Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Neko Atsume and Voluntary Rip-Offs

If you're reading this on mobile, turn your device sideways for correct image notation.
Neko Atsume is a cat-themed idle game from mobile developer Hit-Point, and lately it's been clawing at my mind in ways I didn't expect. Mobile games usually instill in me a mixture of dread and expendable, Papadum-thin procrastinatory fun (barring 2048, that game was crack). If anyone other than my girlfriend recommended a mobile cat collecting sim to me, I would probably feed them their Kyocera, but I guess that just shows how my close-mindedness hurts me sometimes, because Neko Atsume is the cat's meow (I'll stop).

Cat collection may seem boring, but it's better to think of Atsume as a recreation of being a crazy cat-lady. You buy toys, furniture, and food to attract cats that give you fish which you can (somehow) use to buy even more things, until your maniacal hoarding becomes so insatiable that you have to start buying new houses, literally. The cats are so adorable that you'll fail see through the paper thin, cutesy veneer that Atsume uses to distract you from the alarming subtext of your habitual spending. Those cute little buggers squeeze into every little thing you can get a loan on, and documenting every cat quickly feels like a responsible compulsion, not unlike the tinges of Tamagotchi-spurred sleepless nights, where you'd sweat bullets about the state of your pet duck's poop piles or whatever.
A cat toy is purchased with silver fish (left); The yard houses many cute kitties (right).

That is all to say that the game is fun. Not exactly complex or immersive, nor awash with emergent gameplay, but to expect such is just testament to the great first impression Atsume makes. It's the kinda game you can forget about for hours before coming back to, like Animal Crossing, but much less horrifying in its implications.

Where Atsume is so exceptional, however, is in the way it sits every profiteering, scum-of-the-earth, lime-swilling, ethically-impaired fungal pen of a mobile developer down and tells them: "no, idiots. THIS is how you get people to buy your fake money."

Cats drop silver fish and gold fish, you see, and the gold fish are worth substantially more, but you collect them much slower. Neko Atsume is almost wicked in how easily it convinces you to actually buy their dumb gold fish. It does this through two methods, primarily...
  1. The game makes play habitual. To give three examples; When you leave out food for your cats, it's eaten over time, compelling you to revisit the game a couple times a day to refill your feeding dishes, lest the cats bolt like a presidential candidate from a direct question. A code is offered daily that you can type into a password screen to receive free fish and, after 5 consecutive passwords, a free can of Ritzy Bitz is provided, which is an in-game food worth more than the default stuff. Your CATalogue doesn't have a picture of any cat, so a picture must be taken of them with your in-game camera, meaning that you have to revisit the game frequently to make sure you snap all of them.
  2. Gold fish are given to you at a rate generous enough to feel fair, but still sparse enough to lure you towards the far easier path, that is, buying gold fish with your own money.
Snapshots of your cats are stored in an album (left); The best shot is chosen by the player to be the cat's profile picture (right).

This culminates in the habitual play feeling natural. You don't feel forced into it. Rather you enter a sort of flow. Checking your Neko yard almost becomes reflex after a while, just due to how the presentation of the game's elements keep you coming back by your own volition. I liken it again to Animal Crossing, and how that game made you look forward to Christmas in your virtual town more than Christmas with your family. It didn't accomplish this through guilt or exploitation, but rather by making you wait between important events for an amount of time that would be considered reasonable, were you actually in the game's world. After all, one can't expect a conveyor belt of cats to just stream in infinitely. They gotta take time to find your planted sashimi.

A lesser mobile game would just force an arbitrary energy meter on your activity that would deplete as you performed relatively simple tasks. Those games are cheap tricksters, and nobody has time for that crap. It's a hollow exploitation. The most fascinating part, however, is that Neko Atsume does exactly the same thing, but in a way that feels organic. In the end, you have no problem dropping a dollar for 50 gold fish, and when you do, you get exactly what you expected. A voluntary rip-off, you see.