How Stardew Valley Work? The Three Main Phases of Farm Simulators

The following is a script for the Youtube video published before.  You can read the script or watch the video as you see fit.

Hello, I’m Kinglink and today let’s talk about “How Stardew Valley works?”

Stardew Valley is a very popular game, but the one place that I feel can be explored at a deeper level is the mechanics that the game uses to make its core systems work and remain interesting to users. I find that there is almost an addictive feel to Stardew Valley at times, where the player just wants to play one more day. Let’s explore what causes players to keep coming back to Stardew Valley? Hopefully, we’ll be able to examine these mechanics beyond just how they feel but also begin to understand how they are designed?

I came up with the idea for this video not while playing Stardew Valley, but instead, as I played Graveyard Keeper. I noticed similar systems that evoked similar feelings. Graveyard Keeper and Stardew Valley are both farming simulators, so this makes sense. The real question is what game play systems do they have in common as well as where do they differ?

At the same time, I should mention a third game I’ll be showing off, My Time at Portia. It also made me think of Stardew Valley’s system. It’s not exactly a farming simulator in the same way, but it evokes many of the same experiences throughout the game. I can go back through a litany of games that exhibit similar systems to these three games, but for this video, I’m going to focus on just these three titles.

Let’s talk about how the games work.

The first feeling players have with almost any game ever made is a sense of discovery. Whether you pick up a controller for a new game or even a sequel of a series you already enjoy, either way there’s a sense of newness. How do the controls feel? Who is the main character? What abilities does the player have? All of these features are things players will discover while looking at information on the game, or just the first few minutes. Think of this as a discovery phase.

Most games run the player through a simple tutorial showing all the abilities that the players can do and call it a day, the discovery phase about those games are quickly discarded to send the player through a story or a handcrafted experience. That’s one way to design a game.

Stardew Valley doesn’t do this. There is an opening cinematic where the player is introduced to Stardew Valley, the farm, and learns about how their character arrived there. From there, players are told how to plant their first seed through a simple quest system. Plant the seed, water it, and let it grow. But there’s so much more to learn that Stardew Valley doesn’t teach in that tutorial.

Just a few simple thoughts from a more experienced player can show the difference. The big one is the optimal layouts of plants. There are also the best items to grow, even what each plant is used for will be unknown by a new player. These are just pieces of the farming system in Stardew Valley, and there are a great deal more features of Stardew Valley that are left unsaid, such as foraging random items. New players might even think they can only farm in their home zone, but the south area is also an open field to them if they want.

These, of course, are things players learn over time. Stardew Valley also has a couple of hint systems. The primary one is the television shows. But, the discovery about the game’s systems is a large part of the game since so much is left unsaid at first. For this, we need to focus on the method that players learn about these games as a major system.

For Stardew Valley there is a level of experimentation that can be done with the game, and players can do this, but many players may not wish to do so, and that’s where this system does something interesting.

You see by giving so much unspoken information early for players to discover it will make them wonder about many of these topics, such as what happens if you walk on plants.

If players want to gain knowledge about the game outside of itself, players will likely turn to other players or the internet. This is something similar to how Minecraft originally had it’s crafting with a 3 x 3 grid and players having to discover recipes, or more likely look them up.

At first glance, this feels extremely inefficient and feels like bad game design. But I think this is a flawed look at this system. Yes, it’s the game not telling the player the information he will need, but this then is requiring the player to potentially get this information from a secondary source. This need for outside sources creates an ability for people to discuss games.

I’ve discussed video games quite often with other people, probably not surprising since I have a youtube channel about video games. For most games, this is isolated to discussing an amazing moment or a suggestion about a game that can only be done once or twice. Both Minecraft and Stardew Valley allowed me to talk about a single game multiple times with the same people as we discussed new and interesting features that the game unlocks overtime. By the point that you’re diagraming out optimal farming designs together, you start to realize there’s something different about Stardew Valley.

The different ways information can be gained is important to Stardew’s success. It creates a cottage industry for Stardew Valley. Players have many options, such as discussing the game with friends, reaching out to social media groups, subreddits, and even now discords. Players can read articles as well, or use wikis. From there they can continue to use any of these sources, discuss the game with other players, or help build out their knowledge bases.

Each of these methods creates a community, whether it’s a community talking about the game, a singular place to get data like the wiki, or websites writing articles on the game, these become major sources of information and helps grow Stardew Valley because it’s a topic that can continue to be discussed.

To loop back to the players I mentioned earlier who decide to experiment with the game rather than race out and look up guides, those players can similarly share their findings with others and allow them to also join parts of the communities, websites, and wikis that have grown not to gain knowledge, but to share their own and perhaps bask in understanding a rare mechanic. This is all due to a simple step of game design or perhaps a lack of an in-depth tutorial.

I’m not sure all of this is intentional, but dear god it worked. Stardew Valley created communities devoted to it because of how players are expected to discover information about it and can continue to share information about the game. Once these communities are created many people will continue to add to these communities long past the time they play the game, they become fans of the game, sharing art and more with their new community of friends.

Just to put how this worked in perspective Stardew Valley’s subreddit has half a million subscribers, which puts it at a point where it’s one of the top 30 gaming subreddits. It’s approximately the same size as the Red Dead Redemption subreddit for a game made by a single person against one of the biggest games out there.

There is a similar type of discovery in each of the three games we’re talking about but they have reached different levels of success. My Time at Portia feels like it gives just enough assistance to the player so they can discover many of the parts of the game without outside assistance. There are still wikis and communities devoted to My Time at Portia. In hindsight, it seems that My Time at Portia does a bit too much to require the forming of those larger groups.

Admittedly part of the reason Stardew Valley’s groups took off was the immense popularity of the game, which only created a feedback loop to talking about the game, however in My Time at Portia much of the players time discovering features of the game is done inside the game itself.

Essentially, My Time at Portia may have done too good of a job of teaching the player that players didn’t have to create alternate avenues of information sharing, and honestly, that’s a bit of a shame. There are discoveries such as new pieces of equipment for the player to use in his workshop area, but most of the time, it’s very clear what can be developed by each station, or which station is required for the next step of progression.

Finally, Graveyard Keeper suffers from a different type of feedback. Many of the systems in Graveyard Keeper are limited in their locations, so while there are farms of a sort in Graveyard Keeper players are limited in where they can build and what they can develop.

In Stardew Valley, players progress about the same way throughout the game, with some specialization possible, but most players will tend to end up at the same point. In Graveyard Keeper there are many choices, especially in the skill tree, and some choices will result in different goals and potential styles of play. Much of the advice of Graveyard Keeper is more about which skill is necessary, or how to efficiently farm experience to get to the next level.

The information in discussions isn’t as important as many tips and tricks are limited to where players can find required items. In this case, it’s not the system being demystified, but rather explaining what Graveyard Keeper requires the player to do or buy before they can accomplish a goal. This still works, but it’s not as deep as understanding larger gameplay systems and thus perhaps less effective.

The second phase that Stardew Valley does is to create short term goals that players can focus on. This allows the game to give players targets and goals that they can chase or work towards. Think of this as a way to give players positive feedback almost immediately to say that they are doing the right thing or have figured out parts of the game.

One of the first issues players will run into almost immediately in Stardew Valley is a lack of space in their bags. Players start with only twelve slots to carry items which are also the twelve quick use slots, and that’s an extremely underwhelming amount. With five tools immediately handed to the player, and a sixth and seventh coming shortly after as a fishing pole and a sword likely in that order, that leaves players with five item slots, these five are all the goods players can carry, everything else is left on the ground, thrown out, or sold.

There are two steps players will need to do as soon as possible. The first is to build a chest and start using the additional storage provided by it. This forces the player to toy with the crafting system to find the option and that is part of the UI.

As a small note if there’s a major problem with Stardew Valley, it’s that UI system. It feels clunky and almost is hidden away before players learn where it is and how much utility the pause menu has. But the chest will be one of the first things players will want to build and it is remarkably helpful, especially when players start placing their tools in there that they aren’t using daily.

The second solution to the inventory issues is given to the player in a letter the day after the players max their inventory for the first time. Players are told that Pierre’s shop has a backpack for sale. The new backpack has 24 slots, double the size of the inventory, it’s going to be something players want to upgrade to.

A quick trip to the store and you learn the backpack will cost two thousand gold. A decent amount of money, but with hundreds of gold coming in on many nights, this can be a relatively fast goal, depending on how much players invest in future crops. Smart players will balance new crops by saving some money for additional space.

Once you buy that backpack, suddenly the shop has an even bigger bag for ten thousand gold, but it’s setting the player on another goal. This is a finite system and we already are on the last step of it, but it’s a perfect example of the player being given a small reachable goal that will take some amount of time and effort, but that will have the end in sight from the first moments of that task. We can talk about how to develop a proper economy in another video and if Stardew Valley does this well or not, and it does a great job for the most part.

This is just the first major goal that players will have in Stardew Valley. Before long players are given multiple additional goals, for example, there are the community center goals that ask for the player to gather certain objects as well as giving the player a chance to upgrade the early tools that players are given. Then there is the adventurer guild, fishing, and if you’re considering romancing a certain character this can be an early goal to work on.

I’m of course limiting myself to the early game, as there’s a huge set of goals and tasks players will be given throughout the game, and players can tackle any of these goals and potentially give up on other goals.

Let’s return once again to Graveyard Keeper. The short term goals in Graveyard Keeper are of course different but again early tasks give you a reason to press on with the game to complete more. Within the first hour the Bishop tells you to improve your graveyard which can be done by small improvements over time. A bigger short term quest is that the barman at the tavern tells you about Ms. Charm and Snake two characters who can help you out, and then players will have to find Snake, and talk to Mrs. Charm and hope to work with both of them until you can earn the appropriate reward.

What is interesting is Graveyard Keeper doesn’t even treat these as fetch quests. It’s not simple enough to find Snake, or meet Ms. Charm, both characters only then set you on their significant questline, and the entire mechanic of these short term quests requires you to befriend these people and play with Graveyard Keeper’s relationship system which is chock filled with these small goals.

Graveyard Keeper also has a series of short term goals in the form of their crafting and leveling system. Early on in the game, the player will have specific items and crafts that they want to build, and through the leveling system, players will have to unlock them by building up experience points through the game systems. A lot of the early requests by the relationship system require specific upgrades, or items purchased from the right people, so players will have to chase either money, experience points or more likely both.

And in My Time at Portia, you often will be tasked with designing a specific item as part of a quest system, which as the game moves on you often have to build smaller pieces in the blueprints from other blueprints before making the final design. Similarly, the game will also give you a quest to build specific item days or weeks before you have the blueprints or right tools for that assignment and that allows the players to keep their eyes on the prize.

The entire quest system in My Time at Portia is chopped up as short term goals, where players can usually finish a couple of story quests in a sitting, and easily tackle daily quests as part of a morning routine.

With my talking about these as short term goals, I think the third and final phase I want to talk about here should be obvious. They are the long term, or more specifically the End Game goals of these games. In Stardew Valley, there are many of these goals including completing the community center, the museum collection, catching every fish, shipping every possible item., and more.

Many of these end game goals are completionist goals and tasks that will take the player a great deal of time to accomplish. However, it’s important to consider these because if a player wants to complete everything in Stardew Valley they’ll have to accomplish all these goals. Many of the achievements also create a series of short term goals, such as completing each bundle as part of the community center or just discovering each item that you will ultimately have to ship.

Unlike the discovery aspects and short term goals, the end game goals are intended to be a small finite resource. There’s only a certain amount of high-level achievements a game will have, but many of these goals will take players a significant amount of time. Just reaching the end of the story, can take close to fifty hours. But to do everything in the end game goals, players will be looking at over 100 hours. This can give an ultimate purpose to the player’s gameplay and the goal they are trying to complete beyond just having fun.

For Stardew Valley, the game really will end when you finish all the achievements, but again each game is different. For My Time at Portia, there’s a rather large and complex story that takes a significant amount of time to reach. Here we’re again talking about over 50 hours, though unlike Stardew Valley where players have to run out the clock to see the ending cutscene, assuming they earned a significant chunk of change, My Time at Portia has a heavily directed story that continues far longer than I expected. Though completionists will be able to sink more time into collecting everything in the game in My Time at Portia, especially with the museum here as well.

And Graveyard Keeper, as well, focuses more on a story about getting the main character home, than larger end game goals. In this case, I don’t believe players will find much to chase outside of the main story, though that’s really up for them to decide. Here at least you have a very focused game that keeps the player on this goal, as it’s the main thrust of the game.

But the reason why I bring up these three specific phases of the game is that each game effortlessly combines all three phases into a series of mechanics that hand off to each other.

There’s a point where Stardew Valley players will be chasing the backpack when the game interrupts them and announces either the mines or the community center is open. All of a sudden, the player has something new to understand and discover. Rather than staying focused on only their short term goal, they are given a long term goal of completing the community center or diving to the bottom of the mines, as well as have new short term goals on the way to get there and be forced to discover new features of the game.

