Posts by Tag / GAME: Animal Crossing: New Horizons (24)

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Actually Learning to Play: Why There Should Be Easy and Hard Modes for Game UI

Why don’t games have hard and easy modes for the UI? Different players have different needs, and one-size-fits-all solutions shrink a game’s audience.

In a blog post titled The Importance of the New Player’s Experience, Josh Bycer catalogs several types of “new” players for a given game:

  1. Players who are new to this specific game, but familiar with other similar games or the conventions of the genre.
  2. Players who are new to this game’s genre and conventions, but familiar with gaming in general.
  3. Players who are completely new to gaming.
  4. Players who have played this specific game, but have put it down for an extended period and are returning - especially if it is a live-service game which may have changed considerably in the meantime.

All of these players need some amount of guidance (or at least reminders) to understand how to play the game, but the amount and nature of guidance needed varies considerably between them. One might expect games to thus present a few different levels of optional guidance to cater to each group, but it’s typical for games to design their tutorials and onboarding for only the first group, providing little help for the “new” players of other kinds.

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Animal Crossing Isn’t For Everybody

Here’s the thing that really frustrates me about Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the reason I’m writing all these posts about how it effectively trolls certain types of players. The way the game is marketed and the way it gets talked about, it’s easy to think that if you don’t enjoy playing Animal Crossing the way it clearly wants to be played, you are playing the game wrong, when in fact it’s completely possible that the game’s highly-deliberate and opinionated design just doesn’t work for you. It looks like a game anybody ought to be able to pick up and enjoy, but it’s actually designed for a very specific type of play experience and thus a very specific type of player.

This is especially insidious given the game’s positioning as chill and casual. If you’re an anxious person and you try to unwind with Animal Crossing but find it impossible to relax with, you might conclude that you are bad at relaxing which will just make everything worse.

So please, keep this in mind: If you find Animal Crossing’s resistance to optimization, untrackable objectives with frequent interruptions, and artificial delays frustrating, it’s not your fault. You haven’t failed the game - the game has failed you.

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Animal Crossing’s Endgame Trolls Focusers Even More

With Animal Crossing: New Horizons’s increased tools for town customization - the ability to actually shape the land and water, place furniture and decorations outdoors, and decide where almost every building goes - many people have done crazily impressive things with their islands that are wonderful to behold. These island-scale projects seem to be what you are intended to do once you reach the “endgame” and unlock the terraforming tools. But I found that when I reached that point, I had very little interest in undertaking such projects and was largely done with the game. And I think I’ve figured out why.

Animal Crossing does a lot to deliberately slow the player down, but once you start working on projects as large-scale as terraforming the delays and interruptions both skyrocket. Not only will each project take a long time, but you’ll frequently have to put it down unfinished and remember what work remains to be done.

The first factor is that the terraforming tools themselves are slow and clunky to work with. You don’t get some kind of Sim City-style god mode; you have to physically walk to each grid square (traversing any cliffs or water along the way), carefully position and point yourself, and use the correct terraforming tool. This process is at least free - infrastructure changes (moving houses or shops, building slopes or bridges, or demolishing slopes and bridges) all have costs in the tens or hundreds of thousands of bells, which slows down how much of that you can do, although that’s at least in an organic way that allows you to set and work toward goals.

More interruptive is the fact that these infrastructure changes also have arbitrary delays and limitations attached. You can only be building or demolishing one bridge or slope at a time and it will take at least one day each. You can only move one house or shop per day and it will also take one day each. Perhaps worst of all, you can only plan to place a house or shop in a place that is currently clear.

Want to move a house one square to the right? That will require two moves over two days and a separate house-sized clear area to temporarily hold the house. It will cost a total of 100,000 bells.

Want to swap two houses? Three moves, three days, a house-sized holding area, and 150,000 bells.

Want to raise or lower the ground where some buildings currently are? That will require two moves, two days, a house-sized holding area, and 100,000 bells per building, with terraforming in between.

On top of this is the largely random distribution of furniture and decoration items making it difficult to plan to use specific ones, especially in large numbers. If there’s something you can buy but it’s not currently at the store (or if it’s in limited supply) you can mail-order it - but you can only order five items per day and they won’t arrive until the next day.

Add it all up and a large-scale project like renovating your island can easily take weeks and this seems to be by design. Having a long-term goal and poking at it a bit further every day can be pleasant and satisfying - but to focusers like me, the fact that it’s broken into multiple days by arbitrary interruptions and it’s not possible to track your progress makes it far less pleasant than it could be.

