For several months, cute Nintendo mobile game Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp has been in a slow tailspin towards the more aggressive kinds of free-to-play monetisation - but its latest, just-concluded fishing event marks a new low.
The event - the game's fourth in-game angling tournament - ramped up the difficulty of the previously somewhat-relaxed experience while simultaneously offering a paid-for shortcut at every possible opportunity. These gameplay changes were not well communicated, leaving regular players to discover over time how they were being funnelled towards either paying or likely failing the event's completion.
Pocket Camp's ongoing appeal is the collection of ever more elaborate things to decorate your smartphone's dinky in-game campsite with. Like anything in Animal Crossing, these items come in sets, and each new in-game event offers a fresh collection. Events have become the core of the game, the reason to keep checking in every day - and the app has established a regular cycle of collecting, fishing and gardening activities which reward you with new items while gently encouraging you to pay to speed things along.
These events stand separate from the game's more obvious forms of money-making: standalone premium items you need to cough up the game's microtransaction Leaf Tickets currency to buy (a small amount of which you get for free, but never enough for everything) and its recently-added randomised loot boxes. As I've reported before, these boxes - presented in-game as Fortune Cookies - are an awful addition: designed to give duplicates, have low chances of rare items, be incredibly expensive at nearly £3 a pop and - as part of the app's recent tailspin - are now also being sold in £11 multipacks.
So it is especially disappointing to see this latest fishing event mired in new, murkier moneymaking methods now, too. Previously you could complete these events - hitting the main goal of collecting a certain overall size catch of fish, along with subgoals for smaller side objectives - by simply logging on and playing around 20 minutes every day, spread out across several of the game's real-time resets. It wasn't easy, and sometimes I would stay up another half an hour or so to ensure I was awake for another reset at 1am. If you fell behind, you'd probably have to pay to make up for lost time (you can rent a Golden Fishing Rod for real-world money which doubles whatever you catch) but dedicated players could feel rewarded for their time by completing it without any further demands. With this fourth version of the tournament, Nintendo turned the screws.
"The first Tourney required only 4200cm [of fish] to receive a gold trophy, while #2 and #3 required 5200cm. #4 was boosted up to 7000 in order to get the gold trophy," Animal Crossing fan sylarpwns9 reported back to Pocket Camp's dedicated reddit. Usually, chatter here centres on the community's latest builds and favourite characters. Today, the discussion board has been flooded by countless threads on this event - some people angry, others still confused by how difficult they had found it.
As well as upping the gold trophy requirement, Nintendo added another reward - an attractive fishing flag - only available after getting to gold level. But this was made a random unlock too - so you could get other, duplicate items instead, pushing people to grind even further. This was not well explained, and which left many fans confused.
"Not only was there a new prize in the final tier, but without it being guaranteed as first, it meant you needed to earn anywhere from 7200cm to a whopping 10,000cm if you were super unlucky and managed to get every repeat prize," sylarpwns9 concluded.
At the same time - and perhaps grubbiest of all - Nintendo changed the dialogue pattern for the event's host character, Chip the Beaver. In previous events, Chip would offer to sell you the double catching Gold Fishing Rod once at the start of the event, then leave it up to you whether to purchase it at any other time. This time around, Chip was set to sell you the Gold Rod every single time you turned fish into him. Every. Time. It costs 80 Leaf Tickets (which the cheapest way of getting would be to buy a 100 Leaf Ticket pack, costing £4).
This isn't just the latest in a long line of design decisions made to encourage spending - it feels like a watershed moment for the game, of the kind only the introduction of its loot boxes can rival. It is a cynical and clearly calculated change to core gameplay to encourage - if not require - players pay to complete something previously designed to reward your time and effort.
I've previously tried to keep up with Pocket Camp's events and until now collected the full set available in each. With this fishing tournament, there was no way I could do that - and in a way, it's been freeing. Looking around the game's reddit, I'm not alone.
In a thoughtful post entitled "Thank you, fishing tourney #4, for curing my event anxiety", reddit user iceberg_dead_ahead said they too had given up their event completionist status.
"Until this weekend, I had also been a completionist, or at least an event completionist," iceberg_dead_ahead wrote. "With this fishing event, ACPC finally crossed my line between reasonable-but-pushing-it and unreasonable.
"I'm currently working 70 hours per week. I had a birthday celebration this past week. I've been planning a trip and dealing with a move. Still, I managed to log in four or five times per day, catch my max, complete tasks for extra fish, etc. Last night I got to 7200cm, and realised that it would be a crapshoot to get that flag unless I spent literally all of my Leaf Tickets. I didn't. And I'm... actually really happy with that decision."
Others were less okay with it all. Scrolling the last day's worth of Pocket Camp reddit posts, other threads on the subject are titled "This is cruel", "C'mon game, you're killing me here!!", and "thats fuckt up" - all from fans still grinding the game well beyond the gold trophy point to get their flag item. Another thread, "Desperately Trying To Get The Banner. 11:55pm. 9783m. The Game Hates Me." pretty much sums it up.
And they continue. "The Fishing Tournament messed up my sleep pattern", from user CassQuinn, simply states: "I was so used to forcing myself awake till 5am I can't sleep anymore."
Longer and more thoughtful responses describe in detail the current community feeling towards Pocket Camp. "Pocket Camp is on its last legs for me" describes how reddit user sparkypchu and their girlfriend have "happily spent $40 on the game" but simply cannot afford or manage to keep up by spending more. It's just a little more than the amount I think I've spent over the nine months since launch - an amount there's no way I'd now add to. "My opinion on how Pocket Camp lost its Animal Crossing magic" sums up how far the game has diverged from the brand's core experience - of being a calming, relaxing game where you are encouraged to show off your accomplishments in a finite museum collection, rather than on a never-ending conveyor belt players now feel forced to keep up with.
Perhaps the most pertinent thread is this: "PSA: Don't forget to send Nintendo feedback for Fishing Tournament 4." Pocket Camp includes a feedback form for you to send thoughts direct to Nintendo. Go to your Settings menu - you'll find it in there. In the past, the company has listened to criticism of the app's first gardening event being too much of a grind. This feels like part of a larger, more business-minded shift within the game than just balance, but if there's anyone there at Nintendo reading this, or the reddit today, hopefully they're tracking how bad fans believe the app now treats one of its biggest franchises.