Ova Magica. Monster Harvest. Coral Island. Castaway Paradise. Kitaria Fables. Littlewood.
No, those aren’t the potential titles for my upcoming heavy metal album – those are just a few of the recently-announced, released, or funded farming games I can think of, and that’s far from all of them. They all have something in common: they’re all two-word titles (er, except Littlewood), and they all take their inspiration from Harvest Moon. More precisely, many of them take inspiration from Stardew Valley, which, in turn, takes its inspiration from Harvest Moon. The farming game genealogy gets increasingly more confusing by the day.
It’s not hard to understand one of the driving purposes behind this bumper crop of farming games. Stardew Valley made, at a conservative estimate, a buttload of money for its sole developer Eric Barone, AKA ConcernedApe. Who can blame other developers and studios for wanting to get in on that giant cash mountain? For many of these developers, that gamble is already paying off, in the example of Coral Island wrapping up their Kickstarter with $1.6 million raised. That’s enough money to buy an actual farm.
Stardew Valley made, at a conservative estimate, a buttload of money for its sole developer Eric Barone.
Of course, that’s a pretty cynical way of looking at it, even if it is true. There are many reasons that a developer might want to put their stake in the farming game genre – it’s a cult favourite, after all, and you might be surprised to hear that many developers actually enjoy playing games themselves. Why not attempt to perfect a genre that you love more than anything? Why not make an entry into the oeuvre that adds everything you’ve ever wanted to see in a farming simulator?
Now, I don’t mean to be disparaging by calling these games “Harvest Moon-likes” (or, as Rock Paper Shotgun calls them, “Stardewbuts” – Stardewbut on the moon, Stardewbut it’s about cats). Many of these games have a lot to offer beyond their shared genesis, and although some are just straight-up ripoffs, like Warm Village on Steam, I’m not talking about them, because they’re bad and boring. I’m talking about the games that take the seed of the farming game idea and expand on it. In fact, that’s exactly why they exist: much like Stardew Valley, they see a gap in the market that’s being ignored by the seven-out-of-ten Story of Seasons games and the absolutely dreadful modern Harvest Moon games.
Maybe that gap is having better romanceable characters; maybe it’s a better selection of animals to care for; maybe it’s a different setting altogether. Many of the spinoff games address various elephants in the room: the Harvest Moon games have never been particularly diverse, and although some of them include same-sex marriage, it hasn’t been in there from the start.
We’ve already covered the psychology of why people love these games, but there’s often a more personal reason for making and loving these games, too. Yasuhiro Wada, creator of the Harvest Moon series, first made the game when he was inspired by his own transition from city life to country life, and that theme has not only carried through to many of its spinoffs and inspired-bys, but has even been expanded on for the modern era.
Stardew Valley is all about the threat of corporations on small, rural towns – a very real threat in America, where Barone is from – and its effect can be seen mostly in getting to known Shane, one of the game’s characters, who works for Joja Co. His depression is a very real side-effect of the fictionalised, soul-draining company that pollutes Stardew Valley’s rivers and oceans; one of the game’s goals is to destroy the company’s Joja Mart outlet by investing in the community instead. In an age where we are divorced from the sources of our food by various middlemen, and working in offices behind computer screens, returning to the farm and building a community is a pastoral dream.
But, five years on from Stardew Valley’s fresh take on the 25-year-old genre of small-town farming and life simulators, we’re beginning to see a theme common to the games industry: people are attempting to ape ConcernedApe. Whenever there’s a success story, its splash sends out ripples that eventually coalesce into games about… three to five years later. It takes a while to make a game, you know?
The wealth of battle royale games is a great example of this: it began with 2000 movie Battle Royale, reached fever pitch with the hugely successful Hunger Games, and eventually spawned the similarly successful PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – and the rest is history, with games like Apex Legends, Fortnite, Tetris 99, and the like. In fact, around three to five years from now, expect a slew of Among Us-likes to flood the market. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Flooding The Field
But all of these merely attempts to answer the “why” of all these Harvest Moon-likes, not the question in the title: Are there too many?
I’ll certainly never criticise an open market for game developers, and if this is what sells, then that’s exactly how markets work. Not to mention that I, personally, am exactly the target demographic for all these games, and you may have noticed how much I write about them, too. But where does it end? How do I know which games are worth my time and which games are cynical cash-grabs when they all look so darn similar?
Here’s where you come in, folks: do you find this open market full of farming games exciting, or do you feel like you’re being lured in by the promise of recreating an experience you’ve already had, only to be disappointed? Do you feel like people are cashing in on someone else’s success, or do you welcome the new perspectives of others? Perhaps you, like us, wish that these other Stardewbuts would somehow reflect back on the Story of Seasons series itself, encouraging new and creative ideas instead of the same old ones with a fresh coat of paint?
As always, we love to hear your thoughts on the matter – and there’s a big empty box down there for you to write to us. Go wild!