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Pocket Camp kinda upstages Animal Crossing: New Horizons now

A free-to-play game that inspires jealousy

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Two villagers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Animal Crossing: New Horizons undoubtedly took over the world in early 2020, but lately, a different iteration of the life simulator has been lighting up my social media feeds. Mobile spinoff Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp has, in tandem, blown up right alongside the Nintendo Switch game — and that added visibility has helped highlight the many ways in which New Horizons arguably falls short.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, given that Pocket Camp has had over two years to establish itself and expand. Let us remember that, when it came out, many people felt bummed about the grindy Animal Crossing experience Pocket Camp provided, and the way it seemed built for microtransactions.

Players who are still enjoying Pocket Camp tell Polygon these aspects haven’t entirely changed in 2020. But this is also somewhat balanced by the fact that the mobile game is bringing its A-game to the table.

Furniture sets and decorations are cute in ways that make me, as a New Horizons player who is supposedly getting a “premium” experience, intensely jealous. This envy is partially fueled by the knowledge that Pocket Camp makes more of an effort to integrate these items into its world. New Horizons, by contrast, feels like a more static experience.

“You can put teacups and a whole theme park [in New Horizons] but like, it will never ... make an impact in the villagers,” says content creator (and my personal pal) luulubuu.

Pocket Camp made that the objects had specific animations and purposes,” she continued, noting that one of her favorite sequences sees villagers dancing along to Gyroids — characters which are barely present in New Horizons.

New Horizons has some great animations, too. I love watching my villagers do zoomies or seeing them pull out a phone to take a picture. Every so often, you’ll also spot villagers using an item you’ve laid around, which is always a delight. But not only are these New Horizons interactions sparse, they feel slight when we compare them to a normal scene out of Pocket Camp, as you’ll see in the videos below. Pocket Camp has unique animations and interactions for nearly everything you can place on the map.

“When you start New Horizons, you have a 80-item storage limit that you can gradually expand to 1,600 items,” says Laura Hudson, editor and former colleague, “though it will likely take dozens of hours and millions of bells to do so.” Pocket Camp, by comparison, starts you off with bigger storage and then expands that up to 3,000 spaces.

The large repertoire of items are designed specifically to entice you to spend money, which would normally sound shady, except Pocket Camp designers make the sets feel worth it.

“Novelty is expected and new content is frequent,” Hudson, who recently spent a few dollars in Pocket Camp for a design studio loft, tells Polygon.

“I don’t resent this at all, I don’t mind paying a subscription or dropping a few bucks on a one-off purchase for things that constantly revitalize the game,” she continues.

Where New Horizons slowly doles out new features and items, Pocket Camp gives you more freedom to make exactly what you want, when you want it — because you probably bought a set with something in mind, rather than relying on the gods of chance.

Pocket Camp makes decorating your campsite or cabin feel like a playground where you’re limited more by your imagination than anything else,” Hudson says.

The thing to note is that, unlike New Horizons, you’re not living in these scenes. You set these scenarios specifically for your villagers’ enjoyment, and when they do exactly that, it makes for evocative screenshots and GIFs. Technically speaking, you can “do” more in New Horizons, especially with the introduction of features like terraforming.

Then again, as someone who has now put in hundreds of hours into New Horizons, my aim is the same — to make spaces that are cool enough to make someone wish they could be there, too. I’m often decorating with my villagers in mind, only to be disappointed by their general disinterest in what surrounds them.

Pocket Camp is, broadly speaking, in a great place right now,” says Philippa Warr, a player who has been enjoying the mobile game since launch. Warr tells Polygon that the campground game has “exquisite” food items, including a matcha treat where the foam looks like Isabelle’s head. Pocket Camp also lets you do more with the items it provides, too — you can, for instance, lay down a rug outside, a small detail that is sorely missing in New Horizons.

All of this is true, but Warr notes that not only has Pocket Camp had time to bloom, New Horizons’ popularity may have spurred players to race through its content faster than Nintendo intended. Some New Horizons players tell Polygon that they’ve been playing the life sim less often, going from daily marathons to now only checking in once a day for about 30 minutes, if that. Some fans are skipping days altogether. Recent events, like the museum stamp rally, haven’t been good enough to keep the New Horizons flame going.

But even so, Pocket Camp deserves props for what it does right. Laura Hudson notes, for example, that while New Horizons players spend a lot of time butting up against its random villager mechanics, Pocket Camp gives you more control over who stays at your campsite.

“In Pocket Camp, you have to level them up a little before you can summon them to stay with you, but ultimately you can curate a homestead of the very best and cutest buddies, whereas in New Horizons it’s just the luck of the draw who shows up,” she says.

Pocket Camp also allows players to pay for a subscription that, in addition to giving you loot and automating parts of the game for you, also helps you curate the game’s population. The ongoing fee — which is cheaper than an Amiibo, especially those that are in-demand — “lets me select my favorite villager (it’s Chevre) to follow me around and help me gather resources which creates more of a sense of personal relationship as opposite to ‘neighbor I might like or might hate,’” Hudson says.

With time, it’s likely that New Horizons will grow to match more of what Pocket Camp offers. Already, the upcoming wedding event promises a new set of nuptial-themed decorations that will let fans set up amorous scenes. There will likely be other events that haven’t been announced yet, in addition to the expected seasonal changes.

“I wouldn’t want the games to have identical item libraries,” Warr clarifies. But perhaps, she muses, the games will inspire each other to be more ambitious. “New Horizons has been good for Pocket Camp because I definitely feel like Pocket Camp has upped its item game to try to keep players interested.”

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