[Game Design Club] #2 - Don't Starve (Crafting)

With the recent SA Game Jam theme being "Crafting" I thought it would be a good opportunity to take some time to pick apart the design of a really successful game in this space.

If you were involved in the jam, I suggest that you think about how you approached this design space and compare it to how it was implemented in Don't Starve. If you weren't involved in the jam, join us anyway!

Game Design Club Preamble
The idea is that we take a game that has proven successful and spend some time talking about it.

While playing the game, try to think about what you are experiencing and jot down some ideas before seeing what everyone else says. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you feel a bit lost:

- What I like/dislike about this game?
- What would I change?
- What is the designer trying to make me do or feel (whether by the use of music, level design, or mechanics)?
- Which interactions or mechanics are fun?
- Does this game fit in a specific genre? If not, why not?
- What is the hook of the game? What makes it stand out from other similar games.

The important thing is to practice doing this kind of analysis yourself, as we’ll learn through the process of formulating our own opinions. By sharing our opinions on the forum, we’ll also get to see how others experiences and think about games, which is super useful.

This discussion is open to everyone and as such, let’s be civil about it! We are here to learn and become better game designers. If you disagree with someone's thoughts/opinions, then try to be clear about where you think your disagreement lies, definitely don’t bash them or their opinions!

To keep it relevant and applicable to our local community, the idea is to focus on indie games made by small teams that didn't have huge budgets. It will be a bonus if the game is freely available on Itch.io or on discount on Steam.

---End of Preamble---

Now onto this week's assignment: Don't Starve or alternatively there is Don't Starve Together if you are interested in co-operative play!


Game Information:
Platforms: Android, iOS, Linux, Windows, OS X, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Studio: Klei

Steam Description: Don’t Starve is an uncompromising wilderness survival game full of science and magic. Enter a strange and unexplored world full of strange creatures, dangers, and surprises. Gather resources to craft items and structures that match your survival style.

Release Date: 23 April 2013

Steam Sales Estimate: 2,605,000
This calculation is done using the Box Leider Method:
Steam Reviews * A factor of roughly 50 = Sales to date

Despite the game coming out in 2013, it still has ~2,143 players in-game at the time of me writing this.

MetaCritic: 79

Related GDC talks by Klei:
Don't Starve: Creating Community Around an Antisocial Game
Be Spiky: A Decade of New Ideas

The things that intrigue me about this game and its development:
- How the crafting progression works and keeps the player engages
- How they get past the frustrations of Permadeath and having to start again after potentially many hours of gameplay
- It is ‘easily’ expandable and is/was a "living" game.

I really look forward to everyone's thoughts and insights into the game!
300 x 164 - 27K


  • I'd love to write a bit about this game. One of my favorites of all time, but I haven't played it in a while. I might just end up writing something from what I can remember, if I don't get time to fire it up again (and if I can get past the fear of losing my last game due to not remembering everything that was going on).
  • Awesome, I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts about the game! I'm still taking notes and need to squeeze in some more playtime before I can formalise my thoughts for a post.
  • Hey, I was keen to play Don't Starve because Steam has recommended it a few times, I'm intrigued by the visual style and I've enjoyed other survival & crafting games like Minecraft, Subnautica, The Long Dark. I grabbed Don't Starve Together (DS) because I was interested in exploring the cooperative aspects of crafting.

    Despite my enthusiasm... I had a difficult time with this one. I played ~3 hours and didn't enjoy much of that time, so I also watched around 30 mins of others playing to see what they love about the game. DS was released in 2013, so I tried to temper my expectations but that didn't help much.

    My Personal Experience
    I love the sketchy visual style of the game. This is pretty subjective and I'm sure it turns a bunch of folks away but I personally love it. I think they've done an amazing job with the character designs. They're super memorable.

    I also enjoyed the sound design. It always added to the world and the talking noises and little jokes add a lightness to an otherwise harsh, gloomy world.

    Part of the magic in a crafting game, as Evan mentioned in the SAGJ vid, is having players form their own goals and not have them explicitly dictated by the game. While DS gets the first part of this right (it only prescribes one goal as its title), I wasn't inspired to have any goals of my own and felt unsatisfied when I did. Usually in this type of game I want to do 2 things: explore and build.

