People love to complain about grinding in games, until they decide that they love to grind in games. Or at least, in certain games.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is one of the most successful games of the year, after only a few days of release, and it’s a game that focuses almost exclusively on grinding. You could argue that the Pokémon series — one of the biggest franchises in gaming history — also focuses on the grind.
With just a few design twists, the work behind collecting hundreds or even thousands of items over weeks and months becomes an exercise of mindfulness, predictability, and agency that many players find soothing instead of annoying.
I’d love it if we could stop referring to the work people put into the games designed this way as a “grind,” and start calling it a more accurate term: “gentle progression.” Games that feature gentle progression give us a sense of progress and achievability, teaching us that putting in a little work consistently while taking things one step at a time can give us some fantastic results. It’s a good life lesson, as well as a way to calm yourself and others, and it’s all achieved through game design.
But how do designers twist work and grind into an experience that’s not just enjoyable, but helps to relieve anxiety? What are the parameters that ensure we experience joy and comfort from these repetitive actions, instead of the annoyance of a grind?
Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ release and success is a great excuse to dive into the art of gentle progression, so let’s break down what makes this kind of design so effective.
Animal Crossing and the power of gentle progression
Animal Crossing: New Horizons could not have come out at a better time, as so many of us are going into lockdown to avoid the coronavirus, and need some form of pleasant relief or escapism to deal with the stress. The game is arguably the most thorough master class in gentle progression on the market in terms of pacing, theme, the setting of goals, and content collection.
Each of those aspects of the game’s design is important — and important for gentle-progression games in general — but I think the best place to start is with pacing.
The most crucial aspect of any gentle-progression game is its pacing. Or maybe more accurately, I should say: the lack of pacing.
Removing strong time pressure from tasks, quests, collections, or other systems is key to making the game work for people. Gentle-progression games allow you to play whenever you want, and more importantly, to walk away whenever you want. The ability to play at your own pace, while still feeling like you’re in control of the experience, is essential. Gentle progression ceases to be gentle once games begin to apply pressure to keep you around, or to get you to do certain things quickly.
In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you can easily engage with the game for 10 minutes at a time, or you can play for three hours straight. There’s no right answer. Supporting a player’s own time management decisions, and allowing for both short-term and long-term tasks, is a great way of respecting the player’s personal time and making them feel comfortable in engaging with the game.
The rest of the world imposes time limits, deadlines, and stress. A game that focuses on gentle progression should not, or at least should do so very rarely. It sounds simple, but motivating players without rushing them is anything but.
New Horizons arguably pushes the pacing question to the opposite extreme, in fact. It often deliberately slows you down, signaling that you don’t need to do everything at once. It communicates that island life can’t, and shouldn’t, be rushed. Because its clock is in sync with real-world time, and much of its progression is gated behind actions you can only do a certain amount of on a daily basis, you’re forced to slow down and smell the flowers. You can’t chase after the next task, because the next task often won’t be available until tomorrow. Without the ability to progress more, you’re left with time to engage with collecting materials, decorating your island, and making friends with the villagers.
Think about it like working out: You don’t build muscles or lose weight by working out for six hours, one day a week. You have to give it an hour a day for six days if you want to see and feel results. Meditation works the same way: You’ll only see results by doing a limited amount of rigorous practice every day, consistently.
This is a very undervalued lesson in game design, and in life in general right now. We’re so used to being both overworked and overstressed — with such a strong focus on constant productivity — that being told you can do great things by sticking with something for the long haul, even something you only do for a few minutes a day, is a refreshing message.
A small design flaw in Animal Crossing turned many players into hoarders
This sort of design can backfire, however, and we’re already seeing it happen because of how some people are binge-playing the game during quarantine, turning many players into accidental hoarders.
It has to do with the pacing of the museum.
In New Horizons, the island you develop is meant to open a museum early on, run by the character Blathers. The museum in the game is an opportunity to collect and display fossils, fish, and bugs.
It takes at least two days before the museum opens, from the moment Blathers is invited to the island. At first, once unlocked with Tom Nook, it takes a day for him to arrive on the island. Once he has arrived, he accepts 15 specimens of fish and bugs before he is ready to start construction on the museum, which takes another day to complete.
