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What devs are saying about the design of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

December 11, 2017 | By Joel Couture

December 11, 2017 | By Joel Couture
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More: Smartphone/Tablet, Design, Business/Marketing, Video



Nintendo released Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp worldwide last month, and some devs have feelings.

It's a mobile, free-to-play spin on the company's venerable Animal Crossing franchise, one that asks players to make camp in a bucolic land and build a campsite for fellow players and in-game villagers to visit.

Players curry favor with the villager NPCs (and thereby gain levels) by chatting them up, bringing them traditional Animal Crossing collectibles (fruits, bugs, and fish), and building specific pieces of camp furniture.

Nintendo earns money on the game by selling in-game currency ("Leaf Tickets") that can be spent to speed up the game's systems, thereby allowing the player to progress more quickly. It's a common F2P monetization scheme, but many feel that it undercuts some or all of what makes Animal Crossing games meaningful.

To get a better sense of how the game is going over with devs around the industry, and what bits of Pocket Camp stand out to them (for better and for worse), Gamasutra reached out and asked: what do you think about that new, mobile Animal Crossing?

Yoko Taro (Nier: Automata) - I played the 3DS DobuMori (Animal Crossing), and you know the raccoon who makes you get a mortgage without agreeing to it? It was like the Lehman Shock (The Bankruptcy Of Lehman Brothers), so I wanted to get revenge on him in the mobile version.

I was kind of sad because there are fewer things you can do in the mobile app, compared to the 3DS version. The fact that you have less freedom, makes the Ditch-Forest seem even darker.

Let's take, for example, what the "monsters" eat. The rabbit seems to be of the normal herbivorous variety, but can be seen, in this game, grilling and eating fish. Also, in this game, pigs and cows enjoy barbecue (but you can't see what they're grilling). What is going on in this ecosystem? When you run out of things to eat, do you resort to cannibalism? Is there so much difference in the intelligence of birds and fish? If you walk on two legs and talk, does that mean you won't be hunted? Is the value of your life determined by your intelligence? There are so many interesting themes hidden in this game.

Also, I want to say something about the unreasonable shopping. You need to predict what those monsters want like an esper (human who possesses ESP), and give those things to them to get your big reward. What is this a metaphor for? Why do you have to collect things that are right next to the monsters to make them happy, like a slave? I guess this represents the divisions between people in class society.

I haven't put any furniture or anything in my camp except a kerosene tank. I started this game to get revenge on that raccoon, Tanukichi, but now I have a different purpose.

I'll enjoy playing this game until I burn that dark forest down.

Becca Bair (Arcadian Atlas) - As far as a mobile Animal Crossing title goes, I'm really enjoying it. The game is a lot more simplified than a full Animal Crossing game but there's still enough elements to keep me coming back a couple times a day to turn in errands and check on my campers. I know a lot of people are skeeved out by the pay elements, but I haven't spent any real money on it

Dave Proctor (Mighty Yell Studios) - I feel like the game is more focused than New Leaf. I played NL a lot for the grind, the daily routine, getting my fossils, cleaning the beach and then turning it off for the day. Pocket Camp is optimized for this. Breaking things into regions gives you specific goals to work around, AND funneling all the items you collect through animals instead of through Re-Tail makes you more goal oriented. Those animals want specific furniture and the game rolls it out slowly when you interact with them, where as New Leaf just says "try again tomorrow" for all the new gear.

I'm that kind of player though. I respect that this isn't your grandma's Animal Crossing.

Sean Han Tani (All Our Asias) - The always-on internet requirement means that the player is saddled with the knowledge that every simple action will require a couple of seconds of lag time as the phone communicates with the game's servers. This makes an already boring game more excruciating when nearly every action has a lag time. The corporate paranoia of losing money to cheaters and needing to verify every player action has destroyed what could be a peaceful game.

