By my estimate, ranching games are the second most popular type of single-player pet game, after catch-em-all monster battling games. Both of these types of games work in some multiplayer contexts too. Again, some games combine ranching and monster battling, and farming can be combined with both. A hybrid genre isn't necessarily a better or worse design choice than a pure genre. But, pure genres are easier to study and if you want to hybridize two genres it's important to have a thorough understanding of both pure genres before so you can decide which features of both to combine and which to discard or replace with something from the other. Thus, this piece of writing is a little study on ranching games, and will not include combat or crop-growing.
What are some ranching games we can examine? Plant Tycoon is my personal favorite ranching game, despite the fact that the 'pets' being bred are plants rather than animals. The equivalence of these plants to pets is easily demonstrated by looking at Fish Tycoon, which is an earlier and extremely similar game from the same game development company; the only reason I'm analyzing Plant Tycoon instead of Fish Tycoon is that Plant Tycoon is the same game but improved by some added features. I'm going to refer to the plants in plant tycoon as pets throughout this piece of writing, which should hopefully make it easy for readers to see Plant Tycoon's design as applicable to whatever their preferred type of pet is.
Viva Pinata is another ranching game, and makes an interesting contrast to Plant Tycoon because the two are quite different. Both games are about the core concept of using property to breed pets to earn money (to improve that property to breed more 'picky' pets to earn more money...) Both are also realtime games which can be paused. Both include the ability to buy new pet types and other items from an NPC shop, and sell pets to NPCs. Both include some kind of sickness that the player can cure and a water meter where water level falls over time which the player must use a watering can to keep in the 'goldilocks zone' (not too dry, not too wet). Anyone who has played any version of the Sims should immediately recognize this as a standard type of pet care. (Yes, sims count as pets; the series is not technically a ranching game though because you can't sell the sims themselves, nor is breeding them core gameplay, it's more like a half-implemented 'icing' feature.
But Viva Pinata and Plant Tycoon have some big differences. The surface differences start with the fact that VP is 3D and PT is 2D. VP takes place outdoors with the player's property being literally a piece of land, while PT takes place mainly indoors with the player's property being a greenhouse full of flower pots plus a plant nursery where the player sells their plants to customers. The two have a somewhat similar story where you are recapturing some lost past glory - this should be familiar to all Harvest Moon fans because it is their storyline too. In the case of VP you are trying to match the achievements of the previous best pinata breeder, Jardiniero; in Harvest Moon style this begins with the task of removing junk from fallow fields. In the case of PT the story ties in with their other games which all share a story that there used to be an Eden-like island named Isola. This island was destroyed (ala Atlantis myths) but in PT your job is to propagate the rare plant species that originated on the island as well as recovering the extinct species that were lost with the island by 'back breeding'. This is the technique by which the heck horse, a 'reconstruction' of the tarpan horse was created - by breeding individuals who each had some tarpan characteristics.
The deeper differences between VP and PT start with the fact that VP has an XP/leveling/achievement system which is such a big feature of the game that it occasionally overwhelms the player's breeding and sim activities. The way in which the leveling system seems overwhelming is that leveling up is the only way to earn shovel improvements and land expansions, and leveling up often causes a cinematic sequence to play, interrupting whatever the player was doing. PT on the other hand has no levels or achievements (arguably the game's second-largest flaw after it's severe lack of storage space). Progress in PT is controlled by the simple mechanism that every upgrade costs money, so the player can only progress in obtaining all the upgrades whenever they have earned enough money to do so. This works, but it's not very motivating to the player. IMHO the game ought to have had an achievement for breeding every plant, and sub achievements for breeding all of each sub-type; that could have been a happy medium between VP's slightly excessive level restrictions and interruptions and PT's lack of achievements (other than the main goal of discovering the 6 magical plants and the side goal of collecting all the bugs). VP does have a good standard set of achievements for each pinata type: it visited you, it became a resident, you bred one.
The other major difference is that a large percentage of VP's play is about creating and maintaining an environment to attract pinatas and enable them to become activated to breedablility. This can be quite laborious; to be activated, shown by a pink heart over their head, often requires each pinata to eat another pinata lower down the food chain. This activation must be done for both prospective parents, and it gets used up be breeding and must then be done again for each offspring. In some cases the pinatas will decide on their own to attack and possibly eat another pinata, which the player cannot effectively separate from each other (at least for flying ones), so part of the player's perpetual task of managing the habitat involves keeping an eye on these fights - breeding replacements and deciding whether to kill off or heal injured pinatas.
The only vaguely similar thing PT has is the bug collection; the plants you are currently growing count as an environment in that they determine which bugs appear for you to catch. The first bug of each type is automatically collected, while the rest are worth small amounts of cash, and are the mechanism by which the player can rescue themself from accidentally running out of money and healthy plants to sell. There's a cash reward for completing the collection too. The fact that VP's pinatas can take aggressive actions without the player's consent, along with the much greater complexity of the environment in VP, is responsible for the major difference in feeling between the two games: in PT the player is in control, in VP they can't maintain control, they can only hang on and recover when things go pear-shaped.
Finally, let's talk about the breeding systems of these two games. This is the one way in which I think PT really outshines VP. Viva Pinata's pet breeding only occurs between two identical pets to produce another of the same exact thing. The gameplay focus is instead on developing the environment to attract new types of pets. Plant Tycoon is the opposite; only minimal upgrades are possible to the plant-growing environment (upgrading soil and water), and this allows higher-level plants to survive better without direct, expensive intervention by the player, but the gameplay focus is on the experimental breeding. Any plant that makes it to adulthood produces an infinite supply of pollen that can be used to fertilize any number of other plants. Each plant can only become 'pregnant' once, and produces 3-5 identical seeds which will often be different than both parent plants. Parents which both have the same stem shape will always produce offspring with that stem shape, and parents which have the same type of flower or fruit will always produce offspring with that trait, but otherwise the results of breeding are often surprising and add up to a complex intellectual puzzle; there are a huge number of possible stem/flower combinations too, more than 300. This is only possible because the genetic system is non-Mendelian. My positive experience with Plant Tycoon's breeding system (and Fish Tycoon's, which is almost the same) is the major motive behind my opposition to realistic genetics as a design choice for pet games; this is just plain more fun.
So, I think I've covered all the major features of the two games. Anyone see anything I missed? Anyone want to suggest a third similar game for further comparison? Any general comments or questions about ranching games?
Oh, Plant Tycoon has a 1-hour free trial so I'll link that here: