What is Valheim?
In Valheim, players come together as viking survivors, chosen by Odin to conquer a primordial realm and make it hospitable. Together, they gather resources, build forts, and forge the gear they need to reach their goal. The goal? To slay five mythical creatures that even the gods fear.
Turns out, Valheim is the survival game players needed. In just two weeks after the Early Access release of Valheim on Steam, the game sold over 2 million copies. Looking at reviews and forum threads about the game, players are espousing great satisfaction with the game. It does something right with the survival genre.
When thinking of multiplayer survival games, they are often beset by griefers, who destroy your progress, or gankers, who kill you over and over again with much better gear. Then Valheim comes in with a relaxing, yet challenging co-op survival game. Where Player versus Player combat is turned off by default! Based on that alone, it makes sense that it’s a hit. Who knew surviving the harsh woodlands, fending off monsters, and roaming the turbulent seas of the procedurally generated 10th realm of Yggdrasil would be so … wholesome?
A meaningful journey awaits.
Which brings us to our main point: the game of Valheim is one of communal struggling and challenging goals best overcome with shared effort. And by engaging in this well-designed gameplay loop, players mimic what essentially brought our ancestors to live together in tribes and develop prosocial behavior (a subject we love talking about).
It’s not a secret that we here at Digital Devotion Games seek out games to play together and be inspired by. Valheim is the latest game to enrapture us and help us learn more about what makes positive social player interactions happen in games. So, today, I’d like to share with you what we have found to be the aspects of Valheim that makes it a genuinely prosocial experience.
The main points I’ll be covering are:
Voyages into uncertainty.
The social benefits of resource scarcity.
Linking mood and multiplayer gameplay.
It’s going to be a long blog post. But if you’re interested in how and why Valheim works so well, then huddle up around the bonfire and let me tell you all about it…
Stay awhile and listen.
Voyages into uncertainty
Stories tend to follow ‘The Hero’s Journey’. A main protagonist goes on an adventure to defeat the dragon and obtain its gold. Players of Valheim will similarly venture out into the unknown wilds in search for glory (and cool loot). Stumbling across caves and dungeons, players find runestones that reveal the summoning shrine of the next boss monster. What the boss is like or how hard it is, is pretty much unknown. Beset by uncertainty, players will simply have to prepare for the worst and make the journey towards battle.
The premise is simple. Having a common goal, like defeating the next boss, gives everyone something shared to aim for together. If the goal was to level up your character, or to survive the longest, then each player might be a lot more selfishly oriented. But having a difficult ‘loot-filled dragon’ to defeat makes all the grinding for scarce resources and sharing of combat equipment a worthwhile endeavor. The more players with iron armor and swords you have, the better your chances at defeating these epic creatures. With your combined power you’ll unlock more cool stuff to do and obtain.
For example, killing a boss grants you its ‘forsaken power’, which buffs both you and all allies around you for 5 minutes. It has become a sort of ritual for us to shout out “come to me for Eikthyr buff!” and see everyone quickly huddle up for the buff. Even the rewards are prosocial!
This is usually accompanied by a war cry or a pep talk!
But the premise is not the only aspect that makes these voyages and epic battles prosocial. It’s when they’re shared with others that they become memorable and valuable.
Studies have been made on the social costs of extraordinary experiences. They have found that experiencing unique situations alone can actually spoil social interactions with other people. Especially if they’re not relatable. But sharing experiences with other people makes them even better, because you have something unique that affirms your relationship as meaningful.
Just take this Valheim journey as an example: We built a boat and sailed across the sea to fight ‘The Elder’-boss. While sailing peacefully, we were suddenly beset by rain and surprised by a vicious sea serpent attacking our boat, nearly sinking it. We scared off the beast with our trusty bows and arrows. But then we came across a ‘deathsquito’, who killed one of our teammembers in a single blow. Barely escaping the rabid insect, we quickly built a portal and hooked it up to our main base. After our fallen viking returned and grabbed his items from his corpse, we found the shrine for ‘The Elder’. We summoned him for an epic battle, and he was harder than we thought! In the end, though, we did win – getting the key we needed to enter the crypts of the swamp.
