Animal Crossing: New Horizons — a game about making friends and kicking ugly people off your island — recently took the world by storm, with many experiencing Animal Crossing for the first time, myself included. At a time when the world was shutting itself in and hoarding toilet paper, Animal Crossing: New Horizons promised a fantasy island getaway that you could build yourself while hanging out with your friends.
While the 2020 global pandemic certainly played a part in the success of the latest entry in the Animal Crossing franchise, it doesn’t explain why it was successful prior, or why other sim like games didn’t see a similar surge in popularity during the global shut down. With over 13 million copies sold just in the first 6 weeks of launch, what exactly caused Animal Crossing fever?
To answer this question we have to look back two decades to where the franchise started, with Katsuya Eguchi, who is credited with being the creator of the Animal Crossing series. Katsuya had been working at Nintendo since 1986 on several popular titles such as Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World, Star Fox and more.
His inspiration for the first Animal Crossing game came from his experience of having to move from his home town in Chiba Prefecture, to go work at Nintendo over in Kyoto at the age of 21. This meant moving over 310 miles to an entirely new city. Katsuya often shared how this experience left him feeling extremely lonely, having to have left his family and friends behind. This was 1986 — the only way to stay in touch was either through old fashioned mail, or paying long-distance fees for telephone calls!
From its very beginnings, the franchise would take inspiration from a very human experience: the feeling of being alone in a new town, away from friends and family. Katsuya has been quoted as wondering for a long time if there would be any way to recreate that feeling of spending time with friends, talking to them or even playing with them. Could those feelings be captured in a game, he wondered? Remember, that this is long before online gaming.
And so were born the three themes of the Animal Crossing franchise: family, friendship and community. These themes are fundamental core values shared by humans across the world regardless of religion, race or culture. So it’s no surprise that the game resonates with such a wide demographic today. However, it takes more than some core values to build such a monumental and successful franchise.
Over the next 19 years, Animal Crossing would maintain these themes in each iteration, while introducing and fleshing out new mechanics and gameplay loops. Speaking of which, what exactly do you do in Animal Crossing?
Like other Animal Crossing non-natives, I found myself asking this question over and over again before buying the game. The consistent answer from players was uninspired: “You have to play it to understand it”. That sounds like some weird cultist business right there. In truth though, since I’ve picked up the game myself, I’ve become a believer. Animal Crossing is indeed best understood by playing, versus looking at a review or any kind of commercial. This would be in part why the franchise would need so many years to hit its stride.
The very first Animal Crossing game debuted in Japan on the Nintendo 64 on April 14, 2001. It wouldn’t see a western release until a year later, when an enhanced re-release would come out for the GameCube.
Right from the get-go the game had many features which are still standard to this day. You play as a human who arrives in a new town inhabited by animal villagers, and go about doing quite mundane things. There’s no specific purpose, other than to live your life fishing, catching bugs, digging for fossils, making friends, paying off loans, growing and decorating your house. All of this is done in real-time, meaning time in-game passes at the same pace as time in the real-world — whether the game is on or off. This opened the door to new game opportunities, like limited time events around Christmas or Halloween.
Players would be encouraged to boot up the game every day to discover potential new surprises or changes in their game’s world. Keep in mind, this is before the days of social media or game updates. This means that most players would come across new events or changes in the game usually by just logging in and being surprised at a new discovery — or by rummaging through online forums.
Imagine the kind of surprise of not knowing what would change in your game each day you’d boot it up. It’s kind of like waking up and checking the news in 2020 — but in a positive kind of way.
This created an aura of wonder. It was the game that kept on giving everyday, or every other day or whatever the frequency was. For console games, this was way ahead of its time. The game would go on to be a commercial success, selling over 2 million copies worldwide, securing its spot as the 6th best selling game on the GameCube and receiving high review scores across the board.
Over the next 10 years, Nintendo would release three more titles for the DS, Wii & 3DS, each selling more than its predecessor…except for the Wii version, which we’ll talk about in a moment.
The DS and 3DS entries of Animal Crossing added a very important aspect to the game: portability. Now players could check-up on their homes and virtual world wherever they were. This also meant that the game could be shown off and discovered by many more players, since the game is so reliant on the “you have to play it to understand it” logic.
On top of portability, these entries would also add online play which allowed players to finally visit each other’s villages. Both these portable entries would break the 10 million units sold mark, selling over 11 million and 12 million respectively.
Now, the Wii version of Animal Crossing, Animal Crossing City Folk sold just 3.38 million, a meager number considering the franchise’s success and the Wii’s lucrative sales. Many critics complained the game didn’t really add anything, other than moving all the shops to a city for you to travel to and from.
The game also came bundled with Wii Speak, another pointless accessory to fill your actual home with. The microphone was intended to let you talk to your friends, but as expected it was pretty low quality. Unfortunately, to this day, even with the Nintendo Switch, the ability to talk to your friends in game remains an unsolvable mystery to Nintendo.
After Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s successful launch on the 3DS in 2012, the franchise is hitting new records, securing a larger fan-base than ever before. The series takes all of the features from the past decade, and adds in even more customization and features, including mayoral duties as you take charge of developing a new town. At this point, Animal Crossing is starting to hit levels of virality like never before.
However, over the following years Nintendo would focus on priming the franchise and cementing it as one of their strongest IPs. The world of Animal Crossing would begin holding a spot in major franchises such as Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros alongside legendary IPs such as Mario, Zelda and Pokemon.
Nintendo would also introduce spin-off titles, keeping the IP fresh while further developing new ideas and mechanics. In Animal Crossing Happy Home Designer for the 3DS, Nintendo would refine the home decorating aspect of the franchise, now fully incorporated in the main-line game with New Horizons. Then, New Leaf — Welcome Amiibo and Amiibo Festival would experiment with Nintendo’s latest craze, the amiibo, to mixed success. Let’s just say it’s a good thing Amiibo Festival was launched on the Wii U, a platform which limited the potential damage that game could have caused to the Animal Crossing IP.
Still, with the hype of amiibo, Animal Crossing’s cast now stood side by side with all of Nintendo’s greatest characters in stores around the world. Looking at the bargain bins, it’s obvious they didn’t quite have the same appeal. Still, now more than ever consumers were aware of Animal Crossing and some of its characters — for better or for worse.
Lasty, during these times of experimentation, Nintendo would also launch the mobile title: Animal Crossing Pocket Camp, offering a bite-size Animal Crossing experience for free to anyone with a phone. All of these subtle marketing pushes would play together to bolster the Animal Crossing IP to new heights than ever before. When Animal Crossing: New Horizons would finally be announced, and the fan-base erupted with cheer, a lot more people took notice.
That, plus the fact that the Nintendo Switch could bring all the best aspects of previous entries together — online functionality, portability, console graphics and the ability to stream the game easily online — would ensure the new title would be a success at launch. Add to that the unexpected global crisis forcing people indoors and looking for new things to try, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons would catapult to the top of sales chart and kick-off Animal Crossing fever like never before.
So if I had to sum it up in one sentence, Animal Crossing is so popular due to two decades of marketing efforts and careful design choices that added to an already successful formula that plays to the core human need of feeling connected with a community, friends and family. And that is a challenge that is easier said than done, but Nintendo has done it.