If, like me, you’re a 20-to-30-something with too much spare time on your hands, the chances are you may have been playing a lot of Animal Crossing over the last three months.
In April, I wrote about how the global gaming industry was being affected by the coronavirus outbreak, touching briefly on the extraordinary popularity of the latest title in the Animal Crossing series: New Horizons.
Announced in June 2019, it was initially intended for release in late 2019, but the launch was delayed until March 2020, a move which Nintendo bosses claimed was to “ensure the game was the best it could be”. Little did Nintendo know that this delay would coincide its release with the coronavirus outbreak, rocketing the much-anticipated New Horizons from modest success to outright superstardom.
1.8 million copies were sold in Japan within the first three days of its release and it secured its place as the third-biggest Nintendo launch in the US, beating other popular titles like Mario, Zelda and Pokémon. As of mid-May, 13.4 million copies had been sold worldwide, half of which were acquired via digital download, outselling all of its prequels combined in some markets.
However, the 2020 Animal Crossing phenomenon wasn’t purely brought about by coincidence – after all, the franchise is almost twenty years in the making. Here’s my take on how a mixture of branding, marketing and game design has helped to make this game such a hit, all the while being given a big boost by these unprecedented circumstances.
Its brand positioning ensured it was poised for success in lockdown
Animal Crossing has a brand positioning that resonates particularly well when placed in the context of a worldwide pandemic. First and foremost, like most Nintendo games, it has a universal appeal that traverses the common barriers of age, language and prior gaming experience that are typically present in more conventional games like first person shooters.
Animal Crossing is also completely family friendly (its PEGI rating is 3+), making it an ideal way to pass the time when forcefully stuck at home with your relatives for months on end. Its colourful design, simple syntax and easy controls ensure that casual gamers, or even those entirely new to the hobby (as many have been since the outbreak) have the most frictionless experience possible when picking up the game for the first time. Furthermore, the multiplayer functionality of Animal Crossing is another USP for families, something that has become surprisingly rare amongst other consoles, but a forté of Nintendo’s since the launch of both the DS and Wii.
The social simulation game is also approachable in its wider gameplay. The majority of video games are competitive, often encouraging players to vie for a place on a leaderboard or defeat each other in battle. Animal Crossing games instead focus on co-operation – its mechanics allow for easy trading and sharing of items, locally or over the internet, so that growing a collection relies on the assistance of others in the community.
Consequently, this makes the overall experience of the game very relaxing, as players can play at their own pace without having to worry about leveling up or completing a storyline before their peers do. It also goes without saying that the premise of the game is equally calming – building up and decorating a once deserted island from scratch and inviting anthropomorphic animals to live as your fellow neighbours, with a pleasant jazzy soundtrack that changes to reflect the time of day.
Combine all three aspects of its core branding I just covered – accessibility, community and relaxation – and you’ve met the needs of a population that, more than ever, craves easy but engaging ways to spend free time at home, social connection and escapism from an anxiety-inducing reality.
Built for longevity
It’s also hard to deny that the game has been designed thoughtfully, expanding and improving on past versions to produce visually stunning and engaging gameplay.
One of Animal Crossing’s biggest selling points is that it’s built for longevity. Unlike a typical video game with 50 hours of content, a dedicated storyline and a levelling system, this one is not designed to be beaten. It runs in real-time, with tasks like growing trees or collecting materials requiring patience and sometimes multiple days to complete. Meanwhile, seasonal updates introduce additional creatures and items to collect and players can endlessly customise their islands as new tools become available to them.
As a result, the gameplay encourages the majority of players to check back into the game on an almost daily basis – something that, with all the extra free time available under lockdown, quickly forms a habit. These habits will do Nintendo even more favours in the long-run as the pandemic eases and players continue to incorporate Animal Crossing into their daily routines (although likely in smaller doses), opening up further opportunities for gameplay or content updates, extended marketing campaigns and brand collaborations later down the line.
The fact that Switch owners are still playing Animal Crossing as avidly as ever, more than three months after its release, while partly down to lengthy coronavirus restrictions, is testament to its place as a long-term form of entertainment rather than a short-term solution to pass the time. While the current surge in gaming activity will reduce as life returns to normal, many will now consider the game as a go-to method of relaxation after a day at work or school.
With the launch of every new console and game, Nintendo also brings a dose of nostalgia that appeals to an audience that grew up surrounded by its earlier hit products like the N64, NES, GameBoy and DS. That is not to say the company has not since captured the imaginations of following generations – quite the opposite, in fact – as I mentioned earlier, that is one of the key features of Nintendo’s marketing strategy. Its multi-generational appeal is what makes its branding so universally admired and has gamers coming back for more, whether that’s returning to Mario, Zelda or Animal Crossing titles.
