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The birth and re-birth of Klei

How the creators of Mark of the Ninja and Don't Starve built their family-friendly studio.

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

In the video game industry, is stability just another fantasy?Klei Entertainment, an independent game studio in downtown Vancouver, is audaciously in pursuit of normalcy. Co-founder Jamie Cheng believes fair pay, minimal overtime and creative freedom are sustainable — even profitable — strategies. With the company's latest game, a survival simulator (fittingly) called Don't Starve, he's proved it.

The timing is apt.

In the first four months of 2013, at least 18 studios have contributed to nearly 2,000 layoffs. Funcom closed its Beijing studio; Zynga closed its Baltimore and Japan studios, then consolidated the rest; Atari closed Eden Games; Disney closed Junction Point and LucasArts and TimeGate closed itself.

The second biggest publisher in the industry, Electronic Arts, laid off 10 percent of its staff — approximately 900 people. And one of its competitors, THQ, dissolved after being picked apart by creditors, investment firms and former rivals.

The list of layoffs and closures is so long and exhausting that it's tempting to skim over them and not register this truth: more than a thousand people went home from work sometime between New Year's Day and today stripped of income, health insurance and a single clue what the future in this industry might entail.

Unlike jobs in the film industry, video game jobs are neither centralized nor unionized. Work is readily exported and relocated for cheap labor and high tax breaks.

Knowing this, Cheng chose to resist higher tax breaks in Montreal, unlike many of his fellow Canadian triple-A competitors, who've all but abandoned Vancouver over the past couple years.

Instability hung like a brooding rain cloud above this year's Game Developers Conference, where designers, artists, musicians, marketers, publicists and executives from thousand-person studios and single-person bedrooms alike convened to learn and reflect. Over beers and in presentations, the older set was repeating the same questions: Is this an industry in which to thrive? Buy a house? Raise a family? Retire?

This was the place for Cheng to present the alternative.

The founder of Klei Entertainment took the stage in one of the Moscone Center's large conference halls. The title of the lecture was plain: "How we created Mark of the Ninja without (totally) losing our minds."

Cheng explained the lessons learned from Klei's 2012 downloadable game and how the company has renewed a commitment to sanity, decency and family.

And then, Cheng announced he had to catch the next plane out of San Francisco. Weeks earlier, Cheng and his wife shared the birth of their first child in Vancouver.

He had a home to get back to.

Human Angle: Making a Game and a Baby

The Office

Jamie Cheng is 32 years old, but you’d guess he gets carded at bars a lot. He sports a trendy haircut, wears a suit jacket with the sleeves tugged up to his elbows and decorates his desk with vinyl statuettes of video game characters. Superficially speaking, he’s the last person you’d expect to deliver a lecture about growing old in the games industry.

Cheng is thoughtful, though, and speaks with the authority of a tenured professor. Each word is carefully selected, and thoughts flow skillfully as if pulled from a speech he’s polished over years of practice. You get the sense he spends a great deal of time in his head.

Chris Dahlen, who wrote on contract for Klei’s Mark of the Ninja, says Cheng has a quiet authority. “He doesn’t have to come in and act like the boss,” Dahlen says. “He doesn’t have to stamp his vision and force people into things, but it’s also clear he always has the last word.”

Cheng gives a tour of Klei’s office, which is located on the fifth floor of an office building in the trendy Vancouver neighborhood of Yaletown. It’s cramped. The workspaces for the independent studio’s 35 employees form a compressed L-shape in the loft-style office. “The space next door just opened up,” Cheng says. “I want to rent it and expand.”

From his desk tucked into the “L’s” right angle, Cheng can spot what problems require his attention and swoop in.

Cheng introduces the Don’t Starve team, a half-dozen artists and designers in their 30s and 40s. The team was larger last month, leading up to the game’s release. A few members have transferred to other projects, while the remainder focus on post-release content.

No money, all problems

Don’t Starve is a survival game available for PC and Mac in which a character scavenges a 2D environment for the supplies necessary to stay alive. The game is decidedly unusual, from how it plays (there’s no ending, per se, other than dying) to how it was created (released as a beta and publicly iterated on) to how it was promoted (those who bought the game during its beta received a free additional copy to share with a friend).

