Daniel Luu, a 25-year-old software engineer from Maryland, woke up one morning to find hundreds of thousands of people scouring his newly launched website Nookazon. To his surprise, his TikTok showcasing the website went viral as he slept. Traffic surged from 6,000 to 180,000 Nookazon users overnight.

Nookazon, a fan-made online retailer for trading Animal Crossing: New Horizons in-game items, now has 270,000 active daily users and over nine million listings, and reaches seven million page views per day, according to Luu. Since its launch in early April, the site has been run by a trio of young developers and 30 volunteer moderators, with approximately $5,000 a month funneling in through donations.

The site has quickly established itself among the leading fan websites for Animal Crossing players, and a complex operation has sprung up behind-the-scenes. Now, between keeping up with user demand, monitoring the fluctuating Animal Crossing economy and planning for the site’s future, Luu’s “side project" has become something more akin to a second job.

“I’ve cut out a lot of hobbies, like watching YouTube, and spend most of my free time on the site," said Luu, when asked about balancing Nookazon with his full-time job as a senior software engineer for Data Intelligence Technologies, Inc. in Northern Virginia. "I don’t mind though because I love working on it, and I would probably be making another app or website if it wasn’t Nookazon.”

Released in mid-March, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a global phenomenon. The game sold 11 million copies in 11 days after release. A sizable portion of that player base has flocked to external, fan-made services to help them navigate and make the most of their time with the game. These services include extensive item catalogues and calculators to guide players through wavering turnip prices. (Turnips are sold on an in-game stalk market run by Sow Jones — get it? — simulating a real-world commodity trade).

When it comes to collecting specific sets and colors of furniture, or even trading villagers, the game’s booming, online secondary market is often a player’s best bet. Through Nookazon, players can publish listings for items they own in-game, or post a wishlist of the items they’re seeking. It’s a great place to find rare commodities, like in-demand villagers Raymond and Marshal, and rare crafting recipes for items like the ironwood dresser and crescent moon chair — some of the most sought-after items on Nookazon. The website has a large and active community; most listings generate responses within minutes. From there, users can make an offer directly on the website or turn to an external messaging service (such as Discord, a messaging software primarily marketed to gamers, or Instagram) to chat with players and coordinate a trade.

Nookazon was born from Luu’s frustrations with in-game trading. Facilitating trades in-game can be nearly impossible unless you coordinate with friends, and the Animal Crossing community’s DIY solutions to these shortcomings were often inadequate or imperfect stopgaps.

One of these makeshift solutions was trade channels on the official Animal Crossing: New Horizons Discord, where players would barter for furniture, fruit and different items. But a flurry of messages in the server created a disruptive, inconsistent experience. Luu “saw the chaos that was going on” and decided to put his developer skills to use. With the help of two friends, he set out to build a “better user experience for trading items.”

Luu tapped into what he calls the “spreadsheet community” to help build the site’s foundation. “The spreadsheet community is just a small Discord server that was putting together a spreadsheet that had all the Animal Crossing items in it, including pictures and names and variations and things like that,” he said. “They are really the ones that helped me propel the website to where it is today with all the information and all the different catalogue items."

Luu has designed websites before, and developed mobile games and apps in his spare time, but Nookazon marks his biggest success. It’s been a “huge time sink,” he says; Luu works at his job all day and dedicates late hours to developing the website. As rewarding as the process has been, he likens the experience to sleepless nights in college.

“This is the first side project that I’ve gotten to blow up this crazy,” Luu said.

Maintaining a website in such high demand comes with hurdles, both in handling the technical side of things and in regulating the enormous user base. A couple weeks ago, the website’s load times slowed to a crawl. Managing the high traffic came with a learning curve.

“I’ve made a lot of apps before, but handling this kind of volume — I’ve never had to do that before,” Luu said. “And so I had to learn a lot from the database standpoint and then that made the site much faster.”

Technical issues extend to the website’s heavy reliance on its Discord server, which currently holds over 140,000 users. This puts it at maximum capacity, limiting growth on Discord for the foreseeable future. Luu says he has reached out to Discord asking to expand the cap, but hasn’t heard back.

Keeping the community safe is akin to a second full-time job, Luu said, but his handpicked moderators help keep users in line. Nookazon’s review system allows players to rate other users and leave a comment after a transaction. This helps players find trusted vendors, and a dedicated channel in Nookazon’s Discord lets players report bad actors to a moderator instantly.

No one gets “banned” on Nookazon, but users get flagged and labelled as scammers to warn others of the person’s history. Luu is working on the moderation system every day, seeking better avenues to keep the website safe. He’s wary of removing users entirely, in case a ban is handed down unjustly.

“One of the biggest rules we have is you’re not allowed to sell for actual money,” he said. “We have a lot of measures in place, including username filters where we’re not allowing any kind of offensive material, as well as any kind of payment methods like PayPal, Venmo, and Cash App.”

This is a significant measure, especially as fans turn to retailers like eBay and Amazon to purchase unofficial Nook Miles Ticket bundles for as much as $70. By staying clear of for-cash trades, Nookazon avoids the uncomfortable position of dealing with real-life theft.

Because bells (Animal Crossing’s main form of payment) are so easily attainable, particularly through rare insect farming and selling turnips, many players have stopped using them as an exchange currency. Nook Miles Tickets, gold nuggets and star fragments are burgeoning currencies on Nookazon’s storefront. “I didn’t really expect that we’d have … rare items be a whole new form of currency,” said Luu.

But how does Nookazon navigate an economy — and make sure users aren’t getting ripped off — when user-driven values fluctuate so rapidly? Luu’s solution was to develop an “average price” system that calculates the median value of an item by correlating it with all the item’s listings on the site, taking pricing history into account. Tweaks are made regularly, especially when there are outsize shifts in pricing, such as when an angled sign post (a common item) listed with an average cost of 32 million bells.

“We just modified the formula to use median instead of average [price] because obviously with average, some of these listings are super extreme and they were causing the average to move to the more expensive side,” Luu said. “But now with median, I think that everything is pretty solidified.”

Eventually, Luu hopes to extend this system to use Nook Miles Tickets, especially as bells continue to decrease in value.

Luu has big plans for the future of Nookazon. One of the most-requested features is a smartphone app, which he says “may come in the future.” Luu is also open to expanding Nookazon’s trade functions to other popular video games “a year or more” down the line, he said during a meet and greet with the community hosted on Zoom. For now, Luu and his small team are focusing their efforts on perfecting the internal trading experience.

“If you want to either counter offer or you want to add extra little bits of detail to your offer, that’s what we’re leaning more toward," he said. “Right now our Discord really can’t even handle the traffic that we bring to it.”

Building a chat app “better than Discord” might be too ambitious, he said, so concentrating on a more dynamic trade system within the website is a more reasonable approach.

Luu also has ambitions to bring better funding to the website, rather than relying solely on donations. Nookazon recently launched a merchandise store that has sold over 50 products thus far, though supply is slowed because of the pandemic. Luu doesn’t believe merch is going to be a big money maker, and views it instead as a way to drive visibility and support for the website.

“We are looking to eventually open up some corporate sponsor level Patreon tiers,” he said. “And I think that’ll help us fund this site instead of having people from the community donate, or having corporate sponsors that are going to really connect with the players.”

April 22, 2020 at 12:42 PM EDT

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