Stardew Valley Expanded exceeded its creator’s wildest dreams (2024)

Devin Hedegaard first saw Stardew Valley in passing in 2017. “I had recently graduated college and moved back home with my parents to find a job,” he says. “My brother was playing some farming pixel game on his PlayStation 4.”

Fast forward six years, and Hedegaard is better known as FlashShifter, the developer of the incredibly popular mod Stardew Valley Expanded. With dozens of new characters, including six new marriage candidates; changes to the map, including a whole new continent to explore; and countless additions to events, crops, fish, furniture, and more, Expanded revitalized the game for many who had already put hundreds of hours into their farms and communities. With over 1.8 million unique downloads on Nexus Mods, it’s far and away the most popular content mod for Stardew.

It began, of course, with Hedegaard himself sinking that much time into the game. After seeing his brother playing, he noticed it again when browsing the Nintendo eShop. He knew it was somewhat like Harvest Moon, a series he loved, and it wasn’t expensive. “So I decided, why not try it out?” he says. “Little did I know that it would be the equivalent of Alice falling down that rabbit hole.”

After 100% completing the game, Hedegaard turned to modding for a fresh experience. “I wasn’t done yet. I wanted more,” he says. So he turned to the abundant number of mods on Nexus Mods, finishing the game again, but with numerous mods installed. But even that wasn’t enough. “I still wanted more, but there wasn’t anything left,” he says. “So I started teaching myself how to make my mod.”

Hedegaard had graduated with a degree in accounting. He had no experience in the many, many skills he would need to create Stardew Valley Expanded. “I taught myself how to code, how to script, how to do data arrays, how to do pixel art,” he says, not to mention how to troubleshoot for and connect with the community that grew around the mod, which he never expected to get so popular.

Understandably, not all of these skills came at once. After teaching himself online and asking for advice in Stardew modding Discord channels when he got stuck, the first version of the mod was released in 2019 after “roughly five months or half a year” of development. It added more than 30 new character events, three new map locations, changes to some areas of Pelican Town, and a new farm map.

Stardew Valley Expanded exceeded its creator’s wildest dreams (1) Image: ConcernedApe via FlashShifter/Nexus Mods

Nowadays, Hedegaard describes it as “very bare bones,” but at the time, the Stardew Valley community seemed to disagree. “I got like 4,000 or 5,000 downloads within one day,” says Hedegaard. “Out of the blue, it blew up.” Although Stardew already had a very healthy modding community, Expanded was the first big expansion mod, and players who wanted more content for one of their favorite games jumped at the opportunity he had provided, even if it wasn’t yet what it would become.

As Hedegaard tells it, he wasn’t planning to continually update Expanded after its original release — that came after the incredible response from fans. But for others, 1.0 already seemed like a foundation that was ready to be built upon. “I feel like a lot of the buildings and a lot of the changes to the map that are still in the mod now were there, but there just wasn’t much purpose to them back then,” says Nathan Hardaker, better known in the Expanded Discord server as owner and moderator n8wes.

“But even then […] it really revitalized my love for the game,” says Hardaker. “I had already played Stardew Valley a lot. I had played through it a bunch of times. [Expanded] gave me more reason [to keep playing] with different things I could do.”

A key goal for Hedegaard, both in the early release and throughout development, has been to capture the feeling Hardaker describes. “Something I hear a lot from the community is that Stardew Valley Expanded blends in very well with the vanilla [unmodded] world,” he says. “And that was my goal all along. You should be able to encounter something and if you haven’t played vanilla Stardew Valley in a long time […] I want you to question yourself, like, Was that always in the game?

This is exactly the experience I had with the mod, having not played Stardew much for several years. Some aspects, like a vineyard, community garden, and unfamiliar NPCs, were clearly new additions. Hedegaard’s stated goal on Expanded’s Nexus Mods page is to “give the player the magical feeling they had when they first played Stardew Valley,” and stumbling into these definitely felt like the same kind of delightful surprise provided by a first-time playthrough of the base game.

But other aspects had me questioning my memory. For example, Expanded fleshes out the Joja route, giving a stronger sense of presence to the capitalist corporation threatening Pelican Town. But repeatedly running into Joja manager Morris confused me — I thought I recognized him, but not much. Was he an entirely new addition? It turns out Hedegaard simply took the existing character and gave him a routine that regularly brings him into town, relationships with the villagers, and, if you’re interested, even events for befriending him.

