I'm a lucky gamer. I get to play games with the people who make them. I know it's the job and that it's usually tied to selling something, to puffing up a preview or what have you, but, hey, it's also fun. It's odd, too.
You're in this virtual world with the people who made it.
You're in the building with its architect.
I've played a competitive Super Mario game against Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. I first played Assassin's Creed with the man who created that series. Recently, I got to go hang out with the woman who directed the next Animal Crossing in her Animal Crossing town.
How do these creators play their own games? Well, Miyamoto liked to grief the other players.
The Assassin's Creed guy hand-delivered my copy of the game and then sat quietly and watched me play.
Aya Kyogoku, co-director of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, gave me a tour. That's the one I'll tell you more about today.
My New Leaf tour happened almost exactly a month ago, late on a Monday night in New York City and early in the morning in Kyoto, Japan. I'd gone to Nintendo's small satellite office in Manhattan. Kyogoku connected to me from Japan via video conference.
Kyogoku sat in a meeting room where top Nintendo designers hash out new games. She was flanked by Animal Crossing series creator Katsuya Eguchi and her co-director Isao Moro. We turned on our 3DS systems and networked my pre-release U.S. version of New Leaf with her Japanese version of the game. I put my character on a train and left my in-game town, New Miami. I headed for hers, Nammi. The similar town names were just a coincidence, she told me through a translator. Eguchi opened up his 3DS in order to join us in Kyogoku's virtual town.
Animal Crossing is an unusual kind of game to play with others. You don't connect with players to fight them. You don't connect to team up. You just visit, run around together and basically do what Kyogoku, Eguchi and I did. You see the sights, chat, talk about what the person in the town made. You see the progress they've made by digging fossils, decorating their homes, designing new clothes. Maybe you play around some.
"This is the software that lets you express your personality to yourself or connect with other people to show off your personality to other people," Eguchi told me through our translator as I asked if he considered the Animal Crossing games, well, games. "From that standpoint, yes, that may not be the typical video game any more. It's more like software through which you can express yourself."
It had been raining in my virtual home town. It was raining in Kyogoku's. More coincidence. I stepped of the train, and here were two of the game's creators as little Animal Crossing people.
Kyogoku directed me to some objects outside the train station. They were at my feet. "I left you some gifts," she said. There were baskets of fruit. There was a present wrapped in special wrapping paper. She encouraged me to open the gift. It contained carp streamers, a gift that only Japanese gamers were slated to receive from the game on Children's Day in early May. I'd never have unlocked it in my American copy of the game. We'd found ourselves a good bullet point: she suggested that players could benefit from connecting to gamers in other countries to get items offered only in those regions.
This wasn't a mere tour, obviously, it was a friendly sales pitch—with gifts.
We all casually walked past a flag that just happened to have a Kotaku logo on it. Flattery! Later, they sent me a QR code to generate it.
You can use that when you get the game, readers.
Back to the tour.
Kyogoku and Eguchi walked me over to a fountain. They were talking up New Leaf's new option to let you build bridges, fountains and other public works in the game's towns. You have to pay for those in in-game money (bells), of course.
We walked over to an area under development. "If you have enough bells you might be able to contribute to this public works project, too," Kyogoku said. "Hint. Hint."
I didn't know there was going to be a cost to the interview, too. Oh, sure. I donated 300 Bells.
We walked along a brick road that Kyogoku said she designed using in-game editing tools.
She then showed me one of the homes she'd had one of her characters build in the game. She was trying to develop a hospital-themed house, Kyogoku told me, but hadn't found all the right items for it yet.
You guys made the game, I said. You can't you punch in a code and have it show up?
She laughed. She could do that on a pre-production version, she said. "This is a production version." I think that meant there are no cheats, but, wow, really? An Animal Crossing developer has to wait like the rest of us? Hmmm.
We wound our way through the town. I kept snapping screenshots with my 3DS. We headed over to Kyogoku's primary home. She went inside. Eguchi stood by the mailbox.
Just... go in?
Yes, they told me. This was weird, maybe because I'm a mere Animal Crossing dabbler, maybe because this felt weirdly intimate. It felt different than hanging out outside in the virtual rain. Yes, we were playing a game. They were clearly trying to hype its features and generate a positive story. But I suddenly felt like I was imposing. Homes are private places. Walking into another person's—particularly that of a person who made the game—felt like a big step. Of course this wasn't really a home. I was just buying into the metaphor more strongly than I'd expected.
"This is her own house," the woman serving as the translator for the interview said, I think for Mr. Eguchi. "It really reflects her own personality."
I went in. The main room of her house was impressive.
She had a laundry room, bathroom and storage room connected to the main room of her house. There was a basement downstairs.
I asked if it was ok for me to check out the other rooms.
"Yes," Mr. Eguchi said, teasing. "You're visiting a girl living by herself."
"I'm a married man," I said, laughing and, well, that was a little weird.
"Mr Eguchi is suggesting that you two should go to the second floor, which is her bedroom and take an evidence picture or something," the translator said. We all chuckled.
"OK, only because he said so," I replied. I actually was poking around in the storage area. She was storing a lot of food there.
And then...our 3DS connection dropped.
Mr. Resetti, the in-game scold for any possible player-instigated technical errors, showed up. Connection lost.
The Japanese developers and I were still connected via video conference, but our tour was done. We chatted more about the game. Kyogoku kept talking up new features. There's a "best friend" system, she said, which lets players get notifications on their 3DS systems when the other is playing the game. This allows them to chat without being in each other's towns.
I'd read that Kyogoku was the person on the team responsible for giving players the new option to change the hours of the game's stores. If you set your ordinance for stores to be open at night, maybe you can ask your friend to set his to early bird, she said, so that you can connect and shop at each other's stores for an even longer part of the day.
We talked about Tom Nook and what a misunderstood guy he is.
Twice, as we talked, the lights went out in the meeting room in New York. It was late, close to 11pm. Nintendo shuts those lights down automatically, I guess.
Mostly, once the tour was over, we talked about how much people like to relax while playing Animal Crossing, how it's pleasant. People of all sorts can meet each other in these towns and see what's what.
It's strange, right? Thousands of years of human history leading to moments like this. We have people on opposite sides of the Earth meeting up for a walk through a virtual town. This is our world, complete with this odd gaming series where we don't fight, we don't race. We're just there, a little gracefully, a little awkwardly, making connections.