Don’t Starve was created largely in public, meaning players were able to play each “rough draft” of the game and let the team at Klei know what they liked, loved, hated, wanted more of or wanted less of. They did so with gusto. The company’s forum software needed to be rebuilt midway through the game’s development to handle the sudden surge of visitors and posts.

The Klei Entertainment offices after a flood.

The game is an experiment to prove Cheng’s theory that an unusual game can be created on a reasonable budget on normal hours at a fair price and still be a success.

”Heroics,” Cheng says, referring to an employee taking too little pay, taking on too much work and functioning as a cog in the service of a company, “are a liability. Because once [businesses] need heroics in order to survive, then everyone’s expecting it; there’s more peer pressure to do it. There’s more unknowns; you can’t plan for it. So [...] every time heroics happens to save us, it’s like, that was a failure, not a success.”

Cheng knows. He and Klei have had their fair share of heroics.

Klei began, like so many independent game studios, in a basement.

After college, Cheng parlayed an internship at Relic Entertainment in Vancouver into a full-time job. He enjoyed his time there and learned a lot, particularly from the company’s young co-founder Alex Garden.

Cheng refers to Relic as the most normal of triple-A jobs, with minimal overtime and a positive office culture — both of which stuck with him. But over his three years on the job, Relic expanded from 40 to 100 employees. Cheng wanted to work somewhere smaller.

He excavated a puzzle platformer called Eets from his hard drive. He’d created a demo of the game in college, and, with a little time, he thought a small team could transform it into something salable.

Friends from college and high school Marcus Lo, Alex Colbert and Steve Chen joined Cheng. They called themselves Klei.

Cheng took a brief pitch presentation on a tour of West Coast video game publishers, hoping to get a publishing deal or contract work for his fledgling studio. “I look young now,” Cheng says. “You should see me back when I was 24. I looked like I was 16.” For two months, the new entrepreneur fielded rejections.

After the first two months, Chen left, citing the instability of the company. He was young and needed to find a job. At that point Cheng was the only member of Klei with money to front. He had $10,000 to cover rent and pay the others.

”I had my hesitations,” says Irene Cheng, Jamie’s now-wife, then-girlfriend. She laughs as she recalls how her husband had converted a family friend’s basement into a makeshift workplace.

Irene was still in college, so she would sit next to Jamie during long days and study for class. “It’s very hard as a small startup,” she says, “when you don’t have the finances and you don’t know what to expect.”

The shirts off their backs

Cheng at Klei

The first to give Klei a chance was the Canadian government. In March 2006, a Telefilm loan helped the three employees move into an office in downtown Vancouver. At 100 square feet, the space was roughly the size of a Volkswagen van.

It had its flaws. For one, the windows were permanently sealed and faced the sunset, a problem on hot summer days when the building turned off the air conditioning after 5 p.m. as the guys at Klei were just getting started.

Cheng had contracted a local artist named Jeff Agala, who would in time become Klei’s creative director. Back then, Agala worked by day as a cartoon director. He’d arrive at Klei HQ after work, around 4 p.m., for “the late shift,” and wrap around 11 p.m.

Cheng claims each of the four employees had three computers running. “And we only had one [power] socket,” he says. “We were blowing the fuse every day.” Cheng would work shirtless. The CEO of Klei looks especially boyish as he recalls a time Lo unplugged the office refrigerator, and how the place stank for weeks.

Cheng has fond memories of those 2 1/2 years. The late nights, the awful smells, the small group of friends hustling for work. He also recognizes the tint of nostalgia; the old days are better reminisced than relived. There was no money, no free time and no interest.

It couldn’t last.

Also in 2006, European publisher Frogster purchased the rights to publish Eets in the German and French territories for what Cheng says was about 90,000 euros. “They sold like 100 copies,” he adds. “I don’t think they’ll ever talk to us again, but phew, that felt great. That felt really good. I mean it felt bad and it felt good at the same time, you know?”

