I played the first Animal Crossing game literally every day for a year straight. Only about 15 minutes a day — I’d pick some weeds, dig for gyroids, check what was on sale, talk to the animals, maybe leave a message for Miranda or Liesl in their mailboxes, occasionally redecorate my house a bit — but I really appreciated the ritual of those 15 minutes.

It hasn’t been a year since Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came out, and I’d be a little surprised if I were still playing it when it hit its one-year anniversary. But I’m still going after a little more than half a year.

A big part of that is that it gives me something to do while I’m, say, walking to and from the train station: it keeps my hands busy in a way that doesn’t interfere with podcast listening. (Though podcasts mean that I turn off the sounds and music from the game, even though they really are charming!) And it is certainly a mobile game, with many of the typical design choices that that entails. But it’s also an Animal Crossing game: there is some real heart there.


Part of being an Animal Crossing game is its slow pace: the game itself won’t give you much reason to play for long stretches at a time. So Pocket Camp is in an odd situation for a mobile game where, at least for series veterans, an energy mechanic doesn’t feel relevant: the series has always had an energy mechanic built in, with no way to pay to avoid it! With the somewhat weird result that Pocket Camp actually has less energy gating than prior games in the series: there’s something to do every three hours instead of every day.

And part of me appreciates that: it gives me something to on both my morning and evening commutes, but it’s also not going to be all-consuming in either commute, because I’ll run out of stuff to do. (At least externally-directed stuff to do, I can always spend time redecorating if I want, or just doing a lot of fishing and bug catching.) So it’s kind of a nice balance between having the game being there when I want a distraction but also explicitly stepping back, telling me not to spend all my time in it unless I’m finding something intrinsically rewarding.

Though that isn’t quite true, because one way in which Pocket Camp gives quite a bit less space than other games in the series is its treatment of events. Traditionally, events have been on holidays, and as a result, they felt special: they’re single days where the whole town celebrates, and they’re rare, so they’re a real punctuation from your daily life. Whereas in Pocket Camp, events are going on approximately two-thirds of the time, they last for a week or so at a time, and they reuse the same two or three mechanics; so events don’t feel special.

Which could, actually, be fine: maybe Pocket Camp’s events are simply a different type of mechanic from the main game’s holidays, maybe it’s better to analyze them as part of their regular gameplay. What I don’t like, though, is the way that the events give you an active encouragement to play the game every three hours: having the game available to play more than once a day is welcome, but having the game nudge me to play every few hours (if only by having me feel that I’ve missed something if I don’t get the time-limited event items) is a more significant step away from the space and calm nature of the original games.


Your interaction with other animals are different in Pocket Camp compared to earlier Animal Crossing games: more transactional, with animals explicitly asking for certain items (plants / animals) and giving you construction raw materials (including money) in return.

Which, on the one hand, does feel kind of impersonal. But I actually like it in some ways: my memory of the first Animal Crossing was that I was constantly being told to exchange letters with the animals, and entering the text of letters that the game couldn’t actually read and interpret had downsides.

So the way that I think about the transactions from a role-playing point of view is that you have a job: you’re not just friends with the other animals, you’re running a campsite. And part of that responsibility is that you’re, effectively, one of the shopkeepers. While the animals, in turn, have jobs in the outside world, so they have more easy access to other sorts of items. All of this gets cloaked in a weird gift economy, but I don’t necessarily see why I and the animals should have parallel roles in this game.

(And, incidentally: while the game mechanics are pretty minimal, focusing on being a shopkeeper does give you an excuse to pay attention to what mechanics there are. (Pro tip: each tree can store twice as much fruit as it looks like, because fruit on the ground doesn’t go away!) And paying attention to it over the course of months as the developers tweak the numbers did actually give me an appreciation for the effects of item drop rate choices that I haven’t gotten from other games.)


Though, don’t get me wrong, animals writing letters to each other definitely had its charm. There’s still some of that charm in Pocket Camp, though: the responses are canned, but there’s some amount of soul in the canning. And it’s up to you what stories you want to make up about animals that are actually staying in your camp: who stays, for how long, what triggers their leaving, and so forth.

For example, when animals reach level 20, they give you a picture: maybe what’s going on there is that the animals have to head back to their non-camp lives for a bit, so they’re giving you a picture to remember them by? Which, of course, gives you a narrative reason to kick them out of the camp and allow some other animal to come in and take their spot. (And level up and give you lots of extra material and so forth…)

Pocket Camp also has a friends mechanic; which mostly feels completely anonymous, having nothing to do with any sort of real friendship. (There’s no way of sending messages in game, though there’s a tiny amount of communication possible through minimal-bandwidth communication channels.) But Miranda was playing it as well for a while, so we could do things like show off our campsites and trailers to each other. And it actually can be pretty neat to see how random strangers decorate their campsites, too: there’s a lot of different choices you can make there. So it’s better to have that mechanic in the game than not: any sort of expressiveness is improved by a mechanic that allows you to have an audience.


All in all: not the best game in the series, certainly, and some of the mobile game design choices (most notably the recently-introduced cookie mechanic) have actively made it worse. But there’s still something there, I think.

And I miss weeding…

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