    I love exploring new worlds but DS's world felt quite flat to me (sure, it's random with biomes but the biomes don't have smooth transitions). I fondly remember the first time I stumbled upon a cave formation in Mincraft and the mix of glee and terror I felt venturing in. DS didn't bring up any of those moments for me, I was seeing new things and but it felt like a flat plane with random object placement and not a "world". Furthermore I felt I had no influence on the world (unlike Minecraft where I can reshape mountains or dig deep mines).

    Unsatisfied with exploring, I decided to try building. There weren't many exciting options in the initial menu, just more tool and fire options. The science and alchemy machines stood out to me so I set about collecting resources to craft those. After spending the effort to make them... They didn't really add any exciting options for me. I wanted to build a base of some kind but couldn't see any options for that. Just more tools, traps and items for fighting. Wall alone do not a base make.

    Surviving didn't feel nearly as challenging as The Long Dark. In DS night is a big threat but if I spent most of the day gathering food (which was quite plentiful) and making sure I had fire fuel, I felt comfortable sustainably surviving. After 20+ days survived and wandering aimlessly I eventually provoked something to kill me and see what death was like. Nothing exiting there.

    I decided to join a coop server and play with others, maybe there was something I'm missing by playing solo? I jumped into my first online session, it happened to be night time, the dark killed me within 30 seconds. Ouch. I chatted to the other players and they weren't really incentivised to help / revive me. So I wondered around for another 20 mins as a ghost. This was pretty similar to the solo experience because I didn't see another person!

    Online coop doesn't feel particularly social. I tried a few more games and never saw any other players after 10+ days survived. I felt like I may as well have been playing solo.

    So I asked myself these questions...

    Why didn't I enjoy exploring?
    - Movement.
    ○ DS movement feels primarily point and click. I can use keys to move character but it feels very simplistic.
    - Actions felt static.
    ○ Cutting, attacking, collecting all require mouse or holding Space when near. To make things easier the game will "home-in" to nearby objects and perform the action on those. I understand how this reduces friction for mouse play but on keyboard I felt I was often just holding down Space.
    ○ It felt like I was controlling a little robot, not being a character.
    - I felt I had no impact on world.
    ○ Resources did get used and take time to regrow but that felt was minor.
    ○ Subnautica didn't have world impact but I think it got around this by having such detailed environments and sometimes pressuring the player to explore and retreat quickly.
    - Felt little time to explore given survival needs.
    ○ In DS I felt I had limited time to actually explore. 70% of the day was spent collecting resources to continue surviving (which felt like a chore) and the points above made me reluctant to spend the remaining 30% exploring.

    Why didn't I enjoy crafting?
    - The crafting system felt pretty familiar and didn't offer anything novel.
    - The day night cycle felt like it forced me to do my crafting at night. During the day I had to collect resources and at night there's little to do except craft.
    - In Minecraft I had more choice: I could explore caves at night and craft all day if I wanted.

    Why didn't I enjoy survival?
    - I didn't feel challenged.
    - While it was time consuming to collect resources there were enough that I never felt pressured to explore further to find more.
    - In the Long Dark I start to feel resources in an area running out and a growing need to explore further (which brings its risks).
    - Being able to collect and carry so many resources in DS reduced this challenge significantly.

    Watching Others Play
    At this point I watched other folks play to see what in the game delighted them. The game is popular so I assumed there was something key I was missing. Turns out others love the same things I didn't enjoy! People talk about enjoying exploring the world ... particularly as new areas were released like the caves. People love crafting bases, digging out areas to form roads and decorating areas. The one thing I didn't anticipate that others seemed to enjoy was strategically planning their building to cause enemy interactions, for example: having pig men lure and fight spiders. It seems like this type of play pattern is mostly used to farm resources but people really enjoy thinking about how to pull this off and then seeing the results of their scheming.

    Overall I don't think DS is a bad experience, I just personally felt my exploration and crafting itch was way better scratched by Minecraft, Subnautica and The Long Dark. I do wonder if it was released today if it would still be a commercial success?

    Finally, since the jam and this post focused on crafting, I tried to come up with key points for a good crating system which I could refer to in future.

