Look Into Your Heart

Animal Crossing: New Leaf brought out the darkest parts of my personality. It’s still better than free-to-play.

Animal Crossing screenshot
I’m talking about ethics.

It was late one night in Funkytown when a bipedal talking eagle taught me what’s wrong with the video game industry. You see, I was desperate. I’d just gotten into town a few days earlier, and I made the mistake a lot of newcomers make: getting in deep with the Tanuki mafia.

I was already 48,000 bells in debt. Granted, the town ran mostly on a fruit- and cricket-based economy, so I’d be able to pay off the loan in time. But the bells weren’t coming in fast enough. I’d been out every night, picking apples and desperately shaking other trees, looking for money. That’s when I heard that there was lots of money to be made on the Island.

There was only one catch: I was the new mayor of this burg, and the Island would only become available once I’d gotten a house and all the residents were happy. And my residents weren’t happy. The problem, as it usually is, was a dame.

Gwen the penguin, to be precise. She was a trouble-maker, causing problems with the rooster Ken and the cow Chevre in particular. Anytime I saw a resident walking with an angry purple cloud overhead, sure enough there’d be Gwen standing nearby, looking for the next neighbor she could make miserable. She had to go.

I tried pushing her. Digging holes in front of her house. Making snide comments when she called me “h-h-h-hon.” She wouldn’t leave. I needed to turn up the heat.

Animal Crossing screenshot
She was constantly asking me to visit her home; it would’ve been all too easy to slip inside and take care of the problem for good. But I was mayor! I’d be the prime suspect. I needed a patsy. Dizzy the elephant filled the role nicely.

Dizzy’s a nice enough guy. Not too bright, though: a couple of times he asked me to find an apple for him as he was standing directly under an apple tree. I wrote Dizzy a letter:

Gwen has become a problem. She doesn’t belong in Funkytown any longer. You know what to do.

and sent a shiny new axe along with it.

Animal Crossing screenshot
I don’t think he read my letter. Actually, based on some of the responses I’ve been getting, none of the animals in Funkytown can read. As mayor, I’ll have to institute some sort of literacy programs. Whatever he did, though, it worked. Gwen soon left town with no forwarding address.

The whole diversion had taken up precious time, though. I was making repeated visits to Funkytown day and night, but still barely making a dent in all my debts. That’s why I met Avery the eagle late that night, and why he said something surprising: “You look tired! Maybe you should take a rest, kaKAWWWW! [that’s his thing] Money isn’t everything.”

Money Isn’t Everything

I’d heard about people getting completely sucked into Animal Crossing, but I didn’t really see the appeal. I’d tried the GameCube version years ago, when everyone was raving about it, but it didn’t hold my interest. (In fact, when I bought New Leaf, I’d completely forgotten I’d played an earlier version). Sure, I have a history of getting completely wrapped up in “life sim” type games, but my two prime motivators in The Sims are building houses and trying to get my character laid. Neither of those is an option in Animal Crossing (thankfully), so I’d figured I was safe.

There’s really nothing you can do in Animal Crossing except pick fruit, catch fish, buy stuff, and put stuff in your house. The core game mechanic is catching stuff to sell at a profit so that you can pay off a home loan — it’s hard to imagine a premise that’d be more dull and more transparently capitalist.

Animal Crossing screenshot
But then there’s a kappa named Kapp’n who pilots the boat to the Island and sings a song the way there and back.

In other words, the game is obscenely charming. In addition to Kapp’n, there’s a dog named K.K. Slider who performs at the local nightclub on weekends, spinning a remix of his tunes every other night.
Animal Crossing screenshot
When he’s doing his acoustic set, he’ll take requests, and sometimes let out a tiny howl in the middle of a song. Again: ridiculously charming.

Christian Nutt came up with a good summation of why Animal Crossing: New Leaf has such staying power: it’s a combination of open-endedness and an extremely broad set of simple things to do. None of the things you can do in the game are that complex, but there are billions of things to do, and the complexity comes not from any single system but from the combination of all of them.

Which, paradoxically, makes the capitalist undertones of the game quickly fade into the background. Money and the drive to make more of it is ever-present in the game, but for me at least, it’s nothing more than a means to an end. In The Sims, you want to buy new objects because they let you do more stuff. In Animal Crossing, most of the stuff doesn’t do much of anything, so the goal is just to see it. It sounds as if it’d be even more crassly consumerist, but the end result is one of pure exploration: there’s almost always something new to discover.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, but no Whales

Still, when a character in the game asked me to stop playing, it was a genuine surprise. Why would the developers have put in something so self-defeating as a reminder to only play their game a “healthy” amount? How is that in their best interest? If I’m not playing their game as much as possible, then… well, wait a second.

It doesn’t make a bit of difference to Nintendo whether I’m playing their game as much as possible. I already paid my money and completed the transaction, a complicated an archaic process known in the olden days as “buying a video game.” They’re not making any more or less money out of me whether I play for hours every day, or whether I say “this feels too much like work” and never launch the game again.

Even as I’ve spent the past few years complaining about micro-transactions and “free-to-play” games, I hadn’t realized how much they’d worked their way into the fibre of how the games business works. There’s always been opposition — usually in the form of “remember the good old days?” memes — but even that has transitioned from “I hate Facebook games” to “free-to-play is ruining the mobile game market” to “micro-transactions are ruining games” to “micro-transactions are a necessary evil.”

The video game market is competitive, after all, and developers gotta eat. And we’ve seen more and more defenses of the free-to-play model, especially from people who’ve left larger studios for start-ups or companies that emphasize mobile development.

