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What is Valheim? 2021’s first surprise video game phenomenon, explained

It’s always tough to predict what game will be the next breakout multiplayer hit, and that’s especially evident with Valheim. When the Viking survival game entered early access on February 2, there was no reason to think it would be a hit right out the gate. But within just two weeks, it has shattered any and all expectations.

The game has been dominating Steam’s bestsellers chart since its release, sitting above games like Cyberpunk 2077 and Halo: The Master Chief Collection. At its peak, the game had 367,000 concurrent players, which is unheard of for a game of this scale so early into its release. For comparison, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds didn’t hit that level until several months after its launch. Within two weeks, the game has sold 2 million copies.

Success stories like this tend to have a slower boil to them, making this a particularly sudden phenomenon. Here’s the basic rundown of what Valheim is and where it came from.

What is Valheim?

Valheim is an open-world survival game set in the age of vikings. For those unfamiliar with the genre, survival games generally hinge on open-ended exploration. Players get to navigate a big world that acts as a sprawling sandbox full of enemies to fight, places to see, and resources to collect. Think games like Rust, Ark: Survival Evolved, and yes, Minecraft.

Valheim Early Access Launch Trailer

Like other games in the genre, Valheim allows players to craft all sorts of tools and structures. There’s a large building component to the game where players can easily construct and break down massive wooden buildings. It’s a particularly streamlined building system that makes the game more approachable than some of its peers.

The Viking setting is undoubtedly one of its main draws. Players wield axes and bows and travel around luscious landscapes on foot and by raft. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is an obvious point of comparison, but Valheim is much less brutal. It’s a little more whimsical, with a Fortnite-esque art style, strange creatures to battle, and generally chill vibe.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The fact that it’s a multiplayer game especially helps its case. We’ve seen how much players are itching for good co-op experiences during the pandemic, with unexpected hits like Among Us and Phasmophobia springing up left and right. Valheim simply offers a fun way to connect with friends. Players can get together with their pals to wander the world, build a base together, or hunt down mythical beasts.

Those are just the broad strokes, but there’s nothing too fancy about what’s happening here overall. Valheim is just a very good iteration of a niche genre that already works well in early access. The combination of streamlined mechanics, clear progression, multiplayer gameplay, and a cheap price point seem to be the perfect blend for success. The timing certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Where did it come from?

Valheim’s success only gets more surprising when tracking down its origins. The game comes from Iron Gate Studio, which appears to be a new developer. Valheim is its debut game, making this an especially impressive feat.

The game is published by Coffee Stain Studios, which makes a bit more sense. The publisher is responsible for the comedy physics game Goat Simulator, which was a phenomenon in its own right. It also put out Deep Rock Galactic and Satisfactory, which are both niche games with very dedicated fan bases.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

What’s odd is that the game’s success doesn’t seem to be due to any particular moment. Sometimes, all it takes is for a big Twitch streamer to play the game once, setting off a sudden sales spike. While the game has been a hit with viewers on the platform, it doesn’t appear to be the reason for its growth. It just looks to be a natural phenomenon that has grown organically. Perhaps that’s because the game has an Overwhelmingly Positive rating on Steam, with nearly 40 thousand reviews, and has been sitting at the top of its sales chart for weeks now. The exposure and good word of mouth are working wonders for it.

It’s difficult to predict where the game goes from here. The survival crafting genre is somewhat erratic, toeing the line between niche and mainstream gaming. It’s not as easily available to all players as a game like Among Us, nor does it invent a bold new genre like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. There’s a chance that Valheim peaks early due to the sudden interest and quickly tapers off, leaving it with a player base more on par with something like Rust.

At the moment, though, that doesn’t seem to be its trajectory. Valheim is only growin, and is coming off of a monstrous holiday weekend that made headlines. Considering that the game is in early access, it’ll likely get frequent updates, which is important at this stage. That’ll allow Iron Gate to keep fans coming back during this crucial moment of hype, with new updates that quickly change the landscape of the game. Players are on the hook; developers just need to reel them in.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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