    A delightful crafting system has:
    1. A satisfying tactile feel.
    ------ Putting fuel into the furnace and watching it burn in Minecraft.
    ------ Watching your creation materialise in Subnautica.
    ------ Experimenting with your newly created wand in Noita.
    ------ I thought @Gnoblar_agency SAGJ - The Great Factory does this well.
    2. Allows players freedom to decide what they want to craft next and when.
    3. Gives you items which change your play or perception.
    ------ In Minecraft better weapons mean previously scary enemies are less threatening.
    ------ Farming means tasks get much easier / faster.
    ------ In Subnautica new vessels mean that new areas are reachable.
    ------ In Rust better weapons means you can transition from defending to raiding.

    I'd love to know if anyone thinks I've missed any key ideas or examples that fit/counter the points above.

    Again, thanks for doing these @blacksheepZA, I learn a lot from doing these and seeing other's thoughts here.
  • edited
    Good post @ashashza
    My experience with DS was very different, so if you are still curious why people enjoyed the game, have a read. Of course, just because a lot of people likes a game, it doesn't mean you might. Anyway...

    This contains spoilers

    My personal experience
    I'm writing a lot of this from memory.
    I got DS very soon after it's release (I can't remember the exact date). I remember jumping into this game with no knowledge of it, other than it being a survival game (clearly you had to "not starve"). So in the beginning I died. A lot. And I loved it. I was going around gathering resources, figuring out how things fit together and what I need to do stuff. What I found great about the crafting system is when you complete the resources required to craft something, it would pop out on the left sidebar, and it was easy for me to know I have just unlocked a new recipe, so I could quickly see what I can now make. Also not having to open up an inventory screen to do crafting felt like the game flowed better. More on crafting later.

    The game at that point didn't have nearly as much content as it has today. Back then you had your randomly generated world, no caves, and pretty much the whole goal was to collect all the "things", create the portal and jump to the next world with minimal starting gear. Or go through the portal into Maxwell's world and do that whole challenge. There were also a few characters you could unlock via surviving or completing certain tasks. Each of these has certain pros and cons to customise your gameplay a bit.

    After a few deaths I stabilized and got myself a decent camp. I could fight dogs or at least lead them to the nearest pigmen huts or beefalos and have them deal with the packs. Food was plentiful and things were looking good. Then another challenge. Winter was coming. I was not prepared for this at all. My farms stopped making food, exploring became much harder because of the cold, and days were much shorter. So I died. Again. This became a trend. I would find ways around a challenge of the game, and then the next thing would happen. Spring came with lots of rain, soaking everything, killing fires and lightning burning down my forests. Later versions of the game brought epic summers where the heat would dry out all your stuff and randomly set your camp on fire. All of this you still had to manage your food, health and sanity.

    On that note, I say "camp" and not "base" as I realised DS was not a base building game. The options were limited and not meant to be a safe haven where nothing could touch you. I think it was the intention for you to never be safe in a spot and just camp it out. You constantly had to explore and move around in order to stay alive. This is certainly not for everyone, but I really enjoyed the challenges it brought.

    As time went on. More content was added to the game. Caves brought a whole set of new challenges, and with it more crafting opportunities and rewards. Reign of giants once again made it nearly impossible to just sit in one place, as one boss enemy could just roflstomp your camp in no time. Then many years later came shipwrecked, which now introduced boats and all the dangers that comes with sailing. All of this came with new characters to unlock and special areas to discover.

    I really loved this game. It was always challenging and interesting. There is really so much to say about this game, but seeing as we are focusing on crafting in particular, here are some bullet points:

    The crafting system
    What I liked:
    In short, to me the DS crafting system felt fast, intuitive and progressive.
    - Once the correct materials for a new craftable item is collected, you would be notified. I found this very helpful in learning the game.
    - Crafting via the sidebar was very easy to access and didn't take away from the flow of the game. You could practically craft on the go (with some exceptions)
    - Crafting itself happened quick. So once you have the materials (and required stations) for an item you could immediately craft the item. It the case of this game, I found it great.
    - Crafting progression required you to gather certain materials in order to build a science machine (and others later on). This immediately offered all the recipes that is the machine is required for. So no figuring out recipes or hunting for it. Crafting things that required stations required you to be near that station. So this did force you to return to camp to craft higher tier items.
    - Harvesting was pretty fast and straightforward. Some materials requiring certain tools to harvest. With the rare stuff being quite hard to find or dangerous.
    - Permadeath I felt was also a great key in the crafting system in this game (for me anyway). Dying meant you had to start from scratch, go look for the rare materials and build up your crafting benches again. And this keeps you in that feeling of having progress. (In the early days of the game I had a game where I had explored the entire map, was on day 100 and could survive anything. Then updates came to stop that, but at that point I was getting bored as nothing could stop me).