 
"What would have been a mysterious quirky nuanced relationship in Animal Crossing is reduced to a meter incrementing so you can earn precious currency. This is not an environment for self actualization. It is a place of rushed, time sensitive labor."

Fulfilling animal requests is hilarious. You talk to an animal. You wait. They ask you what you want. You press here you go, to hand them the item. Then the game asks you to press here you go again in order to confirm this. The game lags again. You watch your villager hand the item to the other character. You listen to the animal say the same stock phrase of thanks for the 100th time, and then the game says "request complete!"  Then the game pulls up an entire new window to show you your rewards. Sometimes you watch a friendship meter fill. If you level up, the reward window slowly appears again. Then you watch a heart fly up into your level-up bar. And if you level up? Guess what? The game plays an animation and you get to watch that reward window appear *again*, as if these three things couldn't just be done in one go.

On the UI side, the game becomes nightmarish when you obtain too many items - scrolling through what you have or what you want to craft is difficult with the tiny sliding windows for choosing items or categories. You can't even organize items by their theme.  The best part of the game, decorating, lags when you need to save your furniture arrangement with the server. Moving items around the campsite is finicky on mobile and it can be hard to judge if you've left enough room for people to walk.

Nicholas Laborde (Evangeline) - Nintendo is officially in the drug dealing business, because they've given digital cocaine to millions of people.

Animal Crossing fits really well into a mobile environment, and I'm impressed at how well the experience has translated into my pocket. AC always seemed ahead of its time in the "always on, check back frequently" aspect and it finally feels like tech has caught up to make it make the most sense.

There are a few strange things lost in translation, though, like not being able to pick weeds, and some of the mobile-specific reliance on currency/points/etc. It makes sense that some of those changes had to happen, because it's going to have microtransactions and whatnot, which is fine, that's the freemium model. But removing some random features is a bit puzzling.

What I'm really curious about is the massive, delicious amounts of data Nintendo is going to pull from this. Average time spent per player, how many logins per day, if they paid and how much, etc. It feels like a massive, free test for when our cult rituals pay off and Animal Crossing eventually arrives on our Switches.

To me, that's Nintendo's endgame from this - invading our phones for the real takeover, the Switch version. First they came for our phones, then they'll come for our homes...

Mac Monroy (Agents of Mayhem) - “I never had the chance to play any of the Animal Crossing games until New Leaf for Nintendo 3DS, which completely captured me since the opening screen. I don’t consider myself an Animal Crossing connoisseur, but I can surely say Pocket Camp is a fresh, interesting addition to the AC games.

First of all, the simplicity and well round interface design makes it very intuitive and user friendly. However, while the controllers (basically just tap and hold) are easy to memorize, the game doesn’t represent any much of a skill challenge. (Animal Crossing was never about that of course, but I remember that in New Leaf, the player needed at least a bit of skill to catch certain kind of bugs!)

All in all, I think it’s a very cute time killer game. Sure, it gets repetitive after a while and you could certainly feel a little trapped since the few places you’ve got to explore are quite small. Fortunately it is pretty easy to level up and the micro transactions are not essential (If you’re the kind of person that can wait 24 hours to get some piece of furniture built.)

My final thoughts; I think it’s a great step for the Nintendo mobile games, and I can’t wait to see what comes up next! ( Makes me wonder if  Pocket Camp is hinting we will have an Animal Crossing game for the Nintendo Switch.)

Daniel Cook (Alphabear) - I've been working on Beartopia, a multiplayer village sim heavily inspired by Animal Crossing. So I've been doing a lot of deep thinking about why Animal Crossing works so well and Pocket Camp does not.

So let's look at structure first. Animal Crossing, at its heart, is a free-form sandbox game in this lovely intimate village space with no real responsibilities. You want to spend your days making the best dang orchard around? Go for it. Want to do one of the other dozen odd activities? Nothing is stopping you. Theoretically you need to pay off Tom Nook. But let's face it, Tom Nook is the nicest lender the world; there are no deadlines and no interest. The key to Animal Crossing is this delicious and rare quality of freedom and player agency.

