A good Animal Crossing: New Horizons screenshot is much like a postcard. You see it, and you sigh wistfully: If only you could teleport to the nostalgic scenery teased within. Wish you were here, indeed.
That yearning is partially accomplished through deft decorating skills, knowing what to place and where. But getting the right vibe in a screenshot is a more nebulous practice, more of an art than it is a science. New Horizons’ built-in photography tools have a few different filters, but compared to an actual image processing program, the options are limited. This might explain why many take to Adobe’s Lightroom software, a photo editing tool that helps people sort and alter images.
Here, much of the community makes use of “presets” — that is, a set of filters that Lightroom users can use to craft a specific, tailored look. Many of the viral images you see from New Horizons have been tweaked by players to have hues and tones that are actually impossible to achieve in-game, and that’s usually accomplished with said presets. A fairycore island might, for example, opt for pastel tints in the pink to purple range to help achieve an ethereal ambiance. This might sound misleading, especially given how much video game fans hate fake “bullshots” made by video game marketers to trick them into buying games, but the difference is that Animal Crossing players are fairly upfront about what they do. Often, uploads will credit the preset they used, and the creator who made it.
“I definitely believe presets capture the spirit of an island better, more often than not,” says Animal Crossing player and preset creator Sleepyluck. “There are so many presets to choose from so that anyone can find the exact type of visual they are trying to photograph, whether it be cottage core, urban decay, or the growingly popular kidcore ... presets help give islands their own ‘identity’ so to speak.”
On Sleepyluck’s Gumroad page, she sells a variety of presets for $4. Sales of these filters have allowed her to buy a second Nintendo Switch console. She says that upcoming profits from recent sales will allow her to buy a capture card, and more generally, the income is allowing her to save up to eventually buy a PC. Here, Sleepyluck is more in the midrange category of preset sellers. Depending on the creator, some presets are completely free to download, while others — like those made by popular creator Blathies — can come in sets that cost up to $9, depending on how many presets are in a pack.
Blathies has a career in digital marketing, which might explain how deftly she was able to become the most well-known creator of Animal Crossing presets. Like many of us hooked on Instagram, Blathies tells Polygon she was obsessed with creating the “perfect” feed, but says that many of the Lightroom presets designed for real-life photography didn’t quite work for New Horizons. So, she made her own, ultimately becoming the first person to sell and market presets for the game. The idea has since caught on like wildfire. Her most popular offering, she says, has to be “Secret Garden,” an earthy preset that looks best on woodsy cottagecore exteriors.
Since starting sales, Blathies says she’s made enough to buy equipment to stream on Twitch, where she is now a partner. On Instagram, where Blathies shares images of her presets, her posts often get thousands of likes.
Several Animal Crossing players tell Polygon that crafting a memorable preset that people actually want to use, let alone pay for, can take many hours, if not days, of tinkering in Lightroom.
“The hardest part about putting a preset together is probably the need the keep it unique to you as a creator, making sure each preset has its own ‘concept’ to make it stand out from any other preset, as it can be easy for presets to look alike,” Sleepyluck says.
To help sell presets, many creators offer “before and after” comparison shots, along with seductive descriptions of the preset’s vibe. Sleepyluck’s baking-themed option, for example, extols that using the preset “will be like sprinkling that bit of powdered sugar over your freshly baked treats — it adds that extra sweetness and appeal!” It also can’t hurt that New Horizons, hot game that it is, has fairly active hashtags and groups across all major social media platforms. The marketing opportunities for good presets that help make your island stand out are endless.
The preset phenomenon is, of course, not unique to Animal Crossing; indeed, as a 2018 report from The Atlantic noted, these filters are a lucrative tool for influencers, who sell them in packages that can often cost hundreds of dollars. Said presets help these influencers establish feeds with a unified, trademark look, which can sometimes shift depending on the season.
To a certain degree, though, photographs are limited by what can reasonably pass for, well, reality. Spruced up, sure, but still genuine. When it comes to a video game, though, all the rules can go out the window. Nothing is real, after all, so why not make a preset based on the neon bear with galactic eyes? It’s no wonder that presets have become a popular tool within video game communities in general, especially for social experiences like Final Fantasy 14 and World of Warcraft, where players love to show off their hot new gear and lively communities.
In the case of Animal Crossing, presets are a great way to advertise your island as a place worth visiting, especially with the recent addition of the Dream Suite, which allows people to explore islands while the creator is offline.
“As much as Animal Crossing is about having fun, [it’s] also about making your island how you like it, which for a lot of people is [about] making it aesthetically pleasing,” says Animal Crossing preset creator Galacrossing, who has made filters downloaded by hundreds of fans. “When you make something you’re proud of, both online or in real life, you want to show it off and with the addition of presets, showing off your island is more enjoyable.”
According to Sleepyluck, making presets is “the best spontaneous decision” she’s made.
“It’s amazing because you don’t really think about it when you see a sale of $4 every now and then pop up in your emails,” she says. “But it quickly builds up!”