Valheim hit 500,000 concurrent players yesterday on Steam, which is a new record for a “survival” game. This means Valheim now has the fifth-highest peak concurrent players of any game on Steam, behind PUBG, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, and Cyberpunk 2077. This is also quite an achievement for a game that was launched into Early Access on only 3 weeks ago and has over 3M downloads at a $20 price point in that time. For the uninitiated, here’s a quick video that explains what the game is like:

So why is Valheim a hit? Some thoughts:

Valheim is beautiful, HUGE and meditative to explore. The exploration mechanic also mimics real world exploration: you have a map, but not much else and so there is a huge sense of uncertainty and risk that comes with exploration. The world is procedurally generated and absolutely HUGE. Don’t die too far from home or the path back to recover the gear from your dead body will be long and annoying. This mechanic encourages building small camps as you explore (but this takes time and there’s risk in doing this as well as enemies can destroy your camps). Portals can be built for fast travel but these too require materials to build and should only be built when it’s clear there is a reason for it. Follow the coastline to chart out the land mass you’re on, or hop onto a boat and stay close to shore. Heading into the open ocean without a clear visual destination can be extremely risky as there are sea monsters and changing winds that can blow you off course. There’s enough depth here in the exploration component of the game to satisfy many players with this alone.

But aside from exploration, there are a host of other jobs to do in the game. Everything you do has value, so it’s easy to progress doing whatever you feel like doing. This gives players agency over what jobs they want to do in the game and is compounded in a multiplayer setting. You can focus on building, gathering materials, crafting, attacking enemies, or exploring the map. Each player can explore these roles for a little bit of time and switch to another role because other players can fill in for them. This allows for constant progress on ALL fronts and faster progress together via teamwork.

Given all these jobs that can be done, multiple systems in the game interacting with one another leads to real “experiences” and serendipity inside the game (not the first instance of this in a game, for those that remember the original World of Warcraft corrupted blood pandemic). For example, in this instance from /r/valheim, a group of players tamed some wolves and they inadvertently introduced a new species (wolves) to a biome where they were not native. The wolves took over the entire population of other animals in that biome. The way that building mechanics can collide with other mechanics in the game like Trolls raiding your village, etc leaves for a variety of interesting situtations to find yourself in. Add friends and the social component to the mix and these become shared, in-game memories.

Overall, social is a core part of the Valheim experience. Playing with friends is much more fun, as is playing over voice chat in Discord. Small mechanics like crafting signs in the game are functional but also allow for silly naming conventions and jokes on friends to arise. When you know people from your Discord are in the shared game server (especially privately hosted ones), there’s an element of “what am I missing right now” and you want to log in and play to see what’s going on in the world. But at the same time, if you miss a few days and the group progresses or does new things, it’s a delight to log in and see what has transpired. Your friends can share items with you and you can get back up to speed pretty easily - this rewards both the casual users as well as people who spend tons of time in the game with complementary experiences. Logging in after a while also brings surprises - what happened to the boars we tamed or that house we built? Did trolls smash the house and eat the boars (yes, this happens)?

These are a few of the reasons I think Valheim has really captured the zeitgeist in gaming right now - while none of these mechanics are particularly novel on their own (Minecraft has done a lot of these things as well), it is the specific flavor and execution around them that makes them compelling and fresh in Valheim.

Valheim has a small dev team (only 5 as far as I can tell at the time of this writing) but is also building a thriving community and I expect will make for a great mod community. We are already starting to see some mods take shape and I will be keeping a close eye on them.

The game is still early access but as you can see from some of the above examples it is baked enough that it facilitates a lot of interesting experiences. It will be really exciting to see how the team evolves the game going forward to continue building on the hype.