A look at the core systems of Nintendo’s latest mobile game, including core systems, monetization, and overall experience, as well as thoughts on alternative approaches.
About me: I've been developing games for almost a decade at PopCap Games and Riot Games as a systems and platform engineer for various R&D teams. Opinions are my own, comments and feedback and are greatly appreciated, or reach out on twitter @cccobb.
Players can expect to spend around 20 minutes going through a heavily scripted tutorial. The tutorial uses a dual approach by providing instructional images, then requiring the player to go through each instruction step by step with a locked UI. I was confused by this at first, but upon reflection I concluded that presenting the instructions twice, in two different ways, may help players retain the lessons better.
The ‘why’ of the game feels thin, even for a game whose core franchise never provided a strong story. In AC:PC, you are the director of a campground, but other than giving ‘gifts’ of assorted items to the animals staying in your camp, there doesn't appear to be any real needs you are addressing. It’s not as though gamers need a grand narrative, just the simple premise of restoring your grandfather’s rundown farm is enough explanation to motivate players in Harvest Moon.
Questions: Considering mobile play sessions are frequently 5 minutes or less, what alternatives are there for a mandatory 20 minute tutorial? Is narrative important in mobile games?
Core Game Loop
The core game loop involves visiting various locations to collect food and items, including fruit from trees, shells on the beach, fish from the river, etc. Some items replenish quickly, within a couple of minutes (fish and bugs for example), while fruit takes several hours to replenish. These items can be used to craft props and furniture for the player’s campground, and used as gifts to fill up the friendship meter of various NPCs. Players are offered the chance to spend real money to speed things along.
AC:PC offers very little gameplay. Most items can be collected simply by clicking, while catching bugs or fish involves a lightweight timing activity that includes tapping the screen when a prompt appears. While debates on what constitutes a game are not productive, this game provides little problem solving, decision making, uncertain outcomes, or other common constructs present in most games. The result is a deterministic button clicking activity with the ability to decorate a small space.
Questions: Is it okay for a game to be more of an activity than a traditional game? If the game is about crafting and decorating, what social features could make this experience more interactive and provide a payoff beyond self-satisfaction?
Timers, timers, timers
The core game loop revolves around timers of increasing length. You can order new furniture to be made through a crafting system, and players who don’t feel like waiting for 5 hours to build a new cabinet can spend real money to speed things up. This is one of the earliest and most pernicious approaches to mobile game monetization. Early in the game, items are built quickly, and over time the player experience degrades as the delay between each crafted item gets longer. The promise that monetizing will restore the game to its earlier, responsive glory is a false promise-- as soon as the player has made their purchase they will be immediately confronted by new, longer, more expensive timers. Requiring players to invest progressively more time to reach the next level has been a staple since the earliest digital RPGs. Importantly however, these traditional games only required additional play time to progress. Slapping a timer on an activity and putting a purchase button next to it is not a friendly practice.
At face value it may seem that energy systems are designed to prevent players from binging. Unfortunately these systems are typically designed to do the opposite, prompting the compulsive behavior of frequently launch the app just to check whether one of the very long timers has expired. While waiting, the game persistently dangles the carrot of speeding things up through microtransactions. In AC:PC some items replenish within 2-3 minutes, meaning you can interact with the game perpetually even while waiting on the multi-hour timers. This worst-of-both-worlds design means that players are never free from the demands of the game.
Questions: What alternatives are there to a game experience designed to degrade the quality of the experience over time in order to prompt purchases? How can we leverage traditional game experiences in a mobile environment where game sessions are shorter? Are these business practices required for games to survive, or are there more respectful ways to build a sustainable product in the mobile environment?
The quest system is split into Timed Goals that must be completed before they expire, and Stretch goals that are persistent and seemingly never-ending.
Timed Goals are an additional engagement mechanism, prompting players to come back every time new timed goals are introduced (at launch, Timed goals expire every 12 hours). In addition, players are encouraged to monetize in order to complete quests before they expire.
An infinite list of stretch goals ensures that players always have something to do, though scrolling through a never-ending list of potential activities is overwhelming. It’s not clear whether the list provides direction for new players, though I suspect the order of the list is designed to provide goals appropriate to the player’s level.
Questions: What are examples of more compelling quest systems than a bland to-do list that involves picking up various items? How could narrative contribute to a more fulfilling experience? What features of simulation games could be introduced that would fit into a mobile experience like Animal Crossing?
Pay walls, friend walls, and social (oh my)!
An especially unwelcome feature was presented immediately after the tutorial ended. Trying to visit a location known as the Quarry, I was prompted to either spend money or else recruit 5 friends to help me unlock the location. These ‘friend walls’ have always been a source of frustration, and were a notable feature in the game Candy Crush. These features prompt you to spam your friends on social media and invite them to play. This kind of bland social engagement scheme is an ill-disguised tool that employs players as sales agents for the game. I would much prefer a highly engaging social experience, such as cooperative quests or a truly interactive social systems that offers a satisfying experience for both the current player and the friend being solicited to play.
