“The Success of Farming RPG — Why Stardew Valley Gained Popularity”
What is Stardew Valley? I’m talking about that farming game similar to Harvest Moon! Here, I’m going to talk about how it has successfully gained its large fandom through different lenses. I will discuss topics such as: who video games have previously put their emphasis on, how Harvest Moon gained popularity in the 1990s and how this led to the success of Stardew Valley by further improving the ongoing farming series.
The target audience of Stardew Valley is HUGE. It is unlike games in the 1970s to 1990s or even other modern video games we have right now. Before home consoles were released to the world, arcade games were what drove consumers crazy. While home consoles like the Atari 2600 were targeted more towards families, the coin-op machines were targeted towards the adult audience. Thus there is clearly a split in target audiences. According to Tracey Lien, an arcade game called Tapper was released in 1983 which had, “… players play the part of a bartender serving drinks to eager customers. ” Tapper serves as a great example of how arcade games are appealing more to adults by including subjects relating to alcohol and bars.
Furthermore, the arcade game Gotcha, developed by Atari, is another example of audience-centric development. Specifically, the context of Gotcha is that one player is trying to catch the other player in a continually-changing maze. The art on the arcade flyers of the game, however, reveals that the chasing player is a man, while the evading player is a woman. In addition, the controllers of this arcade game are designed to be two pink domes that symbolize the breasts of a woman. These references indicated that there were a number of game studios that were interested in the adult market.
If we look closely at the games in the late 1980s to 2000s, Nintendo was doing a great job at bringing the game industry back to life by changing their target audience to children and young men. In 1989, Chicago Tribune writer Dennis Lynch talked about Nintendo’s Game Boy, mentioning: “The name Game Boy not only carries echoes of Walkman, but also reminds us of the target audience for the product: game boys everywhere.” Moreover, Nintendo’s Nintendo DS and Playstation’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) are attempts by the companies to try and appeal to a slightly older audience from 2004 to 2005. From the focus on the adult market in the 1970s to attracting young kids and teens to play video games in the 2000s, we can infer that most game companies have changed their focus to different types of audience over these periods. The change is a good choice to game developers because having one specific type of audience leads to smoother development of certain elements in a game and enriches the experience of the players. This leads us to discuss how Harvest Moon brought different types of audiences to its gameplay.
Harvest Moon was first released in Japan on Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES) in 1996 and in North America in 1997. It soon was released on the Game Boy as Harvest Moon GB in 1997, where its demographic was primarily young kids and teens. Its overall cute graphics and absence of violence certainly captured a lot of younger players. However, in the late 1980s and 1990s, Japan was experiencing a major economic recession, called the Lost Decade. During this period, numerous workers committed suicide or had overworked to death. There is a report on The New York Times in 1999 which stated that “[m]any men who killed themselves in the last year were employed but fearful of losing their jobs or overwhelmed by increased workloads that were a result of colleagues losing their jobs…” The total annual work hours in Japan was about 2200 hours in 1988. However, even though the work hours were then limited to 1800 hours in the 1990s, which is at the same level as the United States, both young and aged workers were still overworking all the time due to the absences of their coworkers in the Lost Decade. There is even a word in Japanese for this type of cause of death, Karoshi, which literally translate to “death from overworking”. This toxic work culture in Japan may be a reason why Harvest Moon became popular. Harvest Moon is about a young man who inherits a farm from his grandfather and the goal of the game is to restore and maintain the farm. One interesting gameplay element of Harvest Moon is that players can interact with the people in the town that the farm is located at and develop romantic relationships with particular female non-player characters. The chill story and atmospheric ambiance of this farming game were completely foreign to Japanese gamers and attracted people that favored these types of relaxing games, instead of the combat oriented games that were quite popular during the time. Furthermore, Harvest Moon is likely to be more favored by male audience since most of the protagonists of the series are male and are only able to romanticize female character. I will discuss this further later in this article.
