Animal Crossing does a lot of work to grab and keep players, and it’s the sheer amount of detail and care that make it a tough game to replicate. But rather than trying to copy this odd little game, it can be extremely helpful as a designer to simply understand why the game is as popular as it is. Knowing those main forces behind Animal Crossing’s staying power can lead to new ideas and approaches within your own work, or even in just understanding similar games.
The Art (and Character Models) of Zen
I heard once that the creation of Animal Crossing was inspired by a zen garden. Regardless of the accuracy of this rumor, it is an apt comparison. Animal Crossing is a life in miniature, much as a zen garden is, and it flourishes or decays based on the player’s involvement. It trades on some ideas that are very much based in video games, but also in some feelings which drive nearly all humans. And when taken together, and bundled into a very friendly, cute aesthetic, the game is practically irresistible to many individuals.
The first thing you see in any Animal Crossing game is not your character, but a vehicle and an animal. It hits you immediately with a special sort of reminiscence: that nostalgia of being on the road, of heading to a new adventure. Even if you’ve never been on such a significant trip before, everyone has heard a story like it, be it Harry Potter or Hercules. And so, like old fairy tales, Animal Crossing insinuates itself into your heart almost instantly, bringing to mind every romantic notion of traveling and moving. Humans love stories, and Animal Crossing knows how to imply a lot with very little. And so Nostalgia is its hook, even if the player is young. Nostalgia not just for adventures gone by, but for those never had, or yet to come — it’s possible to feel a sort of nostalgia for all of these, and all of them can give players a reason to care about those opening moments of the game. And in those spare few moments, in the introduction to an annoying cat, or to a Kappa who is as cool as a cucumber, the game hooks you.
Feeding Into it
But, just in case the nostalgia isn’t getting to you, Animal Crossing has a few more ways to keep you making Bells and enjoying your new life. The moment you get off whatever that iteration’s vehicle of choice is, you are accosted and shortly turned into a wage slave for the series’s entrepreneurial Tanuki, Tom Nook. He’ll give you a house, or build one for you, provided you pay for it. Houses don’t grow on trees, you know. And while the house itself does not really cost you much money—experienced players can pay it off in about a day—the starting house is tiny. Luckily for the player, additions to the house can be purchased, once again, on loan from Mr. Nook, and with ever-increasing costs tacked to the additions. And so the player is continuously ridding themselves of debt, only to acquire even more. Just like real life! And this is the major Feedback Loop in Animal Crossing.
Wake up, make Bells, maybe talk to some anthropomorphic animals, go back to sleep. Repeat until you own Tom Nook and/or the whole town. Animal Crossing’s feedback loop is so addictive because it is so voluntary, and has plenty of little goals along the way. Get literally anything? That’s something you wanted, or it helps fill out your collection/Museum exhibit, or it is yet another piece to the fashionable puzzle that is your home, or, at the very worst, it’s more money toward another goal. And what do you do after acquiring something? Whatever the heck you want, that’s what. Fish, dig, insult your neighbors, and you’ll gain progress with at least one goal in a short time. And if you don’t come back the next day? Weeds grow every day, and hey, you missed a villager that only shows up on certain days, and now you have to wait a whole, actual week to see them again! Know what that means: Play every day, forever.
Even if players don’t end up playing every single day, the impetus is pretty clear, and the loop latches onto people very quickly. And it is helped by the final major factor in Animal Crossing’s popularity: Comfort.
Have a Seat! Take a Load off!
Comfort isn’t really something most people think about when they play a game unless it gets brought to their attention, as in the case of a really poorly-implemented camera, or a jumping puzzle that hasn’t been calibrated well enough. But in Animal Crossing, the name of the game is comfort. The player is given a house right away, and saddled with debt, but they don’t actually have to do much of anything once the (very small) tutorial has finished. The game is just as pleased to see players who hop on once a week to tend to the town and do one or two things as it is those players who are essentially min/maxing their lives within the game. And Animal Crossing even incentivizes relaxation and taking it easy, with built-in—albeit very gentle—methods of discouraging running, and taking life a bit more slowly.
Grass degrades over days and weeks if players run across it often enough, leaving behind dead dirt, and flowers are destroyed if a player moves too quickly through them. In its very design, the game wraps its arms around you and says, “Shhh, there’s more to life than running all the time.” And it speaks to a lot of people, that feeling that the game itself cares about you.
Animal Crossing hooks us because it is a game that cares. It is a game which, when taken at face value, shouldn’t be much of a game at all, much less an interesting one. But when you look deeper, you find the amount of respect and polish that the developers have put into making the game so casually addictive. And this is why so many people come back to Animal Crossing, no matter how small the changes made in each new entry. Animal Crossing loves you, and so it’s easy to admit that, yes, you love it too.