Animal Crossing’s Internet Joy Injection

Sep 25, 2018 by

 Animal Crossing (2019)

Announcement of Animal Crossing (2019)

Nintendo operates in an odd, endearing space somewhere between embracing risk and betting it all on the familiar. Offering games and experiences that are sometimes blissful and other times need to get through some growing pains is a cycle we’re accustomed to by now. The recent Nintendo Direct was a display of that mix in action. Yet, giving players what they want is part of the deal, and the announcement of a new Animal Crossing game coming to Nintendo Switch next year earned wide cheers across the world, seeing as Animal Crossing, Tom Nook, and Isabelle were all in the top worldwide trends chart on Twitter after the news.

There’s no word yet just what form this new game will take, though the character of Isabelle, first introduced in Animal Crossing: New Leaf has become so popular and beloved that she’s the series’ mascot now. In the announcement, she makes references to Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, the series’ first mobile game, and Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Tom Nook, tanuki dealer in home loans and reminders to pay, also joined the video at the end to talk about giving people places to live. It seems that we’ll be back to building homes after adventures in camp, at least.

One reason the internet seemed to explode with joy in that moment was because of the flavor and spirit Animal Crossing represents. The games in the series are calm, peaceful, little adventures you can go play at your own pace. There are no battles, no intense pressure situations, and only mild forms of enjoyable competition. Go fishing, plant flowers, discover fossils to fill the town museum, pick and plant fruit, and most of all, make friends with the animals that live in or visit your town. Send them letters or gifts. They will do the same sometimes. Stroll around late at night and be stopped by one of your neighbors with a request and agree to go catch a shark for him. Talk to your bashful neighbor as she looks downward, going just over her comfort zone to ask you for a favor. Receive a surprise letter from an animal that was just thinking about you and something you did for her.

The best thing about Animal Crossing is that it’s about relationships. Amid all the calm adventure you can have charting your own path through the game’s options, it’s easy to feel affection for these digital friends inside the game. Although there are only so many distinct personality types in the games (and each of these is near-identical for animals of the same type, with some variations due to species), you will have your favorites. Some will strike you as cuter, more charming, funnier, or even remind you of people you know in your own life. A game series like this are helpful for anxious days or any time you want to enjoy an experience, get some things done, but with no pressure or expectation.

The Nintendo Switch is a great console and its success is a net positive. Yet there has been an Animal Crossing-sized hole in its lineup, leading to some of the sweetest fun memes you’ll ever see. That hole will thankfully close next year.

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League of Legends eSports: Focus On the Human Factor (from 2013)

Mar 22, 2016 by

wearelcs2

A piece from 2013 blending commentary and an interview I conducted at E3 about the changes to League of Legends’ League Championship Series (LCS), and how those changes emphasize the human factor, and represent a reliable, relatable new system that intended to further focus global regional competition on the fans. Originally published on RTSGuru.com in 2013 (but freshly edited).

For League of Legends, it’s showtime again. The League Championship Series started up again last week. The day before competition began once more for the first time since LoL All-Stars in Shanghai in May, I was at E3 and got to chat with Whalen “Magus” Rozelle, the Senior eSports Manager at Riot, about how Season 3 is different than previous championship years, and some of the philosophies behind those changes, as eSports grows along with its potential.

It’s about telling stories.

Riot went back to the drawing board and made some significant changes for Season 3, including the structure of the championships, but with an eye ahead on growth and a format that could do a couple of key things – grow with the game and audience, as well as work with a global model. With LoL the most played online game in the world right now, getting things to work on that massive scale has to appeal to a lot of people, and ultimately, the structure of what Riot is doing relies on the human factor. That means not just investing in global infrastructure for tournaments but appealing to many of the factors that bring people to watch physical sports, with emphasis on people’s interest in other people’s stories.

Season 3 also brought a few stabilizing factors. Teams going pro is a reality now, and those teams need an income and more are looking at living together.  Riot helped with “a formal structure with established teams – the pro teams—making sure those teams had a stable income  so those teams could focus on being the best pros they could be,” as well as creating a competitive structure that would allow new teams to come onto the scene and develop. “And we already see this in the structure in Korea and Southeast Asia with the GPL and  the League of Legends Pro League coming out in China.”

