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Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone Can’t Let Go Of Stardew Valley

"Once I reopen the book on Stardew, I always have a hard time closing it again"

The lights temporarily brighten on the stage of The Town Hall, a historic New York City venue, and a crowd of over 1,000 people hushes into anticipatory silence. The conductor of the orchestra has just announced that a special guest is in the building. Moments later, Stardew Valley creator Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone, clad in dark slacks, a yellow shirt, and a plain jacket, takes the stage. The audience goes absolutely bananas. You’d be forgiven for thinking, even after taking in nearly an hour of beautifully-performed music, that the real rockstar has finally arrived.

This was the scene earlier this year at the New York City stop of Stardew Valley: Festival of Seasons, a worldwide tour featuring orchestral renditions of Stardew Valley songs. Originally released in 2016, Stardew Valley is no longer just a game. It’s an institution, a cozy-game genre progenitor that continues to grow via both community efforts and official updates from Barone, who – despite embarking on a new project in Haunted Chocolatier – cannot bear to part with it. It’s also more than just a game. There’s now Stardew Valley merchandise, the aforementioned tour, a board game, and as of this week, an official cookbook

Though Stardew Valley did not invent the farming genre – and obviously took a lot of inspiration from Harvest Moon – it certainly triggered the avalanche of similar farming games that followed. On top of that, numerous games have farming and other life sim elements in them now, regardless of genre. Palworld and Hades 2 immediately spring to mind, and that’s just from the past few months. Stardew Valley’s popularity, meanwhile, is enduring, with sales hitting the 30 million mark in February just before the release of the rabidly-anticipated 1.6 patch in March.

Stardew Valley: Festival of Seasons

Barone, in turn, has become a singular figure in the world of video games. Once a (largely) solo developer kept afloat by his girlfriend and propelled forward by little more than an ambitious dream, he’s now the captain of a vastly larger and more recognizable ship than the one he started out in. He wrestles with this. On one hand, he appreciates all the praise. He recognizes that people have connected to Stardew Valley’s world and characters on a very deep level. That means everything to him.

"There's certain aspects to Stardew Valley now that are inextricable from the community that's formed around it,” Barone told Aftermath. “How everyone feels about all the different characters and the interpretations [of them]. … To be in the same room with all of these souls [at the concert], it's a special feeling. It's a reminder that my work does impact real people."

On the other hand, he doesn’t view himself as that big of a deal, even if fans do.

"I'm just a dude that made a game,” Barone said. “I was just making the game I wanted to play. What I would say is, I was tapping into a certain zeitgeist that I wasn't aware of, or conscious of, but I wasn't the only one who was feeling that way. We wanted to play games that were a little bit different. ... I think if I hadn't done it, someone else probably would have in a similar timeframe." 

To be in the same room with all of these souls, it's a special feeling. It's a reminder that my work does impact real people.

On stage at The Town Hall, Barone ran through a joke-y version of his origin story. He used to make music that nobody wanted to listen to, he said, but “after many years of failure, I finally discovered the secret: all I had to do was develop an entire video game from scratch, and then you guys would finally listen to my music.” The audience ate it up, laughing and cheering in response.

There was a kernel of truth to the bit, though. "I wanted to make music and somehow have a career making music,” he explained to Aftermath. “I would have been happy with any form that took, but when I was in high school, my original dream was to be in a band and go on tour and play shows. Little dingy venues – that would have been awesome. But I quickly realized that's not an easy thing to materialize. So then I shifted into electronic music, and I would have been happy if I could have been successful just online doing that. But that also didn't work out. So eventually, I finally got the music out by making a video game. I'm happy now because I still get to make music and have it be part of something that people are interested in and want to listen to."

Stardew Valley: Festival of Seasons

Now Barone has many more eyes on him than he ever would’ve amassed playing in a band, but it’s a different kind of fame. Barone does his best to entertain his followers inside the game and out – especially online, where he continues to personally keep them abreast of what’s coming next, something many developers who’ve sold even a fraction of 30 million copies would’ve handed off to somebody else by now. To him, entertaining is just part of the job, whether on stage or on Twitter.

"It's just yet another aspect of game development. I've always had kind of a scrappy 'If someone else can do it, why not me' type of approach," Barone said. "I kind of see myself as an entertainer. … I feel a pressure to have a presence because there's a million people who decided to follow me. I don't want to just do nothing, you know?”

But Barone’s hands-on approach to all aspects of Stardew Valley stems from far more than mere obligation. The game began as an extremely personal solo project, and even though it’s grown into a millions-selling multimedia behemoth, he still feels intimately connected to it.

“I feel responsible for any issues that people have, or if anyone doesn't enjoy the game or has a bad time,” he said. “It's not only with Stardew Valley, but anything related to Stardew Valley: the merchandise, the board game, the concert – anything like that. It's weird because Stardew has grown into something beyond me, but at the same time, I still feel very personally responsible for the brand and the concept of Stardew Valley." 