Tada the Great Aquarium-Terrarium-Fossil Castle! pic.twitter.com/3nuJjT4Yg3— Excelsius (@Exceliton) March 22, 2020
However, even though players need just 15 specimens to get started, the only activities that respawn endless resources on your island are fish and bugs to catch. Wood, minerals, and fossils respawn daily.
Bugs and fish are the only resources that players can collect endlessly within the time it takes for the museum to open up. In many cases, players have ended up gathering a huge collection of unique specimens to submit to the museum, collecting them in and around their tents while waiting for Blathers to open up after two real-life days. If you give people the chance to grind, it turns out, they probably will.
pic.twitter.com/mMvH6BO5sU— Marisa Shackleford (@piddlebucket) March 22, 2020
Oddly enough, this issue brings us right to my next point about gentle progression, which has to do with how these games set goals for the player.
What you need to do, and how you need to do it
Gentle progression functions through a significant absence of strict goal-setting for the player, while still letting them choose which goals they want to work on, and at what pace.
Want to fish until your arms fall off? Sure, go ahead! Want to craft 200 cherry lamps? No problem! Want to just talk to your villager friends all day? You can!
Animal Crossing provides many, many soft goals, but it won’t dictate to you when you need to work on them, or when they should be completed. If you want to take a year until you engage with the museum and would rather fill every inch of your island with fish tanks instead? Go for it. The game may lay out goals, but when and how you engage with them is up to you, and there’s plenty to do if you decide to take a break on any of your projects.
Compare that approach to that of the average action game, which almost always stops your progress completely until you reach the current goal the game has set for you. Animal Crossing always makes sure that if it’s asking you to do this, you always have plenty of ways to do that if you’d rather not follow the game’s prompting.
One signifier of gentle progression and goal-setting in ACNH specifically is that the game will reward and celebrate your progress whether it’s done quickly or over the long haul. Villagers will always praise you for the items you make and the designs you complete, and there are all kinds of celebrations for when you complete set goals. No one ever wonders why it took you so long.
The game practically lives through its achievement system being tied into its economy, which seems to go against the ideas of gentle progression, except that it never seems to worry about your particular level of productivity. There’s a debt to pay, but Tom Nook isn’t going to kill you through compounding interest.
The player may care about their progress through the game, however, and that brings me to my next point.
Knowing your actions matter
There is always an abundance of content to collect in gentle-progression games, and more content is often added through updates to keep players interested in most modern games in this genre.
Achieving things through consistent engagement is one of the signifiers of these games, and constant rewards are a good way to keep the interest of the player. And if you want the best items in the game, all you have to do is consistently spend time playing it, or doing the task you’re asked to perform to earn that item.
That level of predictability is often what makes these games such effective — and low-pressure — mindfulness exercises. There is plenty to achieve, but no rush, and you almost always know exactly what you need to do to move forward. It’s crucial that the rewards for your actions be predictable, and the path to where you’d like to go made clear. The ability to plan your sessions to continue chasing your personal goals drives the sense of calm and control that many players feel when playing these games.
Which is another design challenge that anyone working on a game that focuses on gentle progression needs to overcome: How do you show the player that what they’re doing matters?
If you have ever engaged in any mindfulness exercises or have tried to organize some aspect of your life, you will know that there is a balance to strike between seeing the full picture of the goal and taking small-enough steps that the process doesn’t overload you. Gentle-progression games are master classes in striking this balance by giving you a sense of the possibilities of your progress — while also showing you what to expect from your time with the game — without overwhelming you in the process.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ achievement system is deliberately designed to show increments, and to not reveal the end goals of those achievements. You’ll have a sense of the next step to take — for example, the next fish catching achievement sits at 50 fish — so you know what you need to do to move forward and get a sense of progress. But the ultimate goal? Even if it’s something that will take a significant amount of time, you know that taking the next step to get there is always doable.
This means you can expect that you’ll get achievements from catching more fish over time, but you won’t be overwhelmed by the idea that you may ultimately need to hook thousands of fish. And you’ll be able to see the progress you made toward that next step in the journey even if you only have time for a quick session.
