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Don't Starve developer: don't be afraid of polarizing design

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In a talk titled "Don't Starve: Creating Community Around an Antisocial game," Klei programmer Kevin Forbes detailed the lessons learned across the development of Don't Starve, Klei's unforgiving survival sim. Chief among them — don’t be afraid to take design risks

Don’t Starve started life at an internal Klei game jam, and was long slated to be a casual free-to-play title, a far cry from the unforgiving final product, the "survival horror crafting death simulator" that Forbes likes to call it. Early versions of the game were extremely casual — and not terribly exciting.

The team found their way when they embraced the survival theme whole-heartedly. "We found inspiration in the roguelikes we were playing when we weren't thinking about free-to-play," said Forbes. "In order to emphasize the point, on a whim, we just threw in permadeath," he said, referring to a game feature where death is "permanent," and ends a play session.

That decision would ultimately be polarizing — but Forbes contends that permanent deaths were a good thing. "It gave Don't Starve two things: it gave it an identity. And it emphasized learning."

The free-to-play model just wasn't going to work with a game based on "white knuckle scarcity," and the message that "life is meaningless and finite." So, the team ditched that model for a soft launch, with constant iteration and content updates, heavily influenced by a community of early players.

"Don't Starve is not for everybody," said Forbes, noting that that is part of its appeal. "It's not afraid to be what it is."