The concept of Farming as a core mechanic of RPGs can be credited largely to the series Bokujō Monogatari which in the west was originally known as Harvest Moon, then later as Story of Seasons when the original developer went another route for localizing the series. This series has always had it's own dedicated following. and achieved moderate success across many different platforms, both consoles, and handhelds. It even spawned several spin-offs such as the successful Rune Factory series
While Bokujō Monogatari remained more or less the king of this subgenre, it was eventually overshadowed in the west thanks to a little indie darling known as Stardew Valley which became a real success story and continues to manage to be popular, both for insiders and newcomers to Farming RPGs. Yet Stardew Valley isn't the only indie name on the block for this, games like My Time at Portia, Graveyard Keeper, Staxel, and many others have made a name for themselves in this genre, while many other survival style games often include elements of it as part of their mechanics.
Despite all of this, the genre seems to be growing stagnant, at least for those who have played them a long time. As someone who loves Story of Seasons for example, the last one I truly enjoyed was the Gamecube/Wii entry: Magical Melody, which reinvented itself a lot to capitalize on the success of Animal Crossing and included many of it's features.
While the genre seems now more popular than ever, and new indies keep tackling it, they seem to be approaching it with new ideas for settings, art styles, or alternating takes on specific technical aspects. The formula itself seems largely unchanged. One could argue this could be due to the fan-base not being as receptive to more experimental titles, these sort of games are often seen as "comfort food" for those who play them after all, and variation too far can be a little off-putting. The indie market also seems largely to be refining and polishing ideas they like from games that exist rather than innovate too far onto their own, while the traditional developers who continue to make Farming RPGs on consoles tend to rehash their same ideas over and over.
So what exactly about the formula is stagnant? Well a lot of it really, we can look at it from several angles.
Narrative: Story-wise the traditional formula has always been a relative, usually a deceased grandparent, wills the farm to you and you arrive finding it in a state of disrepair that you must fix up, and often a village with it's own issues that must be resolved, many times involving a greedy corporation threatening to take over the land if certain criteria are not met. This started in the original Harvest Moon for SNES, and continues on not only to others of that series but indies that followed suit. In several of these games you have a certain achievement task list to perform, sometimes with a time limit of a set number of years.
Characters: Most Farming Sims are also dating sims, and the dating mechanic is ALWAYS the same, you have on average 5 – 10 (depending on whether they allow any-gender couplings) eligible NPCs you can date and potentially marry. To achieve this you must talk to these characters frequently and give them a liked present frequently. The remaining townsfolk often exist to fulfill specific roles as shopkeepers or service providers or as side-characters for the marriageable ones. Enhancing their friendship levels may result in gifts or cutscenes, but no real impact on the gameplay itself is really ever seen, it is mostly just a narrative reward for gameplay investment.
The Farming The meat and potatoes of the Farming RPG. You buy seeds, you plant them, you water them, you harvest them, you sell them, you put them into makers or cook them to turn them into more profitable items, then after 30-ish in-game days you get a new season and it all starts again with new crops. More into being a rancher? You still have to get the money and supplies to buy/build a barn/coop, then buy/grow some food, then buy/tame some animals to get started, then you just have to talk nice to your animals every day so that they give you increasingly better quality items when you milk/shear them. The game progression loop could easily be lifted out and fitted to any other Farming RPG and it notches in exactly.
The Rest Outside of farming these games have other activities to engage in, mining, fishing, sometimes combat dungeons, festival events, all with their own requisite mini-games and material rewards. Newer games have crafting as well to allow you more opportunities to refine these materials into different things. Some games even focus more primarily on these other aspects such as fishing, crafting, or combat being a bigger focus than the farming, yet they still fall prey to the same formula.
So is the genre stagnating or right where it should be? Some games exist as comfort food, and that's fine, but for every Dragon Quest series we have a Final Fantasy, series that both stay true to thematic and formulaic roots, and those who consistently try to reinvent themselves, to trailblaze new ideas, and break from the convention of the genre standards. While I'm not going to pretend to know the ideal way in which this genre in particular could evolve, I think that it will be interesting to see more risk-takers get involved in making Farming RPGs, ones that don't feel immediately like you're going to be doing 50+ hours of the same thing you just did with another coat of paint.
Do you feel Farming RPGs have become stagnant? They have certainly gotten better at refining and polishing what they are in some cases, but few seem to really be willing to charter new untold frontiers that tread too far from their roots. Can you think of any that are really doing something new and interesting within the space, or future games that promise to?
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