Monday, August 24, 2015

The hardcore world of Animal Crossing or, how I traded my dignity for a snooty cat

This was drawn by me (a grown-ass man), and yes - I am proud of it.

I'll begin this post by admitting that I completely underestimated the draw of Animal Crossing.

Two years ago, I covered the launch event for the 3DS mega-hit life simulator Animal Crossing: New Leaf at the Nintendo World Store. I took the usual pictures of the line of fans wrapped around the block, did a few vox populi interviews for good measure, and snapped pictures of some pretty awesome Mr. Resetti cosplay. And...I didn't really understand the allure of it.

I wrote up the article on the event and then hopped on a plane to E3 a day later, more or less forgetting about the game and the rabid fanbase it commanded.

To my surprise, the overwhelming majority of people I StreetPassed with in the LA Convention center were playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf. These two encounters should've told me the game was big, but I still couldn't understand why. It didn't actually seem like a game to me.

Fast forward a year and I picked it up after watching my wife fall under its spell.

I wasn't far behind her. it didn't take long for Animal Crossing to become a daily habit in our household and I soon began talking with villagers, harvesting fruit, and digging up fossils every day over breakfast. It's a soothing game that lulls you into a happy state with a gentle rhythm of watching your town grow from a small settlement to a personalized escape from the real world.

It was all good fun, and soon added up to 350 hours total playtime. It's surprising how compelling a game becomes when you're the one running a town populated by lazy blue squirrels, cranky pink teddy bears, and peppy white tigers with grand plans of becoming a musical idol.

Holy fish sticks, indeed

After a year of this gloriously routine insanity, I finally decided it was time to dive into the end game of Animal Crossing that I kept hearing about.

A friend mentioned she had coordinated villager trades online, and with her help I soon found entire sub-reddits dedicated to AC trades. It's like a shadow market set up on the dark corners of the internet where you could trade turnips, art, and even some of your town's 10 villager inhabitants from for money, hard-to-find items (many "imported" from Japan), and - yes - even other villagers. And it is all frightfully well organized. At the center of it all is r/ratemymayor: a peer-based feedback community where users rank other players they've traded with on the other boards, with the overall goal of earning better flair and, thus, better trustworthiness in the community.

I had no fucking idea what I was getting into. The community on these boards is Hardcore with a big, bold capital H.

Each sub-reddit has its own shared language and posts look completely alien to those on the outside and villagers are arranged into carefully vetted tier-lists with the most expensive, a sulky squirrel named Marshal, commanding prices upwards of 25 million bells.

My overall goal for diving into Animal Crossing's end game was to trade for a villager that I really wanted. This seemed like a simple enough goal and it'd be gratifying in the short term, unlike the dream of chasing down a maxed out bank account by selling turnips.

After taking a look at the extensive list of the over 300 villagers available in New Leaf over the past year, I found my heart was set on Ankha - a snooty cat who appeared to be some sort of reincarnated pharaoh with a doomsayer's frown permanently plastered on her face.

If she sounds awesome to you too, you're not alone - Ankha is currently the sixth most popular villager on the r/adoptmyvillager subreddit and can command upward of 25 million bells herself... assuming she's original (unaltered by previous owners) on open auction.

It didn't take long to realize I, and the 2 million bells I had saved up in the bank, had my work cut out for me.

I like you Fauna, but I don't 10 million bells like you...

Thankfully, one of the villagers who already lived in my town, Fauna, was #8 on the villager tier list... but I'd grown rather fond of her over the past year and couldn't think of parting with her. Unfortunately, that's exactly what I had to do since everyone else in my town - all of whom I've had for months and found immensely endearing and entertaining - would be lucky to sell for 500,000 bells.

It was clear that Fauna had to go to make room for Ankha.

It was also clear that I had shit taste in villagers.

I spent about a week figuring out trade rules and etiquette on the various subreddits and conducted a test trade or two with villagers I didn't care too much about. The moderators of these boards (all volunteers) are extremely dedicated souls and are tasked with enforcing the many rules of the community - and they regularly hand out warnings and strikes (the latter of which might ruin a user's ability to trade with the thriving community) for what many outsiders might consider minor rule infractions. While this initially seemed unduly harsh to me as a newcomer, I quickly realized it's necessary to keep the community functioning smoothly: so long as you followed their rules, you could trade whatever virtual goods you wanted.

After becoming comfortable in the community and able to tell the difference between [MO] posts and [FFA]s, I decided to look for a buyer for Fauna. A few days later, I packed my beloved deer up and shipped her off for a 9 million bell "let's get Ankha now!" warchest.

Unfortunately, my luck in finding someone willing to sell Ankha wasn't good. I put out a general interest post and got no responses. I missed an auction and a freebie give away for her while out on a work assignment and I kicked myself for my inattentiveness.

My regret for Fauna bubbled to the fore, and I even tried the community superstition of using my birthday wish to wish for a specific villager (Ankha) in the hopes that she'd randomly move in.

Of course the wish didn't work, but it did lead to this confusing exchange a week or so later

Then one night while waiting on a Splatoon lobby to fill up, I checked in on the sub on my phone and saw "[MO]-G Ankha" with no comments. I knew that [MO] meant "Moving Out" and was a free adoption - there were no comments, so I figured I had a shot at getting my dream villager for free.

Unfortunately, the -G part of the post complicated things. Signifying a contest of sorts specified by the topic creator, I knew it wasn't going to be as easy as being the first person to comment, so I read the post and saw the following:

I have all the artistic talent of a toddler (as the picture at the top of this post attests), but the "quick and crude" part gave me hope. Forgetting about Splatoon, I tossed the Wii U gamepad into my wife's lap, grabbed a piece of paper, and started furiously scribbling at the kitchen table with a gel pen.

My pulse actually quickened as I drew my so-bad-it's-still-really-bad-and-not-at-all-good Ankha, snapped a picture with my phone, and uploaded it to Imgur. The seconds it took to upload seemed like an eternity and I grabbed my Macbook to start composing a reply to the thread that - holy shit - still didn't have any entries!

Normal people would call this incident and my reaction to it a "wake up call" but to me, someone who had installed an auto-refresh extension in Chrome and set up Google alerts to monitor the sub for Ankha auctions - it was serious business. I wanted that damn cat.

* * * * *

In the end, I wound up getting Ankha and all it cost me was my dignity.  No imaginary currency was exchanged, I didn't need to participate in any trades of virtual flesh (I still miss Fauna!), I just needed the willingness to upload a crappy picture I drew to the internet.

As I was traveling over to the other player's town to pick up my new favorite villager, it dawned on me that I wasn't done with Animal Crossing's end game now that I'd achieved the goal I set. I was only just starting to figure it out.

And now that I have, there's no turning back.

I intend to take things at a slower pace from hereon out, and might set a few more goals to knock out in the future. Until then, my shitty drawing of Ankha is taped to my refrigerator as a constant and omnipresent reminder of the hardcore world that lurks just outside the borders of my idyllic little Animal Crossing town.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have public works projects to coordinate.