Critical Play (Balance): Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is a simulation role-playing video game developed by Eric Barone, known as “ConcernedApe.” It was first released in 2016 on Windows and later on macOS, gaming consoles, and mobile. A well-loved critical and commercial success after having sold over 10 million copies by 2020, this game begins with a player- character who inherits their deceased grandfather’s dilapidated farm in the rural, magical Stardew Valley. The player can pursue their own strategies to earn money and improve the farm, such as by tending to crops and livestock, fishing, mining the caves, foraging, and more. They can also develop friendships with the townspeople, and even court and marry one of 12 eligible bachelors and bachelorettes and have up to two children. There is also the optional (but highly encouraged) quest to restore the Community Center (or convert it to a Jojo Warehouse) by completing specific collections of items and crafted goods (or buying upgrades outright). The openness of the world, charming bit graphics, and in-game lore (such as a “mermaid’s pendant” for proposing marriage) offer other types of fun, but the core gameplay is the challenge of resource management.

Balance in Single-Player Games
The game is usually played in single-player mode where the player can engage in a variety of activities, such as farming, caring for animals, mining, combat, foraging, fishing, and exploring, but each action takes time and energy, and players are limited to an 18-20 hour day, and a low starting amount of energy (which they can refill with food or expand with special collectibles). There are festivals and seasonal events to attend, as well as NPC villagers for the player to engage with and form in-game bonds. (And by befriending townspeople through interactions and gifts, the player can unlock recipes and court an eventual spouse — who they can marry once they have upgraded their house.) The player starts with basic tools, which aren’t strong enough to cut through large stones or trunks, or takes them longer to achieve (e.g. chopping down a tree might take four taps instead of 1). The player is incentivized to earn money and collect raw materials so they can afford to buy crops with better profit ratios (and earn more money for their work) and automate their farm work (e.g. craft sprinklers). This can take the form of season-based strategies (e.g. get enough seed money to grow the crops with the best profit:energy ratios), or timing watering can upgrades for when it rains so you do not miss out on a day of crop growth.
The game does not necessarily become more difficult over time (e.g. tapping 4 times vs. 1 time drains time and energy, but it does not train a player skill), but it does open the space for the player to want to reduce repetitive action and focus on tasks they personally enjoy, such as befriending villagers or exploring new places. As the incentives are built into the narrative arc of the game — the player has more chores at the start with a variety of “there’s so much to do but not enough time and energy” — the player will gradually find ways to streamline their labor and along the way, craft their own farm, and find the inherent joy in the calming repeated actions and other charms (e.g. perhaps they enjoy petting animals everyday, or mining). This structuring and evolution of player incentives over time, with so much heart in its characters and storyline, makes this part of the gameplay well-balanced.
Balance in Asymmetric Games
With multiple players (the game supports up to four players in a single farm plot), the game can become “too easy” in that there is the same amount of farmland and fixed world, and items have the same prices as if for a single player. This means players can be dispersed to maximize one single aspect of the game; one player can farm and tend crops, another player can mine, another can forage and care for animals, and another player can fish, or assist the other players. With up to four players, the strict time limit per day is less of a challenge, and the collective farm can achieve the quests and financial goals up to 4x faster. While this does reduce the grind of the mid-game and supports collaborative play, it does remove the constraints that were meant to encourage players to strategize how to earn the most money and collect the necessary items in the limited time.
Balance between Strategies in a Game
Though the player is presented with several options for earning money, and each activity is necessary for collecting raw materials, quest bundle items, or other special goods, the agricultural farm (crops) is by far the best long-term strategy for making money in at least the first two years. This is also because the most accessible money-making strategy is to become an artisanal farmer (level up farming skill to 10 and choose a raw 40% increase on sell price for artisan goods like wine) and turn fruit into wine in kegs. In late-game, when the player can go to the desert and buy starfruit, or has discovered ancient fruit, the player can forsake all other crops and exclusively become a winemaker, which is only enhanced by the addition of the house cellar that can age the wine and increase the sell price.
Though the above is the best strategy, this usually means that players only engage in the other tasks (such as caring for animals, fishing, foraging, and mining) when necessary for crafting or supporting their agriculture ambitions, since the other tasks have comparatively less profits, and are most useful for the raw goods they produce. This does hamper players who perhaps do not enjoy the tilling, watering, or seeding actions, and would prefer to pursue the other activities in the game, if not for the incentive to maximize profit yield. However, once you craft enough sprinklers in end-game, you can pay nominal attention to your crop farm and do the activities you enjoy, so the automated labor does allow players who do not love the emphasis on agricultural farming to still have the time and energy to do something else.
Balance between Game Objects
In terms of best profit-producing crops to grow, or animals to maintain, there are clear winners per season (until the unlockable desert location offers better yielding crops), such as cauliflower in spring, blueberries in summer, and cranberries in fall. The player then would be less inclined to pursue a farm with a balance of various crops, and would tend towards a monoculture. However, because some crafted items and recipes require crops that can only be grown, crafted, or collected by the player, the player would then grow at least a token amount of other crops to ensure enough supply. Likewise, villagers have a variety of loved objects, and it is easier to befriend villagers by giving loved gifts. It also follows that rarer items, such as prismatic shards, are also worth more, but they can also be used to get rare items like a galaxy sword that can lead to large improvements in raw combat attack modifiers. Overall as it is feasible for a player to get every bundle object in the game within two years, and every collectible over several years (with special attention to artifacts and collectibles which deliberately have low spawn rates), the in-game object value system ensures that each item has a fair balance of rarity, sell price, craft and recipe use, and villager appreciation.
Stardew Valley has several internal balancing acts that while goes haywire with multiplayer, it structures an excellent game full of careful design choices to make the player experience consistently a fun challenge.

About the author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.