For 2 1/2 years, this was Klei: three employees — plus Agala — working impossibly long hours for next to nothing, getting by on loans and the odd contract.

Things didn’t really change until a former mentor returned to Vancouver and gave Klei its first big break.

A different life

That 100-square-foot office of 2006 feels far away from Jamie and Irene’s nice two-bedroom apartment in Yaletown. The place is suspiciously clean for a couple with a two-month-old child. Tessa was born in March of this year.

Leading up to their daughter’s birth, Irene handled most of the planning and preparation. Jamie built a lot of Ikea furniture. His office became the baby’s room, and the nook by the dining area became his office. Both Jamie and Irene’s parents live in town, and were enthusiastic to help.

Things were normal-ish.

”I don’t think you can ever feel prepared for a birth,” says Irene. “You think you’re prepared, but you don’t know what hits you when it actually happens. It’s — I think it’s always full of surprises.”

Irene remembers the birth, the feeling of relief washing over her. She was done with being pregnant. “And,” Irene says,”it was nice to finally meet her.”

Jamie remembers sharing the tiny hospital bed with his wife and newborn daughter, holding the child while Irene slept.

After four days and three nights at the hospital, the couple returned home with a plus one. And then, somehow, without any warning, two weeks simply passed, and Jamie was due back at work.

The big break

Before his apartment, his child and his marriage, a young Cheng needed to sell a game. And Alex Garden was ready to make that happen.

Alex Garden and Jamie Cheng are a lot alike. Garden was hired by Distinction Software at 15. In 1997, the 21-year-old founded Relic Entertainment — the creators of the Homeworld, Warhammer 40,000 and Company of Heroes series — a company the young entrepreneur kept out of debt and employee-owned until its acquisition by THQ in 2004. Garden left shortly thereafter.

Klie’s upgraded office space

In November 2006, South Korean video game publisher Nexon hired Garden to lead its North American game development studio. With an empty production slate, the new boss needed new games. On his list of developers to call: Jamie Cheng, whom he’d hired years ago at Relic.

Cheng and the team at Klei had an idea called Sugar Rush, a massive multiplayer casual fighting game, like Super Smash Bros., but online. The pitch needed more than an idea. It needed a look.

Cheng once again contacted local artist Jeff Agala, who had previously contributed art for Eets. Agala’s job as cartoon director had begun to wear on his sanity, particularly the cyclical nature of production, which required him to hire employees on temporary contracts. Still, he was unprepared to jump ship, so once again Agala worked two jobs, Atomic Cartoons by day and Klei by night.

Cheng would stay late to work alongside the artist. “I would code and [Agala] would draw and I would code and he would draw. So he and I were just like jammin’ it out.”

The result was a polished, professional-grade presentation. Garden was impressed, and Klei was awarded a contract and the opportunity to lease space in the Nexon offices.

Klei wasn’t technically part of the company, but its members were treated like Nexon co-workers. They’d suddenly upgraded from 100 square feet to “like 10,000 square feet.”

Agala quit his safe job at Atomic Cartoons and joined Klei full time. Cheng got to hire a few more employees. They were two weeks from the open beta when everything fell apart.


“We were really fucking close to making Sugar Rush come out,” says Cheng, “like fucking close.” After two years of learning and developing, two closed betas and three art changes, Cheng, Agala and the rest of Klei (now 12 employees strong) were preparing to publish what would be their “coming out” game.

”My wife and I used to play [Sugar Rush] together,” says Paul Ku, a former online engineer for Nexon. He’d prepared Sugar Rush to launch on the publisher’s platform. He remembers the game as all but finished.

Ku also remembers the exact day things went to shambles at Nexon.

“It was kind of odd because it was the middle of the afternoon,” says Ku. “I kind of sensed something was not 100 percent right, but it was a normal day.”

The 2008 financial crisis had stunted the Korean currency. Compounded with managerial and financial troubles, Nexon could no longer afford to keep open its Vancouver studio. The entire staff would be let go effective immediately.

