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Animal Crossing: Losing Interest

In the version 1.2.0 update for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the interest earned on banked bells was drastically reduced - per Kotaku, “[t]he previous rate was estimated at around 0.5%. Now it appears to be closer to 0.05%, with interest payouts capped at 9,999 bells.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nintendo isn’t being especially transparent about this. The in-game notification doesn’t even say what the interest rate used to be or what it is now, and there has been no public statement about why the change was made. In the absence of any other explanation and with Nintendo’s established patterns, the natural assumption is that the change is intended to handicap “time traveling.” Players who mess with their Switch’s internal calendar in order to earn a bunch of bells quickly through accumulated interest will now only earn about a tenth as much.

Like most cases of forcing a playstyle, this strikes me as misguided. Making this method earn money more slowly isn’t going to make playing without time travel more appealing. Players who time travel are already opting out of the way Nintendo wants them to play - now they just have to go through more tedious steps to play the way they actually want to play. Meanwhile, the players who aren’t time traveling are also punished by this change, with one of the game’s approved methods for earning bells being reduced in effectiveness by ninety percent! If anything, this change punishes the people playing the “right” way worse than it punishes the time travelers!

It’s a small thing in the grand scheme - from money rocks and money trees alone, you can easily earn tens of thousands of bells per day of actual play. But it bothers me that Nintendo would - apparently - hobble one of the game’s many fun details in an attempt to punish people for enjoying it “incorrectly” and as a result make things a little bit worse for everyone.

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Why is fishing so hard?

Does anyone else find it weird in Animal Crossing how much harder fishing is than, like, anything else?

Even videogamedunkey pointed this out.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because the mechanics are pretty simple and on paper it’s not obvious that fishing would be more difficult or frustrating than, say, catching bugs. But there actually are several key differences.

First is that unlike bugs, which you can see before deciding to try to catch them, you can never be sure what kind of fish you’re trying to hook. It’s limited to some varieties by time and location, but beyond that all you have to go on is its rough size. You can run past the bugs you don’t need and only target the ones you’re specifically looking for, but if you’re looking for a specific fish you have to go for any shadow of the right size in the right place at the right time, with no guarantee that it’s the one you need - or even a fish, as it can turn out to be trash instead (or, during the Bunny Day event, a candy egg). So even if you succeed at the actual fishing challenge, you might not get the reward you want. And any fish that gets away might have been your one chance at the rare fish you’re seeking.

Next is the first stage of the actual challenge: getting the fish’s attention. Using the fishing pole casts the bobber out a set distance in front of you, and this can be bizarrely hard to aim. You don’t get any control over where it goes besides pointing your character in a direction, which can be difficult to do with precision. Fish have a surprisingly small area that they pay attention to and they can move around and reorient randomly. As a result, you may have to cast several times to actually get noticed - many times, I’ve cast my bobber only to have the fish turn around while the bobber was in midair. But you have to be careful about reeling the bobber in for a recast - if you do it when the fish actually had noticed it, the fish vanishes.

Finally comes the main challenge: reeling in the fish. The fish will nibble at the bobber zero to four times and then bite it. If you pull the line in any time before the bite, you lose the fish. Once they bite, you have a short window to pull the line in - hit the button too late, and you lose the fish. The window might be shorter for more rare fish, but in New Horizons you can’t tell from the shadow whether the fish is rare so you must treat every fish as rare. Either way, it’s a shorter window with less player control than almost anything else in the game - the only other thing I can really point to is dealing with wasps, but those have multiple mitigating factors (if you’re trying to catch them, you get several chances a day; if you fail to avoid them you can just take medicine which is easily acquired).

Fishing, like catching bugs, is one of the most prominent activities that you’re generally expected to do every day. It’s really odd to me how much harder and more frustrating fishing is than all the other prominent activities.

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Animal Crossing Trolls Completionists

I wrote recently about dividing gamers into “completionists” who want to master a game and not miss anything and “wanderers” who want to explore a game and find surprises. Game designs can be good for one group and bad for the other, or can try to find compromises.

Animal Crossing is very much designed to appeal to wanderers, to the point where it almost comes across as purposefully trolling the completionists.