Ultimately, though, it’s all about the people. Both the audience and the competitors.

“[What] we wanted to do is to focus on storytelling broadcast narrative, and really delivering a viewing experience more akin to traditional sports. Like your college game day or a Monday Night Football.” So the new structure is predictable, and there’s a familiarity to returning to watch each week.“We want to create a league worthy of planning your time around, ” hence drawing from many aspects of physical sports as well as sports broadcasts. “If you’re an eSports fan, we want you to go ‘Well, I know what I’m doing on Thursdays and Fridays because the LCS is on.” The numbers on streams show that this is indeed working, and the creation of the LoLeSports.com website has also helped connect fans.

They’ve gone ahead to produce packages and a reliable format.  As someone who has been watching sports ever since she was a little girl, they are creating a similar environment, even though the competition is in a completely different space. They’ve hired feature producers that have worked on Olympics clips and NFL and know how to convey this kind of narrative when it comes to a sports audience.

Aside from a predictable schedule with segments, the real heart is on the people. Team spirit is great, but it’s only one piece of that narrative. “Telling these stories that eSports fans can connect and latch onto” in other words. The audience might not be as good as the pros, but by highlighting the stories and that human factor, everyone can find something to relate to. Rozelle gave an example of the Chaox and WildTurtle stories when it came to TSM duing the spring.

They have been doing this also to bring a more relatable experience to eSports and hopefully get those casual fans or those just curious who might be inclined to watch or play to give it a shot. By focusing on who these players are and what their goals, dreams, conflicts, and even training methods are, it creates an entry point for observers, both new and seasoned.

One of the best stories out of the Spring was how some of these newer teams were able to rise and gain confidence. Teams like Vulcun and GGU (now Team Coast),  and watching them grow as the season progressed. On the esports site, the polls under each match would shift throughout the season. You’d start with new teams hitting maybe 20% in their favor and all these lopsided votes, where by the end of the spring you’d see more leveling out as these teams were able to make their way in the competition as well as gain lots of new fans. Now, these teams have fans backing them and some new faces are coming up once again. It just shows the dedication and growth that can happen in this system.

The system is working, as the attention over spring showed, but they still want to go bigger and better. They’re pretty happy with how they’ve accomplished their goals so far but there’s still more work to do as well as more tweaks and more to come on the way.

With the arrival of summer competition, the news of the World Championships location and dates are coming this month. Competition heats up since it’s not just about getting into and staying in the LCS (though there are definitely new faces this season), but about looking further out toward a championship.

And once those details are released, both fans and players will still be focused on Summer, but there’s no doubt mentally, that both will be peeking past and wondering who will be taking it all. And thanks to the new system, we probably know the players involved just a little bit better, even if we have been following for a couple of years.

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With eSports’ Undeniable Global Reach, Employment Visas Open a New Debate (From 2013)

Mar 9, 2016 by

Photo I took at the League of Legends Worlds final. 2013.

This was originally published at RTSGuru.com in the summer of 2013. It contains some references to interviews I conducted at E3 about how Riot actively tried, with growing regional competition, to reflect the global scale of the audience, and to create more moments that would resonate with those watching.

Last week’s announcement of the location for the upcoming League of Legends World Championships was followed by the news that the US government was now issuing visas for visiting international players to work in the country. This is important, since most of the players in the tournament will be from other lands, in addition to demonstrating that pro gaming is making its mark. The topic of visas has sparked much debate outside of the pro-gaming community since it broke. Yet, this is a natural step for a worldwide competition that has an $8 million global pool and 14 teams participating, eleven from outside North America. Let’s also not forget that several players on North American teams are Canadian.

The international nature of the competition is no accident. In North America, eSports has been growing in both recognition and audience for some time. It’s not limited to League of Legends, either. MLG has been around for over a decade, but it’s only in the past couple of years that audiences have truly blown up and bigger deals struck. Whereas maybe a few years ago, you might have seen the rockstar treatment for pro gamers in places like Korea, but now we’re seeing it over here in North America. Like anything else, this did not happen overnight.

