those discussions really interesting. I try not to step in, because that may become inflammatory. But I pretty much read everything that gets said about it in the various forums. The mindset that the only way this is a meaningful experience is if I have something tangible or digital to show for it is interesting to me.

If you read a book, it’s not like you get something from reading the book, other than the experience and memories of reading that book.

You don’t have achievements in Don’t Starve, so you’re sticking to that philosophy.
The closest thing we have is unlockable characters, which you get by surviving for a long time. That’s more of an introduction method than anything else. Those run out after about five or six hours of play.

It’s a bit of a sugarpill, because it’s contrary to a lot of modern gaming culture to take everything away from you and make you start again. So, [the characters] are for new players, so they think that “Oh, I’m getting something!” The hopes are that by the time they have those characters, they’ll be hooked on the game and appreciate it for what it is. Also, hopefully, they’ll have the skill required to play with some of the more esoteric characters.

So was not including achievements a conscious decision from the beginning of Don’t Starve’s development?
Yes, it was. Jaime [Cheng, CEO of Klei] and I wrote an article together on the Penny Arcade Report on the relative merits of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations when designing a game. When the game was very young, before we had started showing it, there wasn’t much in it. You just sort of walked around and picked stuff up. The spiders and, I think, the pigs were there, and that was sort of it.

But we were having trouble teaching people how to play. So, as a first pass, we had a very mainstream, traditional way of doing that. We gave players a series of escalating tasks. Go find some food. When you did that, it would say “Go befriend a pig,” and so on and so forth as a teaching mechanism.

What we found was that, before we put that in, some people were confused because there were a lot of legitimately confusing things about the interface. But after we put it in, people would, like robots, just do the task. They would do nothing but complete them. They wouldn’t explore, they wouldn’t use their mind to think about what they could do, they’d just do what they were told. And when they ran out of tasks, they would stop playing and look at us like, “What’s next?” That’s because they didn’t learn how to play, they only learned how to follow the tasks. They didn’t internalize the values of exploration and discovery necessary to appreciate a game like Don’t Starve.

So how did you fix that problem?
Well, we improved our UI a lot. [laughs] Yeah, the crafting system went through major revisions. The inventory went through major revisions. Small things like adding dusk. We didn’t have dusk before, it would just kind of become night, and if you weren’t watching the clock, you were just screwed at that point.

With subtle hints like that, with subtle guidance for people, it’s enough for the kind of people who like our game. It’s enough to make them think “Oh, I need to think about this. I need to discover this on my own.” And what we’ve found is that people really appreciate that once they’ve figured things out. If they know they have to figure things out, and things are discoverable enough, it’s a valuable experience for people. I think that’s what drives people to play the game.

Your crafting system is a bit more logical than other survival games. For example, Minecraft requires you to memorize patterns of blocks to make items. Were you looking to make something more intuitive?
I never really liked Minecraft’s crafting system. I think everyone kind of went straight to the Wikia on that one. We made the conscious decision to make a more directed crafting system. We have a tiered crafting system so it doesn’t overwhelm players when they’re first starting out.

The crafting menu was actually our replacement for the tutorial when we started out. What you do when you first pick up the game is wake up, and realize they can click. Then they walk around and hover over stuff and realize it says “Pick up,” so they pick it up. The stuff that’s right on the ground when you start the game is tuned so that you’ll probably pick up something to create one of the basic recipes rather quickly. Like an ax or a torch, or something like that.

When you pick up something that causes you to have a new crafting opportunity, there’s this “bing” and a little flash. Most people notice that, click on it, and see that there are things to build. There are things to build, and they can build some of them. If you mouse over those items, you can see what you need to build most of them. Once people get that, and most people do, they know the basics of crafting. But then, they figure out what else they need to build other items, and that starts to direct their play.

It’s not just saying “Build this, and then build this next.” It’s them looking for something to do, and finding clues to the direction of new content. They follow that organically. And everyone does that differently.