Starbound – 2013′s Greatest Indie Success Story

The Starbound logo

On December 4th, indie game Starbound, created by Chucklefish Games, launched under Steam‘s Early Access listing for Windows, Mac and Linux gamers.  It is a 2D block-based sandbox adventure game, set in an infinite universe of procedurally generated planets, creatures, and environments (its website can be found here).

Many games have preceded Starbound in these and other respects (the game is considered the spiritual successor to the highly popular Terraria, and much of the two fanbases overlap), but few indie titles have managed to accomplish everything else Starbound has.  Indeed, it has arguably become one of the most successful indie games on the PC in years, thanks to an approach that has garnered the game hundreds of thousands of fans and backers.  In this post, I’d like to provide an overview of the game’s (ongoing) success story.

$0 in One Year; $2,300,000 the Next

Starbound was first announced in February 2012 by Finn Brice, a UK game developer better known to fans as Tiyuri (or just Tiy).  Brice was the artist behind Terraria’s sprites, and thus the only official link between the two games, though much of the design of Starbound can be read as an incremental improvement over the formula developed in Terraria.  The team that worked on it eventually came to encompass around 14 developers, and so Chucklefish Games set to work.

With the Kickstarter explosion already underway at the time, many fans expected the team would also launch a Kickstarter campaign in order to help fund the game’s development, but Chucklefish was reluctant to do so.  Instead, for a long time, its members continued to work part-time on the project, while sustaining themselves through second jobs.

When the developers decided they wanted to take the plunge and develop full-time, and thus turned to crowdfunding, they did so in a way nobody at the time expected – almost entirely alone, without making use of Kickstarter or even any alternatives such as IndieGoGo.  They were to do all the marketing and web development for their campaign, and lean on the Humble Store for their purchasing system only, nothing more.

It was not the obvious choice, though in hindsight it was perhaps the best choice.  Their success was explosive.  Between April and launch day, the game managed to raise over $2.3 million in support of its team (as of December 5th, that number continues to climb) – a success story absolutely unmatched outside of Kickstarter by any video game save Chris Robert‘s Star Citizen, which has so far raised the gargantuan sum of $33 million.

Eight months later, within hours of launching to the public, Starbound became the second-most played game on Steam. It peaked at over 55,000 players at once, and was for much of the day second only to Dota 2 in player count.  It was also the top-selling game on Steam, outclassing games such games as Assassin’s Creed IV, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and fellow Early Access game and Kickstarter success Maia.

Starbound's great success on its Early Access launch

That achievement is impressive enough on its own, but it becomes far more so when one considers the number of people who already owned the game when it launched.  The crowdfunding campaign that started in April 2013 had, within an eight month period, raised its millions from over 107,000 individual backers.  All those chart-topping Steam sales were on top of the already massive success the game had achieved before even being released.

The success was no accident; the team at Chucklefish is passionate about Starbound, and have done an excellent job at ensuring its success.  It was not merely the fact that they chose to release without restrictions on Windows/Mac/Linux as primary platforms, or that they ran a crowdfunding campaign perfectly suited for their needs and the nature of their relationship to their fanbase.  They have also designed a game that attracts interest and sets itself apart from its predecessors in ways meaningful to their target audience; and they have set themselves up with strong ties to their community and other studios that will help ensure their financial and artistic success.

Setting the Game Apart

Minecraft, perhaps one of the greatest indie success stories ever, launched what would become the genre of deformable, procedurally generated worlds populated with base elements and focused on player-driven gameplay.  Many games would follow in its footsteps, such as Terraria,  and Kickstarter darling Castle Story among them, with some AAA studios also slowly starting to incorporate genre features into games like the still-under-development Fortnite and EverQuest Next.  So unlike Minecraft or arguably even Terraria, Starbound is not sailing into a blue ocean.

Yet the game has managed to feel both iterative and innovative; taking the genres conventions and either improving upon them, massively upscaling them, or, in some cases, outright rejecting them.  Compared to previous games of the genre, for example, Starbound’s crafting system will follow a more clearly structured and designed tier system; it will add deeper environmental interaction; its graphical style is a step up above its rivals; and its soundtrack is simply superb.