Pocket Camp *looks* a lot like Animal Crossing, but the choice architecture is radically different. Instead of 'do anything' you've got a limited checklist based off inviting friends and fulfilling their demands. The loop is more about doing the task and getting the extrinsic reward.

At a recent game designer retreat (Project Horseshoe) we had a working group trying to understand the psychology 'comfy games' like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing. One thing we noticed is that many games focus on the bottom portion of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. They deal with survival, food, shelter and physical threats. Comfy games are instead comfortable spaces where you can work on some higher level human needs. You can dabble with self reflection, little social moments and maybe self expression. Games that treat players like higher order humans instead of twitchy, fear-based animals are a super cool thing!

However, when a design introduces intense lower level needs, it can ruin the atmosphere that makes a comfy game work. Pocket Camp introduces time pressure and responsibility. If you don't get that stupid sofa crafted before the animal leaves, you'll miss a chance to progress along the checklist. Even when you do complete the task, it is entirely transactional. What would have been a mysterious quirky nuanced relationship in Animal Crossing is reduced to a meter incrementing so you can earn precious currency.  This is not an environment for self actualization. It is a place of rushed, time sensitive labor. Ugh.

The other piece that contributes to this rote checklist feel is that at the moment-to-moment gameplay level, Animal Crossing is a bit of a memory / hidden object game. The characters wander around and you need to find them. You need to spot where the fossils are located. Or the insects. Or remember where you put something. All these things encourage the player to carefully observe the world. There's a moment where I'm running through the rain (spinning my umbrella!) on some silly made up errand, and wait! What's that? I spot a fossil! This is beautiful.

Pocket Camp has none of this. The areas are small so you never get even mildly distracted. The map lets you teleport directly to your target. In the process, the moment-to-moment joy of meandering and observing is destroyed.

F2P: I've seen some discussion about IAP, especially from those who are trained on older console business models. But this is a red herring. You can certainly make good F2P games on mobile. But you first have to make a good game. The structural crimes done to the brilliant core design of Animal Crossing are what we really should talk about. And ideally try to avoid in the future.

Chris Figueroa (Snow Horse) - Pocket Camp is missing the neighborhood interactions. I loved talking, sending letters and just running into my neighbors in a normal Animal Crossing game. It’s what made it “different” from other games. I felt like I had friendships.

Kevin Snow (Mama Possum) - So, Animal Crossing. I've got a long history with the series -- my mom and I would play the first game together, and decorate each other's houses on our birthdays. New Leaf, I played for thousands of hours, and as a developer I think it a masterpiece of design in every area. Localization, sound design, art direction. Just beautiful across the board.

I have mixed feelings about Pocket Camp. The F2P transactions are cosmetic, which avoids the ethical issues involved with how other F2P games exploit gambling addictions (as with Nintendo's own Fire Emblem: Heroes). But every interaction in the game is filtered through this payment model, so it takes away the joy from these experiences. Within a few short hours, the player has read all the villager dialogue in the game, and they're left with a monotonous treadmill. There's no spontaneity.

Other Animal Crossing games use time to make the player slow down and engage, while Pocket Camp uses time as a cudgel to inspire anxiety, an anxiety only delayed by payment.

On the other hand, I have so many feelings wrapped up in this series that it's nice to experience the general aesthetic while I wait for the upcoming Switch version. I'd be devastated if Pocket Camp indicated the future of the series, instead of just being a cute spin-off.

My favorite moments are the quiet ones, where the monetization backs off. Decorating the inside of my camper, helping people get into the quarry, seeing the creative camp site designs of friends. These moments are unfortunately rare, much more rare than New Leaf.

