Sunday, 18 August 2013

Animal Crossing: Addiction (mechanics)

  With the core tools, in hand, Villager can now get to work harvesting.  Most players find this intoxicating and addicting, but struggle to explain why.  They shouldn’t, as Animal Crossing’s mechanics are some of the most brilliantly designed gambling mechanics ever, without the obsessive coin feeding necessity. 

  Consider fishing.  Villager (remember this is abbreviated V) will cast V’s line into the rivers, ponds, and oceans, attempting to interest the fish silhouettes therein in V’s bobber.  Critically, success is not assured; V will have to do a lot of positioning to get the fish to pay attention, and even then, the fish will slip the hook unless the player sets it (by pressing A) with perfect timing.  There’s a lot of mental work that goes into fishing, and the player has only a silhouette to tell him/her that he/she has done anything right or wrong.

  If the player succeeds, then V will pull a fish out of the water, the silhouette instantly replaced with a colorful, animated fish.  Or a boot!  The game only now informs the player what they’ve been casting for, and all joking about fish silhouettes turning into boots aside, the mechanics neatly fall in line with the results of a slot machine.  Slots players don’t know what payout they are playing for, they don’t even know the frequency of a machine’s payouts when they sit down.  The maximum payout is usually advertised, and the minimum payout is known long in advance (fail and receive $0).  While slot machines are widely rigged to pay out only rarely, Animal Crossing goes the other way, paying out the player with new and unusual fish frequently.  Any difference in the form of the addiction is compensated for with collectability and discovery, and soon the player of Animal Crossing is hooked every bit as tightly as the slots player.  Almost. 

  While the satisfaction of finding a totally new fish, completing the Museum exhibit, and of course selling for bells, is highly addicting, Animal Crossing allows its players to grow bored eventually.  It makes a big difference, as Animal Crossing is always with its player, it can remain a fun distraction for a few minutes at a time, always welcoming returning patrons, then letting them leave when they need to … I don’t know, go to the bathroom.  A casino could end up losing its patrons by this mercy, and so the games are flashy and highly addicting, intending to drain the patrons dry in a sitting.  The occasion payouts from the slots are a necessity to causing the addiction, and only the best Casinos set their payouts generously, and prosper for better reputation as a result.  Animal Crossing doesn’t need any of this, as the game is already purchased.  All it needs to be addicting, repetitive, and charming.  Wow, is it ever charming!

  Catching bugs is very similar, with the mechanical difference that the insect is usually visible to the player from the moment it scrolls onto the screen.  Bugs respawn after only a little scrolling, making the supply very difficult to run out.  Sneaking up on them to catch them is more involved though, and represents a slightly greater challenge to V.  Move too quickly, too loudly, or just too clumsily and bugs flitter out of nearly every tree.  V’s learning to fishing and catch bugs is an involved process, with easy bugs and small fish everywhere to practice on, but catching the bigger ones requires more patience and deliberate caution.  This tends to reflect very on the core-gamer audience; any fool can run into Contra and spray bullets everywhere, but learning how to use its limited moves to overcome any challenge takes hours, days, sometimes even weeks of deliberate practice.

  Sooner or later every player reaches this plateau; certainly Animal Crossing is a master work in approachable game design, and most players don’t even realize how much they are learning as they go.  This gives the player the skills that V will need to get on in this world, and further strengthens the idea that both are one.

  And with proficiency in the mechanics, boredom begin to settle in.  Fishing and bug catching need new meaning to keep the player engaged.  The player begins to look askance, wondering what else the game has to offer.  To that question, the game has an extraordinary answer.

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