Animal Crossing wants you to slow down and relax. It isn’t designed to be binged - it doles out mechanics slowly, limits what you can do in a day, and adds in overnight delays to encourage you to come back tomorrow. The game actively resists players who want to power through its content, offering its best experiences to those who just check in for a while once or twice a day.

And that’s fine, even if it’s not how I normally play games since I like to progress on my own schedule, not someone else’s. I have to remember to get in the right headspace for the game, but then I can have a good time. The problem is that Animal Crossing also has several mechanics that make it very hard to stay in that headspace.

If you’re a wanderer who naturally approaches games in a relaxed, open-ended way - then you’re fine. But if you’re a goal-oriented completionist then Animal Crossing is actually a bit of a minefield, primarily through having checklists of goals with time-limited availability. Such as the stringfish.

See, there’s quite a variety of fish you can find in Animal Crossing. They vary by time of year, by time of day, by body of water, and sometimes by weather. On top of that, they have varying levels of rarity. The stringfish, for example, can only be found from December to March, from 4 pm to 9 am, in elevated rivers, and even then it’s quite rare. You can do everything right - stock up on fish bait (which is tedious, as you must hunt manila clams and then craft them into bait one at a time), head to a clifftop river at the right time of day during the right month, catch dozens or even hundreds of fish, managing your limited inventory and breaking fishing poles along the way, and never get a stringfish.

It might seem clear that this is the wrong way to play. It means a lot of time spent doing things that are tedious and stressful instead of relaxing. Clearly it would be better to just do some fishing here and there when you’re in the mood, and if/when you finally do catch the stringfish it’s a pleasant surprise.

Except. EXCEPT. There’s a museum. The museum lets you donate one of every fish, bug, and fossil you can find, displays them in somewhat spectacular fashion, and rewards you for completing a collection. The museum turns fish into a checklist and stringfish is absolutely on that list. And Animal Crossing released on March 20, less than two weeks before stringfish became unavailable for nine months. Is it any wonder that some players felt pushed to try hard to get the stringfish before the month ended - and then felt aggravated when they put in a lot of time and effort and still didn’t get the damn fish?

This is my problem with Animal Crossing. It provides experiences that are best enjoyed in a wanderer-style way, and then includes mechanics that encourage completionists to approach the game in a very different way that’s much less enjoyable. It’s sort of the completionist’s fault that they are playing the game wrong, and it will especially seem this way to wanderers who fall naturally into the better ways to play. But the game could do a lot more to lead more kinds of players into its best experiences.

Here’s another example that’s new to New Horizons: tool durability. When building most tools (shovel, fishing pole, bug net, etc.) you first have to build a “flimsy” version from common materials. This version is only good for a small number of uses before it breaks. You can also build a normal version of the tool, which takes the flimsy version and a slightly rarer material. This version lasts many more uses.

Here’s the thing, though - going from the flimsy to the normal version doesn’t add uses. It sets them to a higher number. That means that the most efficient use of your materials is to use the flimsy version almost enough to break it and then upgrade it to the normal version.

That’s already a kind of obnoxious thing to do, but on top of that tools don’t have a visible durability meter. So if you do want to optimize this, you have to learn how many uses a tool has and then keep count per tool. Undercount and use it too many times before upgrading and it’ll break instead; overcount and upgrade early and you’re missing on potential uses - either way, you waste crafting time and materials.

Now, I think it’s fair to argue that you aren’t supposed to try to optimize this way. Many players will just craft the flimsy version and the upgrade in one go and not worry about the “wasted” uses and probably have a better experience. But here’s the thing - the game could have easily catered to both types of players. If the upgrade added uses instead of resetting them, it would always be correct to just go straight for the upgrade and all the players would have the better experience.

By not approaching its design in this way - by not setting things up so that the mechanically optimal way to play is also the most enjoyable way to play - Animal Crossing is actively setting traps for players who want to optimize. The game is designed to be maximally enjoyable if you approach it as a relaxed experience but has mechanics that cause certain kinds of players to not be relaxed.

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Completionists and Wanderers

There are a lot of ways players differ, but one frame I’ve been thinking about a lot is the spectrum from being what you might call a “completionist” to a “wanderer.”

