Life/farm sim games are seemingly a dime a dozen. Hell, some of them are free-to-play, so they don’t even cost that much. Yet each time a new one drops, be it from a AAA studio or an indie developer, it gets harder and harder to tell what, if anything, is new. Then came Disney Dreamlight Valley.
Disney Dreamlight Valley makes its home somewhere between Animal Crossing and your favorite movie from the Mouse House. It’s a fantasy world where everyone has forgotten who they are. As a visitor with unique magic, you must get to the bottom of the mystery and bring all these lost Disney characters back to town. But you can also buy new clothes for your avatar, decorate your house, go fishing, grow crops—all those life-sim-type things that allow you to just escape into a different world.
Like Cozy Grove, Dreamlight Valley takes the promise of Animal Crossing and runs with it. But unlike those games, it feels like you can play it to infinity—and beyond.
Generally, sim games in this vein artificially limit what players can do at any one time. There’s always something to do (even if it’s just aimlessly digging holes), but quests usually require resources. And those take time to regrow, which means gameplay is spread out over days or weeks, versus just hours. Often, that’s fun. Other times, it’s frustrating. I myself have been guilty of time traveling to get around this.
It’s basically the balance between being able to binge my little heart out when I’m in the mood, and the game telling me, gently, “OK, it’s time to put down the controller and walk around.” I usually like limits in games, personally. But I want them to be designed well; otherwise it feels like the game is trying to control me.
Daniel Cook, chief creative officer at Cozy Grove maker Spry Fox, is very aware of this issue. “There’s a need for satisfaction,” Cook explains. “You need an opportunity to relax.” A game can do this for you. But, as Cook points out, some games become addictive and entrap you. At that point, all you’re playing for is that next dopamine hit instead of relaxation or satisfaction.
But it’s also important for the game’s design to leave room for player choice. “We have this concept of daily delight in the game, where we want to give someone something exciting and interesting every day,” says Cook. But Cozy Grove also never kicks you out once you complete that daily delight. “Autonomy is very important,” he adds. “People need to choose how much they play, when they play, how they play.”
Dreamlight Valley takes this a step further. While Cozy Grove’s resources can take a couple of days to replenish (fruit trees, I’m looking at you), Dreamlight Valley’s take minutes—so you can pick it back up after a break and have something new to do, rather than waiting until the next day. It’s a perfect balance between binge-playing and pacing yourself, between a quest-based adventure game and a life-sim one.
“From the beginning, we really wanted to have our own take on the genre,” explains Matea Castet, Dreamlight Valley’s lead producer at Gameloft Studios. The key was allowing the player to choose how long they played, whether it was 15 minutes on a Nintendo Switch or five hours on a weekend. But the development team also had to make sure players wouldn’t run out of stuff to do.
Growing vegetables in the game is a good example of how much thought the team put into this balance. There are currently eight biomes in the game, with more coming in 2023. “Players can access three unique vegetables per biome. Each of the vegetables has a role in the game,” says Castet. Some are good for snacking on for energy; others can be given as gifts. Certain veggies are required for quests, while others serve as the garnish for a five-star dish. The vegetable’s role determines its availability, purchase price, and growing time.
That means that the player has choices on how they can approach vegetables, whether they want to garden just for fun, embark on a cooking spree, or use their produce to finish off some quests (some puzzles require specific vegetables to make a recipe, for example). That’s a good analogue for the global choices within the game. The key is that it’s the player’s choice on how they approach any single resource.
Castet’s team also didn’t want to make any resource too hard to find. They didn’t want the delight of resource hunting to turn into irritation. During the game’s early-access period, players seemed to be using a lot of Dreamlight and Dream Shards—the game’s de facto currency. That meant they were getting frustrated because there wasn’t enough of it available. The team quickly responded in two ways: providing more Dreamlight to players and tweaking NPC requests so they weren’t demanding as much of the precious resource to move forward in the game. “With each update we have released so far, I would say a good 50 percent of the content,” Castet says, “is player driven.”
Giving players that input into the direction of the game and that choice of how they play is key to the game’s success. Dreamlight Valley opened for early access in September, and it’s flourishing. “As we speak, we’re at the biggest number of players ever in the game, which is amazing, because it’s just going and going and going,” says Castet. It had a huge content update in February, with more planned for April and early summer. Later in the year, the team will introduce multiplayer, as well as even more realms and characters. “The goal is really to make sure that you can play the game like you want,” says Castet. “We want to make sure you can do what you want with it.”