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Diversity, communication, and Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Aya Kyogoku, co-director, and Katsuya Eguchi, producer, sit down and discuss the development of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and how fostering a diverse, communicative team leads to the best results.

At GDC, producer Katsuya Eguchi and co-director Aya Kyogoku gave a talk about the development of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. What made it interesting -- beyond the usual "peek inside Nintendo" or excitement of getting insights into one of the best games of last year -- was how the game's development affected the team, and how the team affected the game.

The core of the Animal Crossing franchise is communication, Kyogoku said. And that had an affect on the team: communication was smoother, and the team was more social, more collaborative, more creative, and less stressed out.

These free-flowing ideas from a diverse team resulted in a better game, said Eguchi, with a wider range of content -- which allowed a bigger audience to appreciate the game in turn.

To get a further insight into how this all played out, Gamasutra sat down with Kyogoku and Eguchi the day after their presentation to ask more questions about just how Animal Crossing: New Leaf came to be, amidst this unusually creative and relaxed team atmosphere.

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I was particularly interested at the end of your talk, at the idea that having a diverse team can help to create a game that appeals to a lot of people. I was wondering if you could talk about how you saw that play out with Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

diversity.jpg Katsuya Eguchi: I think one reason that it's necessary to have diversity in the development team is -- not just for Animal Crossing: New Leaf, but Animal Crossing as a series -- we started off with the approach that this is a different kind of living space that people can move into and spend time in. So in that sense, we needed to make sure that there was something in there that anybody could find interesting or relevant to them. I think it was very important to have diverse teams so we can provide a diversity of content that people can relate to.

As it's been several years since we started creating Animal Crossing games, as the years go by, there are developers that have been there for awhile, and they're obviously a little bit older, and we get new developers that join us and they're a little bit younger. On top of that, there are more female developers that have joined the team. At this point, I think the work environment is set up so that it's gotten a lot easier to create a diverse development team.

As there are a lot of features involved in Animal Crossing games, and even in the real world there's been a change in society, in that there are a lot of smart devices available. For the younger crowd, that's kind of their default device. For someone like me, it's difficult to understand that. To have new members join the team who can show us, teach us, and make us realize how we can shape and style the game so it's easier for people are used to using smart devices, that's certainly been a real benefit for our development team.

Likewise, there are people who are very adept and experienced in using game devices, and there are others who are not. For a gamer to make a game and have it make sense for them, that explanation may not make a lot of sense for people who aren't used to it. In that sense, again, it's great to have a diverse team comprising people who play games and people who don't.

I played a lot of New Leaf -- I played it solidly for probably about two months. What I noticed while playing it is that my goals would often change, and I'd begin to play with a new goal in mind. 

Aya Kyogoku: Communication is really at the core of Animal Crossing, as we've mentioned. There's not really a finite end to what we call "communication." Likewise, there's not an end goal where once you reach this goal, you finish it. Like communication, it doesn't end.

But at the same time, naturally, if there are no goals, it's very difficult to keep playing -- just like anything else that we do in life. So we did make sure to add features that really allow users to come up with their own goals and find something that interests them, and for them to be able to focus on that.

I've seen entire blogs devoted to sharing fabric patterns, and people whose Dream Addresses get very famous. We're used to seeing this kind of community on the PC side. Were you surprised to see so much activity? 

[Ed. note: Dream Addresses let you visit other players' towns even if you aren't friends; player-designed fabric patterns can be shared via QR codes that the 3DS can recognize.] 

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AK: The initial reasoning behind creating something like the Dream Address, or the ability to turn your patterns into a QR code was that, initially, Animal Crossing was a way to communicate with other people. Usually it started off with people you were living with -- your family. Or maybe your friends, you were playing with them, and Animal Crossing became a topic of conversation in real life.

But we tried to really reach out to those who might not have friends nearby who were playing Animal Crossing. And they could tap into the internet to really share this idea of Animal Crossing. With that in mind to know there's so much activity online with the Dream Address or the QR codes, it makes us really happy, and it makes me feel very happy that we included features like this.

One of the things I find interesting about Nintendo is that, in the West, people assume that features have to be in every game. For example, every game has to have an online multiplayer mode. But it seems to me that the features are more determined when they fit with the theme of the game. You're speaking about communication, or, for example, Super Mario 3D World doesn't have online, it only has local multiplayer. Do I have it right? Is that how you decide on what features to include?

KE: You are absolutely right. Basically, when we create games, we really think about, "What would be the best way for the players to play this game to get the maximum amount of enjoyment out of this?" So with Super Mario 3D World, we really felt that it's a game where the maximum amount of joy can be had when you are in the same room as your friends, getting rowdy, and enjoying the game together.

But with Animal Crossing, there are two different components -- there is one component where you dedicate your time to the game alone. And then there's time where you want to show others what you've created, or you want to see what others have created. So, in that sense, I think there's time spent alone and time spent together. For Animal Crossing, the ability that after you create something you could connect with someone immediately to share that was really an important feature to have.

Depending on what the game is, we really think through what the best way to play that game is, and then add the features that best support and allow that to happen.

In the presentation, you mentioned getting all kinds of ideas for items and characters from the team and then incorporating them into the game. Is that a typical or atypical way for Nintendo to work? 

AK: It depends on the game, but I think that basically, we are always shooting to provide the consumer with the best product possible. And for that, if it's an idea or concept that might improve it, we'd definitely want to hear about it and we'd want to take all of those ideas.

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But at the same time, for a game like Animal Crossing, because the volume of characters and items is so big, and there's a necessity for it to be really diverse, that really catered towards getting ideas from many different people, and it just provided us with a lot of opportunities for people to provide ideas to us.

You also discussed how the overall theme of communication helped foster communication within the team. 

AK: Communication in the workplace is important. If you have good communication it leads to your work being better, and the product you put out being better. In that sense, it's true regardless of whether you're creating games or not, in any kind of place.

I think that when we were developing Animal Crossing, to have that kind of communication made me realize the importance of having good communication in the workplace, and it really fostered good communication. 


You also said that there wasn't the same level of stress toward the end of the project that you would expect to see. 

AK: Even with the Animal Crossing team, there are definitely situations where I personally was stressed out, or tired, and I could also tell when someone else was tired or stressed out. In terms of that, it's like any other development team.

Because of the core of what we were building is communication, it really makes you realize and keeps the idea of the importance of having good communication in your mind. It gave me more of an opportunity to reflect on that. Instead of acting a certain way, it gives me a chance to realize I could act a different way to keep the idea of communication in front of my mind.

ideas2.jpg KE: Just to add onto that a little bit, I think there are several reasons that development teams tend to be stressed toward the end of the development cycle. One is exhaustion, or being tired. Another one is that you have ideas or concepts that you want to share, but you can't, because you know that even if you share them, nobody is going to listen; that kind of stress.

Because Animal Crossing is about communication, we were constantly communicating with each other. So you start to build a relationship with your development team and you start to be able to share things you wouldn't feel as comfortable sharing before.

For example, if a designer had a certain feature planned out, and maybe a graphic designer took that implemented feature and started playing it and thought, "This isn't as enjoyable as I would like," normally it would be very difficult to share that with someone who's in charge of creating it. But with the constant communication, the relationship that we built, they can openly share their feelings. The person receiving the feedback can openly accept that.

If someone's idea is taken an implemented, it only adds to the sense of joy. So I feel like being able to have communication as the core has really smoothed out our relationships in the development team.

Did the team, during development, play the game together a lot?

AK: Yes, we definitely did play a lot together. But of course, in the beginning phases of development, there is not much of a game to play, so some of it was very piecemeal, what we had to play. Once testing began, it wasn't only the team involved in testing that was playing; even the development team was playing. And it wasn't just for the purpose of discovering and finding bugs, but really to able to play the game from a player's perspective, and to really think about what would make playing the game even more enjoyable.

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Did that phase go on for a long time? Because one thing that impresses me about the game is how much is in it, and also how one player might see some things and another might see other things, and some players might never see them at all. 

AK: In Animal Crossing, because there's a lot of content, and almost everything is related, we can't just take a piece of the game and hand it off to testing and say, "Hey, have a look at it." We pretty much have to be at a state where everything is in before we can hand it off to testing, so that they can really get a complete experience, and look out both for bugs and user experience-related things. So in that sense, we had to take a lot of time looking at it before testing started. And we also had to make sure that, even after testing started, that we were able to add in ideas as they became viable and necessary.

I got a sense from what you said in your GDC lecture that you are creating a small, private world for people where they can express themselves. 

KE: That's correct. The concept of the game is that you've got your real world, but there's another world where you can go in and express yourself freely -- whether that's through custom designs, or arranging your room, or arranging your village. That's the core concept of Animal Crossing.

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I played a lot of it, and a lot of people I know played a lot of it, too. I visited their towns, and I feel like I did learn things about people that I didn't know before I visited their towns. 

KE: Beyond their taste or sense of design, you can learn, "Oh, this person's organized," or "this person's messy." Things like that really come to light.

I feel like I learned more about them than I expected to be able to learn from a game like this. Were you able to see that as well?

AK: Do you mean that as individuals, going to another town and being surprised we were able to find out more about that person?

Just that they were able to express themselves, and also that people felt very comfortable about doing what they wanted about their towns, as well -- that they were able to make it a personal space. 

AK: Me, personally, I play the game, and I express myself. But instead of recreating what my life is in real life, I usually do something that I wish I could do. For example, my house is bigger and cleaner than my real-life house. In that sense, it's really a way to express ourselves, and that's how I play the game, so I wouldn't say that I'm surprised. But I have been surprised at some of the things people have created in their level and intricacy, and how creative they were.

Of course the games we play together bring us closer together, but the way the game brought couples or friends closer together was a bit different than what we usually see in games. Can you talk about how your hopes for the game played out in terms of that?

AK: As I mentioned in the presentation yesterday, communication is really the axis that Animal Crossing revolves around -- and it's not just communication, but also improving communication. In that sense, it's improving the communication with your family and friends, between couples, or even between coworkers. We really wanted to have Animal Crossing be like a catalyst: through Animal Crossing, people can really establish and build relationships and communication. This is the goal we created Animal Crossing with, so to hear that this has been the case makes me really happy.

KE: As I mentioned earlier, you get to see parts of the other person that you don't sometimes get to see. Like I mentioned, you get to see "this person's organized" or "this person's a mess," but I think you get to find out how welcoming or service-oriented a person is -- like, what things are there to welcome a visitor when they come to town? Or in a couples situation, what kind of surprise they've prepared for their significant other.

I feel that there are many things in this game that have the potential to express those kinds of feelings, and it provides a lot of opportunity to get to know that other person, to foster communication. In that sense, I think it provides a different way than bringing people closer together than other games, perhaps.

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Obviously designing a game like Mario isn't easy, because there is a lot of attention to detail required. But the interaction between Mario and an enemy is a very concrete interaction. Designing for communication seems a lot more abstract. Can you talk about how you approached that?

KE: I think that with a game like Mario or even Zelda, the communication is really between the creators and the game and the players of the game. A designer might create a course for Mario and the player will play that course and say, "Oh, I was successfully able to beat it," or in a dungeon, "I was able to successfully solve a puzzle." But in Animal Crossing, there's communication between a player and a player, and the developer is just providing space for that communication to happen. I think that's the big difference in perspective.

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