Valheim took the gaming world by storm when it hit early access in February this year. A complex survival game crafted by the (then) five-person strong Iron Gate Studio out of Sweden, the launch nabbed a 9/10 review and by March had more than one million players per team member.
Seven months later, and it's streaking back up the player count charts on Steam again thanks to the release of "Hearth and Home", Valheim's first major update. The content drop brings with it an array of changes for all facets of the game — new building possibilities, new items to find (particularly in the Mountains), new food to cook and more.
For some, seven months is a long time to wait between drinks, though veterans of other survival games like Subnautica and The Forest will probably think nothing of it. And for Iron Gate Studio, it was a question of priorities.
"Basically, the amount of people playing made it really important for us to fix a lot of bugs pretty immediately after launch," says Henrik Tonqvist, co-founder of Iron Gate Studio. "No one anticipated that Valheim would become as popular as it did became pretty much right off our launch. So that was a pretty daunting task, making sure that everyone can play our game."
"I think we had internally said that we wanted to start working on Hearth and Home two weeks after the early access [launch] — that was the plan, at least," adds Robin Eyre, Lead Artist at Iron Gate. "But I still think we did it the right way, because we need a good foundation to stand on. And we need people to be able to play the game, to not just push out content for a broken game. And even though we still have issues now I think it was the right choice. And also, it was like a blessing in disguise as well, because all the players that did come to the game allowed us to actually find all the [bugs] we didn't find during beta."
Which is why, if you head back to the launch of Valheim, you'll see the team had grand plans for what they'd put out before the end of 2021.
"We had a roadmap at launch," Henrik explains. "We had a lot of updates planned, but we made the decision to scrap that and just go with a more of a dynamic plan for the game. I mean, we obviously have the large picture planned out, with the new biomes and such, but we found out that having a roadmap wasn't really tenable for us, since we develop the game in such a way that there's always new stuff that we think about and we didn't want to be shackled by [those things]."
"And also, the thing is, I think [milestones on] the roadmap seemed a little bit bigger than they actually were meant to be," Robin continues. "Like with ship customisation and the Cult of the Wolf that was on the roadmap, they sound bigger than they actually are. So it doesn't mean that they're out of the roadmap entirely, it's just, when we have time we're gonna push that stuff out in between the bigger content patches instead. Not try to hype it up or advertise it in a [major] way, just push it out to the people so they can test it and play with it.
"Instead of where Mistlands is the next big thing that we're working on, it wouldn't make sense to push that out as a little small update, where you get one enemy one week, and then next week, you get another enemy. That doesn't really make sense."
"We just want to do it in a more organic way," Henrik says, finishing the thought.
In a lot of ways, it's as if Valheim is mimicking the general survival game experience. Developing Valheim, it seems, is a lot like playing Valheim, where you put together these grand plans, you set out on your mission and then you find yourself doing something wildly different along the way. And over time you will wind up completing your project, but those detours you took also add immensely to the experience.
That experience has allowed the Iron Gate team to respond quickly to issues. Over the weekend, it quickly became apparent the new food system didn't work as intended. Hearth and Home added a load of new recipes and rebalanced what food does for those eating it, categorising each meal into one of three areas; Health, Stamina, and both.
Eating Health or Stamina food boosts its respective stat to a huge degree, while the third category of foods boost both, but less-so. It was coupled with a rebalancing of the combat in general, narrowing in on a more focused role-based system of fighting. Health players could focus on tanking while Stamina players could deal sustained damage — and because roles can be switched by simply eating a different meal, players aren't railroaded into forever playing tank or DPS.
It was tuned a little aggressively, however, and solo players in particular had a rough time with it — no longer able to wear damage they once had or engage in combat for as long, people who played alone found themselves struggling with content they'd previously dominated.
Iron Gate responded quickly though, pushing out a balance patch before the weekend was over, adding health to Stamina foods, stamina to Health foods and a little of both to the in-between. Some people are still struggling, however.
"Because of how the food system now works, we were a little bit worried that it might be too harsh on some people," Robin explains. "Especially people who go into late game, who don't start from the beginning again. If you just go in late game, when you're at plains and so on, and you just eat some random food [you find there], you're probably going to die."
"The balance patch… most people seem to be pretty pleased with it," Henrik explains. "But that being said, we're watching closely what people are saying all the time."
That's the attitude that drives Iron Gate. The team pays close attention to what the community is saying, and it informs — not drives — how they continue to develop the game. It's a constant balancing act. Items like the Cartography table, which lets players share their map with one another, and the Obliterator, which destroys items, so you no longer need to create a landfill when you can't use something any longer — these were both suggestions from the community.
But other things the fans have been crying out for remain absent. The inventory system, for example, is nail-bitingly restrictive. You've got limited space in your backpack, you've got an encumbrance system to deal with — inventory management is the real final boss of Valheim. Deciding what to bring and what to leave behind is sometimes as important to your success as eating the right food, or not aggroing that Lox with a murderous gleam in its eye.
But the inventory system is all part of that same balancing act — managing what the players want against the game Iron Gate wants to make.
"So basically, when playing a survival game, I think one of the big choices you make is what do you take and what do you leave behind?" Robin says. "So if you ask me, I would struggle a little bit to try to give more inventory space because I think that the choices you make make it more interesting. But obviously there is a limit somewhere. And when we feel that we have reached that limit at Iron Gate, I think a lot of players will have already reached that limit. But when we reach that limit, maybe we can have another look at it."
"This is a prime example of one of the issues where what we want from Valheim and what our fans want is something we have to handle," Henrik adds, chuckling. "Let's not fool ourselves, it's obvious that people want more inventory space. And it's something we're discussing."
My pitch? With Hearth and Home you can put saddles on your tame Loxen — why not saddlebags too? Then you can load your giant wooly bison onto a ship, and sail across the ocean with those bags filled to the brim — only to have a sea serpent show up, destroy the boat and send everything you ever owned to the bottom of the ocean.
"Perfect," Robin says.
"No comment," adds Henrik.
From here, Iron Gate charts its path towards Mistlands — a brand new biome, with all new elements to explore. They're keeping details close to their chest, but what we do know is that it will give players more of what they love about Valheim while remaining true to the Swedish team's grand viking vision.
Joab Gilroy is an Australian freelancer that specialises in competitive online games. You can tweet at him here.