Stardew Valley Expanded exceeded its creator’s wildest dreams (2) Image: FlashShifter/Nexus Mods

As with vanilla Stardew, there’s something for everyone in the mod, but these sorts of character expansions and additions seem to be a community favorite. Anime fan Sophia in particular inspires plenty of fan art and cosplay. But, as Hardaker points out, these characters often weren’t in the original version of the mod. Once Hedegaard decided to continue development after its initial success, adding additional marriage candidates was something he wanted to learn how to do, but also one of the additions that took the most effort.

As the mod added more and more updates, Hedegaard initially worked on it alongside an accounting job. But after around six months, he decided to open a Patreon account and a PayPal donations page. Although Expanded is free to download and play, Patreon supporters get benefits like behind-the-scenes content and early access to releases (which Hedegaard also uses as an opportunity to bug test new builds). He now works on the mod full time.

As Expanded grew in popularity, it also started to spread online. A subreddit and a Discord server were created in 2019 and 2020, respectively. People often joined to ask for hints on unraveling Expanded’s secrets, which is how moderator Hecate originally found her way into the server. But she soon stayed for the community. “Everybody in the Expanded Discord is very nice and very friendly,” she says. “When the community is welcoming, you want to stick around and help out.”

The server now has around 19,000 members. “It’s sometimes like herding cats,” Hecate says, without any negativity. Expanded requires downloading multiple frameworks, which is a somewhat arcane process for inexperienced modders, and issues can arise with incompatibilities or other unexpected factors. Newcomers looking for help often aren’t aware of all the server etiquette, such as posting in the right channel, but moderators and other community members still try to help out. “I’m learning so much on how to handle the issues that pop up when it comes to like the game breaking or the mods breaking and figuring out what needs to be fixed,” Hecate adds.

Hardaker adds that the server tries to help out anyone who’s new to modding, whether they’re trying to run Expanded or not, so that they can have the same experience of finding even more Stardew Valley. “There’s a great community here, and there’s so much more you can do with the game once you get into it.”

Activity in the server waxes and wanes depending on whether the mod or the base game has recently been updated, but the moderators also work on keeping people engaged through contests and events. Most recently, a pair of artists each won a $50 Steam gift card for creating an autumnal banner and server icon.

As well as developing its own community, Expanded also appears to have grown the Stardew modding scene as a whole. Though it was the first big expansion mod released on Nexus, it certainly wasn’t the last. Nowadays, mods like Ridgeside Village and East Scarp add their own bevy of new Stardew experiences. They also have their own bustling communities, although there’s overlap as players can run many of these mods simultaneously. “It’s amazing seeing all of these same people posting in different Discords,” says Hecate.

Expanded is open-source, and Hedegaard encourages other modders to learn from his work. “I’m always 100% OK with that,” he says. “I’m happy to help people […] because I referenced other mods to make my mod [originally].” He’s also upfront about the fact that Expanded is fanfiction — something anyone can participate in. “Some people are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s just like vanilla, it’s incredible, it’s perfect’ — [but] it’s fanfiction! […] I think it’s pretty freaking good, but it is fan-made, at the end of the day.”

Stardew Valley Expanded exceeded its creator’s wildest dreams (3) Image: FlashShifter/Nexus Mods

Currently, Hedegaard is in a self-described “crunch” working on the next update, which aims to coincide with core Stardew Valley’s as-yet-undated 1.6 update, which has some key behind-the-scenes changes designed for modders but requires a lot of migration work for existing mods. “This update, for the short run, it’s gonna suck,” says Hedegaard. “But for the long run, the modding community needs this update.”

Stardew Valley 1.6 will allow Hedegaard to add features he’s been planning for years, making the next Expanded update a big one. Hedegaard references the teaser he posted on Twitter that shows new animals, crops, and more. These things could already be added to Stardew, and other modders have done so, but they require specialized dependency frameworks, which was a huge commitment that Hedegaard couldn’t sustain. From 1.6, that will no longer be the case.

Hedegaard is also working on the 2.0 version of Expanded, which has also been teased but somewhat pushed back by the plans surrounding the 1.6 base game update. Expanded 2.0 will add another new location focusing on magic. But even with a big addition like that, it’s tied into the existing content for seamless scaling. “Anyone that knows me on the server knows I’m a big fan of [Expanded NPC] Camilla, who is a witch […] but right now she doesn’t really have all her story fleshed out yet,” says Hardaker, who is unsurprisingly looking forward to what might be in store for her in the 2.0 update.

Hedegaard says that the hard work on the game is fueled by the community. “It honestly pushes me to keep going forward and keep creating,” he says. “I don’t want to burn myself out, of course, but just knowing there are so many people out there that […] appreciate what I do, I just want to fulfill everyone’s dreams of making the favorite game in the world even better.”

Stardew Valley Expanded exceeded its creator’s wildest dreams (2024)
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