The kicker is that it’s extremely difficult and expensive to experiment with changes (which is especially important for people like me with poor spatial visualization ability). If I think I want ten streetlights in an area, I mail-order them over two days and have them all on the third day. If I try them out and then decide I want garden lamps instead, I’ve just wasted the bells but more importantly two full days of mail orders. And when I did do a medium-scale project to create a little suburb area for four villager houses, after a few days of moves I realized the houses were each one square to the left of where I wanted them - and I just left them there rather than spend 400,000 bells and eight days fixing it.

When I played Dragon Quest Builders (and this also applies to Minecraft, Terraria, etc. etc.) and I wanted to redesign my town, even if it took a lot of time and resources I could do it in a single continuous effort, keeping the goals in my active memory. And at one point I redid a town in Dragon Quest Builders, decided I didn’t like it, and simply reloaded my save.

But if I want to redesign my island in Animal Crossing, I have to make a long-term plan, commit to it without a chance to test it out, and keep track of it over at least several days as it gets interrupted over and over. And since Animal Crossing auto-saves and has no capability to back up a save, any design I end up disliking will take just as much time, effort, and bells to undo.

I like the idea of terraforming and renovating my entire island. I can see why for some players it’s a source of additional enjoyment that extends the game’s lifespan by dozens of hours. But for players like me, it’s a giant chore that doesn’t seem worth it.

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Animal Crossing Trolls Focusers

I wrote recently that players can be divided into “multitaskers” who don’t mind interruptive context-switching and “focusers” who find it disruptive and unpleasant. And now, just as I argued that Animal Crossing effectively trolls completionists, I’m going to argue that it also effectively trolls focusers.

Inventory limits and equipment durability are the most common way. Running out of pocket space while you’re in the middle of something (catching bugs, fishing, harvesting fruit, shaking trees, hitting rocks, etc.) is obnoxious in all the usual ways, interrupting your fun with a chore you now have to deal with before you can go back to doing what you wanted to do. But if you’re a focuser, you’ve also got the interrupted goal unpleasantly on pause in the back of your mind the whole time.

Equipment breaking is similar. If you lose your axe in the middle of chopping wood, or break your pole while fishing, or break your shovel while there are still rocks to hit, or whatever, now you have to run back to a crafting station (and possibly home to your storage if you aren’t keeping materials elsewhere) and craft a replacement before you can continue (and man is it frustrating to see a rare bug while you have no net or a balloon gift while you have no slingshot). Though in some ways it’s even worse than the inventory problem, because there are no visible durability meters and unless you’re keeping careful track of your tool use it’s hard to predict when one will break. You can craft and carry extras, but tools don’t stack so doing this means you’ll run out of inventory space more often, and you’re just trading off one interruption against another.

On top of this are the mid-scale daily activities - digging up four fossils, hitting six rocks, talking to ten villagers, shaking every tree, etc. It’s very easy to get interrupted while doing this - maybe you’re shaking trees when you see a balloon gift, or you’re running from rock to rock when you see a fast-flying bug and need to chase it around. Making sure you talk to each villager every day is perhaps the hardest one since they wander around unpredictably and it can be hard to keep track of who you’ve found so far.

Again, if you’re a multitasker this probably won’t bother you, but if you’re a focuser it’ll be frustrating to keep in your head who you’ve talked to and which rocks you’ve hit and how many fossils you’ve found. For the first weeks of my time in New Horizons, I found that this led me to do things like a “rock pass” and a “tree pass” over my island during which I focused fully on that goal, not letting myself get distracted and sometimes literally writing down which villagers I’d seen and which I still needed to find. It turned the game from one I could relax with into one I had to pursue with dogged focus until I finished the once-a-day tasks.

Eventually I realized that there are mobile apps that allow you to create daily checklists prepopulated with the common tasks so you can just keep the app open on your phone and tap the villagers as you talk to them and so forth. This lets you offload the mental overhead of keeping track of those things and just relax and enjoy.

It would have been fairly easy to include this sort of functionality directly in the game itself, where it could auto-update and be even easier and not require separate hardware. It’s not uncommon for games to have that sort of tracker. It seems likely to me that Animal Crossing’s designers deliberately chose not to include it (and continue making that choice with each sequel). For multitaskers, such a feature would probably feel like it was pushing the player into completionism and away from just relaxing and enjoying the game - while the very presence of that feature is required for focusers to relax and enjoy the game.

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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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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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