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GDC 2014: Animal Crossing Developers Discuss Franchises, Communication, and Diversity.

by Aaron Kaluszka - March 23, 2014, 11:23 pm PDT
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Katsuya Eguchi and Aya Kyogoku Explain 'How to Turn a New Leaf at the Animal Crossing.'

Animal Crossing was the subject of Nintendo’s lone GDC talk this year, which featured two presenters, Katsuya Eguchi, 28-year veteran of Nintendo, who’s been with the series since the beginning, and Aya Kyogoku, Nintendo EAD’s first female game designer. A timely talk, given current concerns in the game industry, the speakers focused on how to think about franchises, communication, and developer diversity.

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The majority of the pun-infused talk was given by Aya Kyogoku. While the industry is still male-prevalent, there are now other female designers, and Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s staff was nearly half female. Both Kyogoku and Eguchi emphasized that you gain a wider variety of opinions and ideas when women are on the team, and that diversity is important for expanding the range of opinions. They believe that Animal crossing New Leaf gained from the diversity of backgrounds and life experiences, which contributed to the game’s design as well as allowed for Animal Crossing to reach a wide audience.

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First, Kyogoku stepped back to do a quick post-mortem on Animal Crossing: City Folk. She noted that City Folk was the first simultaneous worldwide launch. It wasn’t just a massive localization effort; there was a culturalization component as well, with text, conversations, and distinct experiences. But after all that effort, it became clear to Nintendo that not everyone was satisfied with City Folk -- Animal Crossing was experiencing series fatigue.

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Nintendo had looked at the sales of Wild World on DS, which eclipsed the GameCube version tenfold, and thought that they should continue along the same path, not realizing that many fans had grown tired of it. Though they always added new animals and furniture, the base formula was always the same -- arrive at a new town and work for Tom Nook. The world was perceived as limited and isolated.

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It was time to rethink Animal Crossing -- a process that the Zelda franchise has been going through as well. They didn’t want to overhaul everything and risk losing the important aspects, so they looked back to ask what was the core experience of Animal Crossing that kept players coming back.

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Upon reflection, the developers realized that Animal Crossing is, at its center, a communication tool. This may not seem obvious at first, but even actions like being able to show your friends your room is a type of social interaction. Other actions like sharing birthdays and giving gifts allows people to communicate without having to visit face to face or paying money -- players might not be willing to invite somebody into their actual house, but are happy to show them their virtual abode. In essence, it creates occasions to thank people and share thoughts, all mediated by a shared game experience. These experiences are harmonized with real-world activities through the real-time calendar and the celebration of holidays in both the real and virtual worlds.

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During development, these experiences actually improved the morale of the development team such that at crunch time, people were less stressed. The team coordinated their turnip sales, and left presents for each other. Kyogoku showed some team photos showing various Animal Crossing-themed cakes and celebrations that the team shard. She suggested that stressed game development teams should also play Animal Crossing together.

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The original versions didn't have cross-system communication, but it still happened within households as different family members played during different parts of the day. The Wii version continued to add communication features, but it wasn’t until the 3DS that notifications that others were playing was added. Other facilities like Happy Home StreetPass sharing and random matching at the Tropical Island were other concerted efforts to provide more opportunities for communication.

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Since then, they’ve added a number of outside communication abilities, all intent on improving the game’s hook by providing new opportunities to get people communicating. These efforts include the ability to share screenshots on social media, the Wii U channel, Miiverse and Twitter posts, an Art Academy drawing contest, and design sharing through QR codes. She shared a GDC design to show off the latter example of user-generated content.

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Once the core was understood, the goal of “putting smiles on consumers’ faces” was distributed to all team members, regardless of role. No matter the official title, everyone was able and encouraged to design characters, furniture, and other items to be included in the game. Several examples were displayed.

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In summary, Kyogoku listed three key elements to developing a franchise: 1. Clearly identify the essential seeds of the franchise. 2. Share those seeds with the development team. 3. Don’t be afraid of change, and spread seeds based on timing and hardware capability. She noted that it is important to be flexible to keep a franchise relevant. Yet, reflecting on the fundamental aspects of the game could reveal new hints and ideas -- those that are core to the experience, yet not explicitly written out in the specs.

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The end result was that New Leaf was a huge success -- it kept selling out in Japan, and Eguchi himself had trouble obtaining one of the limited edition systems for his children. The digital download version was perfect for the game, such that it could be accessible at any time. Eguchi noted that popular franchises can expand the scope of a platform. For example, Animal Crossing helped push sales of the 3DS. The game sold 7.38 million copies as of January, helping the 3DS reach 42.74 million units. At the end of the session, Eguchi tied this idea to Nintendo’s new indie outreach, explaining that Nintendo is interested in working with indie developers to bring their games to Japan.

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