Valheim: How a 5-Person Team Created the Most Popular Game on Steam
Back in 1300CE, the highest recorded total of the Viking population was 500,000 people, according to Valheim developer Iron Gate Studios. As of this week – barely two weeks after its launch into early access – over three million people have already purchased the Norse-themed survival game on Steam. Last weekend more than 360,000 concurrent players were exploring Valheim at the exact same time, surpassing the all-time records of even Destiny 2 and Grand Theft Auto 5.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Valheim might be the biggest indie game release in recent memory, and certainly ranks among the most successful of all-time – at least in terms of its opening month. But what, exactly, is Valheim’s secret? Is it the start of a new franchise or just another flash in the early access pan?
You can read our full early access review of Valheim here.
“We’ve been refreshing the sales report to get the latest numbers, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down,” says Sebastian Badylak, Executive Producer at Coffee Stain Publishing. The team, still hard at work making good on their early access roadmap, sold 275,000 units on Saturday, their highest number yet. “There’s so much more to come that will hopefully keep all these players engaged and bring new vikings onboard.”
Revitalizing the Survival Genre
If you’re not one of those three million players, here’s the elevator pitch: Valheim is an open-world survival game (currently in early access) with optional online multiplayer for up to 10 total players. It’s a procedurally generated sandbox world in which your character is plopped down with nothing more than a pair of pants. Players must scavenge for food and materials to create shelter and gear to aid you on a quest to vanquish deadly and powerful spirits on a journey to ascend into Valhalla.
From its very first moments, the table is set like most other survival games – but there are a few major differences that have clearly piqued the interest of seasoned survivalists. For starters, repairing things like gear and buildings doesn’t cost a thing. No resources, no money, nothing. It’s all free, which alleviates a ton of pressure while maintaining resources for upkeep. On top of that, the hunger system is designed to bolster your health and stamina if you’re well-fed, but you won’t die if you decide not to eat. It’s a more forgiving take on the survival genre, one that makes Valheim much more accessible than its peers, without removing the challenge.
It’s also very PvE-focused, which is refreshing – even if it is somewhat ironic then that one of the most hostile and deadly periods in human history is the focus of a game that emphasizes working together and cooperation.
While most survival games don’t provide any specific objectives beyond the goals you set for yourself (often falling into either of the “build new stuff” or “don’t get murdered by zombies/bears/other players” categories), Valheim features a bit more structure, even offering tips and occasional directions by way of a nifty spiritual crow. As you progress and grow your character’s skills and fill out the map, you’ll unlock new areas with unique biomes that pose new challenges, like cold weather or feature hidden underground dungeons with rare treasures. It all provides a stronger sense of progression than most survival games, even just two weeks into early access.
Valheim’s combat helps elevate things as well. In addition to different combos and attack speeds based on your weapon type, there’s blocking, dodge rolling, lock-on targeting, and even parrying with the right type of shield.It feel more akin to an action-RPG than a survival sim, especially during its climactic boss battles against mythical beasts.
Finally, a big draw for many of Valheim’s players is that there’s far less conflict between players than you might find in other survival games. As it stands now, you can toggle on the ability to attack other players – but unless you attack a friend that gave you the password to their world you don’t need to worry about being killed by other players.
Iron Gate’s Co-founder Henrik Törnqvist says PvE is the main focus for Valheim right now, but they’ll probably add more PvP content eventually it seems – just don’t expect that to ever be the main focus. “I can venture to say that there will probably never be a large PvP part of the game,” he says.”We hadn’t thought about this very much before, but it’s true that most survival games – at least that I know – tend to have a very strong PvP focus.”
Where Valheim Came From
Törnqvist specifically cites The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as one of the studio’s main inspirations for Valheim, which is clearly evident in its art style and physics-driven mechanics. Other creative influences include The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, as well as the cooperative survival format of games like Terraria — though he notably avoids mentioning games that have a more violent PvP focus. As for Valheim’s setting, its inspiration is more simple than you may expect.
“My partner Richard [Svensson] started working on the game in his own time,” Törnqvist says, “and he chose Vikings because it seemed like a popular thing, basically.” Between 2018’s God of War, the rumors surrounding the then-unknown Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and even Norse-themed RTS games like Total War: Brittania, it’s hard to argue that Vikings haven’t been a strong focus for game developers in recent years – and whether we’re currently at the tail end of that fad or not, Valheim’s timing seems to have worked out wonderfully.