“It was a shock of course,” says Ku. “We all came out and we went to the bar.” Except Cheng and the rest of the Klei team. Not technically part of Nexon, Klei remained in the office, working on an online game designed for a web server that no longer existed.

And even if it did, the game relied on Nexon’s support team, which was no longer employed.

“It was the first time I’d seen that happen,” says Cheng. “It steeled in me the resolve to be fiscally responsible. [Nexon North America] didn’t ship anything in its two years [...] [I realized] I need to be responsible. If that hadn’t happened, Klei as it is today wouldn’t exist. Nexon built Klei in a lot of ways.”

By the end of the day, all that was left in Nexon’s offices were the Klei collective and some boxes. Then reality took over: these weren’t their offices. Klei was subleasing from Nexon. It needed to find a new place. And a new game. Immediately.

Home Life

In the confines of modern day Klei, the stories of the past play out like adventures, in which the hero overcomes the odds — heroics, again, being a dirty word. Today, Cheng isn’t the only parent at the company. He is, in fact, one of three employees that had children within this past year.

Kevin Forbes, one of the creators of Don’t Starve, is about to have a child with his wife. He’s taking a leave for the birth, followed by a few additional months down the road in order to help raise the child.

Klei at the Penny Arcade Expo in 2006

”I’m kind of bull-headed that way,” he says. “It may have ended my career at another studio. I think that once I have a two-year-old, I’m probably not gonna be up for super late nights on a regular basis because when you’re 60 years old and looking back would you rather be like: ‘I wish I’d gotten that achievement hooked up in that game,’ or ‘My kid learned to walk and I wasn’t there.’ Which one are you actually going to regret? As long as you still make money at the end of the day to pay for food and whatnot, you don’t want to be at work.”

Paul Ku, who years ago had worked alongside the team as a Nexon employee, is the latest hire at Klei. Ku, now a father too, has had an unfortunately cliched trajectory through the games industry, having been let go from Electronic Arts, Microsoft and Nexon. He hopes to find more stability at Klei.

”I go home around the same time every day,” says Ku. “Of course, because I have kids, that’s very important. Earlier days, I didn’t have kids, I didn’t have my own family, I was single. Maybe [stability] wasn’t a big deal at the time, but now it is a big deal. And I don’t want to ruin my family life just because of the work. Working here is great.”

”I couldn’t have planned it any better than it happened,” Cheng adds. “Just as Tessa was born, our company is far more financially secure, and we’re not doing a whole lot of overtime, and we’re just free, way more free. But I would have welcomed a child before that, easily, easily.”

Jeff Agala, now the creative director at Klei, compares being a parent to having two full-time jobs — a lifestyle, he says, he’s prepared for his entire career. His first job is being a father; his second job is working at Klei. “I love it,” he says. “The most stressful part of the day, believe it or not, is my drive home because I want to get home so quickly, because I know someone is waiting for me, and she’s amazing and I want to help her walk. Right now she’s learning how to walk and I can’t wait to help her walk. I get really stressed just not being able to instantly teleport home, because driving is, like, useless.”

For Agala, the two jobs support each other. He draws to provide for his family. And his family motivates him to draw. If not for them, “I would just be more depressed and less creative [...] It’s like they are the reasons why I have the passion to make these games or I have passion for life at all.”

Survival of the Bloodiest

Cheng calls Sugar Rush Klei’s “undead game”

Back in the past, there were neither children nor stability, neither office nor game. All Klei had were two prototypes.

Near the end of Sugar Rush, unaware of Nexon’s woes, Cheng and Agala had grown concerned about betting all their chips on a single game. They built two demonstrations: a 3D free-to-play tennis game and a 2D side-scrolling ultraviolent action game that would become Shank.

Shank was the antithesis of the saccharine, tween-friendly Sugar Rush. Cheng and Agala loved it.

The team found an office in its current building in Yaletown and used what was left of its cash from the Nexon deal to pay rent and staff. Because the real estate market was crashing, Cheng managed to sublet the space for less than its official rent.