Raúl Martínez Garrido (Supersonic Tank Cats) - Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp looks nice, plays nice and sounds nice. The game tells you via text to use the premium currency to speed things up if you want, but gameplay never forces you to, and is pretty generous with gaining leaf tickets without spending real money, so at no point it feels like a shabby money-grab app.

Nintendo obviously started with some advantage since they're reusing assets from the mainline games. That for sure made possible to create a game with the astounding amount of content it has and a polished feel without investing too much money. Even if the gameplay is simpler than the main games and there are possible microtransactions, it feels familiar enough.

That is also the root of their main problem, though: That much content makes the game heavy. And since they don't want people to realize at the beginning, the game slowly downloads more content as you progress through the early stages... So it's entirely possible that you can install the game, play the tutorial or the first steps afterwards, and only then realize your phone is not going to be able to hold the game. And every update ramps the size by at least 30 Mb! That's a big problem if your phone is low or mid-end.

Nothing puts me off more than having my time spent unlocking stuff suddenly thrown away because the game felt like it.

Heather Mosley (Gentlemen Robots) - I did not go into Pocket Camp expecting a full Animal Crossing game. I've seen some criticisms about the game not being enough of an Animal Crossing game to feel satisfying. I understand this sentiment, as the craving for a new, full Animal Crossing experience is a pretty strong one and having a mobile spinoff may not be enough for some players.

For me personally, it's just enough of a taste of something new to keep me satisfied until the next major release. I feel like experiencing what it takes to design a game has made me a lot more patient for game releases, so that may have something to do with my view of the game.

Pocket Camp is honestly just endearing. While it's not a full version of Animal Crossing by any means, it's an incredibly charming spinoff with a lot more character than I was expecting. Something I strive for in my own concepts of characters is that I don't want them to become boring too quickly. I want them to have personality and enough dialogue and new experiences to keep the player engaged.

While I adore Animal Crossing, this has been an issue I've had with the series as well as many other similar games like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley. The characters are adorable and I love them, but sometimes you find yourself skipping through a conversation because you've seen it enough to practically memorize it.

The small cutscenes that occasionally play after completing a request for a guest, watching them dance or cook at the tent you've set up for them, even the visiting guests who are stretching while idle. It's all so charming! Even the descriptions the game gives for each unique character made me so happy. I feel as if this is my favorite aspect of Pocket Camp. The characters seem more lively than in any main Animal Crossing game to date and I can only hope that future entries in the series keep this level of personality consistent. Even unique idle animations for different personality types would be a great addition.

While I know for certain that once I've played the game for enough time all of these things will lose the charm they once had, simply because I've seen it all.. but that's alright! It's still a step up from the previous main games in the series and I'm happy to see it. I suppose that the addition of character descriptions and new idle animations are due to the game being a smaller project than a main Animal Crossing game would be, as if to compensate for that. I just hope that even some of that charm is introduced in the next main game, whenever that may be.

While I do find the game charming, I definitely do have some criticisms. I first want to mention that, while frustrating, I don't really count the server issues against the game itself. Any new mobile Nintendo game that relies on an internet connection is going to have these issues for sure. While it definitely isn't ideal, it also makes sense to me that it wouldn’t be something they'd go out of their way to improve since the servers will probably only have to handle that influx of players for the first week. Definitely not a fun experience by any means, but it is a problem that fixes itself once the flood of new players ceases. The game has been running quite smoothly now that the influx of new players has decreased.

The first thing I noticed as an issue with the game itself is how poorly certain facial features are optimized for different skin tones. I know I'm not the only one who noticed how ugly the player's mouth is on darker skintones! Even the nose color looks pretty bad against darker skin tones. I understand some things slip by in development, either because you don't have the time to fix them before launch or they weren't caught while testing the game... but this seems like something that would have been immediately caught during testing as well as easy to fix.

The fact that this is literally the first thing you experience in the game makes it that much more baffling. As someone who is primarily art focused in game design, I can only imagine that fixing this would take a few minutes for an artist. I can't speak for how long it would take a programmer to add it into the game, but I can't imagine it's an incredibly difficult fix for any involved party.

