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Nintendo explains philosophy behind Animal Crossing’s big changes, such as gender expression and terraforming

Terraforming is a new addition to the Animal Crossing series. (The Washington Post illustration; Nintendo)

Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes with large-scale changes such as terraforming, crafting and more customization. Through that, Nintendo has been careful not to sacrifice the soul of the long-running franchise, bringing a careful balance of old and new.

The Washington Post spoke to the game’s director, Aya Kyogoku, and producer, Hisashi Nogami, to better understand the motivations behind these significant changes. Along the way, the conversation also touched on their thoughts about eliminating gender restrictions for character customization and how their team in Japan is bracing for possible coronavirus-related hurdles in post-launch development.

New Horizons’s deserted island concept can be traced back to right after the Japanese release of Animal Crossing: New Leaf in 2012. Early development began shortly after, even before the team hunkered down to produce New Leaf Welcome Amiibo, the upgraded version from 2016.

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Kyogoku said the development cycle for New Horizons kick-started before the team even began “thinking or knowing about Nintendo Switch hardware.”

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The unknowns around future hardware didn’t stop the team from being ambitious. With the introduction of crafting and terraforming, players wield more control over the aesthetic of their town than ever before. Nogami and Kyogoku explained they wanted to make the game welcoming to veteran players and accessible to newcomers, by keeping much of the core gameplay true to the series and sprinkling in new elements to make the experience still feel fresh.

Adding crafting was also a way to keep players from running out of things to do during off hours when shops close, an issue in previous Animal Crossing games.

“Because the Animal Crossing series is tied to the real-time clock, there are users who want to play late at night or who want to play early in the morning,” Kyogoku said. “By giving those users an option to craft, we thought this would be a new way for them to play and to acquire [craftable] items.”

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Terraforming was also a way to address unanticipated player behavior from past games. Kyogoku said that, looking at earlier entries in the series, users would repeatedly reset and start over to choose the town layout they wanted. In New Horizons, your island is completely malleable, even after that decision, bringing more flexibility to the gameplay.

“Some may have thought that, ‘Oh, this would have been a perfect layout if there was a river here or if the river wasn’t there,’ ” Kyogoku said. “Well, for users like that, we were able to give them what they weren’t able to achieve before.”

New Horizons’s flexible nature extends to character customization, too. Clothing items and hairstyles aren’t restricted by gender, giving players more options on how to represent themselves in the game. This level of fine-tuning your character is “not just about gender,” Kyogoku said, but relates to the team’s overall feeling that “society is shifting to valuing a lot of people’s different identities.”

“We basically wanted to create a game where users didn’t really have to think about gender or if they wanted to think about gender, they’re also able to,” she said.

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In another shift, the developers sought to make time traveling (the controversial act of jumping into the past or future by tweaking the system clock, which some fans think is the wrong way to play) less impactful in terms of in-game features. Time traveling has been used as a shortcut in previous Animal Crossing games, so you don’t have to wait overnight to see progress. Terraforming and crafting are gameplay systems that aren’t tied to your system clock, so players can continue those activities into the long hours of the night.

Consequences for time travel still exist: turnips go rotten if you jump ahead. Time traveling is discouraged, but Kyogoku and Nogami don’t consider it cheating.

“We think that in order for the players to play for a very long time, and also for players to share the experience with their friends or family, we do think that playing without traveling would probably be the ideal way,” Nogami said.

As Animal Crossing is a game that can be played for a number of years, its designers are keeping the long term in mind. Kyogoku and Nogami’s plan for New Horizons includes seasonal events slated to appear in the game via DLC. Players won’t be able to simply fast-forward through time to experience them.

“Adding all the seasonal events by updates wasn’t our way to shun away time travel by any means,” Kyogoku said. “But Animal Crossing is a game that users are able to play and enjoy throughout the year.”

Japan, like much of the world today, has been facing the coronavirus outbreak. The country has recorded over 1,000 cases, and supply has slowed for Animal Crossing-themed Nintendo Switches in Japan because of Chinese factories shutting their doors. But Nintendo said this is a problem specifically for that region and not for North America.

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Kyogoku and Nogami, who both work out of Nintendo’s office in Japan, are paying close attention to the global pandemic’s potential impact on post-launch content. Development for these updates “is still going,” Kyogoku said, but the team may need to adjust internally moving forward should the coronavirus crisis worsen.

“We’re not sure if we have to shift anything, but I think we have to be flexible,” she said.

At this time, the Japanese development team is working in the office every day, but the team’s hours have changed so employees can avoid rush-hour train traffic.

“In terms of the development team, I do have to think about their health and well-being as well,” Nogami said.

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