Their financial safety net soon vanished, with Cheng traveling to pitch Sugar Rush and Shank to various publishers. Sugar Rush managed to get picked up and canceled again. Today, Cheng calls it their “undead game.”

Meanwhile, Shank struggled to attract a publisher, so Cheng and Agala mortgaged their homes to borrow enough money from the bank to pay everyone’s salaries. It wasn’t until the well-received demo at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo — a fan convention — that publishers took note.

Nine months after Nexon shut down and left Klei both homeless and game-less, EA Partners signed Klei to finish Shank.

”It was like ‘Yes! We finally have some money and we can make this game and we can ship it!’,” recalls Cheng. “And at the same time it was like, ‘Oh, my God, [finding a publisher] took so long. We are so fucked.’”

Because Klei couldn’t afford to hire additional staff until EA signed the contract, Cheng had delayed much of Shank’s production. The bank loan had been just enough to keep everyone employed.

At PAX East in March 2010, Klei showed the two levels it had completed. Between then and June, when the game went gold, the team created 13 more levels, a handful of bosses and the cooperative option. And at the time, the team still thought Sugar Rush might happen.

”That was the worst time in my life,” says Cheng, “I can understand if [someone] doesn’t like Shank, because it was rushed. There was no way around it. I had no time and the deal was that I needed to ship within that quarter.”

The team had countless all-nighters. Agala, responsible for hand-animating cutscenes, wore a wrist brace. “Klei was not a good place to work at that time, let’s put it that way.”

In the final months, Cheng wondered if maybe he’d made a mistake. His wife was upset about the obscene hours. At the office, with just three weeks until the game needed to be completed, the young man remembers looking at the ‘to do’ board and seeing six bosses and three levels were still incomplete.

”Just take it one day at a time,” Marcus Lo would tell his fellow co-founder. “We’ll just do what we can.” Cheng began shaking.

”I felt like, I’m actually not going to be able to do the thing that I promised I was going to do. It was like that feeling where you have a monthlong school project and it’s the night before and you haven’t started, it’s like that feeling. But with other peoples’ livelihoods at stake.”

Lessons Learned

“At the end of Shank,” says Cheng, “it was like, I put myself into that position and I’m not going to do it again.”

The team broke down what went wrong, quarantining the mistakes that got them into their predicament. There were tons. Production wasn’t structured, time was lost perfecting the wrong things. They’d needed a more flexible release date, and the publisher money had come too late in production.

This was the crossroads: What company would Klei become?

The team wanted to build Klei to its utmost potential. They also wanted families and lives away from work. And they didn’t want the incessantly soul-muting 80-hour-a-week crunch. No heroics.

”We were doing the change,” Cheng says, “because we knew the kids were coming.”

So they set guidelines.

When a project needed more time, Cheng needed the confidence to say no to a publisher’s impractical schedule. If that meant canceling games, “we have to be OK with that,” Cheng says.

As they’d learned, one game isn’t enough. The company needed to be structured so that multiple projects could support one another at all times. That meant expanding, not spreading the current employees even further.

Shortly after Shank, Klei began work on Shank 2 for EA, with a more realistic time frame, and Mark of the Ninja, a stealth-action game, for Microsoft Studios.

Cheng and his wife moved closer to the office, which he says made a world of difference. On days when work went late, he’d still make sure to go home for dinner.

While many studios practiced the philosophy that a successful game is created with raw man-hours, high budgets and inescapable marketing, Cheng had a different hypothesis: that happy, healthy, creatively liberated and financially confident employees would be better suited for creating interesting and successful games.

That game making didn’t have to suck.

Testing the Hypothesis

After Shank, things weren’t immediately sunshine and lollipops. Employees still occasionally worked lengthy stints of overtime, including Cheng.

The CEO assigned himself to help design Mark of the Ninja, and making time building a game and running a company sometimes overwhelmed him.

And Mark of the Ninja had its own problems, which in turn has taught Cheng more lessons — which Cheng enumerated in his GDC talk. A good deal of the development time was wasted trying to create things that didn’t mesh with the stealth genre. Days were lost on things like fighting mechanics and fire propagation.

