Klei Entertainment has only been going for the last 7 years, yet within the last 3, they’ve seen a stratospheric rise into the cream of the indie developer crop through the likes of games such as Shank, Mark of the Ninja, and, most recently, Don’t Starve.
We had the opportunity to get in touch with Klei founder Jamie Cheng in regards to what it’s like having a community-fueled development process, what principles the team live by, and what does this all mean for the next generation?
When you have a selection of memorable franchises in front of you to choose from, it begs the question as to whether a developer will continually push themselves to create new worlds, or find safety through the relative ‘ease’ of sequelization. Having that ‘one game’ that propels you into the minds of the mainstream gamer means you’ve essentially ‘made it’, but then comes the idea of having to deliver on past successes again and again.
“There’s always some healthy paranoia,” says Cheng. “When we’ve focused on the idea, it becomes more about whether we can truly build that idea out rather than comparing it to our past successes.”
Don’t Starve is such a game. Their latest work is as far a cry as can be from their first work, Eets, a small object-placing puzzle-platformer with a cutesy art style reminiscent of Sam & Max. Instead, Don’t Starve connotes the most darkly playful Tim Burton pieces, dropping the player into a world with no tutorial or stringent narrative and just asking them to survive the days that come. “[It’s] a game that’s a huge departure from Mark of the Ninja. We dedicated ourselves to build a game where players set their own goals, and were intrinsically rewarded by the gameplay, rather than us doling out rewards as you went along”.
It’s a fascinating concept, and one that harkens back to a time before achievements or trophies, back to a time when a game could ONLY be enjoyed for it’s existence alone. Players entering the world of Don’t Starve know they are going to die eventually, but the lands explored, creatures befriended, and structures fortified along the way prove that is where the true beauty of the game lies. Cheng is very steadfast in his approach to progressing the gaming medium by taking risks such as this, and although this decision to reward the player through the very act of gameplay itself had to be bandied about the team a bit, “once we decided we were doing that, it was about how we were going to make it happen rather than how people will perceive it based on what Mark of the Ninja was. We’re not specifically opposed to sequels, but I think it has to explore meaningful new experiences.”
One of Klei‘s only titles to be granted a sequel was Shank, a side-scrolling slasher with super-tight controls that featured the ability to shoot, stab, grab and throw a wide variety of enemies throughout it’s single and co-op campaigns. Whilst Shank was the game that made heavyweights EA take notice and decide to publish, it was the refined mechanics and originality of Mark of the Ninja that really started to set Klei apart from the rest.
MotN proved to be one of the biggest draws to the company in terms of combining their unique visually-arresting art style with gameplay mechanics that were a brilliant blend of old-school side-scrolling, spruced up through fluid animation techniques. It looked absolutely stunning, and with Creative Director Jeff Agala again lending his impressive skills to the games cut scenes and art direction, MotN turned into three-quarters badass stealth ’em up, one-quarter slickly produced cartoon.
“Don’t Starve was actually in production alongside Mark of the Ninja,” says Cheng. “One of the reasons we have such a great team is because we invest in our creativity. Klei is a place where we experiment with lots of different things, including technology, process, art, and design. And that process of experimentation is core to our culture”.
In regards to outside influences, Cheng states there are far too many to list, yet makes it clear that he “love, love, love[s] Miyazaki. I recently watched ‘Only Yesterday‘, which was never released in North America, and it’s simply wonderful. From a design perspective, I tend to get my inspiration from a collage of places that are hard to pinpoint. I think the Fables comic has probably seeped into a lot of my subconscious these days.”
It’s no surprise then, that looking forward to the next generation and technologies such as the Oculus Rift can play a part in bringing to life a creative vision; “I see software as a way to support the core concepts of the game, rather than the other way around, but I do see the value in deciding the box you’re going to be creative in,” says Cheng.
When developing Don’t Starve, many different iterations of the game were put out, with community feedback helping the team tailor specific aspects to what fans did or didn’t like. In an age where social media has created a constantly connected bond between creators and consumers, the question of how much an original vision can be changed to suit the public instead of its intended form is a poignant one.
“Ultimately we need to be bold in our design in order to push the medium. We spend a lot of time discussing with our community and being clear what our vision is, and we’ve found the community to be very supportive of that. If we can focus the discussions around the core concept, then the suggestions also become more focused and we work together to make a better experience,” states Cheng.
With one of of Klei’s core principles being unbounded creative freedom, this extends into their relationship with the fans, “I’m a big fan of seeing the best in people, and by and large, I’ve found the Don’t Starve community to be some of the friendliest, most thoughtful people around. It’s awesome.”
With Shank, Mark of the Ninja, and Don’t Starve all putting two feet squarely in the ‘definitely-worth-your-time’ category, Klei are also hopefully about to unveil more details surrounding their stealthy, ‘turn-based tactical espionage’ game Incognita very soon.
One thing’s for certain though: with a community as fervent as Klei‘s, it won’t stay hidden for long.