Stardew Valley is a unique game in the North American gaming market, having accomplished what Harvest Moon has failed to do with many sequels on nearly every commercially available gaming platform. Widespread acceptance and demand have turned it into a household game along the likes of Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and the entirety of Dark Souls. Yet it has an open ending and a soothing capacity that sets it apart from its kin. Unfortunately its open ended nature leaves the player with nothing to do but start another farm. What if there was another option?
260 hours is a lot of time to spend playing any game, but the thing about Stardew Valley is that all that time does not assure that you will complete all of its achievements, friendships and quests. Before I continue on, in order to discuss this topic, I must give you a Spoiler Warning, because I will be specifically addressing aspects of the game mechanics and its end game. I will not, however, be revealing any backstory. You have been warned.
Stardew Valley has a sunny-side proposition for its prospective farming players, and a decidedly clear message about the joy of life. Its mechanics are akin to knitting; everything you do is calming, but activities can demands focus, organization and time management skills. Fishing and combat in the mines is as strenuous as the game ever becomes, and while each in-game day counts for just twenty real world minutes, it is possible to while away the hours with that "I'll do just one more thing" mentality. The feeling of achievement and a job well done are compelling.
Those tasks require much of the player, mentally and compare well to the real tasks for which they are an analog. Granted swinging an axe at a tree for real is going to burn a great deal more calories, but most of the decision making is the same, and that's going to be the crux of my argument. What I'm going to suggest is that Stardew Valley doesn't have to end with Grandpa's approval, or disappointment, as the case may be.
Much of this depends on the competency and knowledge of the player, but let's assume that the player has played Stardew Valley at least once to year three and won Grandpa's approval. Let's add to that assumption experimentation with two other farms in various states of completion. This player can do everything they want to do, and thus have done everything they want to do, leaving little else to explore. How do you extend the functionality of this game without fundamentally changing its mechanics?
Multiplayer seems to be a logical, and obvious answer, and this is in development at time of writing. However, I believe there's a singular player (and multiplayer) option that can enable the player to effectively play as long as they wish well after year three and/or completion. In my most recent playthrough, the 260 hour one, I've neared completion, but find the day to day grind unfulfilling for just one simple reason: I don't know why I'm making all this stuff, and thus I have no reason beyond building up the farm to continue. I don't have to craft or grow special items for friendships, I can just use Universal Likes for this when I run short of their Favorites.
Consider this then: Once the farm has been revitalized, and Stardew Valley returned to prosperity, whether by completion of the Community Center, or by Joja's commercialization of the town, let's open the farm up to the rest of the country. Let big shipment requests come in so that the player needs to grow - for example - one thousand Jazz Flowers next spring. Some requests are seasonal, but those can be conditional as well: Perhaps a supplier has failed one year, and the player's farm is being asked to make up the difference for a particular order.
This gives us two types of orders right off the bat: Full Shipments and Partial Orders. Another might take the form of Specialty Requests, such as a call for four or five dozen shucks of top-quality corn. It's logical to have proficiency requirements so that players aren't jumping the shark to get into the market. Perhaps a reputation meter is involved, so that filled orders increase ones reputation. Let the player partially fill the order and gain a proportionate amount of reputation.
To retain the attitude of the overall game, failing to fill orders completely, or at all, merely shifts the request somewhere to the back of the queue, perhaps occurring under another name. Of course monetary rewards are given for filled orders, as are reputation points, but lets also consider the possibility of befriending the owner of the restaurant/marketplace. The better the player performs, the more regularly they receive requests.
Each order would occur well in advance of the required deadline. Except, of course, for rush orders on items that can be procured in the allotted time, or laid in store in advance. It's true that nothing expires in storage, but it would add to the incentive of keeping stock that isn't as lucrative as say... blueberries. Payouts could make up the difference. For instance, why even make jam and top-quality wine when you can churn out base quality product in as little as a quarter of the time?
Because businesses the player deals with make it worth their while. Naturally, all of this would tie effectively into a multiplayer environment as well. It would even allow players to be absent when everything has been set up for an order, and would encourage players to work together to fulfill large, or complex lists of multi-item orders. Imagine a list of tulips that require not just multiples of specific qualities, but quantities of color, too. That's harder to fulfill when you can't guarantee what color is going to pop out of the ground.
Another compelling aspect could also be branding. "Bertram's Fiddle" label Starfruit Wine might just outsell the national brand and go global. Mightn't the player choose the style of their brand, or have a sub-label for a specific product? Imagine "Liquid Terror Hot Sauce by Bertram's Fiddle Farms". By extension, having one or two products that require international order filling could be beyond the scope of Stardew Valley, but not if virtual farms were involved, or if the work were shared with multiplayer farms. It may be best to assume that only one brand goes global, and that it's a niche product with limited availability and high value.
It's important that two factors be satisfied before a player goes national: A minimum skill level that suits the orders that will be coming in. That stays in line with how the player focuses their attention on an item or product in the single player game at present. Also, that they are able to satisfy a minimum requirement for basic orders. There are a number of technical considerations to be taken into account, but any implementation of multiplayer can account for that facet of functionality.
Single player systems for the National and International Farm expansions can be doled out separately, perhaps as the player establishes their brand. Honestly, all of this additional functionality may require a sequel; I don't know how much the existing code or engine can handle. That's a decision that will be have to be made by the developers. However, as it all takes shape, we see that Stardew Valley doesn't really have to end, if you find ways to give their revitalized farm purpose and context.
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