As a bonus, not revealing all the possible achievements adds an element of exploration to the game that caters to people who like experimenting to discover all the goals without the pressure of knowing what needs doing. The achievements cease to be a map showing you what to do and where to go, and become their own reward for people who want to chase them.
This keeps the next goal feeling achievable without tempting you to get lost in a list of tasks, while also making sure you know exactly what you’ve achieved in each session. Gentle progression only works if you are shown, and feel like, you’ve made progress of some kind, even in a short session.
And this is the key to another topic that’s very popular right now.
Mindfulness as a practice
Mindfulness, if you don’t know the term, is a general state of maintaining presence and moment-to-moment awareness of sensations and surroundings while experiencing calm and grounded feelings.
“To live mindfully is to live in the moment and reawaken oneself to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future,” Psychology Today explains. “Mindfulness can also be a healthy way to identify and manage latent emotions that are causing problems in personal or professional relationships.”
Meditation, coloring, or other relaxing and centering activities are often considered under the umbrella of mindfulness.
Mindfulness always comes with an aspect of intention — an idea of what you hope to get out of the work you’re putting into your tasks. Intention is a powerful motivator for human behavior; you’re more likely to do something when you know exactly what you want out of that action.
Developers definitely use this when designing for gentle progression. Want to get a larger house? Make a cozy interior? Build the most beautiful rose garden to sit in with your friends? This is how you do it!
Intentions are often stories in our minds that we translate into motivation, and ultimately into steps to get where we want to be. What you want to achieve and where you want to go define who you are at that moment in time, and what you’re likely to do. Mindfulness is, in many ways, just a side effect of being consciously aware of this process in your own mind.
One of the more difficult aspects of designing for mindfulness is translating game systems into patience. Most games revolve entirely around the player, with heroic actions that move the action forward and will reward as much time given to play as possible. Games with gentle progression, as counterintuitive as it sounds, will often do exactly the opposite, and in doing so will calm the player.
Telling players that they sometimes can’t move forward no matter how much work they put in is a way of making sure they choose what they decide to focus on, while knowing what they’re hoping to achieve. You can’t do it all, so what’s important to you for that day, or that week?
It’s not about sitting down at the same time every day and doing something; it’s about knowing when to get up and do something else. It’s about knowing why you’re doing something, and what you hope to get out of doing it.
It’s a path to mindful behavior — a skill that can help in so many parts of your life — and the fact that this path is disguised as a relaxing game makes that fact even better.
These design lessons explain why we love these games
Achievability, mindfulness, personal goal-setting, and predictability — all of these aspects of Animal Crossing: New Horizons make up the appeal of gentle-progression games.
The comprehension of putting in even small amounts of consistent work and how it can earn you so much in the long run is a wonderful skill and a valuable human lesson to learn. Gentle-progression games teach us these skills in a way that actually calms us down and makes us feel better.
Players of gentle-progression games aren’t seeking “easy” experiences. It’s more accurate to recognize that games teach us values, or help to uncover values we may not understand yet — and fans of these games seek mindfulness and calm.
Anyone who has worked out enough to gain muscle mass, or meditated for more than a few seconds, knows that achieving any kind of result through short sessions stretched over long periods of time is challenging. Sitting still and letting your thoughts go is hard work, and if you doubt that, spend the next five minutes with your eyes closed, alone with your thoughts. See how tired you feel at the end. There’s nothing easy about it, but it pays off in multiple ways in life.
Gentle-progression games are just as challenging, in their own way, as Doom Eternal. And maybe we can learn how to grow closer to each other by understanding why people like different kinds of challenges, while admitting that no one has an easy road to getting what they want. Gentle-progression games often get you to the same place, mentally, as games like Dark Souls — just on a very different path. And different paths will attract different players.
Just as players enjoy these games with intention, designers create them that way. I hope that now you have a greater understanding of how that happens, and what a great conversation gentle-progression games allow between their creators and their fans. There’s a reason we turn to these games in times of stress — they’re designed that way.
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