Why is Valheim so popular?

Once again, major AAA video game studios are left in the dust as an indie game begins to define a genre

After I saw a flurry of my friends load-up Valheim on Steam, I tweeted out wondering why it was so special about it. I’ve been playing Obsidian’s Grounded for the past few months with a friend and been having a pretty good time. It’s one of the first major stabs by AAA at creating a survival crafting experience (and trust me, it’s not going to be the last). At first glance, Grounded does a lot of what Valheim does but better - the building UI/UX is easier to use and more polished, the art assets are higher quality and are completely made bespoke, the performance in the client is superior, combat has a bit more depth and features a storyline written by Blizzard and Overwatch alum Michael Chu.

But still, at the time of writing Valheim now commands 2 million players and despite having a year plus in headstart, has 3X the number of positive reviews on Steam than Grounded.

When I polled friends, other professional game developers or read through the media I got an unconvincing thesis: its a meme because some popular twitch streamer is shilling it (not true), people just like survival crafting games and its the latest one (but according to Steam, 24+ games in the genre have been released in the last two months alone), or that simply “it’s a game you can play with your friends” - but in the year 2021, that is not at all novel.

I find the Valheim story interesting not just because I’m a designer and I’m curious of why it resonates, but also because it’s another example of indie games flourishing while we witness so much challenge for major studios and their tentpole AAA titles like CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk or Amazon’s New World. Not to mention EA’s Anthem.

So what makes Valheim special, and why is it that so many indie games are defining genres and while we don’t see so much innovation from big studios?

It’s the Experience, stupid

📊 The Curse of Big Data

In professional game development, especially AAA, games these days are typically pitched and greenlit based upon the game’s potential total addressable market (TAM). What type of player is this game for, and how many of those players are there? This usually includes many different trends and features that are resonating with players today. For example, it may include both Fantasy and Sci-fi settings because those two genres command a big audience, so combining them will result in a theoretically bigger TAM. Players like MOBAs, and they like SciFi, so how about a SciFi MOBA? We have battle royales, but what about a battle royale + MOBA?

Games are notoriously expensive and risky, and in the modern era where we have so much data on what players like and what they’re playing in astonishing detail, Data is King. Data drives not just the games industry, but also Hollywood. There’s a well-known story of how Netflix used big data to discover that viewers liked David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and political dramas. So they combined them to create House of Cards. Whereas before games and movies were pitched and greenlit by the vision of an experience the director wanted to bring to life, today the data gatekeeps what gets made at big studios.

But increasingly big studios have been usurped by indies, who don’t have access to this big data (it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to have access to this data). League of Legends blew-up the MOBA genre at the startup studio Riot Games, not the Fortune-100 studio Blizzard Entertainment. The next big shooter genre of battle royale came from a sole developer called “PlayerUnknown",” not from Activision or Ubisoft. Suddenly the strategy of big studios involves seeking out the trends in experiences crafted by indie developers to then flip them to big AAA games, like PUBG to Fortnite. Or in some cases, when the internal clone fails, just purchase the real thing.

Games like Valheim remind the industry of Blizzard’s main core-value: Gameplay First. Or rather, player experience first. The best games are crafted with a vision of a specific player experience in mind, not a mishmash of genres and features that are trending or popular. Big data can give you insight into what types of experiences players are after, but it can’t craft that experience on its own. And it can’t tell you the future. Big data couldn’t have told you that survival crafting was going to take the world by storm, or that battle royales would usurp arena shooters. This is the job of creative visionaries. And it’s like they say, “Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.”

🧾 Player Stories

A friend of mine messaged me on Discord gushing about Valheim, and when I asked him to describe what’s so great about it he began to tell me stories about building a boat and sailing in a storm, about a massive, ugly troll destroying his camp, and about dying from a tree his girlfriend chopped down nearby. This is remarkably similar to the YouTuber Worth a Buy’s review. But he also described the game as “World of Warcraft Classic + Rust.” Rust - one of the original survival crafting games - made sense, but World of Warcraft? How is Valheim like WoW?

I worked at Blizzard for 13-years as a game designer on WoW. After I left, I made a video describing why I left. My main reason is that the game had changed over-time, to a game that, in my view, has a totally different vision than what it started out as being. And I didn’t want to work on that game very much anymore. WoW is a game that is heavily influenced by EverQuest, which was heavily influenced by MUDs, which was heavily influenced by the tabletop RPG Dungeons and Dragons, which was heavily influenced by the stories of Tolkein, which was heavily influenced by Arthurian legend, which came from dramatized events reflecting real life at that period.

In essence, the original story of WoW is the human story. You start with nothing, in your homeland. You venture outward, facing different challenges. You meet others along the way, form a tribe, and face what seems like insurmountable challenges. Today, WoW’s vision is unclear - it’s more about a variety of different separate experiences (leveling, raiding, arena, collecting etc.) than a singular vision or player journey.

Similar to classic WoW, Valheim tells a human story. The story of starting with rocks and sticks, then in a span of a couple of days in the players timeline, move to the bronze age, then silver etc. This probably explains the level of immersion and what gamers are starting to call “comfiness” the game invokes.

PUBG, another game by an indie developer, rocked the AAA industry by creating a new genre: the battle royale. AAA devs saw this as a new gameplay mode, quickly creating copies in the form of Fornite and Apex Legends. But while PUBG was popular because of its game mode, it also became popular because of the stories it created in each match. Its subreddit wasn’t discussions about the gameplay really, but rife with video clips of funny player stories.

