Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Authorial Intent (17)


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.


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.



I love finding clusters of games that are built around similar concepts but which differ in important ways. I’ve previously argued that good games are beacons in design space, pointing us to an area likely to have many other good potential games nearby - it’s fun to see it prove out.

Helldivers, for example, is a top-down co-op shooter starring space marines killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. It’s clearly a good game, but I’m not quite in the audience for it. The tone of Starship Troopers-like dystopian satire casting the players as obvious bad guys if you pay attention to the mission descriptions isn’t an appealing fantasy to me, and I dislike the way the game basically must be played online with strangers, especially when its mechanics (friendly fire, easy-to-alert enemy patrols, etc.) require coordination and cooperation between the players. I played it a bit with Senpai-chan, and when we screwed up near at the end of a mission in a way that delayed our escape shuttle, our online teammate team-killed us in order to safely escape themselves - and as far as I can tell, this was mechanically the correct choice to make. I’m not attacking this design - but I want to be clear it is not for me.

But there’s so much else about Helldivers's theming and structure that is for me. I like twin-stick shooters! I like co-op! I like sci-fi! I like mission-based structure! If Helldivers let me pop the hood and tweak things, then - like Razbuten with Halo 2 - I’m sure Senpai-chan and I could have found a version of the game we both loved.

That’s not an option, so I’m glad there are other games exploring nearby regions of design space. There’s Battle Planet - Judgement Day, which casts the players as escaped criminals and has a more roguelike structure but otherwise hits a lot of the same beats - twin-stick co-op shooter about killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. I tried it, it was also clearly solid, but still not for me (I don’t find playing as a murderous criminal more appealing than playing as a fascist soldier, and roguelikes are the wrong kind of repetitive for me).

But now we’ve also got Space Pioneer - another top-down co-op shooter starring space marines killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. And this one finally tries a version of the formula that resonates with me. You don’t play as a bad guy. You don’t need to go online. Your progress is never lost. Gameplay varies at a good rate, with objectives that encourage you to change up your play style, weapon, and gear on a regular basis. It’s Helldivers with much more chill and that’s was I was looking for. I’ve barely put the game down since starting it.

Some might call Space Pioneer a Helldivers clone, but I wouldn’t. I like when games take inspiration from each other but don’t stop there, and bring their elements to new audiences.


Literal and Figurative Walls in Dragon Quest Builders 2

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that you can’t have a fully-safe base in Dragon Quest Builders 2 while you’re doing story stuff. I noted before that this led me to rush the story bits, and got a comment saying “…I just stopped trying to make things look nice and tried to get things done faster I can get to building again”. So why does the game do this?

We don’t know the designers’ intent, but my theory is that this is about forcing a playstyle. (I actually wrote that article because I wanted to explain the concept so I could use it in this very conversation.) That article explains in more depth, but the basic idea is that a game’s designers notice that the game’s incentives are motivating players to behave in ways that don’t seem fun, but rather than change the incentive structure they simply block off or discourage the behavior they don’t want.

If this is what happened here, then presumably it went something like this: Random attacks were put in the first Dragon Quest Builders so that players would have to regularly defend their bases in order to create tension/pressure and leave the player feeling like an active protector. But in practice, a lot of players just built unbreakable defensive walls around their base, removing much of the tension and making it possible to almost completely ignore the random attacks. This also created a weird design constraint that made all bases look more alike, look less like they organically fit into the landscape, and have worse views of their surroundings.

They wanted to avoid this for Dragon Quest Builders 2. But instead of digging in to understand why players were building these walls and find ways to remove the need for the walls, they just made it so enemies could break through anything the player could build. They didn’t remove the motivation for using the strategy - they just made it so the strategy no longer worked. This meant that any player who had chosen to build the walls in the first game would probably still want to in the second game to solve the same problems, but now wouldn’t be able to solve those problems at all. It’s like the designers are saying, “Come on, you’ll have more fun if you fight enemies a lot!” and some of us frustrated players are left saying, “Did it occur to you that maybe I bought your building game because I wanted to build?"

Again, I don’t know that’s why this happened, but the outcome is the same regardless. Uninterrupted building time is positioned as a reward for completing story arcs - and in fact, once you finish the whole story you get the ability to craft an item that completely prevents monsters from spawning. So those of us who want to build uninterrupted used to be encouraged to build a wall; now we’re encouraged to rush the story instead.

For me, this makes the game worse. By far the biggest reason I enjoy the Dragon Quest Builders over something like Minecraft or Terraria is the context provided by the story and characters. That gives me a reason to build that isn’t really present in those other games. And once the story is finished, that reason mostly vanishes. The characters are still around, but they’re harder to stay invested in when they just cycle through a few lines of dialog and no longer have any goals or concerns.

In the first Dragon Quest Builders, one of my favorite things to do was to take a break from the action mid-chapter to redesign or improve my town. When I tried to do that in Dragon Quest Builders 2, it was an exercise in frustration as I was continually interrupted and often had to take extra time to perform repairs as well. So I stopped doing it and rushed the story - and then once I had uninterrupted building time, I no longer felt like there was a reason to improve the town. So I didn’t bother - and one of my favorite experiences in the game was just gone.

So what would it look like if the designers had instead modified the incentive structure so that players no longer felt encouraged to build walls? I can’t speak for every player, but for me I think the real problem is repairing. Repairing is time-consuming without being creative and to someone with my completionist/perfectionist/vaguely-OCD-like tendencies, the possibility of missing a couple blocks or items somewhere along the way (which absolutely happened in the first game) drives me batty. Attacks make me anxious because they create the possibility I’ll need to repair - if that were removed, they wouldn’t really bother me. (My evidence for this is a bit in Chapter 3 where the base gets attacked by enemies that can’t be kept out - once I realized they also couldn’t break anything, I stopped panicking when they showed up.)

In Dragon Quest Builders 2, villagers have the ability to build to a blueprint and to repair your base after story battles. If they could also repair after random battles, I think that would basically solve the problem for players like me. The attacks would still create tension and pressure and an opportunity to actively defend your base and people, but you wouldn’t be punished if you choose not to immediately drop what you’re doing and rush to handle it.

I’d definitely want to do some playtesting if I were actually in charge of a decision here, but my instinct is that this would be a better experience for everyone.


Don't Be the Fun Police: Why Games Shouldn't Force Playstyles

When we play games for fun, we often need a goal system to shepherd us along. This is what makes it a “game” instead of a “toy” - the goals direct the player toward particular experiences. In most cases, the game designer tries to make the experience of achieving those goals enjoyable (though there are deliberate subversions of this as well). But since games are an interactive medium, the designer can only give the player a set of tools and suggest how to use them in ways that will be fun. It’s up to the player to decide what to actually do.

This presents a problem - the player may choose to use those tools in a different and less-fun way if it seems to be a more effective way to reach the game’s goals. As Greg McClanahan put it in his fantastic post Achievement Design 101, “What game designers in general often seem to ignore is that when players are presented a goal, their first inclination is to devise the most efficient (not necessarily the most fun) means of reaching that goal. . . . Show the player the end point, and that player will take the quickest and easiest route, regardless of whatever path the game intended for him to take.”

Awkward Zombie comic about Sora getting Winnie the Pooh out of Rabbit's house by destroying the house instead of playing Rabbit's minigame.