Since the last few “updates” to Animal Crossing: New Horizons were released I have been sitting on this article wondering if I was justifiably annoyed. After all, this is the age of the internet.
DLC has been a well-established and overwhelmingly positive addition to video games both for players and developers. It allows for the games we love to continue to surprise and entertain us and for artists to expand on their projects. Additionally, it gives developers resource infusions to provide more affordable content in smaller packages than having to create and sell what is essentially the same game to us again. This is why we feel cheated when a company brings us a sequel that is “the original but worse” and why new entries into a series often bring new features. Animal Crossing is a great example of this, as each of their main franchise titles brought new characters and features while scrapping old ones.
Then came the announcement for the July update.
I’d like you to imagine for a moment you’re playing Breath of The Wild. It’s been say, about two months since you bought the game and you’ve been playing it almost nonstop. Then you get an announcement that Nintendo is offering a “free update” to the game that adds a brand new feature to the game: the ability to tame and ride a horse.
In case you’ve never played a Legend of Zelda title before let me go on a bit of a tangent. In recent Legend of Zelda games getting a horse was a core component of the game that was already preinstalled in the base experience. At what point you get to riding a horse depends on the pace at which you play, but it is a base gameplay mechanic and it is included in the game files from the start.
Let’s imagine another month of playing Breath of The Wild goes by and yet another announcement for a “free update” to the game comes out. Remember those campfires with a cast-iron skillet you saw throughout the world but thought they were just part of the design? We’ve added the ability to cook using those stations in the latest download! Now you can make meals and elixirs to aid you in your fight against Ganon!
If the connection isn’t clear let me put it to you this way. You spent about $60 on a new game from one of the biggest video game companies on the planet only to have them release core gameplay mechanics incrementally across real-time months. These mechanics were originally included in past titles or planned for implementation at release, pushing them as “updates” when they more closely resemble adding missing parts to an unfinished game.
And that is the root of what is extremely irritating to me about video gaming and DLC. Through DLC, companies are selling unfinished games with entire game mechanics incomplete or missing and either selling them later as “DLC” or, in New Horizons case, peddling them as new content to keep the game trending. If Nintendo were trying to put a price tag on this DLC I’d throw my Switch against a wall.
The updates in the “Wave 1” coming early July that really broke Saharah’s back were the “new” swimming and diving mechanic. This was announced along with the reintroduction of the Mermaid series of furniture and the chill otter NPC, Pascal.
This irked me to no end as all of these were part of the base game in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Specifically, swimming and diving were selling points as new gameplay when it was first announced. I understand that New Leaf is at this point an old game, close to a decade out as a 2012 release. With a new audience perpetually cycling in not all New Horizons players will have had experiences with past titles, and so it is very likely that this game is the first title they’ve played in the franchise. By that logic any additions to the base game would technically be “updates,” as Merriam-Webster gives the very definition of ‘update’ is “to bring up to date” or, more simply, to reveal the newest information or content.
And this is where we find the real thorn in my side: updates are supposed to bring with them NEW content. While a chocolate cake baked and tasted for the first time by a new customer may be new to that person, if it has already been made by the pastry chef multiple times before it is not a new product. It is the same cake they’ve been making over and over again. Same recipe, same ingredients, same process.
With Animal Crossing, these features are not new. I honestly feel like a bit of a sucker for paying full price to wait for my game to be finished over the course of multiple months with game mechanics that should have been included at launch. Because remember, this was gameplay that was introduced eight years ago. I speculate that these major additions to the game, from entire wings of the art museum to additional fish you can only get from swimming, and specifically the grey rocky terrain that was already in the game at launch were unfinished.
Taking into consideration the short time in between these additions leads me to believe that all the programming and development for these “updates” was either finished at launch or simply incomplete. It’s possible Nintendo fell behind schedule and instead of taking the time to finish and release the full game they decided to put out their mostly finished game to make billions of dollars in sales and stay relevant with content-hungry players by giving us the rest of the game in bits and pieces. This is what happened with the art exhibit update and the reintroduction of Redd the real/fake art dealing fox back in April.
Now don’t get me wrong, the updates in New Horizons haven’t all been recycling assets and gameplay from past titles that should have been in the base game. The wedding photo event in June was a fun new addition that highlighted a feature unique to New Horizons: Harv’s photo island. It pandered to old fans of the series by bringing in past ReTail store owners Reese and Cyrus while giving us brand new furniture to earn and use on our island. Here’s some of my favorite photos:
And yet this too runs into another problem with how DLC is being used by these triple-A gaming companies. If back in March when I had first bought the game I had decided to start my game in June, I wouldn’t have had access to this event because it hadn’t been released as content yet. In past Animal Crossing titles if I wanted to experience Halloween every single day I could because the Halloween event was already included. That is to say it was coded into the game from the start as part of the finished product. With New Horizons these aspects of the game are being purposely withheld until it’s the “right time of the year” for you to be playing them as deemed appropriate by Nintendo. And this authority on how the audience should experience a game that they purchased by withholding preexisting assets and mechanics bothers me.
In my opinion the best use of DLC is to expand on the original game and give the player new content to discover and enjoy. Games like Stardew Valley and Don’t Starve Together execute this extremely well, both with permanent core mechanic updates to limited-time events. As I wait for Big Boss Nintendo to release the next bit of New Horizons content like a South African diamond distributor sitting on their pile of blood gems I suppose I can always return to past Animal Crossing games for early access to some “updated” content.