by Jessica Turcotte
It is not uncommon for gamers to put over sixty hours into a single game, and never revisiting it again. Most mainstream games guide players from point A to point B, and congratulate them with a virtual pat on the back in the end; the player is satisfied, and so are the publishers. Life/community simulation games are inherently different. There is often no finish line, no ultimate goal to achieve, as the player strolls along the game, often living vicariously through their characters. I question how this game genre maintain long-term player interest, while offering the player a sense of agency? There has been an array of simulation games ranging from SimCity to Spore, but let us focus on one franchise that has been capturing casual gamers attention since 2001 : Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing is a franchise developed and published by Nintendo, stretching over 4 games, ranging from the GameCube to the more recent Nintendo 3DS system. In the earlier versions, the player controls a citizen entering a new town, spending the majority of the game paying off their debt imposed by a landlord named Tom Nook. In the more recent installment: Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the player arrives in the town , being mistaken as the mayor by all the citizens. As a silent and unassuming protagonist, they are forced into becoming the mayor, taking up various tasks pertaining to the betterment of the town (imposing town ordinances or financing public works projects). As the official website says: “It’s not just a game … it’s a way of life”. This tagline instigates the underlying reliance on long-term dependence to the game in order to maintain relevance in the gaming market. Animal Crossing: New Leaf demonstrates how the inclusion of “personalized” game mechanics and the sense of responsibility within real-time gameplay can reach players on a personal level, therefore securing long-term consumption of Nintendo’s product.
The new mechanic of playing as the mayor of the town was added due to the developers fear of players thinking “Oh no! Not again!”. They were mostly worried that players would think that it was just another game about paying off a loan, much like the previous installments. However, it is also a mechanic which incites responsibility from the player to continuously “consume” the game. By imposing the sense of authority upon the player, they are now more inclined to keep playing the game, having the need to fulfill responsibilities and taking care of the town. If the player does not fulfill these tasks, the town may become infested with cockroaches, weeds may invade the grass and citizens may become disgruntled and leave, Despite these responsibilities, Animal Crossing: New Leaf contains a relaxing, “go at your own pace” design. If the game would impose a stressful way of dealing with mayoral duties (construction funding deadlines, crime), the casual gamer would be turned off, having lost the escapist quality of the game. Unlike most other simulation games, the player must “grind” in order to pay off their debt, while being focused on gaining a 100% approval rating by the citizens through public works projects. In order to do so, players must collect bugs, dig up fossils and collect items in order to sell to the Recycling Shop. In order to diminish the tediousness of grinding, there is an option to place the bugs and fossils into the town’s museum, adding an educational benefit to the game, as you expand your towns cultural knowledge. Every creature or fossil collected comes with a description of it, as well as the opportunity to revisit your caught items in your in-game encyclopedia , or in the museum. The developers managed to create a game based on the player having to grind and being at a position of authority, while maintaining casual and stress-free game play. In Christian Nutt’s article The Quiet Genius of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, he commends the “flexibility of [New Leaf’s game system], but also the fact that your relationship with it can change over time. You can start doing something for one reason and change your mind. You can get interested in something, abandon it, and pick it up later when you realize there’s another reason to do it.1” He also remarks that “the currency is employed like experience points in an RPG: you have to play to earn then […] you put the points into the upgrade you want. It’s a progress-limiter. And the objects you buy are really tools for self-expression2”. This clever system of “upgrades” creates a sense of progress within the game, so players feel accomplished with every “upgrade”. Without the sense of moving forward, players would more likely feel stuck, and would lose interest. Moreover, the game functions in real-time, utilizing the 3DS systems clock: seasons pass, holidays come and go, creating anticipation within the player. Players must organize a schedule around the game, having to remember citizens birthdays, special events (fishing tourneys, bug catching competitions) as well as the opening and closing of certain stores and the arrival of town kiosks. This creates a long-term playability, as the player can pick it up and play without having to remember at what point they are in the game or feel lost, as it coincides with where they are in real life. Players are expected to organize their life around the games events, as it appeals to peoples inner need to please others; to not let their citizens down if they happen to miss a meeting. If the player happens to not return to their town for awhile, they are met with a scolding as well as saddened citizens claiming that you have forgotten about them and/or are avoiding them. Another event that may occur is when the player refuses a public works completion ceremony, in which Isao Moro, one of the games developers, states that your secretary “[becomes] so dejected in the way she speaks and acts that you’ll feel really sorry for turning it down3”. Animal Crossing: New Leaf reaches the player on emotional levels, not only creating a sense of community that will always be waiting for them when you return, but also toys with the players fear of disappointment. This reinforces the dependence on the game, especially for those searching for a sense of belonging and acceptance.
