An Interview with eric barone
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl and John Lachausse
Eric Barone is the Seattle-based indie developer of the successful farming RPG Stardew Valley. After spending four years creating the game on his own, including its art and music, Barone released Stardew Valley to widespread acclaim. With a score of 97% on the popular digital distribution platform Steam, and over one million copies now sold, Stardew Valley is considered one of the greatest games of the decade. You can follow Eric on Twitter at @ConcernedApe and visit the Stardew Valley website at stardewvalley.net.
TMR: Tell us a bit about your childhood. You played Harvest Moon and, we can presume, the other games that inspired Stardew Valley, but what were you reading, what sort of music were you listening to?
EB: My mother is a German native and didn't move to the U.S. until maybe a year before I was born. I think my upbringing was a little unconventional as a result.
I wasn't really exposed to much "American" culture in my earliest years. For example, my parents played mostly Classical music in the house... Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. We didn't have Cable TV, and there weren't many other kids in the neighborhood. I learned to live in my own little world. My house was on the edge of a swamp, so there was plenty of opportunity for me to explore the outdoors by myself.
TMR: What was it about Harvest Moon, or similar games, that captivated you?
EB: Video games allow us to go beyond the normal human experience. They can serve as portals to worlds of limitless imagination and freedom. I've always had a compulsion to discover "what's out there" ...to explore the furthest edges of human potential... and as a kid with a wild imagination, video games seemed like a way to do that.
Video games allow us to go beyond the normal human experience. They can serve as portals to worlds of limitless imagination and freedom.
Of course, as a kid I didn't really think about why I liked video games... they just made me really excited and happy, and I was naturally drawn to them. For some reason, Harvest Moon captured my imagination in a special way. Maybe it was the fact that the entire game took place in a relatively small area. You felt at home there, you felt safe. And while the game world was small, you didn't feel like you were forced down a linear path. You could plan out and work on your farm in your own way. That appealed to me more than the huge, linear adventures that other RPG's sent you on.
TMR: You received a degree in Computer Science in 2011 and began the process of making Stardew Valley a short while later. Let’s say that your degree had landed you a job right out of college: What would you have been doing, rather than making Stardew Valley? Did you feel that creating your own game was in the cards for you?
EB: I really don't know if I would have made a game, let alone Stardew Valley, if I had gotten a job straight out of college. Life can seem very random sometimes. I've always been an ambitious person, and I've always been obsessed with creating things, so It's possible that I would've been dissatisfied with an office job and done something different. But really, who knows?
On the contrary, my friends say that they always knew I would make something like Stardew Valley.
TMR: Were there any characters in Stardew Valley that were based off of real people? And is there a character that you identify with most?
EB: Yes, many characters are inspired by people I've met in real life. In fact, one of the characters - I won't say which one - is almost entirely based on a person I know very well... same name, personality, interests and tastes.
I think I injected a little of myself into most of the characters, so I can identify with a lot of them. If I had to pick one, it would probably be Mr. Qi.
TMR: You opened your arms to parts of the LGBTQ+ community by allowing same sex relationships in Stardew Valley - a move that few major gaming companies can claim, as of yet. With this in mind, where do you think the video game industry still needs improvement, and what can gamers do to get there?
EB: I think a lot of big game studios take the safe and uncontroversial route when it comes to social and political issues, for fear of losing sales. This leads to bland, focus tested experiences that maintain the status quo.
I like to think that the success of Stardew Valley will cause other developers to consider designing more inclusive relationship options in their games.
Ultimately, the people who buy our games have the power to shape the industry by choosing where to spend their money. If games that allow same sex relationships do well financially, that sends a message to the content creators. I like to think that the success of Stardew Valley will cause other developers to consider designing more inclusive relationship options in their games.
Of course, I think that developers should just do the right thing regardless of where the money's at. If you create a game that people want, and be honest with the people supporting it... you will find success. No calculated money-making schemes are necessary. But maybe that's naive, I don't know.
TMR: In your opinion, what help do video games offer society?
EB: They serve as entertainment, a powerful form of art, a peaceful escape from the chaos of modern life, and a way to have experiences that are impossible otherwise. Through these means, games have a powerful and growing influence on culture.
Of course, the lessons learned in game worlds can be both good and bad, but I think more often than not, developers try to inject positive messages into games. It may be hard to see sometimes, but it's usually there.
TMR: Did you have a specific corporation in mind as the inspiration for Joja? Why do you allow players the option of actually selling out to Joja?
EB: Joja is not based on a specific corporation, but rather all my various ideas of a modern mega-corporation, taken to the furthest extreme. I allow players to "sell out" to Joja because I wanted to allow that kind of freedom. Giving players the option to do the "bad" thing makes a game more interesting.
TMR: In your Game Informer interview, you say that writing, music, & art - those were all hobbies of yours that you incorporated into the development of Stardew Valley. Can you tell us a bit about where you picked up these skills?
EB: Everything was self-taught. I've been drawing and making music for my entire life, so I just got better from thousands of hours of practice and experimentation. I've always had this strong urge to create things... drawings, music, stories, poems, whatever.
TMR: What gave you the confidence to utilize these hobbies and develop a game?
EB: I used psychological tools to fool myself into having the confidence I needed to succeed. I adopted an attitude of 100% faith in my abilities. I swore that I would never give up until I found success. I acted with great confidence even if I didn't feel it inside.
TMR: Did you have any expectations that Stardew Valley would be as successful as it has been? Why do you think that people have responded so passionately to it?
EB: No, I didn't know it would be this successful. I think that there are more secret fans of the "farming RPG" genre than I could predict. Also, the gameplay and style of Stardew Valley can appeal to a wider audience than many PC games. There are a lot of female Stardew Valley fans and I think that has been very important for the game's success.
TMR: What is the benefit of working on a massive project, like Stardew, by yourself? How did you know that you were capable of it?
EB: The advantage is that I had complete freedom to create things the way I wanted. I didn't have to worry about my vision clashing with anyone else's. I think that can lead to a more cohesive and more unique final product.
I didn't know for sure that I could make a game alone, I just cultivated a faith in myself.
Another benefit is that doing everything is a lot more fun than specializing in one particular task, at least to me. I didn't know for sure that I could make a game alone, I just cultivated a faith in myself.
TMR: What was the biggest challenge during the creation process of Stardew Valley?
EB: Overcoming external and internal psychological pressures. By external, I mean perceived or real pressure from the others in my life. By internal, I mean negative thoughts such as self-doubt, boredom, lack of focus, and the tendency to start thinking my work is actually bad.
TMR: Do you have any advice for budding independent game developers?
EB: Figure out what works best for you, and go all out with it. For most people, that won't mean being a solo developer. Don't let yourself dwell on negative things; being optimistic helps you stay motivated. Do things your own way and don't follow trends.
TMR: Do you have any advice for creators who may begin to dislike their work, as you did after a period of time working on Stardew Valley? What words of wisdom would you have for those who are considering giving up?
EB: Just realize that it's normal to start hating your own work. In many ways, it's a good sign because it shows that you are improving. Even if you start hating what you are doing, finishing a project is a very good feeling and can keep you much more motivated in the long run.