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You're not crazy: Tom Nook is nicer in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The creators of the Nintendo Switch's island simulation escape talk about Tom Nook, the NookPhone and the game's sense of community in strange times.

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I'm having warmer feelings toward Tom Nook.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Switch has arrived to promise a virtual escape for many of us who can't go out right now. I've been playing Animal Crossing for three weeks now, and compared with previous versions I've already felt a different sense of community on the game's deserted island setting... which, eventually, becomes not so deserted.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons' director, Aya Kyogoku, and producer, Hisashi Nogami, talked to me about the new game and the process of creating it via a phone call between my home in New Jersey and Nintendo in Japan.

Excerpts from our conversation are below, translated by Nintendo.

I have a question from my 7-year-old son who has been playing for a couple of weeks. He was curious why you chose to put this game on an abandoned island.

Kyogoku: The Animal Crossing series has been around for about 20 years. For fans who have started playing with the GameCube version, as well as your son, who's probably a new fan, we wanted to make sure we give them a new experience. Back in New Leaf [on the 3DS], there was a village and then the player would move to the village, start a new life and became a mayor. This whole concept of starting a new life was an Animal Crossing worldview. But when we started developing New Horizons, we felt that if we didn't change the elements of players moving to a village, nothing really would change. Even the interaction with animals wouldn't change either. We started to think about, what about if we take away the village and then move the player to a deserted island. And then, as we started exploring that, we realized two things that we needed to do. The first thing is, because there's nothing on this deserted island, I think you've noticed that DIY crafting has become a big element in the game. Users are able to get wood from the trees, or get stone from a big boulder. These elements that used to only be visual backgrounds like trees and rocks, actually became a source of crafting. And so we were able to give the users a different perspective of what used to be just a visual aspect.

And because the users are moving to a deserted island, they have to develop their own village. This new addition of having to create their own village from the ground up and then start their traditional Animal Crossing life after that... we were able to give them a new relationship with their island or their village, to the old fans of the series. Creating a village from zero, I think we were able to give them a new way of playing. Animal Crossing games are... sometimes people say that it's hard to find the goals. I think we were able to give them a sense of purpose easily and earlier on in the game by having to create a new village.

The NookPhone. You know, I laughed when I saw it introduced. I usually think about escapes from my own life being about getting away from my phone. But here you go to a deserted island, and you have a phone, but I didn't find that it was the same type of phone as I'm used to thinking of when I am glued to a screen. It was more helpful, functional. I was curious about your thoughts on introducing a phone in a game that's also about taking an escape.

Kyoguku: This is not just about the phone or the phones, but throughout the Animal Crossing series, just like home loans, we try to take real life elements into the game. By having these general elements that are familiar to us, in everyday life, we believe that it's easy for the users to understand how they function immediately.

Although there are people who want to lessen their screen time in their everyday life, I believe that phones are a tool that comes in really handy, with functions like cameras and maps on it. And so we believe that by having a NookPhone, which is, like you said, a really nifty tool that helps out with your life on a deserted island, we thought it'd be a really good match to have a smartphone which is a familiar item in our real life, and then to have that in the game to help users unlock these different elements like the camera or the the critterpedia.

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Tom Nook's been there from the beginning.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

I had a question about Tom Nook. I felt that in some ways, playing this, he almost seemed kinder. I was curious if you felt that way about him. You know, in the way that the island becomes about crafting and not entirely about buying things at the store. The communal feel felt stronger, like we were all doing it together.

Nogami: Well, I do want to make a note that Tom Nook has always been a great guy, he's always been a good dude. Maybe you felt that way because his role in this game has changed a little bit. Tom Nook has always played a key role in maintaining the motivation of the player to continue to play the game. But then as a host character, we've always had somebody else.

And because New Horizons is set on a deserted island, and the first person you see is Tom Nook introducing you and welcoming you to the island, and then he continues to support your life on the island -- maybe because he's taking care of the player a little bit more than the previous series, maybe you may sense that he's gotten nicer.

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Kyoguku: Even if the player didn't have any money, he would offer you a new home. And he'd even offer you a loan. And then if you can't pay him back, then he'll wait forever without really bothering you, and he'll never get angry that you've never paid him back, either. That said, he's always been a pretty good guy. But then in the past games, players may have only interacted with him when they were making big purchases, like buying a home, and then once that's paid off, Tom would just go ahead and expand the home without even checking in with the player, so maybe the impression that the players got back then was that he was money-hungry and he was always out to get your money. But he is a really caring guy, a bit of a busybody. And so he might give a wrong impression. But I do want to mention that he's had a self-reflection since the past series. Now, he actually asks the player whether the player wants an expansion to their home or not. I want to encourage the fans to pick up on a good side of Tom Nook when they play the game.

I played all the Animal Crossings I can think of going back to the GameCube version. And I'll start with saying that, you know, it was so influential. I was working at Sony Online Entertainment at the time (of the GameCube version), and I remember a game designer friend was telling me that I should play this game. Even though it wasn't an online world, it was inspiring, I think, for a lot of people who make online worlds and think about community. I was curious about your thoughts about that, and what's changed over the years.