Yet some question why pro gamers and not say, students, are getting special visa permission to work in the country. And the current debates over immigration in general have caused some negative reactions to this news among general populations. If eSports is going to continue with its growth, the general population is the potential audience since those of us actively watching, playing, and discussing these issues are already in the net. We’ve been caught and trawled in. It’s those guys you have to convince, eSports event organizers.

That’s another good reason for choosing The Staples Center to hold the event. At E3, I spoke to Riot’s Whalen Rozelle (Magus) about how their goal has been to create a global series that is centered around not just competition, but around relatable moments. Little did I know that not far away was the destination LoL fans would be centering their attention upon in the fall. Trying to extend that relatability is one of the goals and moving to a well-known sports arena is about as big of an arrival as you can get here in this country. Making the mainstream news for the location and the visa issue don’t hurt either, despite the debate.

I’ve seen several people making the case for the visas by defending people like pro poker and billiards players, whose particular competitions are less physical and involve more mental skill. Yet, even pro gamers are subject to physical limitations, as well as changes to the game’s meta. Those changes happen frequently, and keeping up is part of the challenge. I’ve seen some question what pro players contribute to society such that they deserve visas over students or scientists. But it’s not a question of ‘instead of’, it’s a matter of this category being open and these competitions rising to a level where their international nature requires this to happen.

To be fair, people argue that highly-paid basketball players contribute less than teachers and argue about relative pay often. But part of the reason behind questioning the visa grants for LoL players is, let’s face it, the lingering perception of gaming as lazy, immature, and as ‘just’ playtime. That’s one of the next hurdles to overcome when it comes to the mainstream audience. Yet that is a problem that remains for gaming in general. With surveys consistently returning information that the average gamer is well into adulthood, there’s still a disconnect between perception and reality among some.

To bring this back around to the selection of the Staples Center, the fact this is an arena that has seen mainstream physical sports championships is no accident. Bringing the eyes of millions worldwide to the arena in October might seem like a huge thing in itself, yet it’s really a beginning.

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Devs: How To Not Leave Your Audience Behind

Feb 12, 2016 by

Note: This piece was first published on RTSGuru.com in October, 2012. I’m republishing it here on my blog since the site is no longer live. I am highlighting this one, since more games lack campaigns, or release with ones designed as a blip, designed to be completed very quickly, thus leaving the focus solely on multiplayer once more. While multiplayer enthusiasts do drive attention in today’s market, the story-driven campaign still has a place. Original title, hyperlinks, and images are missing.

sc2-kerrigan

A short time ago, I asked the question of whether or not the single-player campaign was still relevant. Ultimately, I do think these campaigns, even in an RTS, are indeed still relevant for various reasons, some of which are personal for players and sometimes overlooked by companies. That said, some startling numbers have emerged that highlight just how many people are still very much campaign-centric when it comes to their games. So, knowing what we know now, what can companies do to not forget these gamers?

According to Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera, when it comes to StarCraft II, “It turns out around half of the people who buy the game only play the campaign”, as confirmed by Blizzard’s Bob Colayco. While we’re consistently met with images of competition, players who are working on climbing the ladders and making new ranks, and an overwhelming rush of eSports competition and coverage, half the people that bought the game have never really taken it online. The game is the campaign for them. And these people are getting left behind as far as the attention goes. Many people claiming the single player campaign is dead somehow, and recently, all the drama erupting over the competitive scene and claims that Blizzard is not handling its franchise in a player-friendly manner, and yet, maybe we’re looking at things all wrong.

If fully half the players only play the campaign, that’s over two million people. Perhaps even Blizzard gets caught up in its own hype over eSports and multiplayer, when many players just never even touch that side of the game. I must admit that the story is one of the biggest draws for me to StarCraft and other games, so when reading these numbers, it made a lot of sense because sometimes I too, am this player.

When it comes to FPS games, I’m pretty terrible at them, even though I enjoy playing. I play them largely for the campaigns. Sure, I go online and I do play multiplayer, but there’s always someone more experienced, younger, faster, and who has way more time to spend practicing than I’ll ever have before retirement, so it can be frustrating. I bought Battlefield 3 partly for the campaign and partly for multiplayer. The Frostbite 2 engine did wonders for what a pretty shooter it turned out to be. I played the original Call of Duty for the campaign, which was great. After that series started becoming more multiplayer-dominated and the campaigns kept shrinking in length and other factors, they just didn’t seem like a value any longer.

