Posts by Tag / GAME: Animal Crossing: New Horizons (26)

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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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Crafting a Regression

Not long ago, I wrote that I hoped that Animal Crossing: New Horizons’s crafting mechanics might mean a less random progression in available furniture, and this has turned out to be only a little bit true. You quickly get access to a couple of basic furniture sets based on wood and iron but that’s as far as it goes before becoming random again - because the crafting recipes themselves are doled out mostly at random. So you still can’t really plan a particular aesthetic or take steps toward decorating your house that way.

Perhaps the most annoying example of this I’ve seen so far is the ironwood kitchenette. I’m decorating a kitchen now, I really want to use this particular piece of furniture, and I have the recipe for it. But I can’t make it because it requires two other pieces of ironwood furniture for which I don’t have the recipes - and I am far from being the only person in this situation. All we can do, apart from begging strangers on the internet for trades, is hope we randomly receive those other needed recipes.

I don’t know the reasoning behind this decision. This is now worse than the old random distribution - it’s random distribution with randomly distributed prerequisites. In the old games, I could at least just find a kitchenette without also first needing to find two other specific pieces of furniture before I could use it.

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Dear Animal Crossing villagers,...

Dear Animal Crossing villagers,

When I take the camera out, STAY WHERE YOU ARE. I want to take a picture of you being adorable because you are singing by the pond or sitting under a tree or resting on the hammock I put next to the bonfire. What I do not want is to spend a few seconds lining up the shot only for you to get up and walk behind a building. STOP DOING THAT.

Your pal,
The Resident Representative

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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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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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