Games like Stardew Valley prove we're in a gaming golden age

I have a tendency to be pretty negative in my opinion articles about video games, usually because those opinion posts are covering big publishers or the games they put out. If those articles were the only thing you had to go on, I wouldn't blame you for thinking I'm some kind of eternal pessimist who doesn't actually enjoy games despite the fact that he writes about them for a living. On the contrary, I think we're actually in the midst of a gaming golden age, though big publishers and their AAA games have very little to do with it.

You only need to look at a thriving indie scene to see what I'm talking about. On PC, which is a more open platform than consoles like the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch, anyone can create and publish their game these days. While that does mean that there's an huge amount of garbage on storefronts like Steam, it also means that there's a near-endless amount of games that are well worth both your time and money, made by people who are gamers themselves and want to be part of the communities they create.

Though there are plenty of games I could cite as proof of my claim, Stardew Valley is perhaps the most relevant example here at the end of 2020. As something of a holiday surprise, developer Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone shipped the game's version 1.5 content update on December 21st, delivering what he says is Stardew Valley's biggest update yet.

Barone dropped this update as a complete surprise – he didn't announce a release date beforehand, and just the day before release he was teasing new features in version 1.5 as if the update was still some time off. He also didn't charge anything for this update, nor has he charged anything for any of Stardew Valley's updates throughout the years. They've all been free to everyone, even though they've clearly taken significant work because they've all added large swathes of new content to the game.

Barone could have easily charged for these updates as DLC, because the simple truth is that other developers and publishers have charged money for DLC that adds far less and people have gladly paid it. Despite that, Stardew Valley has been priced at $14.99 on Steam for its entire existence. It has never cost more than that to get the full Stardew Valley experience, and that's downright impressive in an age where major publishers are increasing prices on retail games to $70 as they pretend they aren't making money hand-over-fist through predatory loot boxes and microtransactions.

But to suggest that Stardew Valley is special just because it offers a lot of content at a good price doesn't tell the whole story, and it does neither Barone nor his game justice. Stardew Valley is largely a one-man show, as Barone, to my knowledge, developed the entire base game on his own and only called in help from Chucklefish Games to help with localization, post-launch multiplayer development, and console ports after the finished game shipped.

When I say it's a one-man show, I don't just mean that Barone did the pixel art, music, writing, and coding all on his own (though that's exactly what he did). He's also active within the Stardew Valley community, and you can spot him regularly on both Reddit and Twitter offering tech support to people experiencing issues with the game. When Stardew Valley first launched, I remember reaching out to him myself because I thought my save file was corrupted – not only did he get back to me quickly, but he offered to fix the save file for me (in my case, though, the save file was actually fine and I was just being a panicky user after a crash).

As far as I can tell, Stardew Valley is a passion project in every sense for Barone, and that's precisely what makes it so good. While I'm sure that Stardew Valley more than pays Barone's bills these days, I don't think he made the game with the hopes of getting rich. Instead, I think he made it because it was the game he wanted to play himself – a stark contrast from the big business executives who only view games as a vehicle to make as much cash as possible.

Barone is the perfect example of the kind of developer the gaming industry needs, and if you visit the Stardew Valley subreddit, you'll see a legion of players singing his praises at every opportunity. The amazing thing is that Barone is not alone in the indie game space. There are many more indie developers who are making games because they love gaming, and who truly want to make connections with their players over their shared love of video games.

I can list off half a dozen of them without even taking a look at my Steam library: Re-Logic with Terraria; Subset Games with FTL: Faster Than Light and Into the Breach; Supergiant Games with Hades, Bastion, and Transistor; Ludeon Studios with RimWorld; Wube Software with Factorio; and Team Cherry with Hollow Knight. All of these developers are clearly in the race because they love video games, and that's a wonderful thing to see.

Obviously, I'm not saying that developers who work at massive studios don't love gaming, but there is a certain authenticity that the corporate world takes away from game development. With all of the studios I listed above, you have the game makers interacting directly with their users to some extent, collecting feedback and working within the community to make their games better. You don't get that same kind of personal connection at massive publishing houses, where the executives calling the shots are separated from the public by PR teams and press releases. Sure, maybe you can go find an individual developer on Twitter, but chances are they don't have the power to implement change in their games in the same way these indie devs do.

In a world where corporate greed poisons so many industries, it's so encouraging to see developers like Barone and Re-Logic and Subset offering so much value to the people who play their games. The number of developers like the ones I've listed in this article is only going to grow as platform access and developer tools become more accessible, too.

In fact, I'm confident saying that in the coming decades, the best gaming experiences will increasingly come from indie developers who are gamers first like the rest of us, setting out to make the game they've always wanted to play themselves. We truly are in a gaming golden age at the moment, you just have to know where to look to find evidence of it.