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Nook Miles+ and Binge-Playing

Animal Crossing games have always had a soft limit on how much you could do in a single day. Fossils only show up once a day, trees can only be shaken once a day, flowers can only be watered once a day, and so on - plus many event triggers (such as house expansions) have built-in overnight delays, so even once you hit one of these goals you can’t move forward past it until the next day.

You always could keep playing, catching more bugs and fish and picking up more shells, but at that point you’re mostly farming Bells. It’s an option, but it’s not where the game’s best experiences lie and I don’t think it’s what the designers really want the player to do. It’s possible because none of the mechanics forbid it but they don’t particularly reward or encourage it either.

Because of this, I’ve always gotten the impression that Animal Crossing wants to be played a little every day. You can choose to binge it and try to play as efficiently as possible and rush the various objectives, but the game neither encourages nor supports this approach. It’s designed to be less fun for players who come at it like that. It’s designed to slow you down. It wants to be a Zen garden, not a checklist.

New Horizons adds a fascinating feature that runs somewhat counter to this - the Nook Miles+ program that comes pretty early in the story progression. At all times, you have five mini-quests active that reward Nook Miles (a secondary currency alongside Bells) when completed and instantly replace themselves with another objective. These are things like catching five bugs (or five fish, or one specific bug or fish), spending Bells, selling items, crafting items, tending flowers, and so on - things that are very much in the “things you were probably going to do anyway” vein and often things that also earn you Bells along the way.

What this means is that even once you’ve done all the significant things you can do in a given day, you constantly have a short checklist of directed activities. You always have goals to accomplish for rewards. In some ways, it feels like a very non-Animal Crossing concession to players who want to binge and clear checklists. You can keep playing and knocking out more and more goals.

But at least in the early game, it seems to be less rewarding than it first appears. At the very beginning, Nook Miles are incredibly valuable - they’re how you repay your first debt and progress the game to unlock more mechanics and activities, and they can be spent on some absolutely vital purchases like an increase to your inventory size and a tool quick-select ring. Once you get through those things, though, there’s much less to do with your miles, at least in the early game. They still have some use and value, but at this point I have tens of thousands of miles just sitting around so it’s hard to find the Nook Miles+ objectives particularly compelling. I’m back to feeling like the game wants me to put it down until tomorrow.

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Mandatory Backtracking

Some games have optional backtracking - letting you return to earlier areas or content for various reasons. Others have structural backtracking - in Metroidvanias, the player often encounters impassable obstacles to which they’ll need to return later once they have the ability to get past them. (How obnoxious this is varies considerably with how good the map is and how generous the fast travel is, but that’s another post.)

But there are also games where backtracking isn’t an inherent part of the game’s structure or an opportunity to recontextualize earlier content. Instead, it’s an apparently-arbitrary requirement that the player repeat mostly-identical content, seemingly as filler or an attempt to increase replayability. This is what I call mandatory backtracking, and it’s one of my game design pet peeves.

I recently played LEGO City Undercover, which has tons of mandatory backtracking in a way that I get the impression is typical for Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO games. You gain new abilities as you progress through the story missions, and every mission has collectibles you can’t possibly get your first time through because they require an ability you don’t have yet. Most of the missions have collectibles that require an ability you get at the very end of the final story mission. So to fully complete the story missions, you have to play them all at least twice.

To me, this is annoying - whenever I see one of these collectibles in a mission, it feels like I am being taunted. And it smacks of insecure design - my instinct is that if the mission is fun enough to play twice, I’ll play it twice; if it’s not, I resent being forced to do so if I want the collectible.

LEGO City Undercover also has an open-world hub area to explore, which is chock full of goodies to find - many of which require various abilities, including the one you get at the very end of the story. At first I had a great time casually exploring the city, finding collectibles and beating challenges, and heading into a story mission for a more directed experience only when I felt like it. But I kept running into collectibles I couldn’t get yet, which made me feel like I was being discouraged from exploring before advancing the story. I felt like I had to play story missions before I was in the mood for them, and that damaged the experience.