Harvest Moon is a successful farming RPG since it has attracted both young and older generations with its graphics and interesting gameplay mechanics. Under these circumstances, Stardew Valley kicks in and further fulfills what the Harvest Moon fandom wants. To begin with, Stardew Valley is an indie farming RPG developed by Eric Barone and was first released on the PC platform, Steam, on February 26, 2016. PC was a market that Harvest Moon had not made its way into yet. Harvest Moon has continuously been released on a myriad of console platforms, such as the various generations of Nintendo DS and Playstations. However, according to a study conducted by EEDAR which is a subsidiary of NPD group, about half of the gamers nowadays play on a PC. When Harvest Moon finally entered the PC platform on Steam on November 14, 2017, it was about 1.5 years after Stardew Valley was released. As a result, Stardew Valley took the first step to fill in the hole of this farming RPG series and become the PC version of Harvest Moon in many players’ minds.
The story of Stardew Valley is relatively similar to the story of Harvest Moon — protagonist inherits a farm from his/her grandfather and the goal of the protagonist is to restore the farm and gain profit from it. In addition, Barone added an extra story background — the protagonist decided to move to Pelican Town, where his/her grandfather’s farm is located at, because this character does not want to work in a cubicle of mega-company Joja Corporation anymore. This setting corresponds to the Japanese work culture in the 1990s, but I also believe that Barone wants to point out the similar work culture we have in the United States for the last couple decades as well. An article on CNBC indicates that 78% of the workers in a conducted study “say they are required to be present in their workplace during working hours…” and “[a]bout half say they work on their own time to meet the demands of their job.” In addition, an article on The Guardian that was written in 2001 has also talked about the toxicity of 24/7 work culture in the United States. The working adult demographic, especially those who have a white-collar job, can probably relate to the distress experienced by the protagonist. Compared to Harvest Moon which has this implicit historical background, Barone has made this description clear and applies it to the protagonist. It, therefore more easily captures the adult audience since it is now visually relatable.
Of course, there are various actions that players can do around Pelican Town other than growing cauliflowers, thus attracting different types of players to the game: fishing, cooking, crafting, and even combat. Particularly in the 1970s, arcade games were mostly about combat or competition. Popular games like Spacewar! and Pong could be seen as signals to developers that people like to fight or compete with each other. Harvest Moon, however, did not add a combat element into the game series(except for Rune Factory, which is a spin-off from Harvest Moon). To roughly summarize, the main objective of Harvest Moon is to just maintain the farm. The reason why there weren’t any violent components in the game was perhaps to minimize the production of the game and attract the younger audience. Stardew Valley, nonetheless, takes this advantage and implemented a monster-combat system, where players can explore caves that are randomly generated while fighting against monsters in the caves. The difficulty of the cave is also friendly to gamers who are not familiar with combats. Players do not need to fight in the game to enjoy the game. They can still enjoy harvesting crops and cultivating animals.
Similar to Harvest Moon, in Stardew Valley, players can interact with the townspeople and develop a deeper relationship with them. As I have mentioned, most protagonists in the Harvest Moon series are male characters and are only able to develop a romantic relationship with the female characters. This leads back to a trend in the game industry which has existed for a long time — games are for boys/men.