This, in a way, is how the game’s 1.6 update came about. Barone now works with a team on Stardew Valley’s more technical aspects, and he wanted 1.6 to focus on technical tweaks and nothing more. But then he began to dread what fans might think if he didn’t go all out on yet another update. So he paused work on Haunted Chocolatier, his long-awaited but still mysterious second game, to return to Stardew Valley.

“It wasn't something that was necessarily planned,” Barone said. “I was like 'I can't just release a technical update, because if I say there's a new Stardew Valley update, and there's literally no new content, I feel like people will be disappointed.' So at first it was just the Desert Festival, but I have this problem where once I start, I can't stop. I'm thinking 'Oh, this isn't enough. It'd be really cool to add this. I would love to add this.'”

I feel responsible for any issues that people have, or if anyone doesn't enjoy the game or has a bad time. It's not only with Stardew Valley, but anything related to Stardew Valley: the merchandise, the board game, the concert – anything like that.

In these moments, Barone isn’t just motivated by a fear of letting down Stardew’s devoted legions. He’s also keenly aware of the impact the game has had on some players’ lives.  

“Once I reopen the book on Stardew, I always have a hard time closing it again because I always want to add more things, make it better, make it cooler, make people happy,” Barone said. “It's exciting. Every single thing I'm adding, I'm thinking about how people are going to play this and talk about it and love it. It's gonna be part of their experience. It could make a memory that they might cherish forever. That's a special thing. It's hard for me to not want to do that.”

That’s not to say Barone is trapped in an eternal, unchanging loop of returning to Stardew Valley. Version 1.6 was the first time he allowed somebody else to leave their fingerprints on the game’s content – its art, especially – and not just technical and programming elements. Barone added a longtime Stardew Valley modder who goes by the handle FlashShifter to the team after the latter’s car was stolen.  

"He had his car stolen, so he was in a bad situation,” said Barone. “He was like 'Hey, do you want to meet up and get lunch? I'd like to ask you something.’ He was wondering if I would take him on to do some work for Stardew Valley. At the time I was neck deep in working on 1.6 stuff, so I was like 'OK yeah, why not?' … He's studied Stardew Valley's art style so his mod would seamlessly integrate and look like it fit in Stardew Valley's world. I feel like he's one of the few people on Earth who really knows how to draw stuff in the exact Stardew Valley art style, which is kind of a specialized skill.”

FlashShifter

Barone is uncertain where he wants to go from here. For now he’s working on making sure that 1.6 is bug-free and available on as many platforms as possible, but afterwards he’ll have to make up his mind about a particularly bothersome fork in the road. There is of course the option to let Stardew Valley lie dormant while he completes version 1.0 of Haunted Chocolatier, but he also ended up assembling a “cool team” to get 1.6 across the finish line. Perhaps, he figures, they could keep expanding Stardew Valley in his absence. Well, within limits. 

“It would probably be difficult, and it would probably inevitably mean that I would not focus on Haunted Chocolatier because I would feel like I want to weigh in on and contribute to stuff,” he said of letting the team take the wheel on Stardew Valley. “I have some ideas for things that can be done for Stardew Valley that are less content creation and more technical in nature – more straightforward.”

Potential (though not set in stone) examples include additional maps for the game’s mines, a new farm type, or a new monster. “It's not like coming up with whole new characters and events and stuff like that,” Barone said. “That's the stuff I feel like I 100 percent have to be doing." 

I don't feel like I owe anyone anything when it comes to Haunted Chocolatier. It's a game that I'm deciding to make. I don't need to make it.

He does want to get back to Haunted Chocolatier, though – not because he feels like expectant fans are breathing down his neck, but because, as with Stardew Valley, this one’s personal. 

"[Fan expectation] definitely puts pressure on me,” he said, “but it's better to have a delayed game that's actually good than a bad game that's on time. When it's ready, that's when I'll release it. I'm not too concerned with the pressure. I don't feel like I owe anyone anything when it comes to Haunted Chocolatier. It's a game that I'm deciding to make. I don't need to make it."

At this point, Barone doesn’t really need to do anything. Stardew Valley has sold more copies than most developers – indie or triple-A – could ever hope. And while he’s living better than he was when Stardew Valley was just a sprout peeking out of the soil, he says he hasn’t done anything “extravagant.” That’s by design. Barone just wants to keep doing things the way he always has.

“Before making Stardew Valley, I spent all day hunched over the computer,” he said. “I still spend all day hunched over the computer. … My goal in life isn't about making money. I want to create things and share them with the world. That's what it's all about. That's what I'm doing. That's what I will do, regardless of any other circumstances, as long as I can financially support myself to be able to do that. If I couldn't, I would get a job and spend my free time creating stuff to try to get back to doing that."

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