Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Quarantine QoL

I always find it fascinating when the release of something coincides with a general cultural need. With the COVID-19 quarantine still going on, it was pretty great to see Animal Crossing: New Horizons come out right at a time when anxiety is high and people need something to do.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Animal Crossing‘s premise is that you’re moving to a town, city or island (depending on the game), helping to improve it, and doing activities like fishing or interior decorating as a form of relaxation. Along the way, animal characters move in as neighbors, and you can interact with them, do favors for them to get new items, or generally just enjoy their presence.

As time has went on, the series has included more online elements, and this is something I talked about as something that made me really nervous; Nintendo is content to do things at their own pace, and some of the quality of their services leave something to be desired.

I got burned by very sub-part online elements for Pokemon Sword, which led me to sell the game to someone else because I was just that dissatisfied; that’s a very rare thing for me. Because of that, I was really worried the same thing would happen to New Horizons. I held out for a week after release, but after seeing a bunch of streams, found that my worries were unfounded.

To be honest, I’m really happy they were — I needed a game to just dive into right now, and it fits the niche of a “service” game that that I can stop into daily that has things for me to do. I find myself doing things that I didn’t do in previous Animal Crossing games, like wanting to devote certain rooms in my house to themes, or caring more about town layout and how well it flows.

I got to make some fun art for work, too!

This has helped me distract myself for some general anxiety I’ve been having because of the isolation, and connect with some friends who seem to be indulging the same amount as I am. For the first time in a while, I’ve found some smaller communities that do things like host people on their islands, or comparing prices of the in-game stock market.

In short, it’s what I needed right now, and I think it’s what a lot of people needed right now.

Compared to earlier titles, Nintendo has taken some steps to make gameplay smoother; it’s added some quality of life features, but didn’t go as far as I’d like in some places. I’ve written about QoL before, and it’s been something that I’ve really started paying attention to as my bandwidth for learning in-game system has narrowed — if something can be as smooth as possible, I appreciate it.

However, there’s a few areas where I just think “alright Nintendo, you’re purposefully being obtuse.” Things like the lack of bulk crafting, or the inability to pull materials from storage make me believe that the company is avoiding going “all the way” in up-to-date mechanics because if they do, their product will somehow feel less special or “less Nintendo.”

I can kind of understand their approach in this hypothetical, mostly because Nintendo as a company tends to avoid making over-engineered games. While I’d like to think they’re aware of how people power game (ie, how we’d love to be able to create more than one fishing bait at a time), they know that it lets people speed through a game faster than it’s intended.

I don’t know if the idea of “doing things the hard way” is a value the happens to fit with the Animal Crossing aesthetic better, but it’s starting to feel like it’s “just a Nintendo thing.” If Nintendo treated their online the same way Activision-Blizzard, Valve Software or Riot Games does, I’m not sure it would feel the same. And that “feel of Nintendo” is crucial to maintaining their magic in the same way Disney/Pixar/Marvel films feel different from their Dreamworks/DC competitors.

For instance, in Pokemon Sword/Shield, you could raid dungeons with up to three other people. You would join a lobby when initiating a dungeon, and then the public (or friends) would have three minutes to join before the raid initiated.

Any normal game would just create the lobby, let it be listed in a table that showed the host, how many people were in it, and let that list be refreshed/sorted.

Because Nintendo is Nintendo, they decided that you should list these rooms as “stickers” within their greater online notifications (that included things like “Wow, I caught [Pokemon]!” announcements). So once you filter out that useless chafe to get to the raids you want to do, you only have the ability to refresh the list under certain circumstances, and also have to filter out the stickers that are just auto-posted after you finish the raid.

You’d also need to initiate the online connection separately, go through loading, and then get spammed by not only your auto-updates, but your friends’. There’s a filter, but no way to permanently craft the online experience you want: that would be too complicated, and give you too much control to avoid things that Nintendo wants you to see.

Instead of getting a nice server list, you’re hunting for stickers where you have no control over the region, ping, or even if the raid is still active. Since the room is only alive for a couple minutes after initiation, the raids listed could already be finished, full, or yield some error you can’t troubleshoot. In most cases, you cannot refresh the list fast enough in order to pull up new raids; you just have to hope that the system allows you to time something perfectly and the stars align to let you join.

Instead of playing with purpose, half the time you’re just hoping it works in the first place — this takes away from planning your actions and introduces the feeling of fighting the game you’re playing just to play it.

Putting myself in Nintendo’s shoes, I can see why they might do this:

  1. Pokemon Sword/Shield is not a flat-out MMORPG. They don’t want to enable people to name things like lobby rooms because they don’t have the bandwidth to moderate, or they don’t want to at all, in the first place.
  2. Pokemon is a franchise for children, and by offering a neutered and shallow experience, they don’t have to provide support for their system. They avoid the risk of turning people off by something “complicated”, even if it’s deeper.
  3. They figure it’s better to frustrate their non-target audience who know that they’re the only game in town (sorry TemTem) because they know they won’t leave for something unfamiliar.
  4. By setting a high bar in terms of experience, it makes it more difficult to maintain and build upon down the road. Making a “barely good enough” service means their development resources go towards other things.

The problem, though, is that those definitions of what’s too shallow or deep is different between person to person. As a youth I played Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, and dealt with downloading maps, mods, or server browsers; people today may not want to have the patience, and can go off to find something else to do.

It’s getting to the point that I hate that when I pick Nintendo products that I’m just happy we can do things that other games consider basic features. I’m annoyed that I’m giving them a pass because “damn, they at least let us message people or see if they’re online without going through a convoluted process, this time!” The fact that we can use our phones as a keyboard instead of typing out messages one letter at a time in-game seems revolutionary, only because the bar is set so low.

I guess I just wanted to note that, because it affects how I approach other games. Companies that seem like they know the needs of a modern consumer because they like to present themselves as empathetic are different from the big monolithic corporations, and it’s an incredible balancing act to be able to maintain authenticity in that case.

But back to Animal Crossing.

When I started writing this post I wanted to just communicate that it’s been nice to have a lot of people enthusiastic about the same thing, all at the same time. It reminds me of the early days of World of Warcraft in a way, because everyone I knew was playing it, and there was something new to update your friends on every day. However, I’m also keeping in mind that there’s strong “flavor of the month” vibes here; despite the promise of monthly content, there could (and probably will) be a huge drop-off in “#AnimalCrossing Twitter” in even a month’s time.

But I think it’s okay to enjoy it while it lasts.


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