I’m definitely not saying Electronic Arts created the business model, or even that they’re the worst offender. (Although taking a near-perfect game like Plants vs. Zombies and turning it into the joyless slog that is Plants vs. Zombies 2 suggests they might have perfected it). But when you’re looking at Animal Crossing and The Sims, two games whose central “mechanic” is buying fake stuff with fake money to put into a fake house, it’s an interesting case of two roads diverging in a wood.

A few years ago, someone at EA said: “Sure, we’ve got The Sims, and it’s been a wholly unprecedented success. It’s indefinitely expandable. It attracts people who are so obsessed with the game that they make their own content and constantly promote the game online. It’s got a business model that supports regular expansions, so we can add new game mechanics along with object sets. And those expansions are selling so well, it’s defying every projection of how expansions are supposed to perform and what the life cycle of a piece of game software is supposed to look like. It’s successful enough to exist as an entire franchise, making the kind of regular income you usually only get with a successful MMO.

“And that’s all well and good. But couldn’t we tweak the business model a little bit more in our favor?”

Snidely Whiplash, CFO

And you know, fine. It’s all right that someone at EA proposed that because it’s someone’s job to come up with ideas like that. Two of the Internet’s favorite past-times are hyperbole and over-simplification, so there’s always a melodramatic polemic that micro-transactions are ruining the entire industry, and it’s the greed of short-sighted bean-counters who are trampling on the purity of art or somesuch. And then inevitably, someone pipes in and like Carrie’s mom, reminds us that “these people aren’t your friends!” Companies exist to make money! Etc. etc.

The truth is somewhere in between. I will never forget a day when I was working at Maxis, and we had a studio meeting to introduce the new CEO. After an hour of talk about market projections and franchise possibilities and the like, he closed with a line about being open to suggestions and available via email. When I got back to my desk, I wrote a polite (I thought) email asking that when he was addressing the whole company, he refer to the games as “games” and not “product.” It’s very important for morale.

In retrospect, that was almost comically ludicrous. Not for the principle of it; I still believe that it’s a subtle shift between thinking of what you’re doing as a creative work and thinking of it as a commodity, and once it’s crossed, it’s impossible to go back. And it wasn’t ludicrous for the hubris of a lowly programmer attempting to talk to a CEO; for the record, I wasn’t laughed at and escorted out of the building, but got a polite and seemingly sincere reply.

What makes it ludicrous is that I was telling someone else how to do his job, in a way that trivialized the job. It’d be as if an artist told me that I was ruining the creative process by talking about functions or vectors or scripting languages. It was my job to think in terms of code, and someone else’s to think in terms of product. That’s how the process works, and there’s no mustache-twirling villainy inherent in it.

Until you become the guy who invented the concept of “games as services.” Whoever came up with that can go to hell.

Games as Games

Animal Crossing screenshot
The whole question of free-to-play games and micro-transactions is actually a lot like software piracy, in that:

  1. People try to make it sound complicated, when it’s really not.
  2. Every attempt to defend it or rationalize it essentially boils down to spin.
  3. The farther you get away from the basic business transaction that everyone understands — I pay you x and get y — the worse it is

I’ve seen lengthy defenses of the free-to-play model that are actually just defenses of free game demos. But demos still exist, and have existed for decades, long before Zynga and the App Store even existed.

You want to let players see if they like the game before they commit any money to it? Fine, there are several ways to do that. Including releasing a game that’s free to play and allowing the player to buy a single in-app purchase that unlocks all the content. Completely unsurprisingly, I’m also fine with the episodic model.

But nickel-and-diming players for content? That’s turning the game from a creative work into pure product.

Making games where the people who play most are also the ones who spend the most? The most prevalent complaint is that it turns the business model into a meta-game, where players are playing the game of “how can I use this without paying,” instead of playing the game itself. But the problem is even more fundamental than that, in two ways: first, if you’re paying based on the length of time played, then you’re paying for a diversion, not a creative work. Second, if you’re not paying at all, then you have to ask yourself the same question software pirates always fail to ask: if I’m not paying for this, then who is?

Setting up gameplay loops where the player can either wait 30 minutes to an hour or pay to keep playing immediately? That’s such a colossally, fundamentally bullshit idea that I still don’t understand how it didn’t get anyone who suggested it fired, much less actually made it into several finished games.

The only other forms of entertainment in which the audience pays by the minute are slot machines and peep shows. I’m not interested in a career in either.

Yes, it’s hyperbole to say that free-to-play is ruining the entire games industry. But I also genuinely believe that it’s true. It’s just not some game industry exec sitting in a tower in Mordor, unleashing a horde of Farmville clones on an unwary populace. It’s a bunch of bad decisions that compound and gradually and subtly influence everything. It’s a slow shift in emphasis away from the people who think about games — players and (some) developers — towards the people who think about product.

Not-so-Long Tail

I’m not completely pessimistic, since I don’t believe it’s sustainable. Animal Crossing could easily charge me for each item, or charge a monthly fee, and it’s got its hooks in me enough that I’d probably pay it. I did with The Sims 3 for a while, after all, until I’d paid real money for fake things enough times that it didn’t seem entertaining anymore. And now, I’ve completely lost interest in the game. I’ve tried drumming up my own interest in The Sims 4, but it’s going to be a hard sell.

On the other hand, when I’m playing Animal Crossing, I don’t have to be constantly on the look-out for another case of the company trying to gouge more money out of me. And as a result, I can just relax, drop the cynicism, and let the charm do its thing.
Animal Crossing screenshot