Amanda Saunders and her husband were surrounded by three giant trolls – but only one of the two knew how to fight. Amanda knew things were going to get dicey fast, so she did the one thing she could do best: she ran. She kept sprinting in the opposite direction, but the trolls were right on her tail. Her husband Shaun was shooting every arrow he could at the beasts, eventually taking them down to save his wife from certain death.
“That’s how we work together out in the wilderness together,” Saunders says. The two weren’t on a quest to save the world or the nearby village, and they weren’t even hunting the monsters for a bounty. They couple looking to mine copper in a nearby deposit which they needed to furnish their home with new sconces. “It was a priority,” she says.
The couple had just succeeded in improving their elaborate home within Valheim, a fantasy adventure game inspired by Norse mythology. Players explore a world full of snowy mountains, thick forests, and stormy waters and gain new abilities by fighting mythical creatures.
The adventure and virtual homestead that Valheim provides has grown incredibly popular with all kinds of players – the game has sold more than three million copies since launching at the beginning of February.
But that’s not the only draw. Players can also build elaborate and intimidating fortresses that grow more complex as they sink more time into the Viking fantasy. Saunders, and thousands of others like her, are spending as much time building their Valheim homes as they are relaxing in their real ones.
“It’s quite incredible, and very humbling also,” said Henrik Törnqvist, co-founder of Valheim creators Iron Gate Studios, of the sudden success in an interview. The small Swedish studio had expected the game to sell well when they released it into Steam’s early access program, where players provide feedback as the studio continues to develop the game, but did not foresee this kind of reception.
Valheim’s success, due in part to the game’s deep mechanics and retro art style, is part of a greater trend of pandemic gaming that’s sent millions of players from game to game for brief stints of intense playtime: Animal Crossing, then Fall Guys, then Among Us, and now Valheim. Each grew steadily in popularity on Reddit, Twitter, and Steam before blowing up to greater heights thanks to Twitch and other streaming platforms. The studios behind each game enjoyed record sales, streaming viewership, and concurrent player numbers, especially when compared to anything that came before the pandemic. Valheim is currently ranked fourth with a peak of over 500,000 people playing the game at the same time. That number is only bested by mega-hits like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Dota 2.
On the surface, Valheim seems to follow the blueprint of other survival games that have tasked players with staying alive amid dangerous weather and unfriendly wildlife, but it makes key changes that have drawn a wider group of players in. Instead of mainly fighting against the world around them, Valheim pushes players to fight a series of mystical bosses. Once defeated, each boss gives players access to new tools that let them build more weapons and access more materials to add to their in-game homes.
“We wanted to have more of a feeling of an old school, single player adventure game, kind of like the older Zeldas,” Törnqvist told PC Gamer. “Where you get new equipment from defeating the bosses. And we thought it would, or we hoped that it would, mesh well with the survival aspects of a game. And, yeah, it seems it worked out.”
It helps that some of the more punishing elements of survival games, like dying from starvation, have been severely toned down in Valheim. The gameplay loop of going out to fight bosses and then returning to expand their home has pushed players like Saunders to treat Valheim like a part time job, who works around the clock to make her vision of a fortress surrounded by a moat come to life.
“Our base is covered with buildings that cater to the different needs and imaginary wants the two of us had,” Saunders says of the elaborate settlement she has built for her and her husband. “Our main house is complete with a kitchen, three bedrooms, a dining room, living room, and loft.”
Saunders has put over 80 hours into building a fully functional homestead in the gritty wilderness of Valheim. Her husband has spent even more time in the game. Other players have spent hundreds of hours building complex fortresses of their own – including the Tower of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings and a Valheim-ized version of Jurassic Park – alongside their friends. It’s attracted comparisons to Minecraft.
These pandemic obsessions don’t last long. While still popular, concurrent players for games like Fall Guys and Among Us have steadily dropped since reaching the peak of their popularity. New obsessions, like Valheim, launch as players grow weary of spending hundreds of hours in these virtual spaces.
Will Valheim be different? The five developers who worked to bring its world to life could retain a majority of their overnight success, but it’s not likely. The studio is moving to hire more horsepower to keep updates and new content coming, but it’s doubtful that they’ll be able to keep players who are spending dozens of hours every week happy for the foreseeable future.
There is, however, a lot for players to conquer within the dangerous wilderness spread across the randomly-created maps of Valheim. It’ll keep players like the Saunders and her husband focused until they’re satisfied with their Viking home. They’ve got the sconces handled, at least.
“Valheim gives me a lot of different areas to achieve success in,” Saunders says, thinking of what she wants to do after finishing the moat. “For me that’s mostly building and travelling. So, until I feel that I have completed that adequately, I will continue to play.”
The ability to connect with each other has been the single thread that connects every one of these games fuelled by pandemic popularity. Fall Guys had players dying of laughter after watching each other flop and fail, Among Us has the closest of friends lying to each other faces, and Animal Crossing saw players get married in-game. Valheim is the latest successful game that’s all about connecting, whether that be through hunting monsters together or picking out virtual light fittings.
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