Completionists are goal-focused. They want to understand a game’s rules, master its mechanics, and conquer its objectives. They don’t want to miss anything.

Wanderers prefer to explore and experiment. They like surprises and like to feel like a game’s world is organic and huge - perhaps bigger than can ever be fully understood.

Most players are somewhere in between. I personally am pretty far on the completionist side. While there certainly are games that can appeal to players regardless of their position on the spectrum, many design elements will hit players differently - the point where “good design” for wanderers can be “bad design” for completionists and vice versa.

For example, I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the fact that in open-world games in the Ubisoft formula, you end up with a huge checklist of map icons instead of a world to explore. These people tend to also celebrate the approach used by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which doesn’t give you much in the way of automatic icons, instead tasking you with looking through binoculars and marking points of interest yourself. To wanderers, the latter feels more like actual exploring and is far more satisfying. To completionists, it can be nerve-wracking - it puts all the pressure on the player to notice and keep track of everything (I’ve even seen reviews suggest playing with a notebook and maintaining a to-do list) lest they miss something.

This can pose a challenge when designing games for large audiences and there aren’t always viable compromises. I find that what helps me a lot is having some kind of safety net: if there’s an unobtrusive checklist tucked away in a menu or something, such that I know I can always check in on it and be sure I’m not missing any objectives or sidequests, then the pressure is off and I can stop worrying and can actually enjoy exploring. But I’ve also seen people (who are presumably far on the “wanderer” side of the spectrum) complain that the mere presence of checklist features, even optionally, can ruin the feeling of free exploration.

One of the absolute best implementations of a completionist safety net I’ve ever seen comes from inFAMOUS 2. Both of the first two inFAMOUS games feature hundreds of collectible “blast shards” scattered across the games’ respective cities. Collecting them increases how much energy you can store, but you don’t need all of them in order to max out. But there is a trophy for finding them all. And unless you keep careful track as you play, if you find yourself with 349/350 shards in the endgame you have no recourse but to scour the entire city for that last damn shard. Not a big deal to wanderers, but potentially infuriating for completionists.

inFAMOUS 2 had a similar setup, but with a simple addition - a late-game optional upgrade that let your map radar always point you in the direction of the nearest shard. It’s such a minor change and it doesn’t disrupt the game’s balance, but it’s a lifesaver if you find yourself in the position of missing one or two shards at the end. Knowing this is there, you don’t have to worry about keeping track of the shards you do collect. You can just play the damn game.

And that, I think, is key to the difference between wanderers and completionists. To a wanderer, a completionist might seem like someone who should just relax and enjoy the game. But the completionist might be wishing they could do exactly that! They don’t choose to have anxiety about missing content. And a couple of simple accommodations can usually cut out that anxiety and let the completionist enjoy the game just as much as the wanderer.

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Fickle Neighbors

I appreciate the increased control Animal Crossing: New Horizons gives you over building placement - in New Leaf, I once had a new villager move in right in front of the plot I’d designated for the coffee house, nearly blocking the door, and it was frustrating that I couldn’t do anything about that.

But it seems bizarre to me the way the game still gives you almost no control about who moves out of your town. There are (largely-hidden) friendship levels with the villagers, but they don’t matter for this - periodically, a villager will ask you if they should move out, but which villager does so is random and cannot be influenced by the player.

In New Leaf, I consistently favored the villagers I liked and ignored the ones I didn’t, and the only villagers who ever suggested moving out were the ones I’d been favoring. Eventually, after a week or two away from the game I found that my favorite villager had moved away, and that’s when I stopped playing.

So far I’ve been playing New Horizons every day, so I don’t have a sense of how much of a risk this is here, but the first villager to ask about moving out was again my favorite one, which does not bode well.

It’s frustrating and I don’t understand it. It seems like it would only improve the simulation as well as the player’s enjoyment to let them influence who stays and who leaves. I’d like to be able to give presents to and do favors for particular villagers and then be reasonably confident I can safely put the game down for a while if I need to without losing my favorite neighbors. Surely it makes sense for villagers to want to stick around if they are good friends with the player?

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