How much complexity does a farming sim really need? Does it need fancy graphics and sound? In-depth growing and harvesting mechanics? NPCs that rattle off reams of dialogue at you? Bit Orchard: Animal Valley answers those questions with a resounding ‘no’; it’s a Harvest Moon-a-like that harks back to the Game Boy era, with pared-back controls and systems to match. Starting off with a tiny patch of land, you grow apple trees, harvest the fruit, and acquire the cash you need to buy tools and – eventually – larger plots of land. Bit Orchard offers a wilfully simple riff on the genre, but one that still provides enough variety to keep things interesting: a task list in the corner of the screen constantly updates with new stuff to do, while the later stages of the game throws in things like fishing and affable townsfolk to chat to.
Bit Orchard is a self-described passion project for its lone developer, 2Boone Games (not his real name). It began a couple of years ago when the Tennessee-based graphic designer and web developer started working on a very different project – a platformer with a sci-fi theme. When 2Boone looked around for someone to try out his work in progress, however, he quickly discovered a problem. “My wife was the only person I had to test it,” he tells us, “ and she wasn’t very good at platformers.”
With this in mind, 2Boone then set about designing a game based on his wife’s interests – namely, life sims like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, and her enduring affection for the Game Boy. “Keeping things small and contained was at the core of Bit Orchard,” 2Boone explains. “I tried to think of what this game would have been like on the Game Boy… I wanted Bit Orchard to be a peaceful, relaxing time without too much to stress about. You can move at your own pace, you don’t have to feed the rabbit to keep it alive, and there’s not much to punish you for trying new things.”
With his genre and concept in mind, 2Boone began working on Bit Orchard in his spare time, often late into the night. “I have a fairly obsessive personality,” he tells us, “so it was fairly easy to fit in 20 or more hours a week into a passion project.” His experience as a graphic designer certainly helped as he crafted his characters, items, and backgrounds from blocky pixels, though mimicking the low-resolution, monochrome visuals of a Game Boy title didn’t come without the occasional challenge. “I kept running into roadblocks trying to figure out how to draw different furniture and farm decorations using just a few pixels,” 2Boone says. “Some things were easy, but others took hours to work out the exact pixel configuration to represent an item. I found myself frequently bringing my wife in to see if she could guess what the item was.”
Not that Bit Orchard is entirely without colour: occasional splashes of red appear when you’ve harvested an apple, for example, and it’s touches like these that help spur the player on as they gradually build their mini farming empire. “I think the main thing I tried to do is make everything feel satisfying when you do it,” says 2Boone. “When you cut the weeds, there’s a little sound and a particle animation; when you harvest apples, you get a big rewarding red explosion, and so on. I also wanted Bit Orchard to feel relaxing and slow-paced, so it was a lot of starting the game from scratch and playtesting for an hour or two and making notes if it got too boring or if something felt too expensive.”
Like the little character’s farm in the game itself, Bit Orchard has grown over time: sales were initially steady when it launched on Steam, but the interest of publisher RedDeer.games helped boost its profile – and prompted 2Boone to start thinking about expansions. “When I originally released it on Steam, it was a much smaller game than it is right now,” he says. “There wasn’t a town with NPCs, and you couldn’t fish. It was only when I started talking with RedDeer.games about bringing my game to the Switch and Xbox that I decided to add some of the features I’d always wanted. But even with these additions, I am keeping my original constraints in mind and keeping everything simple.”
Indeed, the positive reactions have encouraged 2Boone to put his next project on hold and concentrate on providing more updates for Bit Orchard instead. His latest addition? Chickens. “I have a list of really exciting features I’m going to add in the near future. I’ve got a kind of road map, and the first thing on the list is adding chickens. I’ve always wanted chickens in Bit Orchard and even designed and animated them long ago. That’s what I’m currently working on, and it’s so satisfying seeing them running around and laying eggs on my farm.”