Players meet random real life player characters as they visit various locations. The player is prompted to add these players as friends, and offers the chance to give the player ‘Kudos’. What these Kudos do is unclear, after giving and receiving at least a dozen of them, there was no noticeable impact on the play experience. This is a missed opportunity to give players a real reason to add friends and visit other player’s campsites.
Questions: What social systems might generate real network effects that leave both parties feel good about inviting and joining the game? What cooperative elements could be introduced to give players a compelling reason to visit each other’s sites?
Badges and alerts
We generally understand the dangers and frustrations of push notifications and similar attention grabbing mechanisms, and unfortunately the AC:PC interface is chock full of badges and alerts within the game. For example two unappealing craft items were available for a limited time, leaving a bright red ribbon overlaid on the crafting icon with no way to dismiss or ignore it. There is also a sliding window of sales alerts in the top left that is omnipresent and visually distracting.
I always disable phone notifications so I can’t speak to these, though based on the amount of in-game alerts, I imagine AC:PC follows typical practices of frequent notifications prompting players to engage with the app.
Questions: Should games include a large number of in-game notifications and prompts, or do they overwhelm players? How can we develop notification systems that act as a value add to engagement, rather than participate in the frustrating effort at constantly grabbing player attention? Do these overactive notification systems help or hinder long term engagement?
The user interface overall is implemented well, though there are a handful of frustrating interactions, some of which I expect will become truly onerous with extensive engagement. Nintendo has a stellar reputation for extremely high polish and seamless interaction and it’s unfortunate that their usual level of polish isn’t present in this mobile experience. Here is a shotgun list of various UI features that I had trouble with.
The transition time between screens and transitioning in and out of the dialogue mode is extremely slow. After trying to log in and kick off the big, multi-hour timers before bed, I spent 30 excruciating minutes simply trying to travel to each location and do the basic loop. The vast majority of my time was spent waiting for screens to load, server refreshes, and camera transitions. This is the single largest aspect that deters me from remaining even a casual player, and counteracts many of the other design decisions oriented toward the mobile format.
While the 20 minute scripted tutorial was fairly robust, AC:PC still doesn’t hit the sweet spot for introducing content at a consistent rate that maintains interest while preventing information overload. Despite the long tutorial, I still felt overwhelmed when new abstract crafting items such as ‘essence’ was introduced without explanation. In addition, important information like where to find desired crafting materials took me more than an hour to find (located in a popup in the world map UI). Some crafting material (such as essence) were never explained, but their abstract representation caused me confusion. These nitpicks could be addressed through relatively low-cost iterative improvements.
Players can interact with visiting NPCs to receive gifts, however there is no UI to let you know this is available without going through a sluggish chat dialogue to find out. This forces players to engage in many useless interactions that take a considerable amount of time due to the slow transitions. This combination is unfortunate because it increases session length by adding frustration and no additional value. Mobile games especially should strive to be responsive and provide a tight, satisfying engagement loop.
There were a handful of other tedious or frustrating user experience elements that I’ll list but not go into detail on: Checking where desired items can be collected is in an unintuitive location that I stumbled across after a few hours of play. Switching between the list of furniture needed by an NPC and the crafting dialogue is ridiculously slow, requiring half a dozen clicks with transitions between each. The UI for organizing the campsite is good overall, but there are a couple small bugs related to moving furniture on the edge of the area. The walls used to separate space in your campground are too wide and take up too much space to be usable.
I did not set out to be so critical of Nintendo’s latest mobile installment when I started to write this piece. When Nintendo announced their intention to invest in mobile several years back, I was elated. Sadly I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned in my belief that Nintendo will be the savior of the mobile games space. Instead, they have conformed to existing, unfriendly patterns established by dominant players in the space. Nintendo’s choice to conform to these practices seems to be a response to their experience with Mario Run, which despite massive download numbers was not a financial success. I believe Nintendo learned the wrong lesson on Mario Run. I chose not to unlock the full purchase not because of the $9 price point, but because the core experience wasn’t compelling.
I would love to see games that offer an experience closer to the Nintendo 3DS, with adjustments to game design oriented around shorter play sessions, while preserving strong narrative and satisfying, interactive gameplay. Here are two alternative approaches I hope Nintendo will consider as they seek out a sustainable presence in the mobile space.
Using Mario Run as an example, instead of offering the full game unlock for $9, Nintendo could have offered the same content broken into five $2 chunks. I would have been very comfortable unlocking the next set of levels to see whether they offered more interesting gameplay then the free trial levels. Breaking up the unlockable content into more digestible chunks, with a discount for unlocking the full bundle, is an approach that accounts for consumer expectation oriented around microtransactions, without unfriendly mechanisms such as monetized impatience and friend walls.
Alternatively, Nintendo should try to release a full scope 3DS game at the full price of $40. While the common wisdom says players will rarely unlock content listed at a higher price point on mobile, seeing a full priced title on the app store shifts the comparison from free-to-play mobile games to premium video games. If Nintendo is able to deliver on that promise of a premium gaming experience on my phone, I expect players will respond better than they did to a compromised, kind-of-but-not-really, $10 Mario game.
The original version of this post can be found here