Animal Crossing Pocket Camp - Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks?
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Nintendo recently launched their third mobile game, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. Whilst not as heavy hitting an IP as Mario or Zelda, Animal Crossing has been a huge success for Nintendo over the years, having sold over 30 million copies at retail. So how does the first mobile entry stack up?
Animal Crossing was a very unique game when it was first released on the Nintendo 64 back in 2001 and the franchise’s debut on mobile is very poignant. In terms of design, Animal Crossing inspired “Invest and Express” style mobile games of today such as Hay Day, Township, Farmville , etc due to its pioneering use of appointment mechanics and utilising real life time and dates. Thus it’s a fascinating case study to see this game go full circle. How will the Animal Crossing mobile game compare to the mobile titles of today, which took core gameplay aspects from the console original and improved upon them?
The Original Animal Crossing
For it’s time, the Animal Crossing franchise was unique and introduced a previously unseen style of game on home consoles. It has been described as a social simulator and even as a “communication game" by Nintendo themselves. The game is open-ended, with players assuming the role of a new mayor in the town of Animal Crossing. The “aim” of the game, if there really is one, is to fulfill various tasks and goals, trying to make the town flourish and it’s residents happy. You move your character around a 3D world, but can do whatever you want, be it exploring, talking to the town's residents, catch fish or hunt bugs. Also unique for the game at the time was that the game utilised the console’s internal clock to observe days, weeks, months and years. This meant that there often tasks or goals that showed up at the same time as real-life events and holidays such as Independence Day, Halloween, the Harvest Festival (Thanksgiving), and Toy Day (Christmas). But more importantly than that, Animal Crossing was the first mainstream game to introduce us to timer mechanics in games.
You would have to play the game at specific times of the day to attend activities such as fishing tournaments and early-morning fitness classes, which occurred on a regular schedule. The game also rationed out some items and content by forcing you to wait a certain amount of time. E.g. after knocking down some fruit from a tree, you’d have to wait a couple of hours before it grew back again. And this was in an era where micro-transactions did not exist, so you would have to come back later if you wanted more items, there was no shortcut around it! So in this sense, Animal Crossing was one of the first games that encouraged you to play a couple of times every day rather than playing for one huge session, making it more appealing to families, which is Nintendo’s key demographic. The game even had a currency called Bells which functioned in a sense as a soft currency for the game.
The series also introduced the concept of social mechanics years before they found home in web, Facebook and eventually mobile games. Multiple Town instances could be stored on one cart, meaning that multiple family members could maintain their own town on a single machine. This meant you were incentivized to visit nearby towns to trade items and leave messages, and you might often have a father switch on the game to find out his daughter had visited his town and left him some items. Again perfect for families who had one machine between them but who would use it at different times of the day.
What Nintendo had not predicted was that the game mechanics introduced in this game were a perfect fit for casual web and mobile games of the future. The game rewarded you for coming back many times a day rather than playing a longer session. You could play for very short periods of time if you wanted to, and you were incentivised to help other players and vice versa. So the fascination in playing the mobile version of Animal Crossing is to see if the old master can teach us any new tricks?
“Invest and Express” games as they are sometimes known as were some of the biggest hits on mobile as free-to-play took off with titles such as The Smurfs Village, Dragonvale and Tap Paradise Cove being early successes leading to The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Hay Day in more recent times. However, these days casual hit titles have become puzzle orientated, with management style games evolving into deeper mid-core style games. In fact, at the time of writing only Hay Day (Supercell) Township (Playrix) and The Sims: FreePlay (Electronic Arts) are in the top 100 grossing games and that could be considered as part of the genre. So it seems like this is a gameplay style that is fading away and it will be interesting to see if Nintendo can be the one to return it to it’s former glories.
Introducing Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp
So step forward the newest version of Animal Crossing, this time developed exclusively for mobile devices. The core loop in the game is pretty simple to understand. You walk around the island and talk to its inhabitants, trying to get them to visit your Campsite. In order to get them to visit your campsite, you have to fetch items for them and craft items they’d like to see. Complete the list and the Animal will agree to come to your Campsite and you are rewarded with a montage of the Animal enjoying your Camp and with you leveling up and progressing. A fairly simple and easy to understand core loop that gives you the freedom to play the way you want.
Part of the charm of the series has always been the personality traits of each animal, with some being kind and generous, and others being downright rude! You also begin to form relationships with the Animals, and in the console versions, this would result in new ones sometimes moving in or existing ones moving out. This has been removed from the mobile version, but animals do still sometimes give you gifts or ask you for some special tasks. The Animals have their own cycles as well, with them going to sleep and waking up at different times. Animal Crossing thus rewards you for playing the game at specific times of the day and you can progress faster with optimisation of knowing when and how to play.
In order to collect the items that each Animal wants, you have to perform various tasks such as shaking fruit from a tree, catching fish near water or catching bugs with a net. Each of these is a very simple action with a simple timing element and involves the element of chance. For example you might want to capture a squid for one of the animals, but it might only drop one every ten times you fish in the sea. However, each item usually has some rule set against it, such as locations on the map it is more likely to appear, and times that it has an increased chance to drop at.
Convenience and Intuition
If you boiled down Animal Crossing to its core, it’s a management game which involves the player dealing with an ever increasing inventory and list of tasks and contacts to manage. One criticism of the console games is that this can over time start to become quite daunting and frustrating to manage. If there is one thing that the mobile version has done an especially good job on, it’s the addition of convenience features to reduce this friction for you. The map shows you which characters are where, and puts a tick next to them if you have completed their next task to help you progress. If you go to your contact book, it shows you which ones you are ready to invite, which ones you haven’t visited yet and which ones are ready to be spoken to. Once you’ve crafted all of the furniture needed to invite a new Animal to your Campsite, the game opens up a popup and gives you the option to do it immediately. On console these sort of features might make it feel too automated, but it’s perfect on mobile for short and rewarding session lengths.
The game also clearly takes cue from Clash Royale with a simple interface from which all core functions and information can be viewed from at any point and anywhere in the game. Overall the game is easy to play, and it’s largely intuitive what to do even if you’ve never played an Animal Crossing game before.
An element that mobile games have improved upon compared to the original Animal Crossing games, are their forays and experiments with social dynamics. Hay Day is one of the best games for this with it’s innovative peer-to-peer marketplace, it’s Neighborhood system and social based events and goals. Animal Crossing is ripe for very similar mechanics, but has a big issue that needs to be addressed - Nintendo’s conservative approach with allowing player to player communication in their games. Noticeable in all Nintendo products on mobile is that players cannot freely speak to one another using their platform, likely due to wanting to avoid any sort of situation with predatory behavior on the young and vulnerable that could cause huge damage to their brand. The result is a sandboxed approach where social features and elements exist, but in a safe manner that gives the feeling of working together without the possibility of direct communication.
Occasionally you’ll find other Campers in your game who you can visit and trade items with. Quite how these people are selected is a mystery, but it’s useful and makes the game feel more alive. Sadly the system isn’t as good as the marketplace system introduced by Hay Day that allows you to search for specific items or browse a variety of strangers goods to get what you want. In fact, the system is so successful that it is replicated by pretty much every mobile “invest and express” game, such as Playrix’ Township, Zynga’s Farmvilles and King’s Paradise Bay. There are currently far fewer items that you need to progress in Animal Crossing, but it would be a definite improvement to the game if added.
It’s also possible to add your real friends via either their Nintendo ID or by connecting your game to Facebook and sending requests that way. This is a somewhat unexpected move by Nintendo as it’s more open than their other games. The option is exactly front and center, but it allows a player to create their own friends list in their game using their real life social networks if they connect with them.
There is also an area in the game called the Shovelstrike Quarry where players can dig for the rarest materials needed to make the most desirable items in the game. To enter the area, a player need to recruit 5 friends or spend some of their leaf tickets. Thus the game has a very limited mechanism for getting players to keep others invested in the game, and to have common goals to work towards.
Overall the social mechanics in the game are extremely limited for a game of this type. There are no leaderboards, alliances, chat or alliance events which are common in rival products. Currently there are no events as part of a live-operations campaign, but these were introduced to both Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes, so I’d expect them to arrive in due course, especially around the Christmas holiday period. Despite this lack of features, I predict that Animal Crossing will make a lot of money for Nintendo because of its brand and reputation alone. However, a lack of proven features that drive retention could be a reason why Animal Crossing trails off in January 2018, much like how Super Mario Run faded from a very strong start.
Animal Crossing is about as straightforward as you can get for a free to play game in terms of monetization, using impatience as it’s key friction point to spend. Many actions in the game have an appointment timer that can be skipped by either using Hard Currency or using an item which in return can be purchased with Hard Currency. For example, if you complete all requests for the day from all Animals, you can use a request ticket to get something else to do. Or if you need to collect fruit from a tree, you can use fertilizer to hurry the tree and collect more fruit. There is no Gacha or paying to become more powerful. Quite simply, you can do everything in the game for free but are gated by time, or you can spend money to speed this process up and progress at a faster rate.
Continuing along the impatience route, you start the game being able to craft just one item in the furniture shop, which acts as a big barrier as items take time to craft. As you progress through the game, Animal requests become more and more needy in terms of items they want you to get, slowing your progress down enormously. You can purchase up to additional slots, which feels like the builder purchase in Clash of Clans, in that it’s a permanent bonus that feels super useful to have and good value for money, even if the economy is likely modeled around having all 3 slots available anyway.
Finally the game also offers Premium Decorations, in the same way that every Invest and Express game since the dawn of time does. Purchasing these items has an additional bonus as not only do they make your Camp look cool, but it means that you can get special visitors such as K.K. and Tom Nook. And of course when other players come to visit you they are likely to be envious, impressed and more likely to give you Kudos for having such items. The player does earn Premium Currency organically through playing the game, but the drip is controlled in such a way that you’ll won’t have enough to get everything you really want.
A Delightful Yet Poorly Monetizing Single Player Game
In terms of game design, Animal Crossing is extremely dated. There are in fact no new features either from a systems, social or monetization perspective that are new in this title that could be applied to other products. But then again, there doesn’t really need to be. Nintendo games make for an interesting case study because there are numerous areas in all of their games that could easily be optimized to improve their performance in terms of retention and revenues, but that’s never really been their primary goal for any of their games. Nintendo wants you to buy their hardware so mobile games should be enjoyable, but light enough to want players to want more from the Nintendo hardware versions.
Compared to titles such as Hay Day and Township, Animal Crossing feels very light in terms of long-term retention features that will really keep you invested. Once you’ve gotten through one week’s worth of gameplay, you’ve pretty much seen all there is to see in the game and there isn’t much else to do. Hay Day in contrast remains an absolute masterclass in the genre in terms of its feature depth. It brilliantly adds new features such as Fishing, Neighbourhoods, Derbies, Towns and Leaderboards at what feels like the perfect time in the game to keep you invested. It also allows you to play either competitively or non-competitively. In that title, it always feels like there is something you want to do keep playing and it’s social dynamics really make you want to continue to help out your neighbours and vice versa.
So far Animal Crossing is really lacking in comparison, but it must be noted that Hay Day is over 4 years old and not all of those features were there to begin with. It’s early days for Animal Crossing and with a great news and bulletin system already incorporated, this game could easily be extended to last for years if Nintendo see fit. And looking at the game and it’s early performance I feel like Nintendo will have to add these systems if they want to keep the game relevant in 2018. Currently in terms of long term retention and revenue per user, Animal Crossing feels like it is a long way behind its contemporaries and as a result is in danger of a “pop and drop” where it’s a huge fad for a few months before trailing off into obscurity a little later.
In order to drive long term retention, hit games realised that a competitive element is necessary. Even in the most casual of games such as Candy Crush Saga, players can see the progress of their friends and are shown leaderboards for every level to see how they are doing compared to their peers. Casual games may be non-competitive at first, but to drive long term retention that leads to truly hit games, they need players to convert players into feeling competition, be it in a subtle or direct manner. Super casual games such as puzzle games usually have a very light touch in terms of a map and leaderboards, but even these have introduced events where you compete either against other players or a time limited goal that makes you want to strive toward a goal in order to complete it.
Even if players don’t identify themselves as competitive from the outset, after spending enough time invested in a game they love, players either consciously or subconsciously want to demonstrate their skill, mastery and expertise in the game they play. This is where late game features that encourage competition pay off massively as elder game players are able to get super engaged and competitive with one another. To summarize it, Animal Crossing monetizes through player’s impatience yet there are limited ways to compare the speed of your progress to the progress of your peers.
The best way to drive both engagement and monetisation would be to add a better layer of social mechanics such as alliance systems. These encourage players to spur each other on by creating peer pressure to complete goals or by creating a sense of altruism in donating resources to one another so everyone can progress. Add to this alliance leaderboard rankings and events, such as Hay Day’s Boat Leaderboards and Derbies have you are cooking with fire. Now players group together to achieve a common goal, and that common goal has a competitive aspect to it. So now players feel less pressure individually but feel some heat collectively as teamwork and planning is required to optimize and best succeed in such events. These are features that originated in much more mid-core titles but have proved they can transfer even into casual games with the right presentation and narrative.
However, adding social systems is a big issue for Nintendo as they have shown a clear resistance to adding free form chat and messaging in their titles, which make the development of alliance features very difficult to do. Therefore it’s likely they will go down a different route. I suspect the may try something like sister title Fire Emblem Heroes which run “Grand Hero Battles.” These are puzzle fights where players can obtain a rare and desirable character, but are given a very challenging scenario to complete. However, they can purchase heroes from an improved Gacha that give them a better chance of completing the goal.
Animal Crossing does not feature a Gacha, but I could definitely imagine a goal where you have to craft X amount of items or collect X amount of objects within a specific time period and can spend to purchase equipment to help you obtain that goal. E.g. purchase a golden fishing rod to help you collect golden fish from the sea, when you require collecting 1500 of them over the course of a week to have a special character join your Campsite. This would create variety and competition, but without the necessity of deep social features that could cause trouble for the brand. They would be less effective, but can still help propel revenue per user in the game.
Nintendo and Mobile - What’s Next?
In terms of execution, Animal Crossing is delightfully well done and feels like a real entry to the franchise. This is definitely a stripped back experience compared to the home console versions, but I expect that’s deliberate. Nintendo are more interested in selling their own hardware given the better profit margins so are clearly holding back the real triple A gameplay experiences for their own console, something already seen with both Mario and Fire Emblem games which also have mobile versions.
Nintendo’s strategy makes sense. Who wouldn’t love to have the problem of not having to maximise the monetisation capacity of their game game because it’s main goal is to increase awareness! Nintendo doesn't really run paid user acquisition on their titles, and are unlikely to do so for a long time as long as a title serves it’s purpose by being a high quality offering that reminds players to buy a Nintendo Switch and play the real Animal Crossing when it’s eventually released for that system.
Finally, this game feels like it completes a list of experiments Nintendo has tried on mobile, with Super Mario Run effectively being a premium app, Fire Emblem relying heavily on Gacha and Animal Crossing using a more tried and trusted impatience mechanism to monetize. The evidence clearly indicates that Fire Emblem has the best revenue per install, but clearly it’s not a model that Nintendo wants to implement into all of their titles. Given how family friendly their brand is, this comes as no surprise, but I wonder if going forwards Nintendo will either mark up or down it’s expectations on mobile? Whether they know it or not, Nintendo has the potential to make truly blockbuster mobile games capable of generating over a billion dollars a year. The question is - do they want to?