The story of how Vancouver-based game developer Klei Entertainment created Don’t Starve

Local game company shows how the company all started from

The founder of Klei Entertainment, Jamie Cheng, says developing their game Oxygen Not Included was a lot of fun, and felt like he was getting away with something. “I Feel like we have tricked a million people into doing their homework, or something,” he said.

In an interview with game documentary company Noclip, Cheng describes how Klei came to be and some of their early struggles.

Klei was founded in July, 2005 by Jamie Cheng. At that time he had been working at Relic Entertainment for nearly three years. Also based in Vancouver, Relic Entertainment made the Dawn of War series. 

Cheng said that Relic had a great policy because whatever games you made at night were yours. He said that “We carried on that part of the policy of course to Klei.” So during the nights working at Relic he started to design a game called EETS. He said that they just started showing the game called EETS around, and people started liking the game. EETS is about the player figuring out puzzles to complete levels. While he was showing it around, someone said “hey you should try to sell this” but Cheng believed that trying to sell the game would never work.

Klei might never have come to exist if not for an early choice by Cheng. After working for Relic, Cheng said that he had applied to be a programmer in Shanghai for Ubisoft and said that he had two choices. Either to go to Shanghai and be a programmer or he could just continue what he was doing and just see where that led him. He ended up just seeing what would happen.

After 14 years he was still making games, but it wasn’t always easy to get by. “We got some funding from the government, and that let me so that I could eat. But you know, let me live another day, and try again and another day.” 

Not all of the games that Klei had worked on got created. One such disappointment that never saw the light of day was Sugar Rush. Sugar Rush was worked on from 2008 until 2010. In late August of 2010, two weeks before Sugar Rush was supposed to be released, Nexon shut down the whole game. No one really knows why Nexon did. Cheng said, “It was like a hundred people around us got laid off.”

This was very hard for Klei to hear because they were really hoping for the game to work out. To them, the game looked like it could have been a success. 

Cheng and his workers had had a premonition that something like that might happen and they knew that they needed a backup plan. That’s when together Cheng and Jeff started prototyping Shank. Cheng said he was playing a lot of “Devil May Cry.” This was where they got inspiration for the game Shank.  Shank is a side-scrolling beat-up people type game. You complete levels by beating up people and defeating bosses, and you have three types of weaponry. You have your knives, heavy hitting melee weapons such as a chainsaw, and you have your firearms which are your pistols. 

They had only a few months until they had the Game Developers Conference (GDC) so they had to at least have a functioning game. GDC is when all the different gaming companies come together and talk about ideas they have for games, help solve problems they have, and overall look at what companies have done. Cheng, Jeff, and the other programmers got to work on Shank, and had put together a demo of the game in two and a half months. 

When GDC came around they pitched their prototype and the investors were interested. The game would eventually be released by Electronic Arts in 2010. 

After they did the deal for Shank, both Cheng and Jeff were talking about what they should do, and if they still wanted to be game developers. Jeff and Jamie were both saying “Do we wanna keep doing this? This is crazy.” Cheng said “We’re running on a treadmill” because they need to find the next deal, but even if they got a deal, how much money are they actually going to make from it, because a lot of it goes to the publisher. This is around 25% of all the revenue earned. 

They didn’t want to make side-scrolling games like a lot of other games. They wanted the game to be special. Cheng talked to the staff and said, “Let’s make sure that our next game is our own, and not side-scrolling.” So the project name was called, “Project not side-scrolling.” 

Project Not Side-Scrolling turned into Don’t Starve, which started with Kevin Forbes and other people who got together and made a very poorly made game that Cheng said looked like a “Robinson Crusoe style game.” It’s about a guy named Wilson. He is stranded alone on an island and he is starving. 

The goal of the game is self-evident from the name Don’t Starve, where you need to find food and craft tools for your survival. The game is an action-adventure game, and you can go anywhere on the map as long as you have the materials. You can also play as a variety of characters with different stats. 

Klei found out that Google was looking for games for their Chrome web store, so they started pitching ideas to the Chrome web and Don’t Starve was one of them. 

When they were pitching the prototype version of Don’t Starve to Google, they showed the version that would get bought. But once Google said yes, they went ahead and built the game they wanted to make. Cheng said “We’d have some money to do something. Let’s go for it. This is a free chance.” 

It was a gamble. 

Cheng relates that when Google saw the results, they were pleased, despite recognizing that it wasn’t actually the game that they had bought. 

Seven months into it, Don’t Starve went from just an attraction to doing quite well, up to launch on popular PC gaming app Steam. “It was just incredible,” Cheng said. 

One of the key design concepts was making the game intrinsically rewarding by making it challenging and forcing the player to learn. 

“It’s interesting to learn,” Cheng explained to Noclip.  “People want to learn, and people want to experience things, they don’t have to get something out of that” 

Klei has done a lot of expansions, but the biggest one was to try and make Don’t Starve a multiplayer game. “It’s pretty funny you know, Kevin, who really designed the first version, he was pretty anti-multiplayer,” Cheng said. But every single time that someone new joined Klei he would run the same idea past them:“ Multiplayer Don’t Starve, what do you think?” If they were kind of unsure about it, Cheng would let it go. Cheng believed that multiplayer for Don’t Starve would be an interesting experience for people to play.  After a year and a half, one of the programmers who joined Klei said, “Yeah, that sounds like a really great idea.”   

So they started thinking about how that would work, and prototypes were being made. They made the whole thing work in six months, and it was called Don’t Starve Together. One of the expansions for the game was Don’t Starve Shipwrecked. Shipwrecked was about the player being stuck on an island except they used boats to get around. They would find all new things in the world, and would find new bosses and animals.

Since the success of Don’t Starve, Klei has also worked on other games such as Invisible, Inc. which is a game where you control a group of spies infiltrating corporate locations and stealing information, and Oxygen Not Included–a space-colony simulation game, where you build machines to gather resources and survive.  Klei has sold over 2 million copies of Oxygen Not Included so far.

Cheng says “The way that we hope to sell games is for someone to say, ‘Wow, I just played this game. I’ve never had that experience before.’ ‘You should play it because you won’t get it anywhere else.”

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