I've been playing it pretty heavily over the last few days. Before I bought it, I was told that it's one of those games (like Minecraft and to some degree, NEO Scavenger) where you spend a lot of time on the wiki figuring things out. I decided to completely eschew the wiki and figure things out on my own. That has definitely been the right decision.
As the developer says in this podcast, the game is like that first night in Minecraft survival, where you are trying to find light and shelter from the monsters - arguably the most fun moment in the game. Beyond the need for food, there are interlocking cycles of threats: night, monsters, winter, and the need to not go insane. This prevents the game from getting to a point where you are basically set and are only going to come to harm if you do something truly stupid. In my current playthrough, I'm on day 54, and it's quite possible that I won't survive the oncoming second winter.
Anyway, let's look at Don't Starve's equivalent of the Willpower and Experience mechanics.
The (in)sanity mechanic is pretty close to what I came up with in terms of willpower. You can "spend" it to do things like eat monster meat or run around in the dark or fight monsters, which can help you survive early on. In the medium-term, taking care to not go insane becomes pretty important, and you need to spend resources like time and food on improving your sanity. This keeps the pressure on.
The Science Machine
Beyond some basic recipes, crafting in Don't Starve is enabled by the Science Machine and its higher-level equivalents. Standing the near the machine lets you prototype new crafting recipes. Once you've crafted something once, you can craft it anywhere. This means "research" is pretty cheap: the amortized cost of crafting an item for the first time is only slightly higher than for the second time.
Interestingly, the podcast mentions that an earlier incarnation of the Science Machine worked differently: Instead of making all of its recipes available immediately, you could throw items into the machine and "grind them up" into science points. Recipes could then be bought with these points. In practice, this grinding was the cause of a lot of grinding: players "optimized for boredom" and made vast, tedious fields of grass to harvest bushels from. Grass bushels yielded very little science, but they were a safe and reliable source. Then players complained about how boring the game was, which ultimately led Klei to change the way the machine worked.
Now that machine, but accepting each kind of thing only once per game, would be pretty much my suggested mechanic. Instead of farming grass, people would be encouraged to go and find and make new things to grind up!
So has Don't Starve got removed my desire to make a prototype for my proposed mechanics? Slightly - it's a lot closer to my Ideal Survival Game than what I've seen so far. Still, I like prototyping too much to not give it a try at some point...