There’s no strict science to a game’s success. Every developer hopes their game will become the next viral sensation — on every Twitch stream, millions of sales in a matter of weeks, and concurrent player numbers through the roof — but it’s easy to want things and much harder to be prepared for them.
“Yeah, no, we didn’t go in thinking this was possible,” admitted Henrik Törnqvist, co-founder of Valheim developer Iron Gate. The Norse survival game was released just over a month ago and has sold over five million copies on Steam Early Access, which is impressive for a title that started off as a side-project for its five-member team. “We actually had to slow down the roadmap for the game,” Törnqvist said, elaborating that the dramatic influx of players made stamping out bugs a higher priority.
Sebastian Badylak, the game’s executive producer at publisher Coffee Stain studios, chimed in at the mention of where Valheim is going. “I’m just looking forward to kind of seeing it through in the short term,” he added, “which is definitely sort of getting to a point where we have squashed all the major bugs and can start talking about the first update and stuff like that.”
Coffee Stain, which made the wacky Goat Simulator in 2014, might never have been involved with the mega-successful Valheim if not for a number of coincidences for Badylak and Iron Gate. As Badylak tells it, he and Törnqvist went to Elementary School together and met in the second grade. The pair followed similar paths in life, meeting Richard Svensson, Iron Gate’s other co-founder, in college for game development. Badylak and Törnqvist went to create their own studio, while Svensson went off on his own.
Over time, the parties separated and reconnected, but after the wild success of Goat Simulator, Coffee Stain began looking to publish local games and spread some of wealth around. At the time, Svensson and Törnqvist were getting a prototype of Valheim up and running and were eager to show it to Badylak. Being only a town over, he went to check it out, and fell in love with the game’s concept.
In Valheim, players start off already dead. They’re vikings that have passed away and are given another chance at life in a limbo of sorts. If they can defeat a number of powerful monsters, they win their escape, but the monsters have to be summoned first and do not mess around. Players who summon without preparing to have their Purgatory bodies rocked and all their possessions destroyed are in for a rude awakening.
If that sounds like other games you may have heard of, there’s a good reason: it’s a lot like those other games. Törnqvist freely lists off his influences, Dark Souls, Skyrim, and Breath of the Wild chief among them. The sandbox sidescroller Terraria also had significant influence over development. Valheim couldn’t exist before this, because seeing how those games operated and the ways which they simultaneously freed and managed players led the game to where it is today.
Why vikings, though?
“I want to point to the TV series, to be honest,” Törnqvist responded, referring to the History Channel drama Vikings from 2013. “I think that’s sort of it, because that is at least five or six years old now since it first aired, right? I like that it re-popularized Vikings in a pretty glamorous way, I would say — not necessarily historically correct, but the way you want the Viking story to be told.”
The game’s artstyle is also unique, blending impressive environmental effects with low-poly character models. Törnqvist explained the very real game design reasons for this, stating that the simpler models make it easier to change things during development and implement new assets during the game. There were other reasons, though.
“Honestly, we mostly just felt that it was time for PlayStation graphics to make a comeback,” he joked. “Pixel art in a 3D space is a good vibe.”
There’s still quite a bit on Iron Gate’s plate with regards to Valheim, as they feel like they have only just started. The tutorial is getting tweaked and balanced with feedback, more biomes are on the docket to be added, and the developer is still coming to grips with being one of the most popular games on the internet right now. Despite all that, I asked Törnqvist what he’s most looking forward to doing this year.
“Oh, man, Dwarf Fortress on Steam,” he answered. “Mouse support sounds good for me personally, hopefully that’s coming this year.”