Worse, I’d sometimes find a trail to a collectible that would take me platforming across rooftops, using a couple of abilities along the way, and suddenly dead-end in an ability I didn’t have yet. You get abilities in a set order, so I don’t know why they didn’t just make sure that trails always started with the latest needed ability to complete them. Since they didn’t do that, I often had to just back out without getting the collectible, and when I later got the ability I needed it was extremely difficult to find where I’d needed it - because the trail actually started somewhere else with basic platforming or some other earlier ability and wasn’t marked in any way as incomplete. This made me feel like I was being outright punished for exploring, which made it much less relaxing and enjoyable to do.

In some ways, I feel like LEGO City Undercover doesn’t really start until it’s over. You aren’t fully free to find and complete everything until you have all the abilities, which you won’t until you finish the entire story. At which point you’ll have to replay the entire story and re-explore the entire world if you want to find everything. I can see where that would work out for kids, but I had a hard time getting in the right headspace to enjoy that. I eventually just powered through the remaining story missions, but then found that hunting down the collectibles no longer seemed appealing. It’s an extreme case of texture outlasting structure. If getting the collectibles is fun without the story, why force me to go through the story before I can get all the collectibles? And if it’s not, then why make sure that you can’t get all the collectibles until you’re done with the story?

But all together, this is a great example of a design choice that’s enjoyable for some players and unpleasant for others rather than being inherently good or bad. There have been a lot of LEGO games over the years, and my understanding is that they basically all do these kinds of things. I think they would have stopped by now if it weren’t a positive for their target audience. These games are largely designed for children, who enjoy repetition. It’s a much safer assumption that a child is going to want to replay the content anyway, and this means they can get new rewards for doing so.

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Games should never punish exploration.

Similar to my claim that what’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it, this is a foundational design belief of mine that’s important enough I want to write about it but seems so obvious that it’s hard to know what I could even say about it.

Games should never punish exploration.

A player getting drawn into a the universe of a game, engaging deeply enough to want to explore off the beaten path and not just follow the narrative breadcrumbs and signposts? That’s a huge compliment that means the game is working. It should never be repaid with a slap on the wrist.

Games should not assume that a player exploring an area means they don’t know they can leave or have forgotten their goal and have an NPC repeatedly and patronizingly bark at them to move on.

Games should not have one-way doors or points of no return that are not clearly telegraphed. (And they definitely should not have unmarked plot triggers at the end of dungeons that teleport the player all the way back out of the dungeon.)

Games should not surprise the player with sudden deadly difficulty spikes in otherwise safe areas.

Games should not provide interesting-looking and apparently-reachable places that are actually out-of-bounds instant death traps.

Games should never punish exploration.

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#gaming #video games

Tags: Thought

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The New Old Hotness

Sometimes it’s stressful to start a new game.

Entering a new world, understanding a new set of rules, seeing the systems beneath, learning what’s vitally important and what’s noise to be ignored, all create real cognitive load that can be quite demanding.

It’s pretty silly how many evenings I’ve wanted to unwind with a game but not been in the middle of anything with sufficient chill and found myself unwilling to start a new game, even one known for being relaxed and cozy, because I didn’t have the energy. At those times I want comfort food, not a new adventure.

This is one of those things that’s really helpful about genre conventions and so-called kitsch. It’s one of the major benefits of a series holding on to its core identity. The more you know what you’re getting into, the less energy it takes to get into it.

That’s why I was a little nervous about how different Animal Crossing: New Horizons is from its predecessors, but I was reassured by its connections to the past. I’m pretty sure that no matter how stressed or tired I am today, starting New Horizons isn’t going to scare me off. It’s going to feel like coming home.

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Entitled Developers

So like, I love Nintendo and everything, but this is also the company that decides there is One True Way to play their games to justify forcing you to unlock all characters in an otherwise tournament-ready game one by one, or selling you an expensive controller and then not letting you use it while destroying accessibility by unnecessarily requiring motion controls, or preventing you from backing up your own saves, selling you a save backup service, and then not letting you use it, or requiring an online connection to experience certain content even if playing alone on a portable console.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about entitled gamers, but none about entitled developers. I don’t know what else to call it when a developer feels like they can decide for you how you get to enjoy the games and services you’ve purchased from them and hobbles those games and services in ways that cause real problems for communities, accessibility, and preservation all to stop players from having fun in an unapproved way.

See also: Atlus pretending Fair Use doesn’t exist and dictating terms for using gameplay footage and screenshots (perplexing after their previous backpedaling on the subject), many developers tracking player activity even outside of their game, and on and on.

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