It is clear that the video game market has its attention on men. Tracey Lien from Polygon includes what Simeon Spearman, a senior innovation strategist, has mentioned about the marketing in video games. He notes, “If you look at the advertisements for games in the 1980s, you not only had an obvious assumption on the part of the marketers that video games were going to resonate more with young men, you also had them casting young men in the lead roles.” Just like what I have mentioned about the arcade game, Gotcha, the story was symbolic of the dominance of men over women. There were only a few major games franchises in the past where the lead character was a woman. Within those exceptions, Nintendo’s game Metroid in 1986 only revealed its protagonist, Samus, as a woman at the end of the game, shocking many players when they first played it because of her braveness, strength and more. In addition, although Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider is a well-known symbol of female empowerment, her character models have contributed greatly to the argument. Since the first release of the Tomb Raider in 1996, Lara’s character models were always over-emphasizing her feminine figure, especially the ridiculous proportions of her breasts and waist. Unexceptionally, Harvest Moon’s protagonist has often been a young man who wears the iconic blue dungarees and can romanticize the women in the town. Despite that, Harvest Moon has released another title in 2000, Harvest Moon: Boy & Girl, in which you can choose to play as a boy or a girl. Yet, there are various changes made to the gameplay to fit the setting of a girl farmer and appeal to the female audience. For example, the house model of the protagonist will be adjusted to a more girly appearance and certain male character will treat you nicer from the beginning of the game. In addition, Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life was released in 2005 as the second game that has the perspective as a girl. It is just painful to see that the company needed to release a whole new title for women, as though the game industry has this assumption that the intended audience of their games is male and that there is a need to release a brand new game for the female audience. Unfortunately, this influence of men-focusing marketing still exists nowadays.
Stardew Valley, on the other hand, makes itself a gender-neutral game and allows players to choose the appearance and gender of the protagonist at the very beginning of the game. The story of this farming series finally moves away from the center of a young man. Furthermore, on the social aspect of it, players can befriend all the characters in the game, including the homeless man living next to the town! Following Fallout 2, which is the first video game that featured same-sex marriage in 1998, and other games like The Sims series, players also are able to develop a romantic relationship and get married to both men and women in the town. The story between the protagonist and the bachelors or bachelorettes does not have much difference. This option definitely allows Stardew Valley to become a more inclusive game since there are still not enough video games that contain same-sex marriage. Moreover, Barone includes an interracial married couple in Stardew Valley, Demetrius who is black and Robin who is white. An interview done by Kotaku with Eric Barone has also commented on them. Barone notes that Harvest Moon doesn’t seem to have a non-white marriage candidate, so “[he] wanted [his] game to be more inclusive and not just follow these anime tropes.” This, indeed, is a rarely seen occurence in video games, and I appreciate Barone for doing this.
Eric Barone also casts light on the topic of mental illness in his game. There is an interesting character in the game, Shane, that has received much love from the fandom. Specifically, Shane is diagnosed with depression and has a tendency to binge drink. He treats people rudely and is often unhappy when you meet him in the town. However, as players develop a more intimate relationship with Shane, he will slowly begin to open up and reveal his true self to the players. As a person who has suffered from depression before, I was really grateful for how Barone portrays people with mental illness. Mental illness in video games has often been depicted negatively. There was not even enough information on the Internet about video games in the 1980s that talked about mental disorders. According to Sarah Nixon, a writer from NYMgamer, video games often use mental illness in horror games as an excuse to explain the crazy or insane behavior of certain characters and are often located in unused asylums. This exaggeration of the negativity of mental illness is undoubtedly incorrect in the reality of our world because the violent acts that are frequently associated with mental illness actually make up a very small percentage of actual events. Even though Shane in Stardew Valley does treat the player in a disrespectful manner, Barone gives players a chance to understand Shane, a person who suffers from mental illness, and bond with him. Players who understand the pain of suffering mental illness could definitely relate with this game even more than others.
The game industry evolves with society as different values are emphasized. From the beginning, arcade games were very simplistic and sometimes contained prejudices, but then we had Harvest Moon which used farming to provide a whole new experience to the audience. Although the false assumption that the audience of a video game must be male is still firmly rooted in the game industry, we have been blessed with games that have stepped up to make a change, like Stardew Valley. Moreover, it has combined various elements, like farming and combat, that people enjoy and include difficult social topics that we may be uncomfortable talking about. Its enormous inclusiveness draws various demographics into itself, which has made it one of the most successful indie games.
This article was published as a requirement for the History of Digital Games course at UC Santa Cruz with A.M. Darke. Please be kind.