[widget path=”global/article/imagegallery” parameters=”albumSlug=valheim-pc-gameplay-screenshots&captions=true”]
Svensson began development in late 2018, and Törnqvist joined in mid-2019. By 2020, the two had expanded their team to five and struck a deal with their publisher, Coffee Stain. The indie publisher, though young, has a history of strong success with co-op focused games, such as sci-fi factory simulator Satisfactory and procedural underground mining FPS Deep Rock Galactic, each of which have over 40,000 user reviews averaging out to ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ on Steam.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22This%20is%20beyond%20anything%20we%20could%20have%20ever%20imagined.”]
Valheim was a great pairing for them, according to Badylak (though it surely didn’t hurt that Törnqvist was a childhood friend).“We were obviously scouting in our own neighborhood seeing as there are tons of developers there,” he says. “What we saw in Valheim at the time was a very promising and super cozy co-op game which was, to us, kind of a sweet spot, sort of a passion that we wanted to pursue.”
Why Is Valheim So Popular?
What might have seemed initially like a good fit proved to be a huge win for both the publisher and development team. “It’s unbelievable,” says Badylak. “I mean we all had high hopes for Valheim and we really, really thought it would perform super well, but this is beyond anything we could have ever imagined.”
The sudden success of Valheim may be a surprise, but it’s easy to see why it’s taken off as quickly as it has. Not only does it offer a fairly refreshing take on a genre that’s been relatively stagnant in recent years, but it’s also a more complete experience than many early access players may be used to. With its massive map, deep feature set – this particularly evident when compared to barebones early access launches from other survival games such as Conan Exiles – and an atypical level of technical polish, Valheim is what some might call shockingly complete by early access standards.
As a result, it seems like everyone from streamers to Reddit communities have latched onto it. The Valheim subreddit already has over 100,000 members (that’s already almost half as many as Rust, which has been out since 2013) and it’s already ascended to the rank of 15th most popular game on Twitch. Big Twitch personalities like CohhCarnage and German streamer Gronkh – each with over a million followers – have been streaming the game heavily ever since its launch. Valheim’s collaborative nature, serene lo-fi visuals, and open-ended physics-based sandbox seems to be the perfect melting pot for crazy shenanigans and amazing settlements for players to build and explore – or just watch.
Building Better Vikings
The instant success of Valheim hasn’t changed the team’s development philosophy, though it has forced them to reevaluate some of their more immediate priorities. “It’s quite all-hands-on-deck for bug-fixing right now,” says Törnqvist. ”We couldn’t possibly foresee that so many users would use dedicated servers, for instance…We had to turn off automatic refreshing of the server list in-game because it was lagging too much because there are just too many servers.”
It’s far from the worst problem the team could have, though it poses another problem beyond just ‘lag’. There are currently no public servers in Valheim, meaning there are lots of private servers where people play by themselves, or with small friend groups or communities. The limit is 10 players per server right now, and the entire map is procedurally generated every time you drop your character into a new world, so there is an inherent incentive to create new worlds and hop between worlds on characters. It’s a bit unique that Valheim lets you bring a character across servers, but it’s risky since you could be killed and looted for everything you brought if you’re not careful. At least when you die in a solo world, you don’t have to worry about other players stealing your gear.
Since it’s an Early Access game, that does technically mean it’s not finished yet and Iron Gate Studios seems to have a clear plan. First up are more options for building and crafting homes, followed by a more combat-focused update. As for what lies ahead in Valheim, we already know the Iron Gate team has four updates planned for 2021. Hearth & Home will focus on base building, while the Cult of the Wolf update will focus more on combat and story. “We want to try to bring in some more different enemies and try to have kind of a narrative around that update,” says Törnqvist. After those the plan is to expand on the ocean regions with more ships and boat customization, then capping the year off with a big new area called the Mistlands.
The team hasn’t revealed much about their plans for Valheim into 2022, but given its unique position as an overnight success it’s likely the Mistlands are the end of the road. There’s no telling where else the team might send players. Perhaps a more tropical biome, or maybe players will even travel to Valhalla itself?
“I can’t tell you,” says Törnqvist. “But maybe. If Odin wills it.”
David Jagneaux is a longtime freelance writer for IGN. Talk games with him on Twitter at @David_Jagneaux.