Similar to Gamefreak’s Pokemon series, Animal Crossing: New Leaf appeals to the players desire to collect. With the seemingly endless amount of furniture combinations, players will spend months creating different combinations of items, in order to earn points from the “Happy Home Academy”. Players may even encounter a type of furniture only after months playing it, as seasonal items come and go and new events are held. The randomization of items received by villagers or available in stores force the players to constantly check, day after day, to see if the Nookling store finally has a specific item for their set in stock. Building sets can take weeks or even months, as the player is faced with not knowing how the amount of items in a set, and do not receive any notification whether it is in stock or not (with the exception of the few rare items which the shop owners advertise on the town board). Customization has always been present within the Animal Crossing series, but mostly for the players home. An addition to New Leaf that was unheard of in previous Animal Crossing games is the customization of “ordinances”. With a game so heavily based on real-time, it was crucial for developers to consider the real life of the player. Moro comments that “this time, you can adjust things to fit your own lifestyle4”, meaning that the player may choose to have shops open earlier or later, if the town is more focused on having rich flora as well as being a “rich” town. Furthermore, with the addition of online-play, players can now visit other towns from players across the world. Moro states that “[the developers] wanted to make it much more fun to explore other players’ towns by allowing each player to bring out their own personality in their town5”.
By being able to customize and show off your town, it actively encourages the player to spend more time grinding for bells (in-game currency), in order to create the best town possible. Players are now able to customize and create patterns for their outfits and share them online via QR codes; they are able to look like virtual any video game/film/literary character that they please. Aya Kyogoku, a member of the development team, states that “this Animal Crossing game isn’t simply about enjoying everyday life. The game becomes a stage for creating a town and a world where everything is just as you want it6”. By appealing to the audiences desire to customize and create their unique town, and by including an online-mode to induce amicable envy of each others towns, players will be more inclined to spend more hours on the game, as opposed to it feeling like a chore. The player may do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without being harshly penalized for the things that they did not do. This is not only enticing for new players, but appeals to the established fan base by improving on the core gameplay of customization; not only being able to customize your home, but your whole town.
Players have managed to counter the long waiting periods between events or holidays by “time traveling”. Essentially, the player can set their clock to a different time in order to bypass the real-time mechanics of the game. The player no longer has to go through the process of waiting day after day for an unwanted resident to leave, a building remodeling, etc. This mean that players no longer have to schedule themselves around the game, but rather schedule the game to fit their needs. However, if they make a simple mistake by setting the clock to a full year later, the town can be completely ruined. Once-loved villagers might have moved out, flowers may die amongst many other consequences. Moro says that it “ is a shame as a really nice aspect of Animal Crossing is the sense of unity that comes from time passing in sync with the real world. It means that everyone gets to share that sense of the seasons and the time passing, so we were keen to retain that element of the game.7” Despite players cheating, it does not affect other players, as it would in most online games. The cheating is merely for the players own benefit, without hindering others. It does not discourage others from playing the game, which might be the case for other games that heavily rely on competitive gameplay, such as Counter Strike or StarCraft. This form of “cheating” does not hinder the long-term consumption of the product, as it does not affect the core gameplay of collecting and interaction.
In conclusion, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a prime example of a life simulation games that manages to engage a new audience while tending to their established fanbase through improved customization, engaging real-time activities and by imposing a sense of responsibility and authority upon the player. Despite the fact that the player is the mayor of a town, New Leaf provides plenty of leniency in order to negate the feeling of playing the game as a chore. With New Leaf being one of the most successful games amongst the franchise, it is no doubt that the appeal lies within the clever game mechanics and stress-free gameplay.
“Animal Crossing: New Leaf.” Animal Crossing. Nintendo. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <http://www.animal-crossing.com/newleaf/>.
Nintendo. Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Nintendo, 2013. Nintendo 3DS.
Nutt, Christian. “The Quiet Genius of Animal Crossing: New Leaf.” Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Games. UBM, 28 June 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <http://gamasutra.com/view/news/195157/The_quiet_genius_of_Animal_Crossing_New_Leaf.php>.
Takahashi, Koji, Isao Moro, and Aya Kyogoku. “Iwata Asks: Animal Crossing: New Leaf.” Interview by Satoru Iwata. Iwata Asks. Nintendo, 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/animalcrossing-newleaf/0/0>.
1Nutt, Christian. “The Quiet Genius of Animal Crossing: New Leaf.” Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Games. UBM, 28 June 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
2Nutt, Christian. “The Quiet Genius of Animal Crossing: New Leaf.”
3 Isao Moro. “Iwata Asks: Animal Crossing: New Leaf.” Interview by Satoru Iwata. Iwata Asks. Nintendo, 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
4 Isao Moro. “Iwata Asks: Animal Crossing: New Leaf.”
5 Isao Moro. “Iwata Asks: Animal Crossing: New Leaf.”
6 Aya Kyogoku. “Iwata Asks: Animal Crossing: New Leaf.” Interview by Satoru Iwata. Iwata Asks. Nintendo, 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
7 Isao Moro,. “Iwata Asks: Animal Crossing: New Leaf.”