There are also some interesting animation errors I've noticed and haven't seen anyone point out previously. While at your camp, if you interact with guests while they're sitting down or drinking a cup of tea or whatnot, their animation during your conversation will reflect the position they were sitting in and they'll look very stiff and awkward. While it's not my biggest issue with the game, it still is kind of a glaring one that takes me out of the game a little.

One thing I do wish the game had communicated more clearly is that you don't have to keep the furniture guests request in order to keep them on your campsite. I didn't realize this for the first few days playing the game and was a little dissatisfied with how ugly my campsite was looking.

Once I did realize I could just take any requested furniture down though, I did so pretty immediately. My campsite no longer looked like an awkward outdoor furniture store! As long as I don't have to keep the furniture standing, I don't care what I have to craft to bring villagers to my campsite.

I've also seen some have basically described Pocket Camp as, "Endless Fetch Quests: The Game" and honestly I do agree. However I don't necessarily view this as a bad thing? It's an aspect of the game I have neutral thoughts on. Yes, it can be very tedious if you genuinely want to spend a lot of time playing the game, I have found myself getting bored and wanting more out of the game from time to time. However, for a mobile game I feel that it still works.

It's not a game that was designed for players to spend hours playing it like the main Animal Crossing games are.  If you're trying to play Pocket Camp in that manner, it's definitely going to become very boring very quickly. You would be better off playing one of the main entries in the series rather than Pocket Camp. However if you just check in a few times a day and complete requests whenever you're feeling up for it, it's a pretty good experience.

If it were me, I'd try my best to implement other features for players who want to spend more time playing but on it's own I still think it works. Not to mention, the fact that the game has made some people want to play a full Animal Crossing game instead may not necessarily be a bad thing for Nintendo.

Overall, I genuinely have been enjoying the Pocket Camp experience. I definitely have some qualms with it and hope some glaring issues get fixed in a future patch, but as a fun game to waste some time with it's pretty great. I can't get over how charming it is and how much personality they gave all the guests. Animal Crossing has been a longtime inspiration of mine. I grew up playing it and have always had fun with ideas on how to improve the game. I guess Pocket Camp is no different!

Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro (The Good Life) - The first thing that came to my mind when I was asked to give a comment about Animal Crossing: pocket camp was: "should I give it a compliment or a complaint."

Pocket Camp (mobile version) is completely different from the original Animal Crossing, even though it shares its name. When you play the original Animal Crossing, there is nothing that needs to be done or is mandatory. You can freely play any way you like. When you play Pocket Camp, you are always supposed to work on missions that should be completed within 2 hours. This is the way you are supposed to play it.

After you complete the first 2 hours of missions, the rest of the game is just a repetition of that. You need to keep giving apples and fish to animals. Therefore, my opinion is that this game is simply wearing Animal Crossing's skin, while being a different game.

People may try to play Pocket Camp freely, but the design is already decided. You might want to play the game like I do, which you can see on my Twitter.

 

 

 

 

I wouldn't say that Pocket Camp is a badly designed game, because I actually enjoy playing it so far. The animals' requests are very simple, so it's quite easy to complete missions and make the animals happy. Simply giving apples to them makes them so joyful. They dance and give you presents. Their reactions give me a small sense of accomplishment, like I just finished a workout at the gym. It’s like working on something you don't need to be doing. It still gives you some satisfaction.

I will probably stop playing this game by the end of the year, but I really want to thank the game developers for the fun experience. I will buy some "Leaf Tickets" with cash to show my appreciation.

Thank you. I love you all!

Melanie Christin (Transformice) - To me, Animal Crossing Pocket Camp could not have been more different from the past versions. They are simply the opposite.

