Even though I’m an avid fan of Animal Crossing games, I tend to quit each of them in a frustrated huff, wanting to appreciate them for their beauty and peacefulness but utterly worn down by the design of the systems. The games keep telling me “just hang out! Live a happy life! Enjoy the flowers, maaaaaaan!” But what I’m actually doing in the long term is isolating the few actions that are most profitable (in that they produce either money or new furniture for my house) and then repeating those exact actions over and over and over and over until I quit each of them in a frustrated huff. The end game always becomes an exercise in tedium.
So I bought New Leaf, eager to see whether this iteration’s new additions would mitigate the feeling that I’m climbing an infinite ladder whose every rung is made of chores. And while it does a great number of really fantastic things to create an actual sense of progression and evolution over time, unfortunately in my opinion it falls back into the same bad habits as its ancestors did.
LET’S CRITICALLY ANALYSE!!!!
The most engaging part of Animal Crossing is, in my opinion, creation. And in New Leaf, there are two things I most love to create: 1) new furniture layouts in my house and 2) new Public Works projects. The only reliable way to get new furniture is to return to the shops every day for a routine visit (see: infinite ladder of chores). Public Works projects are quite different, a fascinating addition to the Animal Crossing formula where you can purchase and place new landmarks in your town, lights, buildings, utilities, bridges, the variety of upgradeable items is huge. All of them cost money, and many of them cost LOTS of money. There are a small number of ways to reliable earn LOTS of money, among them: fishing, picking fruit, playing the stock market. The first two are nothing but repetition, and the third (as with shopping for furniture) simply requires that you show up every single day to go check prices.
Now putting it all together: In order to effectively gain new furniture and public works projects to dress up my town, every day I must turn on the game, go to the shops to see what’s being sold, go to the other shop to check turnip prices, dig up fossils to sell, pick all the fruit, go fishing. The less frequently I do these chores the longer it will take me to get the building blocks to start making stuff, so since I want more building blocks I do all of these tasks every single day, spending a considerable amount of real world time doing so.
In short: The real currency of Animal Crossing is time spent in the game.
The more time you spend in Animal Crossing, the more stuff you get. The tasks are not particularly difficult or engaging, they just require you to be there and to mash the A buttons like crazy trying to get the text to scroll faster. Because of that, I feel more hesitant to spend additional time actually decorating my town with the stuff I’ve acquired since, well, I don’t have an infinite amount of time to spend on games. Is it clear that I’m making stupid decisions about how to spend my time in the first place? Absolutely. But Animal Crossing started it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Here is my proposal:
What if rather than “time spent in game” as currency, “time spent away from the game” was currency. Imagine this: You want a new public works project, a lamppost. You go to Isabelle, your assistant, and tell her you want a lamppost. There’s no way to purchase the lamppost, instead she goes “great, I’ll start petitioning the magic orchid in the sky.” You go about your life, doing whatever it is that you do, every now and then you can stop by to see Isabelle making a blood sacrifice to the magic orchid in the sky, and then in 3 days, regardless of how much of that time you spent in game, Isabelle tells you the sacrifice was successful and where would you like to put your new lamppost. Now not only have I gotten the new lamppost, but because I’ve taken time away from my town, I’m eager to come back to it and start shaping it in a new direction! Now I take a dedicated chunk of time and sit down to figure out how to incorporate this new item into my city.
Or perhaps I can let them accumulate, I check in every now and then to have Isabelle make more blood sacrifices in exchange for a new park bench, a cafe, a playground and a fanciful giant clock. 2 and a half weeks have gone by, I now sit down to really flesh out this town of mine, so be thoughtful and precise because I don’t feel burnt out on catching fish all day. Plus, because fishing/bug hunting/fruit picking no longer have this extrinsically motivating factor, I have more space simply to appreciate them for their intrinsic values, to focus on the task of fishing itself rather than how much money I’ll make from it. The more that money is a reward for my actions, the less I care about the actions themselves.
Or how about this! What if you didn’t know how long a certain item was going to take to build, Isabelle just says “I’unno, this could take a while.” Then at some point between 2 days and 2 years later, the little light on the top of your 3DS pings like this: “PING.” You go “ooh! it’s done!” Now you’re not counting days until the next thing is finished, you’re just along for the ride and being surprised by the opportunity to create something new.
Or what if rather than specifying exactly what you’re gonna get, you indicate in the general direction of what you want, and a random amount of time later you get something that fits your guidelines. Now you’re not purchasing new upgrades so much as you’re subtly influencing the direction of your town, like guiding a horse or conducting a symphony. Now public works projects become surprising, strange, unknowable, I want to keep checking in to unravel the mystery but I don’t have to check in EVERY SINGLE DAY in order to do so.
In essence, to have less overall playtime, but for that play time to be more creative and more thoughtful.
This is a design philosophy centered around my own personal desire to have small amounts of very meaningful gameplay. If you want people to pump a fuckton of hours into your game, well maybe just erase the last 5 paragraphs from your mental design toolset. Personally, I would rather the game respect my time, to recognize that playing the game is a choice and not an obligation, to thank me for choosing to play by showing me something surprising and magical. The more deeply I own the choice to participate, the less I feel my hand is being forced, the more intensely I am able to open up my heart to whatever I am experiencing.