The Quiet Life: How to Make a Casual Sim
After the beloved Stardew Valley, casual sims have seen a resurgence. The Steam Store likely has one of them in the top sellers on any given day, whether it be focused on farming, managing a workshop or even graveyard-keeping.
Rather than the immediate satisfaction you might get from a lightning-fast arcade game, casual sims are true slow-burners, often described with adjectives like “peaceful,” “relaxing,” and “laid-back.” To some consumers, these words are synonyms for “boring,” but plenty of others cherish the opportunity to sink their evenings into cozy virtual villages, working towards a new set of furniture or tending to livestock.
While they offer simple gameplay loops to keep you busy—produce, sell, expand—it’s everything else that makes or breaks a game of this genre.
Solid farming mechanics, but no interesting events? No thanks.
Great crafting, but poorly-written characters in the nearby town? Nah.
Simple RPG elements, good progression, NPCs, events, and a passionate eye for detail? You’ve got yourself a classic.
The most recent success story in casual sims might be My Time at Portia, released in January from Pathea Games and Team17 (11th top seller on Steam globally at the time of writing).
So far I’ve spent two months (half a year in the game calendar) in the small city of Portia—about 24 hours’ gameplay. In that time, I’ve risen to fame. I now own—wait for it—the second best workshop in town.
Impressive, I know.
But what keeps me going? Here are a few small lessons I’ve learned about creating a solid casual sim from MTAP.
Build a Convincing World
This applies twofold to the local community in your game.
NPCs need an interesting schedule that feels realistic. Where does the villager work and relax? Do they have any interesting habits? Who is friends with who, and does that affect the player?
In MTAP, getting to know one person better might also endear you to their close mates, thereby creating the feeling of a real network of relationships in town. Once you befriend someone, you’re able to fulfil special requests, learn more about their backstory, and even go hang out with them in the pub.
With that being said, I do think casual sims could use a little innovation in terms of making friends. I give Phyllis the same shoddy necklace every day and she somehow still enjoys my company.
Show Tangible Effects
Witnessing Portia develop is a rewarding experience.
There are cosmetic changes and new characters wandering around, but best of all is the steadily unfolding set of new mechanics. Build a network of bus stops and you’ll find you can now fast-travel. Repair a nearby logging camp and they’ll send you resources daily.
Tie it All Together
After mining for a few hours, you might dig up a sofa, which motivates you to return home and spruce up the place a bit. There, decorating can be satisfying in and of itself, but My Time at Portia goes a step further—the items you place in your house boost your stats, too.
In other words: buy stuff, get buffs.
If you’re a fan of the dungeons and combat, make sure your room is filled with things that increase your HP. On the other hand, if your focus is hard labor, get some chairs that give you more stamina. This is a subtle touch that pulls players like me—someone who doesn’t care much for interior design—into thinking about the items I fill my abode with.
Variety is the Spice of (Virtual) Life
In order to stave away the monotony of a 9-5 job in the workshop, games like MTAP present a wide range of things to do. In my limited time with the game, I’ve started raising chickens, won a martial arts tournament, dungeon-crawled, decorated, and dated. I’ve played slots, repaired robots, posed for the best camera shots, caught fish, and cooked up my favorite dish.
There’s a lot to do, and you can more or less take it at your own pace.
Do you have any more lessons for casual sim developers? Do you agree or disagree with the lessons here? Which are your favourite casual sims and why? Let us know.