The 2014 IGF Awards have finished and the winners have been announced, but we still have insights to share. Before reading on, you should relive John’s liveblogging of the IGF Awards ceremony so that you can see if Klei’s Jamie Cheng left the event happy. Don’t Starve received a nomination for the Grand Prize but Cheng was backing a different game – a game that he describes as ‘a masterpiece.
RPS: I remember reading that the basic idea behind Don’t Starve emerged during a company game jam – do you hold regular jams or take part in external competitions like Ludum Dare?
Cheng: We hold a yearly internal game jam, which we affectionately call the Klei Kiln. For 48 hours (actually just 2 working days), we find 1 to 3 people to work on a project together, and see if we can learn something meaningful.
RPS: What are the advantages of working at a relatively small and independent company like Klei? The background of Don’t Starve suggests a flexibility that might be harder to achieve at a larger studio.
Cheng: In the case of Don’t Starve, I think being independent is much more important than being small. No one really thought that Don’t Starve was going to be a massive success, but we did all believe it was a game worth making, and being independent allowed us to choose to focus on that over financial motivations. Even if the company was larger, we’d keep the teams small so we can quickly try a lot of things without worrying that the rest of the team is waiting for things to do.
RPS: Don’t Starve has a very distinctive art style – was that always part of the design or did it come later?
Cheng: We evolved the art style over time — I think we had 3 or 4 styles in total (see below). How our projects typically go is that the design and art evolve together, and each heavily influences one another. For Don’t Starve, the design started getting a lot darker, and so we shifted the art to meet it.
RPS: I first played the game before release and a great deal changed and there have been additions post-release as well. Even with all of those changes, is there anything more you’d like to do with the concept?
Cheng: As a game I think it’s pretty complete, and I think there’s a danger that if we keep just adding stuff it won’t necessarily make the experience better. However, if we start to lean into different concepts and take the game in new directions, then I think there’s still a lot to explore.
That’s the idea of the Reign of Giants expansion we’re creating — we’re creating all new seasons, and really leaning into that concept of seasonal change, and see where it takes us. I think it’s important that it’s an expansion and not simply added on to the base game, because we do feel it’s quite a different experience.
RPS: Have you played many of the other entrants and are there any that you’d like to see win in their category?
Cheng: We’re all huge fans of Papers, Please, and in fact, I said many times prior to going to GDC that this is the game I’d vote for, even though they’re in our category. It’s just that good.
RPS: Were you particularly pleased to be nominated for the Seamus McNally Grand Prize and have you played any of the other entrants in that category specifically?
Cheng: It was a pretty big surprise for us, and obviously an honour. Again, I was rooting for Paper’s, Please, and super happy about his win. To me it’s a masterpiece.
RPS: The future looks bright for Klei, with Invisible Inc on the horizon – are the Don’t Starve team working on that project or is there something else in development as well?
Cheng: We like to have several experiments cooking, so yes, we’re working on other things too. Personally I’m loving how Invisible, Inc is shaping up — once again, we’re just concentrating on making it a game worth making, and I think tactical espionage is a genre worth exploring deeply. We put our trust in the fans to keep supporting us.
RPS: The title of the game – Don’t Starve – is a very sensible instruction. In the ongoing bid to avoid starvation, what is your favourite meal and/or snack?
Cheng: Deerclops eyeball. Because it’s baller to eat it. As an aside, I love how starving is almost never how anyone ever actually dies, but just a very effective way to cause players to explore and take mortal risks.
RPS: Thanks for your time!