Nogami: I think Animal Crossing falls under the genre "communication game." Originally when I started creating this, one thing I had in mind was that I wanted to create a game where there's a single save data, where multiple people can play on. Back then, with console games, online games weren't a big huge thing. I wanted to make a game where, although the players weren't able to play simultaneously, they'd be able to switch, and play together on a single save and create communication among them. Although the communication aspect was the base concept of creating the Animal Crossing series, one of the big elements is that users will try to collect little nuggets that they can share with their friends and family. And throughout the series, I think we have broadened the single-player aspect, and how users will be able to share the experience that they played through their solo play. Throughout the series I think we've always made sure that simultaneous players were able to play together. This has been a theme throughout the series. The way to play together has evolved, to online type play, and then with New Horizons, you're able to do sharing play using switch technology. And so the communication has shifted a little bit to direct communication.

I wanted to talk about, globally, everything that's been going on now. With Animal Crossing coming out, I was feeling when I played it has an even more powerful impact as far as creating a sense of community, giving people a sense of positive feelings between people. It's role, in a sense, of community building or hopefulness at a time when people are all being shut in and maybe feeling they don't have their community.

Nogami: Knowing there are people affected by the current events that are happening in the world right now, it definitely does sadden and dishearten us as well. In Japan, we have a little bit of a delay in Switch hardware production. So new fans who are wanting to play New Horizons aren't able to purchase the hardware, and they're having a hard time finding it. Because Animal Crossing: New Horizons is being released at this time and when the world is going through such a tough situation, I really do hope that many people will be able to enjoy this game.

Are there any planned updates to Animal Crossing that because of the coronavirus are facing difficulties?

Nogami: The only thing I can say is we actually don't know. This is the first time something like this has happened to us as well, and to the world. And we also notice that things are evolving every day. We really can't predict what will happen tomorrow, so it's really hard to say.

How much do you see New Horizons evolving over time versus other animal crossing games? You know, are there possibilities of expansions or things like more fish or fossils? How far could this expand, and will there be future updates?

Kyoguku: So as far as the actual details and planning of the updates, we're still working on it. We want you to wait for further details to be announced. But I can definitely say that I'm really sure there will be an update and this includes Bunny Day for April. Animal Crossing is a game where you're able to enjoy seasonal changes throughout the year, and it syncs with real time and through that you are able to basically sync your real life with the game. We want to make sure that in two years or three years down the road, players will still continue to find new surprises in the game. So we hope to create an update that you can do that with.

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Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Are there any features that you always wanted to add to Animal Crossing: New Horizons that you didn't get a chance to add this time or that didn't quite make the cut?

Kyoguku: I think the release version game has all the specs that we wanted to include in there. However, I mentioned earlier, because we want to make sure that users will be able to find new surprises and new gain elements as they play for years down the road, we wanted to make sure that we add something for that.

Nogami: So throughout the series though, in the past games after we've released them, there were times when we were like, oh, we should have put that spec in this title. After we released the Wii version, we were thinking, "Oh, it would have been so fun if two players could simultaneously play together." And then we were able to make that happen with New Horizons because, as you know, the Switch hardware has two controllers.

This could be said with the DS version, too, where we introduced internet connection. Some of the things that we've always wanted to do, or we had an idea to do, are achievable because of hardware advancements. And then there are also the social advancements; society evolves constantly. Maybe we'll have new ideas we would want to implement in a future update.

I know that Animal Crossing is a little different with that. It, um, it doesn't do cloud saves at the moment. I thought there was talk that might happen. My family played in an unusual way. I created an island on a Switch Lite. And then on my account on the secondary Switch, my kids logged on and created a different Island because it seemed to allow that, so now we have two different islands. I don't know if they'll ever really, you know, coexist and I would love to be able to take my island and play it on a TV, instead of being on the Switch Lite. Are there thoughts of supporting that and making cloud saves easier on Animal Crossing?

Nogami: So right now we're trying to give users two types of function. The first thing is, when the users lose or break their Switch, then we will provide a backup save data that was saved on the server. And then the second one is when the user buys a new Nintendo Switch, then we will transfer that account for them. For the data transfer for new Switch purchases, there are two ways. The first one is to transfer the entire island data onto the new Switch. And then the second method is to extract one of the players that are living on the island, and extract that player's save data onto the new Switch hardware. In your case, since you have two Switches, it's basically considered that you have two separate islands and two separate save data on each of the Switch that you own.

Kyoguku: So I wanted to clarify how you're playing, Scott. Does that mean that you have downloaded the software on the Switch and then you have the software on the other Switch and you're just kind of playing it whenever you want to play on your secondary Switch?

Exactly, but on the same account, because that's how I have it set up to access that and so it created a second Island, but their two islands kind of have the same account.

Kyoguku: Maybe in your situation if you want to experience the party mode, then the easiest way would be to create another user on the secondary Switch and then add a player and then move them into the island and experience party play.