Most Animal Crossing games start the same. You, a cherubic human, move into a quaint town full of talking animals. In some games, you’re simply a resident; in others, you’re the mayor. But in the latest release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch, things are different. You first arrive at an almost completely deserted island; there’s an airport, a small service tent, and two animals ready to start a new life alongside you. The goal is to turn an uninhabited piece of land into a thriving community.
According to New Horizons director Aya Kyogoku, the change was designed as a way to shake things up for the long-running franchise. She particularly wanted to shift the way players interact with the world. “When we thought about changing those relationships between the user and the animals, we thought, ‘Well, what if we take away the village?’ Putting the player on a deserted island is the solution we came up with,” she tells The Verge.
The latest game in the series is filled with these kinds of changes. The Animal Crossing fundamentals remain largely the same — you live a quaint life, selling bugs and fish to pay off your mortgage — but the details are different. And most of these changes, according to Kyogoku, were designed to both lure in new players and keep existing ones interested. It’s a tough balancing act.
One of the biggest shifts is a new goal system called Nook Miles. The idea is that virtually everything you do in the game, from pulling weeds to chatting with neighbors, can earn you points called miles that can be redeemed for in-game items. It’s a structure reminiscent of many mobile games — and that’s not by accident. Kyogoku says that the system was designed in part for fans whose first Animal Crossing game was the mobile spinoff. “We did realize that a lot of the fans who started playing Animal Crossing for the first time with Pocket Camp may have difficulties jumping into titles like New Horizons,” she explains. “Nook Miles is just a way to facilitate the discovery of ways to play.”
That said, she also believes the structure will help longtime players who are already set in their ways. It can add a new dynamic to familiar actions. “I’m always about paying back the loans, so I want to try to make as many bells as possible. So I tend to go for more expensive insects and ignore common butterflies,” she says as an example. With the Nook Miles system, there are rewards for catching specific numbers of insects, no matter the type. “All of a sudden, critters like common butterflies will have a different value added to them,” she says.
Similar thinking went into the new crafting system. Instead of simply buying tools or furniture, players now have the option of making their own. With the right recipe and materials, you can turn a few twigs into a fishing rod or combine wood and iron to make a kitchen table. Crafting has become a key component in a huge range of games, from Fallout to Minecraft, but Kyogoku says its inclusion in Animal Crossing is tied to the new theme, as players are forced to spend more of their time dealing with the natural world. “We thought the users would be able to have a new relationship with nature,” she explains.
New Horizons’ other major shift is an increased focus on customization. You’ve always been able to tailor Animal Crossing to your liking, but the degree of customization has grown substantially. Players can put furniture outside, wear all kinds of detailed, multipiece outfits, and even tweak the style and color of their in-game smartphone’s case. Fashion, in particular, was upgraded for a very specific reason: since New Horizons has an increased focus on co-op play, it makes sense that players would want to show off for their friends.
“It’s completely natural for people to want to dress up, or want to buy new clothing items for that opportunity,” says New Horizons producer Hisashi Nogami. “It’s something that’s true of real life as well.” Fashion is becoming something of a trademark for Nogami, who also worked on the hip-hop and skate culture-inspired Splatoon series. “I do love putting cool sneakers in my games,” he admits.
All together, these changes make for an Animal Crossing that feels both familiar and refreshing. The charm and freedom that longtime fans love are still there, but with a structure and level of detail that are new for the series. “We wanted to create an experience that both old fans and new fans could enjoy,” says Kyogoku.