A year later after PUBG’s release, Nintendo would release its newest Zelda game: Breath of the Wild. BoTW, too, would spur countless videos in its own subreddit of player stories using the game’s creative “chemistry” system. Almost immediately, game developers in big studios began dissecting the rising trend of the “open world genre,” spawning many games that shared similar elements to BotW, like Ubisoft’s Immortals Fenyx Rising.

⛵ Set Sail for Adventure

When it comes to worldbuilding, Valheim takes a lot of cues from older RPGs like the Skyrim series or even “old school” RuneScape. Its low-fi art adds a sort of nostalgic feeling, like you’re returning back to some game you’ve played before. The biomes are grounded and familiar, the swamp is called “The Swamp” and looks like, well, a swamp. Hardcore gamers I played with remarked, “Wow this feels so cool.” “But it’s just a simple swamp?” I thought. But the simplicity is what makes it feel immersive and relatable. It’s easy for developers today to take something simple and try to reinvent it, and put their own “twist.” But a lot of time you lose the player when you complexify it too deeply.

One of the strongest aspects of the worldbuilding in Valheim is the weather. In modern AAA games, the level designers like to showcase their vistas and show off fancy shots of how far the engine can draw assets into the horizon. But in Valheim, fog is used heavily even in the more open biomes to shorten the players’ view distance. This further adds to the immersion, adding a sense of danger and mystery to the world. When it rains, it pours, causing environmental challenge to the player by reducing their stamina, nudging them to return to their home base to “dry off” near the bonfire.

While the feature set is pretty standard survival crafting fare, a more novel addition Valheim adds is the boat system, allowing the player to sail around in the open sea as a form of fast travel. It’s also used as a way to transport the metal ore to your homebase (one of the more clunkier band-aids by the devs is restricting the player from using the teleporter to transport ore, otherwise it’d steal the boat’s thunder.) The boat ultimately serves as one of the first major crescendoes in the game’s experience, where funky things can happen at sea like getting caught in a storm, encountering sea monsters, or simply getting lost.

Defining a Genre

🏆 Why Valheim is Popular

When you play Valheim, you can feel the experience the team the developers were trying to create for the player. The experience feels like you’re live acting in some epic greek mythology where the chapters are distributed in the world left for you to discover on your own. The game doesn’t feel like your average survival game, which makes sense as its developers remarked in PC Gamer:

I asked him if the Iron Gate team (which is just five people) play a lot of survival games, and draw inspiration from them.

"No, not really," said Törnqvist. In fact, he told me, Valheim is more inspired by singleplayer RPGs like The Legend of Zelda and Skyrim than it is by other survival games.

"We wanted to have more of a feeling of an old school, singleplayer adventure game, kind of like the older Zeldas, I guess," said Törnqvist. "Where you get new equipment from defeating the bosses. And we thought it would, or we hoped that it would, mesh well with the survival aspects of a game. And, yeah, it seems it worked out."

The BotW comparison is interesting because you can feel a lot of parallels - from the sandboxy open world, and where the game pushes the storyline deep into the background. You can try to learn more about it, but it’s up to the player. Its “opt-in” lore discovery, similar to the Dark Souls approach. In this way, Valheim goes even further than Nintendo.

😴 The Big Studio Slump

In 1982 a new gaming studio was born. It named itself Electronic Arts because its founders believed that game creators were artists - creative visionaries just like big-name Hollywood directors. It believed in this idea so much it showcased its creators by name, rather than by the games they created. EA would go on to publish Ultima Online, another title where you could run throughout the world with others, chopping down trees. Ultima Online would go on to help define the open-world MMO genre.

Today, EA commands a market cap of over $42 billion, but now EA is now the most hated gaming company in the world, a boogyman, and a target of ridicule among gamers (and creators) alike.

For the big studios to return to the genre definers, they’ll need to rethink their strategy of chasing trends and markets. In the end, the answer is simply to create a great player experience.

🔥 Bonus Hot Takes!

  • Bizdev thoughts: Both Valheim and Grounded are survival crafting PvE experiences as their core, which is unusual in the genre where so much of the longtail engagement comes from PvP. For AAA studios (who only really invest in games that can generate a billion dollars in earnings) who wish to flip a game like Valheim into a deeper experience, the challenge will be to keep players engaged long-term or build a GaaS out of a game where retention is built upon discovery and finite progression loop. I have a lot of ideas there, maybe for another post.

  • It’s interesting how many elements the survival crafting genre has taken from MMOs and RPGs and brought them to life. Crafting and gathering is a core system in many MMOs, but they always sort of feel flat compared to the survival genre.

  • I dig the cooking/food system in the game, it really reminds me of how brokenly powerful the food system was in BotW where food instantly healed the player rather than being a heal-over-time like it is in Valheim. Forcing the player to have to use three different foods adds a fun min/max metagame, and makes it so the player can’t just stockpile only the “best” food.

  • Speaking of food, in Grounded the raw meat “spoils” if you don’t cook with it soon enough, which I’ve grown to hate. It builds anxiety in the player.

  • I agree with PC Gamer in that the game does a good job at softening some of the “masochist” elements commonly found in the genre like hunger, thirst, repairing, replacing tools etc. All of those things remain in Grounded, which now begin to look dated.

  • These days my eyes roll when I see games or fellow developers talk up “procedural levels,” because it hardly ever pays off. Devs see it as a way to make content cheaply, but in Valheim it subtly shakes up the experience in each server just enough to disorient them, keeping the immersion spell alive.

  • Hopping from server to server with your same character with your gear intact is pretty great.

  • Shift-clicking a stack to split it and having it default to half-stacks is a great quality of life feature.

  • The boss encounters have been quite fun, and offer a great bookend to the crafting tiers.

  • I wish I could set it so players always can see me on the map by default, and that I can see their map markings and map discovery.

  • The bees are happy!