“The biggest waste of time,” Cheng says,”is building the wrong thing.”

Cheng had to step back and reevaluate what the game really was. He devised a system in which the core ideas of the game were prototyped and tested in a vacuum. For example, they’d create a prototype of hiding in the shadows or leaping onto an enemy.

As the launch date approached, the game still needed polish, so Cheng asked Microsoft for an extension. The extra development time came out of Klei’s pockets, but they got it. The team wouldn’t have to crunch away another month of their lives.

Shank 2 and Mark of the Ninja both released to positive critical reviews, and were made on a comparatively reasonable schedule. The experiment was beginning to work.

Proving the Hypothesis

Jeff Agala draws a piece of promotional art for Don’t Starve’s upcoming content: the addition of underground caves. In the image, the wiry-haired hero Wilson looks into a cavern. The game has a crafty, homemade aesthetic. Agala created the rocky walls by taking a photo of the inside of a cardboard tube and digitally modifying it.

The style calls to mind Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and ParaNorman.

His hands move swiftly. The art style of Don’t Starve is representative of its development. It’s fast and loose, like a rough sketch. Klei’s previous games, like Shank and Mark of the Ninja, were refined; Agala says the studio hasn’t abandoned that style, but for Don’t Starve, the rough look has been liberating.

The first version of Don’t Starve was cobbled together over eight-hour workdays before the holiday break at the end of 2010. The team shipped Shank in August, and Cheng felt they needed a creative and morale boost. So he held a game jam. The rough demonstration of the game — created by designers Kevin Forbes and Ju-Lian Kwan — played like a survival rogue-like, a genre of games in which death is permanent, items are impermanent and players must apply lessons from failure in future adventures if they hope to progress.

”We were doing the change,” Cheng says, “because we knew the kids were coming.”

“We were doing the change,” Cheng says, “because we knew the kids were coming.”

Don’t Starve is a wilderness survival game, full of science and magic. You play as the hero Wilson, who is thrown blindly into an unforgiving world. You don’t know where you are or how you got there. You basically just need to survive. There are no tutorials. The point of the game is discovering how to get by.

Production on a full-fledged version began a year later, right after Shank 2 finished, in January 2012.

Cheng — who now serves purely as CEO of the company, guiding all projects instead of designing one ‐ had what he calls “intense conversations” with the Don’t Starve team about what direction the game should take. On one end of the spectrum was a survival game in which you became increasingly powerful, gradually dominating and making use of nature and its creatures. On the other end was a survival game in which you eventually died and lost everything.

Cheng felt the latter was possibly too harsh, that it might scare players away. Forbes, the lead designer, argued that safety wasn’t the point. This, he said, was dark, desolate game work. Struggling to survive and discovering what will get you through each night will be fulfilling on its own.

Agala changed the game’s art style from the Sunday morning comic strip look to the Edward Gorey-esque aesthetic it has today and designed a relentless world. They presented the demo to Cheng. He loved it; Forbes was right.

Making Games In Public

An early free beta version of Don’t Starve was released with zero fanfare on Chrome. It was rough, and the studio hoped to hear feedback from the people who’d stumbled across it.

But an interesting thing happened: People were continuing to play the rough version of the game on Chrome. Players began sharing the game. When a relatively polished updated beta was ready, Cheng put it for sale on Chrome and offered a two-for-one deal to help get the beta in more hands.

Then another unexpected thing happened: Many players gave their free copies to streamers — people who stream gameplay over the internet for tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of viewers — who proved to be boons for promotion and sales.

The beta and two-for-one sale had a multiplicative effect, one Cheng recognizes probably can’t be repeated for every game. He credits the sense of discovery in Don’t Starve. When the beta went on sale on Steam, the most popular downloadable game platform on PC, the sales flew faster and faster. There was never a sales spike so much as a continual movement upwards.