Of course, this long-term marketing strategy has a much larger impact on the popularity of games like Animal Crossing than it is given credit for. As Daniel Litwin so excellently summarised on his podcast Business Casual:
“[Nintendo] built a community through their marketing; through years of honing their message, their visuals, who they advertise to… the success of the Nintendo Switch and Animal Crossing wouldn’t be as potent if they hadn’t already had that vision for decades.”
Let’s not forget the effect nostalgia can have on the minds of consumers. It is not surprising that, given the current state of affairs, some have returned to a game remembered so fondly from childhood, when life was just that little bit simpler.
Brands woke up to new possibilities in virtual marketing
Marketing departments have essentially been forced to think of new ways to execute their marketing strategies over the past few months. Budgets were tightened and ad spend dwindled. However, it was clear immediately after the game’s release that New Horizons was set to become a global phenomenon, presenting a new opportunity for brands.
Fashion houses like Marc Jacobs and Valentino showcased virtual runway collections on Animal crossing which players’ characters could wear for free. Meanwhile, KFC Philippines partnered with Ogilvy, creating a KFC island which gave a limited number of lucky guests the opportunity to win vouchers for real-life KFC menu items.
Leisure brands were also quick to redefine tourism marketing, an area which has been severely impacted since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Singapore’s Sentosa Island was one such brand, working with creative agency BBH Singapore to create a virtual replica of the leisure resort in just twelve days. Speaking to The Drum during its Can Do Festival, Sentosa’s director of brand, marketing and communications, Mira Bharin explained:
“Uses of digital, like gamification and online platforms, really build on the strengths of a leisure destination. We were tapping on our iconic island offerings to connect us with our guests digitally.
…It was so powerful for us because it really synergizes what our brand stands for. We are an island, a holiday island. I think that‘s key learning – to not jump on a trend just for the sake of jumping on the trend, but to link it to your brand identity.”
While Sentosa didn’t officially partner with Animal Crossing, this is a fantastic case study in adaptation during a crisis by extending marketing strategies onto new digital platforms, thereby adding to the uniqueness of the game’s overall experience.
User-generated content (word of mouth)
In this age of social media, as with any other trend, there has been an astounding quantity of user-generated content surrounding this game, which acts as a secondary form of marketing, whether or not Nintendo decides to acknowledge it on its official channels.
Video-based social platforms like TikTok and YouTube have become particularly prominent sources of such content. Videos related to Animal Crossing, from tutorials to decorating tips, and glitches to full-blown island tours, more often than not become viral for their humour, helpfulness or sheer creativity. As of the time of writing, TikTok posts tagged with #animalcrossing now have a total of 3.2bn views.
Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Brie Larson, among many others, have also been actively posting about their experience of and progress on Animal Crossing: New Horizons via social media, having found themselves equally trapped in stasis since late March.
Meanwhile, US house representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez carried out virtual ‘house calls’ by visiting islands of other US citizens, interacting with them and signing their in-game bulletin boards with the Switch’s touchscreen functionality.
Animal Crossing’s cult popularity across social media, made up of both regular consumers and celebrities alike, has boosted the game’s visibility, tapping into audiences that would not have necessarily been reached by Nintendo in the first place (despite its marketing prowess). Of course, this has been exacerbated by the fact that social app activity and content consumption has skyrocketed since stay-at-home orders were enforced.
As a result, it has created even more hype and demand for the product than was originally generated at launch. So much so, that Nintendo has had to forcibly crack down on black market operations on eBay and ‘Nookazon’ (an unofficial Amazon-esque selling platform for the game), where enthusiasts often pay extortionate sums of in-game or real-life currency in exchange for their favourite villagers and items, sold by other players.
When all is said and done, would Animal Crossing be quite as popular if a global pandemic hadn’t coincided with its release? Probably not.
More likely, it would have been picked up by a number of people who either already owned a Switch, or were willing to buy one in order to experience the game’s latest manifestation as loyal fans of the series. This would still easily have made it one of the most popular games of the year, but not quite the phenomenon it has become in recent months, and brands would have been much less likely to notice any marketing opportunity that might have presented itself.
Although gaming has seen a surge in uptake across the board since social distancing restrictions were enforced, it’s unlikely that the timely release of any other title in its place would have struck such a chord with consumers as Animal Crossing: New Horizons has. The amalgamation of community-focused gameplay and relaxing mechanics and visuals, as well as Nintendo’s long-term marketing vision, proved to be the ideal combination for gamers looking to escape their new temporary reality.