A view of space from the cockpit of a starter ship in Starbound

It also massively changes the scale of the genre – an impressive feat, for a genre already containing at least one game with an infinite planet to explore.  Starbound offers not one infinite planet, but an infinite number of finite planets, populated with an infinite number of creatures.  The developers intend for the planets’ different environments, inhabitants and factions to provide them each with more individual character than a single vast world could hope to have.  While repetition over infinite planets is almost inevitable, the system of one-biome planets will strongly support the space opera and planetary romance the game is rooted in, while also providing players with environments that feel more distinct and personal precisely because they are disconnected worlds rather than points on a graph.

Finally, Starbound shakes up the formula in ways that add to the gameplay without detracting from the genre’s core draw.  They have added static spacecraft and vehicles to a genre that has frequently been about building everything from scratch; while the partially immutable nature of these vehicles may detract from the malleability of the world, they offer many new narrative and design possibilities for the game.  More importantly, perhaps, is that they decided to implement a rich fiction, quests and quest lines, flavor dialog, and narrative events that would transcend the limitations of other entries to the genre, which has historically been more restricted to systems-based, player-driven interactions (though for fear of spoilers and quality issues, the overarching quest lines will not be fully implemented until the game leaves Beta).

Setting Themselves Apart

Chucklefish also had other tools at their disposal to ensure their success, however.  The team – which does not have a central office but is in fact scattered across several countries and continents – have consistently been excellent at interacting with their community through frequent updates, requests for feedback, and rather cleverly expanding their business elsewhere to ensure their security while developing the game.

Like many indie developers, Chucklefish’s developers are prolific Twitter users, communicating about their game, their lives and their interests to the community on a regular basis.  Many of them also post regularly on the game’s forums, interacting directly with the game’s fans – a role often piled onto a single community manager but, in this case, shared across the studio.  Furthermore, they have frequently engaged in back-and-forth discussions with the community – they run polls, respond directly to sudden player concerns, and explain their design choices to facilitate communication.

Perhaps the most community management Chucklefish have done, however, has been several months of almost uninterrupted daily updates on game development progress, posted publicly for all to see, sometimes going so far as to include commit messages from the game’s version control system.  These updates started on May 10th, 2013, and have continued ever since.  This changed to weekly updates in the weeks leading up to the launch on Steam, but such an undertaking has nonetheless been extremely rare in high-profile indie or AAA games.

Beyond this dedicated community engagement, Chucklefish have expanded their business to include something traditionally avoided by indie game developers – publishing.  Chucklefish has taken on several games under its publishing wings, including Wanderlust; the recently-launched Risk Of Rain; and the in-development titles Stardew Valley and Treasure Adventure World (the list can be seen a little ways down on the right of the Starbound homepage).  This expanded business strategy helped support Chucklefish developers before the launch of the crowd-funding campaign, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future – creating, especially with the launch of Starbound, a network of mutually self-supporting indie games that may well do much to ensure Chucklefish’s future success.

A pretty night scene one of Starbound's planets

Bound For Success

I believe that Chucklefish’s two-pronged approach of creating a polished, iterative and innovative game that responds to its audience’s needs on the one hand, and cultivating a studio culture that values close community with players and logistical and financial ties to other indie development teams on the other, are key reasons for the success Starbound has enjoyed so far, and will hopefully continue to enjoy in the future.

As the game moves on into into Early Access beta, we as players have been given every reason to trust in its developers.  They will no doubt continue to develop the game, improving first upon the design and technical problems players are facing, and continuing all the while to iterate on its features, expand the breadth and depth of its gameplay, and maintain their close ties to the game’s community.

Their success is no doubt the envy of almost every indie studio out there, and their approach is certainly something we can all learn from – not the only path to success, to be certain, but a proven one without a doubt.  Create a polished experience that expands on something players already enjoy, adding to it features that support the fantasy the audience wants to engage in; engage openly, frequently, and bilaterally with the community; and figure out the business strategy that is most suited to your position as a studio – which in Chucklefish’s case has included a tailored, long-term crowdfunding campaign, an Early Access release, a publishing relationship with other indie teams, and a focus on marketing through community interaction and streaming rather than the traditional video games press.

I wish the team and the game all the best as they move through Early Access into full release and post-release support, and I also hope that, as time goes on, we will see more and more studios like Chucklefish releasing such hugely successful indie games.  Success for developers in all genres, on all platforms and at all levels of magnitude, from thousand-person companies to tiny teams of developers not unlike those we at VFS work in for our final projects, is the key to a vibrant, diverse and growing games industry.

Guerric Haché is a Game Design student at VFS