”I honestly think, and it is proven, that intrinsic reward is more powerful than an extrinsic reward. A normal example, is that if you have a little girl who likes to draw. She is drawing, and she likes drawing because she likes drawing, not because someone is going to give her something. Then you say to the girl, ‘I’m going to give you $5 per drawing.’ She is going to draw a lot faster and a lot worse. It’s kind of clear that that’s what is going to happen. If you stop giving her $5 per drawing, she’s going to stop drawing altogether because you have replaced the intrinsic reward with an extrinsic reward.

“We wanted to create a game that was intrinsically rewarding.”

It’s like the opposite of free-to-play. The game doesn’t have an intravenous drip of rewards, and the rewards are constant, because playing and discovering are their own rewards.

”It’s funny,” Forbes says. “Once we settled on the format of the game, Cheng was completely onboard. I don’t remember an exact moment where it was like, ‘OK guys, just go with it,’ but nowadays he is even more hardcore than I am about the game. I’m like, ‘Are you sure we want to do that to people?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, they’ll be fine.’”

”I think with Shank,” says Agala, “we were running around trying a whole bunch of different things. It’s time-consuming to experiment that way. With Don’t Starve, it pretty much came down to experimenting quickly, getting it implemented quickly and getting it out to the public, and getting that process to be really fast, and having that tune your game. It is really the process that is making us work less.”

Life came full circle at the Don’t Starve wrap party. For the first time, Tessa, Irene and Jamie’s daughter, was awake at a Klei event. The staff was in a pool bar, huddled around the boss’ baby.

Before launch, Don’t Starve sold 300,000 copies at upward of $15 apiece.

Klei self-published Don’t Starve, so excluding the cut given to digital storefronts, the entirety of the money has gone directly to the company.

The Life He Always Wanted

Paul Ku has experienced life within many studios, and he does believe a shift is happening. That, as a whole, companies are moving away from endless workdays and nonexistent weekends. But what he believes other studios still haven’t grasped is the idea of an employee having a family of his or her own.

”It would be very hard, if [Jamie] was still doing the 60-70 hour weeks,” says Irene Cheng, “and I was alone at home with a baby all the time.”

“I believe that part of why our culture is good,” Cheng says, “is because we took our time to build it.”

Jamie still works at home. His emails, Irene says, are never-ending, and he does play a lot of games for what he calls “research.” She’ll often catch him on, spying on users playing Don’t Starve, learning what they like and don’t like.

”I believe that part of why our culture is good,” Cheng says, “is because we took our time to build it.”

At dinner they have a rule in which they don’t check their phones without asking for the other’s permission. Because of his odd sleeping hours, Jaime handles one of Tessa’s nighttime deeds. Irene loves that.

Though Irene doesn’t play many video games, she’s fascinated by Klei. She handled the company’s bookkeeping early on and never stopped. “It kinda keeps me in the loop of what’s going on in the company as well, so I’m not ready to let go of that position either.”

For Klei and Jamie Cheng, change was a gradual process. Cheng doesn’t regret the journey, even with its many bumps.

”I believe that part of why our culture is good,” Cheng says, “is because we took our time to build it.” Cheng remembers those pitches up and down the West Coast, begging for work on licensed games just to get enough money to rent an office. There’s an alternate universe where a publisher gave Klei that contract.

”I’m so glad that didn’t work out,” Cheng says.

Cheng had said many times his goal is to push the medium forward. He’s speaking about his games, and it’s possible that he may very well accomplish that. But it’s also possible Cheng’s most important creation will be his company, which mashes together the creative freedom of indie game development with the (intended) security of a major publisher. With four games in the pipeline, spread across small teams, the Klei offices feel like an indie commune — designers and artists working together, supporting one another.

”We wanted it all. My goal was to build a company that could survive for many, many years. For 20 years, for longer. And the only way that any company’s going to be able to do that well is by retaining staff. And I looked at the waste of talents leaving other studios. And I was just like, that’s super expensive; you guys are so shortsighted. That’s how I felt, so shortsighted. It’s such a waste.”

Can Jamie Cheng see himself making games in his 50s?

”Actually,” Cheng says, “we have someone in his 50s starting next week.”

Video: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Matthew Sullivan, Warren Schultheis
Image credits: Klei Entertainment
Music: Robot Science