This happened more than a week ago, but I can remember every part of it clearly. Exploring the unknown and facing adversity with friends is a surefire way to create memories.
This picture was taken just moments before the sea serpent attacked.
It’s a combination of:
- the low intensity of grinding for resources and traveling
- and the high intensity of genuinely difficult boss battles
It provides the contrast that makes each journey engaging and memorable. And we still don’t know what else the game has to offer us – which is exciting to say the least!
The social benefits of resource scarcity
Scarcity of resources might make you think of panicking people hoarding toilet paper as pandemics are announced. But, it turns out, people can be very generous, if their act of giving helps themselves as well. Researchers have found that when people are reliant on others, they behave more generously. To quote the paper: “Reminders of resource scarcity can in fact promote generous behaviors when the connection between such behaviors and advancing one’s own welfare is made salient.” Other researchers also found that scarcity does not reduce the human impulse for cooperation. How does this play out in Valheim?
In Valheim, players are essentially primed to cooperate from the start. And most progression in the game is not just beneficial to one player, but to all. For example, the increased efficiency of an iron axe, compared to a stone axe, makes gathering wood much more productive. So even though it is a tool equipped by a single player, it helps out everyone.
Which leads to another point. Gathering resources can be both a cooperative activity and an avenue for gifting – often in the form of roles. For example, it is much more time-effective to have one person mine the ore, while another transports it to the forges with a cart.
Bringing home the goods.
But this also happens on a specialist level. In our case, one of us is the cook, making sure we don’t go on boat voyages on empty stomachs. Another is the house carpenter, who constructs the forts we call home. We experienced that we would freely adopt diverse roles and responsibilities. All based on what the group needed to progress. This meant we could ‘give gifts’ to the group in meaningful ways. And for those receiving them, not worrying about if they had good food as they returned to a base just feels nice.
In other words, the scarcity of resources and the nature of players’ roles in-game makes them exercise prosocial behaviour! As the researchers argue in the above-mentioned studies, hurting your reputation might just cost you in the long run. So helping others becomes the main way to help yourself. Good job, Valheim developers!
Linking mood and multiplayer gameplay
Valheim has already been praised for its immersive ambience and soundscapes (after all, it is the motto of the developer), but does it improve the social aspects of the game as well?
First of all, the main effect of background music, ambient vfx, and similar is to fill out the space of the game world and induce a certain mood in the player. I mean, would DOOM really be the experience it is, if the music and environmental design didn’t match the brutality and aggression of the gameplay?
Moods color the way we perceive – not just the game, but also each other. It’s a widely studied phenomenon in social psychology (just check this textbook chapter out), and can generally be summed up as; your mood influences how you perceive, behave, and communicate.
In Valheim, the mood is generally tranquil and relaxing when you’re simply gathering resources, building your base, or crafting gear. You might get interrupted now and then by a Greydwarf or have to avoid a falling tree trunk crushing you, but they are mostly there to keep you on your toes. When all players feel this mood affect them, almost unconsciously, then I’d wager that they’re all a bit more relaxed and positive when it comes to social interactions.
Hooked on a feeling!
Match this with the repetitive actions of cutting wood, mining ore, and so on, you might even argue that the game is meditative. And the music of the game’s starting area, the Meadows, is definitely the kind of music to stimulate alpha brain waves in the listener. Evidence suggests music like that can invoke states of relaxation, comfortability, and concentration.
In our experience, it’s almost as if the game is so immersive and non-rushing – that you and your friends can just be in it together. That is, until you fight a boss, then the mood is more of panic, distress, and ‘help, help, it’s after me!’.
That was just some of the thoughts we’ve had about Valheim, and why it really works as a prosocial multiplayer game.
Valheim just does a lot of things right from our perspective. We’ve been taking notes as we play! So, we’re definitely looking forward to what else the developers have in store for us, as we conquer the world they’ve built.
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See you ’round the block!
Jonas, Community Manager & Audio Designer