    What probably could have been improved / different (with relation to crafting)
    - Although the sidebar crafting menu was great for quickly crafting stuff, Finding what you need to crafting something that hasn't been unlocked was difficult, as it would not show up in the side bar until you unlocked the recipe (by building the required crafting machine). So you never really knew what you were working towards, or could never really look forward to "oh man I can't wait to build item X" without going to the wiki. This is kind of a thing for me. I often like jumping into games (especially survival games) without reading much about it or the wiki. I feel I get a much better experience like that
    - Cooking followed this same trend. There were hundreds of recipes, and there was no in-game way to discover these without just trial and error. I think it would have been nice to have an in game recipe book. It could have been persistent across plays. And save any (food) recipe you have successfully created. Just again, this is because I don't like going outside the game while playing (even with 2 screens. I feel it break immersion). Having the right Food recipes readily available was pretty key to getting the most out of your resources.

    Some other crafting systems I've seen that have some really cool ideas:
    Subnautica - As mentioned before me, the visual crafting of being "printed" is pretty cool. Crafting was also fast once you have the right materials.
    Conan Exiles - The thrall at workstation idea. Some people might not find this a big deal, But I thought the idea of someone crafting stuff for you that takes time, instead of it just magically running through a queue at the workstation (like ARK) is a pretty cool idea. Don't get me wrong though, I loved ARK as well.
    The Long Dark - The time tied to crafting is cool. It still happened "almost instantly" in RL, but in game time, time progresses, so you get hungry/ thirsty / cold. So choosing when to craft is very important. I really liked this system.

    Like I said this is mostly written from memory, so some things might have changed.

    I also realise that I didn't address all the points in OP. Maybe I will edit my post later to include these.
  • edited
    I've spent some time with Don't Starve before but never made it past winter. This time was no different. It's a bit of a bummer since it seems the game has loads of content past winter that I will never get to see!

    @ashashza I agree, neither the exploration nor crafting seems super in-depth. It seems as though its survival first and crafting and exploration in the service of survival. With that said there are some pretty surprising moments, like when you cut down too many trees and a tree comes to life and chases you, or eye birds that chase you for like 3 days when you steal their eggs. It all does feel a bit disconnected somehow though. Looking through your list it seems a lot of the items there are related to game feel, and I can totally see how the game lacks a certain tactile element. Interesting that you found it too easy though. I definitely struggled quite a lot :P

    Why I'm not sure difficulty over time is a good idea:
    If anybody has seen the Jenova Chen thesis, there is this idea of active dynamic difficulty adjustment. The takeaway for me is "let the player decide when they want to do something hard".
    Don't starve does very little of this as the game's difficulty is tightly connected to time. Eg. If you are not ready for winter you are dead. A counter-example I played recently was Breath of the Wild. In BotW harsh environments exist but they allow players to enter and exit at their own pace. DS has a try, try, try again philosophy and I think that totally has a place but personally, it's a bit much.

    It would be nice to be able to have some space where the time pressure is alleviated and you could focus on crafting/building. @MajorPAIN I think this speaks to the whole "Camp" vs "Base" Idea. Its quite stressful knowing you are never safe. Even in similarly hardcore games; dark souls, for example, there are moments where there is a reprieve from the big bad world ( Firelink shrine ). Klei has a subtractive design philosophy and I don't think feeling safe factored into their "spikes". Their success speaks for itself. I guess it's just not for me.

    Why difficulty over time may actually be good in this context:
    - Hunger, Sanity, Temperature decrease over time (hunger seems constant over time, sanity as a function of time and darkness, maybe some other stuff, temperature as a function of season, and time)
    - Sanity and Temperature cause health to drop (through scary ghost mobs or freezing) so it all affects health which when it reaches zero causes the game to end.

    This means the game is a race between your ability to keep these bars full and time. As a result, time is a metric by which you can balance all other systems in the game.