Animal Crossing is a life simulation, the first and possibly the only game designed to be played at your leisure, respectful of your own free time. It discourages long sessions  (you run out of things to do, stores run out of stock, everybody get to sleep), and makes the time passing the single most important feature of the game.

Coupled with the seasons, thousands of dialogue lines and daily schedules of your animal Villagers, time passing in real time is the core of what makes Animal Crossing a believable world, and allows for so much of emotional bonding.

This whole concept of real time passing and self-reflection has been thrown out of the window in Pocket Camp, for various reasons probably related to the platform change. The whole gameplay loop resets every three hours, stores are always open, nobody ever goes to sleep, and animals are basically just Fedex quests givers.

We are looking at two extremely different games, even though the brand and various activities look the same. As a player of Animal Crossing games for more than a decade, I felt very disappointed when the game came out, essentially because it was so different from the previous ones and did not allow me to care and get emotionally involved, but as a developer I understand why and how it came to be like it is. Mobile as a platform has a lot of codes that differ from console and PC games, and probably the retention would not be as good with a game that forces you to wait.

As for the changes I would make to Pocket Camp... When it was announced, I was truly hoping for a full fledged Animal Crossing game, but just ported to mobile. I believe that given enough work, there could be a F2P monetization system based on the level of emotional bonding you are able to form. A premium line of furniture? Some rare items that truly please your favorite character so they befriend you and stay around? Premium stationery you could send to your friends?

But that would mean a whole redesign of the game, so it's merely just a dream. What I would do with today's version would be adding more lines to the characters, having them walk around, increase the variety of bugs/fish and have a musem to display your collection, more social features. I'm sure most of those are in the works, but the game feels very barebones as it is right now.

Kim Truong (Sims 4) - Cant help but compare it to new leaf. Great mobile game to tie me over until they decide to make and release an animal crossing game for the switch. Overall, I enjoy the game for what it is. A boiled down mobile game to spend playing for several minutes at a time, several times a day.

It is repetitious. Most of the time is spent fishing, bug catching and harvesting fruit. However, as a goal-oriented player, it will keep me playing as long as i have the desire to get certain furniture, clothing, or unlock more animals. I dont mind doing those repetitious things if it means I get to level up and unlock more animals. I always hope to see some of my favorite villagers like Papi, Genji, Maple, or Colton. It's also fun to see who else can be a potenial guest at my campsite!

The game does a great job with villager rotation compared to older games. You can freely change out animals as you unlock and befriend them.

I also like that you have the option of using bucks. If you don't want to spend real life currency, you dont have to. The games gives you plenty of opportunities to earn bucks as a reward through goals. As long as you have the patience...

I hoped there would be more social options to play more interactively with friends. Maybe seeing you run around in real time with a friend and including emotes would be fun.

Getting materials at the mine is a bit annoying when the friends notification does not tell you when a friend asks for help. You would have to go to your friends list and scroll through all your friends to look for the little shovel icon. Would be easier if there was a ping to let you know someone needs help or impliment filters. Filters would also be helpful to indicate which friends have stuff to sell in the market.

Decorating your campsite feels very limited when there is such a small space and catalogue to work with. It would be nice if Cyrus could offer color options for different furniture. I wish the animals would also randomly give you furniture or clothing rather than waiting for rotations at the store. The maybe it's just my game but I have seen the same clothing and furniture over and over again. No I don't want that stripped shirt for the 15th time!

The animals said happy birthday to me on my birthday. That was very cute and charming.

At least I don't have to worry about my camp guests leaving due to neglect.

Amanda Gardiner (Perception) - Animal Crossing Pocket Camp has the cute features and addictive qualities one comes to expect with the series, but with one tragic flaw: these animals are effing divas. Like, Mariah Carey level. Like, give me a bowl of only green M&M's for my dressing room and sparkling water pre-digested by apostate monks. Seriously, that racoon follows principles of feng shui? How about going back to ravaging suburban trash barrels, buddy.



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