And value is an important part of this equation when it comes to serving all of your customers. Blizzard recently entertained the idea of releasing some sort of free to play version of multiplayer competitive StarCraft II, though the company would not know yet how to monetize it. Talk of custom premium skins for your Zerg swarms is thus, premature. Blizzard is aware that a lot of players never take its games into online competitive play and makes it a point to highlight campaign material. But could splitting a game into separate editions actually serve all players better? Maybe if you’re a company the size of Blizzard and have the resources to provide teams for each release. But the idea of having separate tiers isn’t inherently a bad one.

Using StarCraft II as an example, let’s say there’s a free to play, monetized multiplayer edition. No campaign, just a freemium, accessible version of competitive play. That might lower the barrier to entry enough to attract some new blood into the StarCraft competitive scene since there would be no risk to try it. Then, let’s say, edition two would be the campaign alone. For the story fans, this could sell for say, $25 and feature the campaign portion. For completists, give them the full-fledged edition of the game, perhaps with a couple of exclusives as sweeteners.

For some, this might seem extra risky or like selling the goods piecemeal, but in terms of value, it might make sense for some developers, in certain cases, to release a game like this. StarCraft II might serve all of its players in this way, including the forgotten half that doesn’t compete.

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Nostalgia in a Flat Cap

Jan 4, 2016 by

Fallout 4 companion Piper Wright

Piper Wright

I haven’t played Fallout 4 yet, but with the game out since November, between screenshots and articles, I’ve seen most of the companions. Piper Wright caught my eye, but I couldn’t figure out why she appealed to me so much. She’s attractive, with a certain air of presence to her; a determination in her eyes. Her dark, shoulder-length hair is topped with a flat cap. Appropriate for a journalist who goes around asking questions and interviewing people if she’s your companion, and grants a perk that lets you be more persuasive and grant access to new areas. From these basics, I guessed that she’s curious, maybe a little restless in the way the curiouser minds generally are. Yet, there was something else, something more drawing me to her whenever her image passed across one of my social media feeds.

One day, it dawned on me. It was her hat. My dad frequently wore flat caps when I was a child. I remember him wearing them, just like my grandfather did. There was one in particular, a brown herringbone tweed one with a single snap to attach the top to the brim, that I decided to wear myself. Dad noticed and gave it to me. That hat accompanied me through a couple of changes of address, classes where I wore it as intended, classes where I wore it with the snap undone.

To the poetry workshop I attended at sixteen, wearing a cream sweater, my flat cap on backwards, thinking it looked funny with my glasses, the frames not particularly suited for my face. How, in the words of a cute boy, the cap, glasses, and my long, wide sleeves made me look like a “real writer”. That same cute boy and I later had three phone calls. We read each other our poems. Me on the other end, no longer costumed as a real writer in those moments. The date we both agreed to was undone by differences in beliefs. He wanted to bring me to a church event. I had already left religion. I remember his last name and his brown eyes. Our reason for parting, it was fair, but I still felt the tinge of adolescent insecurity; the fear of judgment. I didn’t tell him the entire reason. Yet, I was still a real writer, with or without my cap on backwards. The words always demanded passage into the world, as they still do. Though I don’t think I wore the hat backwards after that.

I remember wanting to write for a newspaper, wishing so hard for a word processor as a child. I got my grandma’s old manual typewriter first. The slightly concave keys smoother than anything I knew, clear and shiny. Moving the carriage back, learning to use carbons and correction tape, a tangibility to leaving indentations in the paper behind; traces of authenticity. My words, they existed. I could feel them. I’d mash the keys with my small fingers until they throbbed, making sure all was clear. The word processor I received a couple of years later was more forgiving of my eagerness. The keys soft, a muted breath instead of the hard, metal clacking that left my hands ringing.

Drawing out newspapers, truly zines I intended to write and distribute, but never did. Not for lack of trying, but the nearest copy machine was 10 or 25 cents each, and we were poor. I still drew them. I wrote stories, typed them up, clipped them out and taped or glued them into the layouts I spent time creating. I thought I might be headed for the newspaper one day. Maybe I’d even wear a flat cap like the generations before me. Like newspaper reporters in a forgotten age. Like my dad. Like a character in a game from 2015 but set centuries in the future. Like Piper, who draws me in.

