23 December 2017

Economics of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

I’ve been playing Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp for a while now. I have mixed feelings about it. It’s not terrible, and it’s not particularly evil as freemium/free-to-play games go, but it certainly isn’t great. Its main effect is to make me want to play a real Animal Crossing game, such as Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS.

I could list many shortcomings of Pocket Camp, from the animals’ lack of individualized dialog to the dumbed down skill-free mechanics of fishing and insect catching, but I’d like to focus on one specific oddness: the economy.

In the beginning, Animal Crossing games had a pretty straightforward economy: you bought a home by taking out a mortgage, you ran errands for animals and sold scavenged items at the store to make bells (the Animal Crossing currency), and you used the bells to pay off your mortgage. Once you’d done that, you could take out a home improvement loan to make your home bigger, and continue the process. The economy mostly served as a prod to make you interact with the animals and the environment, and the charm came from the random things that happened as a result.

With New Leaf, though, the multiplayer gameplay via Internet became a rich enough experience that people actually bothered with it. (Yes, Wild World and City Folk had multiplayer features, and I played multiplayer a few times, but it didn’t seem to be that popular.) With the bigger audience, people started to arrange yard sales where they would put out objects and let visitors buy them for bells. You could use the in-game chat to negotiate deals. If people cheated you, there wasn’t much you could do except ban them from your town and tell everyone online what they did, but it wasn’t like you were losing real money. There was also the option of putting a small number of items up for sale in the store in your town for your choice of price, which would allow visitors to buy them if your price was reasonable. So an economy of sorts began to develop. Rare objects, like the Japanese 7-Eleven set, would often command high prices, while random everyday goods would generally be given away as gifts. (Some people would leave gifts any time they visited your town, too; Jeff Minter left me a nice gold toilet.)

Since Pocket Camp is a “free to play” game, there have been two major changes forced on the design. The first is that the economy has become a lot more complicated. When your business model is selling people virtual resources that they could get for free by playing the game for long enough, it helps to have lots of resources that they will get short of, so that you have plenty of opportunities to upsell them materials. So instead of one currency (bells) determining what you can afford to have crafted for you, with Pocket Camp you now have sporty, natural, cute, cool, and rustic objects, where each type can require a quantity of the same type of “crafting essence”. There are also various other raw materials like wood and metal, for a total of 13 different types of thing you have to earn and save up to pay for game advancement.

The second change is that the informal end-user economy of previous games has given way to a centrally managed and enforced economy. There’s no in-game chat, so no price negotiation; and instead of a store, you have a set of Market Boxes you can leave items in. Your friends can buy the items in your market boxes; but also, you will appear in the game world of random other players around the world, and if they talk to you they will be able to buy from your market boxes. There’s no invitation mechanism, no control over which random people will be offered the chance to shop from your boxes. The reverse also happens — other players appear at random in your game world, and you can talk to them and buy whatever they have on offer in their boxes, at whatever price they have set, but again you have no control over who you get the chance to interact with.

What I’ve noticed is that because of these two features, the Pocket Camp economy seems to be weird in a way that previous Animal Crossing economies weren’t.

In New Leaf, the economy was pretty straightforward. Rare things (like huge beetles and rare fish) were worth more money when sold at the store, and money was the thing that stopped you getting that fancy new furniture you wanted. (If it seems strange to you that beetles are worth a lot of money in Animal Crossing, you might be interested to learn that they are in real life as well.)

In Pocket Camp, I’ve never been short of money. I’ve improved my camper van and paid off the loan in full and I still have 40,000+ bells kicking around. What stops me from getting further in the game is lack of crafting materials and essences, the other pseudo-currencies. The main way to get those is to perform fetch quests for the animals, and the animals have a fairly small set of things they ask for — mostly fruit or common fish, or butterflies or fruit beetles; occasionally sea shells and coral. All of those can be obtained for free, but only at a fixed speed — unlike previous games in the series, you can’t plant more trees or bushes to enable more efficient fruit farming or attract more insects. And while fish and butterflies and fruit beetles will keep appearing at fairly regular intervals, once you pick the fruit in your game world, that’s it unless you wait a few hours for it to regrow.

So ultimately, what I’m short of is usually fruit. Yet what I usually see people trying to sell in their trade boxes is rare beetles and rare fish, which although they are rarely caught, are totally useless in the game. No animal is ever going to ask for a horned dynastid, a football fish or a tuna. I can’t even put those things on display and look at them, like I could rare critters in New Leaf.

Sure, you can sell a tuna to the game for 5,000 bells, but I already have more bells than I know what to do with. Even if you put your tuna up for sale for 3,000 bells, it’s not really worth my time to buy it and resell it just to make 2,000 bells of profit. Whereas if I’ve picked all my apples for the next three hours and Kid Cat still wants two apples, I’d be totally willing to pay 250 bells for two apples, even though the game says they’re only worth 10.

So things which are rare, which the game tells you are worth a lot, are comparatively worthless; and things which the game tells you are almost worthless are really valuable. Once you’ve finished your chores, the best thing you can do from a strategic point of view is harvest all the leftover fruit and make sure you have some of everything up for sale. Strategy guides on the web have noted this, but the idea seems to have escaped most players I’ve encountered. Good luck trying to buy three more pears from that random player standing by the waterfall — they’re too busy trying to sell dynastid beetles, and failing. Oh, and when they finally realize those beetles are never going to sell, they have to just throw them away to make space for something worth selling — so the sunk cost fallacy is going to make it hard for them to do that. Some people do put up fruit for sale, but list it at low prices because the game says it’s not worth much — and then they get angry if random passers-by actually buy from them.

So the economy of Pocket Camp is dysfunctional in that displayed in-game prices don’t reflect actual value, and extreme rarity doesn’t increase value much. Both of these things sometimes happen in the real world, of course: Bitcoin prices you see on the web are largely fictional, and most of those ultra rare Beanie Babies are basically worthless — though the latter doesn’t stop people from trying to sell them for thousands of dollars. I’m not sure that giving people a frustrating lesson in economics was Nintendo’s goal, though. I think Pocket Camp is just broken to fit the needs of “free-to-play”.

© mathew 2017