Stardew Valley seems to effortlessly switch between each of these systems and it makes for a more interesting game. Even completing a set of bundles in the Stardew Valley’s community center only opens up new content that then can be explored and discovered, which leads to new short term goals, and we’re in a clear cycle here where each step in the game leads to one of the three phases, and often all three.

This is rather effective as it gates content, but rather than gating it behind meaningless grinds, players have very specific goals to open up more of the world. While only a few of these goals are special, it still keeps people attached to the game to see what will happen next.

Similarly, both Graveyard Keeper and My Time at Portia works in similar ways over the course, switching between discovery, short term goals, and end game goals, usually in the form of collections or the main story of the games.

I’ve spoken quite a bit, but I want to make a quick mention of one thing that all three games seem to achieve. Players can’t fail, or rather it’s a bit hard for players to do very poorly in any of these games. You can run out of money or lose an important resource but there’s always a way to move forward.

The lack of a fail state enhances the player’s ability to experiment and try new things. A lack of spoilers also helps build communities but that’s something for another time perhaps. The point is players can do what they want in the game even if it’s not the best because the game will never punish the player harshly. This shouldn’t be how every game works, but it works well in this series.

Before we leave though I do want to talk a quick moment and discuss how these designs work on gamers directly. In 1996, Richard Bartle published a paper illustrating four types of gamers, very simply his paper says there are Killers, Achievers, Socializers, and Explorer. I don’t want to go too deep into the theory, alternate versions of the four types of gamers, of if this is the best model, it’s one of the originals and still can hold up today. Though I will mention Bartle was focused more on MMORPGs it’s still relatively accepted for all games.

The fact is all four of these categories are contained in these games.

All three games have combat for the killers. Of course, killers are easy to please for the most part. Admittedly none of these games have amazing combat, but it does exist and truthfully each game is more focused on appealing to those outside of the killer realm, but that combat is important to some players.

Achievers can be a bit easier to please on many games now, especially with the creation of the Xbox achievement system and every other version of that. Though, Nintendo still lacks this feature. I’ve been a bit clear about how these games build goals and achievement and those systems will directly target players who are Achievers.

Explorers can experience these worlds and complex systems to discover anything from the optimal way to play the game, or just what the world has in store for them. Experimentation with the systems can entertain people for a long time, as well as tying some goals and achievements in all three games to unlocking more of the world and features for people to explore.

For the Socializer, we’ve kind of discussed this with discovery, but just discussing these games with other people, sharing discoveries, and finding out how other people have approached the games is quite a deep topic.

It all comes back to socialization, and that’s part of why Stardew has done so well. While it might not have intentionally attempted to build the communities mentioned in the discovery phase above, it has succeeded, and that only helped the game grow. Over ten million copies of Stardew Valley have been sold in the 4 years since release.

The other three types of gamers will pick up games and play them, maybe mention them to friends, but it’s the social aspects that have kept Stardew relevant for over 4 years, and it’s the reason it’s still going strong.

And that’s how I think Stardew Valley works.

Now I’ve mentioned three games in this video. Stardew Valley is a great game, and if you are watching the video without having played it, I highly recommend you change that if any of this sounds interesting. The Android version is actually really impressive, and I sunk over 100 hours into the PC version alone, but every version works and it’s still getting worked on.

At the same time, I also will recommend players pick up My Time at Portia if they are a fan of Stardew. I honestly do think it has done some things better than Stardew, and … well, some things are a bit weaker. It isn’t the same as Stardew Valley, it instead has a higher focus on crafting rather than farming, and it is in 3D instead of 2D, but these changes help make it feel fresh.

Finally, our macabre version of Stardew Valley, Graveyard Keeper that started this video. I am willing to recommend it as well. It’s not perfect. It lacks a few things that would make it a better game, especially in how most of its systems are not as deep as the other two games. But I’ve had a blast playing it as well, and I think it’s worth your time.

Thanks for watching this video, if you want to see more from me, including more videos like this please subscribe, and ring that bell for notifications. This is something different than I’ve done in the past, I love talking games but the fact is, I think it’s more interesting if we start talking more about the mechanics of the games and even genres that work and perhaps not work rather than reviewing a specific game. These videos take a little longer to put together but I think they’re more interesting and valuable to people.

Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comment, and I’m going to throw a little poll down in the description to see what topics might interest people for the future, but if there’s a video, genre, topic, or specific game you want me to tackle, let me know in the comments or on the poll.

I’m going to pop up a review I have for My Time at Portia if you want to know more about it as well as an old review of a game called Staxel, it’s very similar to Stardew Valley but… just not done as well.

Until then I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching.