GDC: Is That a Franchise in Your Pocket? An Animal Crossing: Wild World Case Study
March 31, 2006
Katsuya Eguchi is the producer and manager of Software Development Group 2, in Nintendo EAD, and he began his talk by outlining just a bit of his almost 21 years at Nintendo. Primarily, he's been working under Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto, and created Starfox, Wave Racer, Yoshi's Story, among others.
“Those games were a handful, weren't they?” he offered. “Anyone who finished those games, you must be very good gamers, and I'm sorry they were so hard.”
So the basic task with Animal Crossing Wild World, was to take a game designed for the home console, and redesign it for a handheld console. By way of history, the first Animal Crossing was originally planned to work with the 64DD, which was a peripheral for the 64 that allowed rewritable discs, and had an internal clock. Animal Crossing came about as a result of trying to best utilize the clock and the greater disc size.
He then offered a short discussion of the initial design, which centered around communication. “The concept was a multiplayer game that would allow players to cooperate to reach common goals.” The current game isn't structured around goal reaching, but rather doing as you choose, and being social. “We were a bit leery of creating a goal-oriented game, even though we wanted communication to be the main tool,” he admitted, “so we tried to create a familiar game setting at first.”
He mentioned that Nintendo is primarily represented by Link and Mario. By contrast, they wanted to create a character that was rather helpless, and would need to use animals to help. They wanted to marry the clock functionality to the animals' cycles too, and have nocturnal animals, like wolves at night. “We thought we might have birds fly around, and get items for the player.”
They really wanted players to communicate with each other though, and not worry about bosses or things like that. “At this point, the 64DD was dying out, so we decided to bring it to N64.” He said. They had planned to use the clock extensively, and that large memory capacity – but with the shift, that extra memory was removed from their toolbox. “We only really had 64k of flash ram for our save data...so we had to think about what to take out and what to leave in. How did we really want people to play with this software?”
|Animal Crossing for the Gamecube|
“As I touched on before,” he continued, “what we really wanted to provide was a space for communication. The goal-oriented aspects were designed to just get characters to play with the game world. We took out the dungeons and bosses, and the overarching story and ending.” They also shrank the game world to the smallest possible area to still allow the elements they wanted to keep in.
“What a game like this must have is game elements that inspire players to play every day.” The platform change forced a shift in their development process, and forced them to pare it down to the bare essentials. “It was a really interesting process, and it was similar to the process of bringing the Gamecube version to the DS.”
The DS version sold much more than its console predecessor, so Eguchi took this to mean that the redesign went relatively well. He reiterated that original idea was communication. Players should be able to exchange furniture, items, and visit each other's towns. “I think that's what pulls players in,” he added, before breaking down the key elements he knew they had to keep when making the redesign. First was communication.
What do we like to talk about, he posed? One thing is unique personal experiences. We like to tell people about things that have happened to us. Another common topic is shared experiences. Topics that concern shared experiences are quite fun.
For unique experiences, you must have a large degree of freedom. There needs to be a variety of choices, and a large number of items. Simply collecting things may be enough for some people, so the freedom to arrange one's house, and the general lay of the land adds some depth.
How do you educate players within this freedom? You have to educate them by illustrating possibilities. Once you figure out what can be done in the world, the desire to change things increases. To buy things you need money, so you start to try to find ways to make money - you fish, sell fruit, and other things. The basic makeup of the world can teach you about it.
Furniture is also very important. Your house will get bigger, you'll gain more rooms, which gives you more places to put things. This is one of the places you can control most directly, so it's important to make it a bit dynamic. You can create new themes in each room, and each time the living space expands, the players' ambitions get bigger and bigger.
In addition, each town layout is unique. The variety of maps, plus the player's imagination, plus the unique layout makes each town very much the player's own.
“When you're satisfied with your town, you may feel the need to tell other people what you've done,” he mentioned. “Now if there are people who want to show what they've done, there are also people who want to see what others have done. Usually people want to see the innovation of others, as it's an extension of that person's personality.”
Maybe they want bragging rights, or maybe they just want a place for people to hang out – regardless, he laid out a chain of effects when seeing the towns or homes of others:
Eguchi says that the use of the real-time clock has had tremendous impact, because it allows players to share experiences at the same time – but also to visit players' homes across the world in different times, and see what it's like where they are. These are some of the elements needed for shared experience: Common time, Common place, unique reaction. That is to say, players can experience something while playing at home, and have a common experience for when they meet in person.
“So at this point, we've covered communication. But players won't always be communicating,” Eguchi admitted. “The fact is that players play most of the time by themselves.”
Here's how the team keeps people playing by themselves. “Earlier, when I mentioned the idea of collection and moving toward satisfaction, there's no doubt that customization is key to making players want to play daily,” he proposes. “There's a secret behind this. Players want a feeling of satisfaction, but if we give it to them, that's the end of it, and we're done.”
In reality, Animal Crossing is an inconvenient world, he says. This is where the real-time world comes in again. Players want to collect certain items, but they have to wait for the store to open to get new things (as the items only change daily), wait for certain times to collect certain bugs and fish, et cetera.
Also, the store closes at night. This may be the most frustrating thing, as you can't sell fish, buy stationary, or anything like that. So of course, you have to wait. This is a prime example of Animal Crossing's inconvenience.
Here's another. The changing of the seasons can be inconvenient. What if a player wants to grow a new fruit tree? They have to get a piece of that fruit, or wait until it arrives naturally. They have to wait for it to become a fruit bearing tree. Depending on the area, the tree may wither and die. Players have to keep coming back to the same place every day to check on it, and eventually to get the fruit and plant more trees.
None of these things give players satisfaction. But he realized they had to provide some sort of daily stimulus. Here are some of the things that can give players daily satisfaction: digging fossils, checking mail, and checking for new items in the stores. Also, you can do creative things, like create new designs, melodies, and you can catch animals and breed flowers.
“There's one thing I want to stress,” he added, “which is that none of the things in the game are compulsory. Players can go at their own pace. I think the desire to gain satisfaction is motivation to play. That's what keeps people playing. I think this is supported by the wide variety of things that can be done, plus the fact that nothing is forced on the players.”
The lack of an overarching story is one of the things that allows people to play at their own pace, he says. And there's no need for it to end, really. A story would just get in the way of what makes the game fun.
Next up, Eguchi discussed the Gamecube to DS redesign. “First, we had to familiarize ourselves with the system's characteristics. These are the dual screens, touchscreen, mic, stereo, and wireless capabilities.” On the one hand, he continued, there are limitations. Small ROM size, small allowances for save data, etc. The decision to bring it to the console was simple though, because the DS has WiFi.
“We had to overcome the ROM and RAM issues,” he said. “In the same way we had to cut from the 64DD to the 64, we had to do something similar for DS - it was harder this time because we'd already cut out what we thought was unnecessary. We had to step back and say ‘what's the most important part of this software?'”
Here's what they cut. To begin with, they cut the size of the playing area. They took the smallest area possible to foster exploration, but also to allow players' own creativity. They also cut down the number of rooms in the houses, limiting the possible houses players could own to one, and the rooms in that house to 5. They also cut the number of animals in the town – in the Gamecube version, there were 250 animals, which they had to cut to 150. They also cut the number of animals in a given town at any time from 15 to 8. Eguchi and his team felt as though this would still be enough variety.
In the end, many things were cut. Some remained very unchanged, and they added some as well.
He specifically mentioned two: “It's important to take into account battery life and saving,” he began. “We made it so players could save at any time, and that there would be a message when battery life was low. It's important to keep players from having trouble related to this.”
They also had to decide how much to use the system's non-WiFi strengths. In the case of a game like Metroid Prime, you need strong touch screen controls. Mario Kart on the other hand is a fast-paced racing game, which requires people to keep their hands on the systems, so touch wasn't used much. In the case of Animal Crossing, they focused on using the touch screen to write letters and manage items, with the intent of making the software more accessible to players of all ages.
|Animal Crossing: Wild World for the DS|
The wireless communication was the last unique feature. “As I've said over and over, the origin of fun in AC is communication,” he said. “But in the home console, communication wasn't instantaneous. With the DS, communication can happen as you're playing.”
In the Gamecube version, you were simply exchanging diaries to communicate. In the DS version, you can have idle chit-chat. “I think the wireless feature brings the ability to let people gather in a town and have idle banter.”
On this topic, Eguchi felt there were two important points. One is that gathering in someone's town is relaxing and fun because you're with friends. Some may enjoy inviting others, while others may be shy. If someone you don't know shows up in your town, you may be nervous and apprehensive. The towns are unique, so you may not want strangers coming in and chopping down your trees. One way to avoid this could have been to limit what users could do, but the team decided that'd be punishing many people for the actions of few. The Internet is rife with these sorts of problems anyway.
“So we asked ourselves what to do about this, and I think the Wifi connection illustrates our solution to the problem.” DS wireless service in general is based on 3 ideals. Ease of use, worry-free operation, and free of charge. In Eguchi's estimation, worry-free operation best speaks to Animal Crossing on the DS.
They created a system to allow players to find other people's towns via friend codes or if they've visited towns via the local wireless connection. This means it's all down to who chooses to play with whom. “We've found,” he offered, “that for some people, the thrill of meeting new people outweighs the fear of new people messing with their towns. Do you think we were too worried?” He then added that the act of getting your friends added on your own informs players of their responsibility in the online world.
And the end result has been rather successful. “I think if you compare the players who use MK with the number of Animal Crossing users,” he said, “you'll see they're almost equal, even though AC uses specific friend codes.”
Thee main message of communication hasn't changed over the years, and as Eguchi says – “You could almost say it was this game's destiny to arrive on this platform.” It forced them to focus even more on what was really necessary.
He ended with some cryptic, but intriguing words: “I think it's a fun challenge to think of how to use this world, planning for new controllers. Our new challenge is to port the game to the Revolution - now redesigning from a portable back to a home console.”