Piper’s hat is worn, it shows the damage of the Wasteland and the effect of time. I still don’t know all that much about her, but the combination of her long red coat and that hat make her adorable in my eyes. Her appeal is partly in a sense of nostalgia, anachronistic in the setting and year of Fallout 4, and unapologetically so. Piper, I’ve learned from friends playing, approves of when the player character chooses kind options. I knew I would have to look more into Piper, even before playing the game. It began with her hat.

Piper’s hat fills me with long-ago dreams. Piper’s hat fills me with curiosity. Piper’s hat fills me with warm nostalgia.

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Alphabear is Great, But Its Model Feels Lopsided

Jul 15, 2015 by

Alphabear Share Picture

Clearly a member of House Bolton.

UPDATE 07/18: As of the latest game update, players can now freely select which chapter they want to play. This makes a big difference and Spry Fox clearly listened to players. My one quibble with the select is it tends to drop you back into latest chapter, but it’s easiyl changed.

I’m enjoying Spry Fox’ latest game, Alphabear, which has launched a partial takeover of both my Twitter feed and private messages with friends lately with its sharp, current selfie function when acquiring new bears. Some of your spelled words appear in a preset line or two, Mad Libs style, often leading to amusing results. The game is cute, it’s fun, and several aspects of it both keep some players coming back for more and others taking issue with gameplay and the way the developer monetizes the game.

When you start Alphabear, the tutorial takes you through the word-puzzle game’s basic premise. Pick a board, spend a resource (honey) to play that board, score enough points, win bears that you can use for boosts, and repeat. Some boards are timed, and each chapter allows you to collect certain bears from the currently available collection of 67 . After playing through enough of the daily challenges, you’ll unlock a boss battle. Beat the boss score, win, and move to the next chapter. There is, however, no chapter select, and certain bears can’t be obtained outside their respective chapters. There’s no warning in the tutorial for this, and one belongs there. After the first two chapters, chapter three’s difficulty ramped up by a lot, and I have lingered within it playing and leveling my bears, getting a better win rate but falling short of good bear scores frequently as well. Spry Fox responded to an inquiry about this saying that no chapter select was an oversight and that while there are no plans to include a chapter select, some way to obtain bears you accidentally missed out on will be coming.

The daily challenges aren’t just candy-colored Scrabble either. Several are clever and can affect your strategy. On Sunday, an indicator mentioned the letters W-O-R-and K wouldn’t appear at all. If you’re used to using certain bears that might boost points for specific letters, you’d have to adjust. The bears themselves go to “sleep” for a predetermined amount of time after each use, which ranges from one minute to one day. Getting duplicates of a bear strengthens the bonuses that bear brings to a round.

I’ve seen some complaints about Alphabear’s gating, since honey is restored over time, up to the 120 you would need to play each of the daily boards once each several times a day. You can also watch an ad to get more honey or pay $4.99 to unlock infinite honey, thus letting you play as often as you’d like. Some felt tossed into a paywall early, but I haven’t. My problem with the monetization is that there is no corresponding unlock for the game’s other resource, coins. In order to gain coins, you must play through the game, watch an ad, or purchase a coin bundle. Coins are what you use to wake up a bear early from its slumber, making it usable once again. Infinite honey is a great option, since it lets you play more and thus win more coins, but if you have a limited collection of usable bears for your current chapter (chances of this are current high since there’s no chapter select and it’s easy to miss out on bears early), you’ll have to either wait up to an entire day or use your purchased or earned coins to wake your bears.

Some might argue that an unlock for coins might make the game too easy or lead to an imbalance of sorts, but as a single-player game, having just the one unlock makes the game feel lopsided in that paying for a whole game isn’t an option. I’m sure many of us would, just as I’ve noticed lots of infinite honey players.

Alphabear is still officially in beta, so there will be some changes coming in response to player feedback. Spry Fox is doing a good job listening so far, and fixing other issues promptly. As a side note, I’m happy that Alphabear is on Android and glad to have the option to support games on the platform.

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