    Exploration takes time, harvesting takes time (cutting trees, collecting twigs, grass, etc), fighting takes time. The distance between items on the map becomes important, the relative position of your camp on the map becomes important. This is an optimization problem the player is tasked to solve. Any method to reduce time and distance traveled (farms, transplanting twigs/grass, planting trees) allows you to use your time for other things and become more productive, increasing your odds against the increasingly harsh conditions.

    Game Loop:
    I was hoping to focus more on crafting but without a broader context, it doesn't seem meaningful. I should probably rather ask the question: "What does crafting achieve WRT the overall game design"


    This is my discretized interpretation of the game loop and the "verbs" the player has access to. If anybody has a more robust understanding of how to create graphs like this or knows of some resources on something similar, id love to check them out :D

    Similar to slime rancher I thought of the game as two parts; exploration and base building/crafting. This is encouraged by the day/night cycle, the night creates some time to tend to farms/build craft and get ready for the next day, the day affords you the opportunity to explore and find resources you need for the next nights crafting. Optimizing this process seems to be key to successful gameplay. Unlike Slime Rancher, Don't Starve does not seem to give you a clear checklist. It feels quite overwhelming, especially for new players. I think the key to improving at the game largely revolves around understanding and executing the sequence of steps needed to survive and prepare for the next challenge.

    Maybe this is obvious, but I had a revelation that crafting is actually a progression system contextualized and turned into its own game. What I mean is it's possible to draw parallels between many other games that have more traditional progression systems:

    Experience points -> Collected Items; Just like experience points you collect items through exploring, killing, building.
    Skills -> Crafted items, Buildings; These open up new actions and possibilities in the word.
    Skill trees -> Required items; What you can craft is constrained by collected items and existing buildings, some of those have similar constraints, etc. This forms a dependency tree that must be completed in order from root to leaf.
    I think this is pretty damn cool! It replaces the "gamified" elements such as XP bars and fancy UI trees with actual game elements that exist in the gameplay space, but fundamentally it's still the same progression tree.

    Other scattered notes:
    - Simple crafting UI was quite nice and allowed for some discoverability but as others have mentioned could probably be improved especially WRT cooking.
    - There is no clear way to know what you don't know, some hints would be nice maybe.
    - Storage space matters a lot! It constraints your daily tasks to what you can fit in your inventory. Chester and a backpack make a big difference.
    - Seemingly random events break up the monotony. (Hound attacks, rain, etc)
    - It seems as though tasks have been tweaked to take about a day to do.
    - Level Design: Paths guide you and provide some direction in a very scattered world. Also, a speed boost which adds another element to the time optimization issue.
    - Mentioned earlier there are lots of surprises in the game! Some others: Turkeys, Pigs, Koalefant, Wormholes, Merm vs pig wars... I'm sure there are many more.
    - Item requirements seem to be distributed so that there is always one thing that is less common and forces you to go explore again (Eg. flint at the start of the game)

    I'm making quite a few assumptions based on my gameplay experience alone. please let me know if anything sounds wrong, or could be improved. Thanks for putting in the effort to make a space for this @blacksheepZA! It really very cool and it's getting me more excited about games than I've been in a long while!

    Related question: If anybody knows of some kind of index of game design concepts, or knows where all the game design academics hide, I'd really appreciate some direction. I spent some time trying to find a generalizable breakdown of crafting in games to work from but came up with very little.
  • @blacksheepZA *Bump* Such a great discussion on GAME DESIGN and 'crafting' specifically. I would enjoy it if there were more similar discussions on the topic. I read all the detailed responses multiple times and played the game a few times as well to draw my own conclusions too, since I LOVE survival crafting games.

    In a nutshell, I feel that Don't Starve is a fantastic little game with tight mechanics and unique artwork, but the crafting system isn't very complex, although very well done and it serves its purpose. I prefer deeper customisation as seen in games like 'Mercenary Kings' for example (I am not a huge fan of platformer styles though), where you can finely tune each weapon which is a really, really cool concept and a lot more complex than say giving the player a list of resources to acquire to accomplish crafting an item. It gives the player choice and makes them feel as if their decisions are unique and have real consequences, even artistic.

    I did some research and found this article useful as a synopsis of existing crafting systems to understand better what is out there, game design-wise, to compare it with.

    Thanks all who took the time to post. An interesting read and some great, detailed feedback.
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