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The Social Hub: Finding the Familiar in an Unexpected Place

Column By Christina Gonzalez on July 22, 2013

This week will be a little different. You see, I’ve been ruling lately. Occupying a virtual world with instanced multiplayer. I’ve come to realize that part of the reason why this game has held my attention is that it contains several similar elements that I’ve been missing in MMORPGs. Normally, I’m not much of a fan of instancing either, but I’ve fallen in deep.

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I’ve been playing Animal Crossing:  New Leaf.

Stay with me for a moment. It isn’t a substitute but there are a lot of similarities I’ve found. It creates an atmosphere similar to the one that made some of us fall in love with MMOs in the first place. It’s surprisingly deep, and yet, I hear your skepticism already.

You  have your house, your town, virtual world, NPCs,  and it’s a sandbox. I started to think about it in context of ‘this used to exist and it doesn’t always exist in the same form or in recent games like this anymore’. Of course, there are many games still running that have housing, crafting, fishing, and planting. Everquest II, LOTRO, and even WoW all have some of these elements. But in the past few years, we see several things emerging. The investment in what I like to call social infrastructure seems to be much lower priority in favor of repeatable content against a standard backdrop. A related issue is some people feel like virtual worlds are no longer  virtual worlds, but feel more like Hollywood sets. Looking great, and a place to be, but once you look behind that building, you see it’s flat and artificial. And then there’s instancing. Instancing might happen due to preference, as a way to preserve server integrity, or to fit content design. Plenty of MMOs also employ instancing, and it’s a topic I plan to look at further in this space.

One of the reasons I’ve been enjoying Animal Crossing: New Leaf so much is that it’s an incredibly relaxing sandbox of a virtual world where I can go and engage in activities like fishing, friendly competitions, chatting with the NPC neighbors, and take care of some town tasks if more in a sim mood. I can plant for a while and tend to my trees and flowers. Should I want to fish, I can. There are daily things you can do, but some events and happenings are random, and nothing is forced upon you. You don’t ‘win’ Animal Crossing’, so the pace is whatever you make of it. There’s even player created content in the form of clothing, flag, wallpaper, path, and accessory designs.

I have a custom flag for my town, and if you look, there are tons of QR codes for outfits on multiple sites and blogs that replicate those from TV, movies, pop culture, and more. There’s an active community working on stuff for the game. I found someone’s house on Twitter and noticed she had Nicolas Cage all over her walls. The bottom line is there’s a lot of room for freedom and customization that is sometimes lost today or relegated to a cash shop when it comes to MMOs. The wild, wonderful, and sometimes ridiculous is present here. But it’s not all decoration and surface.

Interpersonal relationships are important. You and your neighbors will chat a lot and they have individual personalities, likes and dislikes. Your neighbors will talk to each other, and they will sometimes talk about the other neighbors too. Sometimes they will engage in activities together. Sometimes they will fight. They will gossip about one another or you. They’ll send you mail and sometimes gifts. Create nicknames for you (my current one is “Cookie”). They’ll ask for favors. They’ll have highly opinionated or philosophical conversations. They develop relationships and friendships with you or one another. Sometimes they’ll become best friends. They’re all NPCs, but this adds depth.

I set my town to be a night owl town, which means the shops stay open late (which suits my playtime) and one of my residents is an insomniac who stays up late. Two days after the ordinance to make the town a late night town passed, she came and stopped me and thanked me for passing it. She says she can party later and shop when she can’t sleep.

You can also play and chat with your friends via the friend code system. You can open your town to visitors from all over the world on your friends list or local friends. You can also visit a friend’s town.

Online instances exist here too, with a max of four people in each at once. This goes for both your own town, which you can open up to friends (or go visit a friend’s town) and the challenges on the game’s Tortimer’s Island. Once you pay the in-game fee to sign up, you can complete activities together in the game’s multiplayer component.

Yes, its own version of online multiplayer. 

Comparing that to MMOs, the obvious missing component is a larger, live player community. This is a sort of microcosm of a virtual world, populated by NPCs and a select few friends. It’s this sort of relaxing simplicity and emphasis on cooperation and interpersonal relationships as well as sandbox gameplay (with changing, seasonal content) that I’ve enjoyed much more than expected. In MMOs, I generally dislike instancing, because it is closed off, but by being in a slice of that, it makes me miss certain elements even more. You can escape for 20 minutes or more. And we can do so with friends. To be able to play with the people you want to play with, to encounter these (limited) little adventures together, it’s been a great run so far. Yet, as I said, it’s not a substitute, but a rediscovery and reinforcement of why these mechanics are so reliably fun in the first place.

Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her at RTSGuru as the site's Associate Editor and news writer. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez

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