The Video Games Issue

Why Animal Crossing's future could look surprisingly similar to GTA

What's next for Nintendo's hottest franchise?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the undisputed video-game champion of 2020.

Released on March 20, the charming life simulator was a relaxing escape for those stuck at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, giving friends a way to stay connected during extraordinarily difficult times. To date, New Horizons has sold more than 26 million units worldwide, making it the second best-selling Switch title ever, behind Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It’s likely to surpass even that record by the end of the year.

New Horizons has been critical to Nintendo's 2020 success. While first-party titles have been in short supply throughout the year, the company sold a staggering 735,000 Switch units in October 2020, just weeks ahead of the global launches of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. A once-niche series, Animal Crossing has become an S-tier behemoth alongside Mario and Zelda.

How can the company keep that momentum going in 2021 and beyond? Inverse spoke with an Animal Crossing content creator and Nintendo expert to find out.

In this screengrab, Animal Crossing characters speak during Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 on May 16, 2020.Getty Images for EIF & XQ

Planting the seed

New Horizons’ massive popularity in 2020 caught many observers by surprise, but Nintendo fans have watched the franchise slowly expand its audience over nearly two decades. Stealth40k, a widely recognized Nintendo authority with a 36,000-strong Twitter following, sees the franchise’s 2005 debut on the DS handheld as a pivotal moment. (Stealth declined to share his full name with Inverse owing to privacy concerns.)

“I viewed the franchise as one of Nintendo’s B-tier series going into the game’s first sequel, Animal Crossing: Wild World,” Stealth tells Inverse. “Then Wild World sold over 10 million units. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the series between the first game and its sequel, but once one game hits 10 million, you see the potential.”

That momentum built over the next decade, with 2013’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS eventually selling nearly 13 million units. Still, those numbers pale in comparison to what New Horizons accomplished in less than a year. The game has already doubled that number and gained global phenomenon status in nine months. President-elect Joe Biden and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both used New Horizons as an outreach tool in 2020, a further testament to the Switch game’s mainstream popularity.

Capitalizing on that success presents a unique challenge for Nintendo. Unlike its other franchises, the answer isn’t as simple as creating a new installment every other year or so. Animal Crossing is the closest thing Nintendo has to a live-service game like Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto Online, the multiplayer spinoff of 2013's Grand Theft Auto 5. It's a model worth emulating, as GTAV and Online are poised to make the leap to a third generation of consoles, having sold 135 million copies. Nintendo shows no signs of slowing down support for New Horizons anytime soon, and fans don’t seem eager to move on to the next game either.

Ben from YouTube's Crossing Channel, which bosts more than 150,000 subscribers, says New Horizons has managed to retain a sizable audience for significantly longer than previous installments in the franchise.

“By this point in New Leaf’s life-cycle, I recall the community being much quieter,” Ben explains. “That being said, even New Leaf’s community lasted for a very very long time, way up until New Horizons came out — and people still actively play it. I can’t imagine interest in New Horizons drying up any time soon, with the game's frequent updates being rolled out by Nintendo.”

New Horizons is going to be supported for at least two to three more years with updates,” adds Stealth. “I don’t think we’re going to see a new mainline Animal Crossing until Nintendo’s new system, after the Switch.”

Tending the garden

With 2012’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Nintendo gave players their first glimpse at a long-tailed version of the series could look like. Three years after its initial release, Nintendo released a free update for all players, adding amiibo support, minigames, and a separate campground area to the game. The content drop freshened up the 3DS game, giving fans a good reason to log back in and reckon with their weed-infested villages.

New Horizons’ content roll-out is more consistent by comparison. In its first year, the game has received a new museum wing, a diving update, and a slew of seasonal events. Looking back at previous games, there’s still plenty of room for Nintendo to expand the world even more over the next few years. Rotating vendors like Kicks could get their own dedicated shops in the vein of New Leaf, while series staples like Brewster’s coffee shop have yet to be added.

Stealth sees the potential for more radical gameplay shifts. “They can do the 'more of everything' route with more items and customization, or they could kind of change the core of the series,” he explains. “They could introduce more of a Harvest Moon feel to it by adding a farming element. That would be a really cool next step.”

Even if nothing quite so game-changing makes it into New Horizons, there’s still plenty of updates fans can expect throughout 2021. New seasonal items, furniture, and events will continue to come to the game regularly as it continues to keep players hooked.

That’s certainly healthy sign for New Horizons’ future, but it’s less clear if that will keep the franchise top of mind for players beyond 2020. Mainline Mario and Zelda games come out every few years, but Nintendo has found plenty of opportunities to bridge those gaps with side-games and spinoffs. Since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released in 2017, Nintendo pushed the series’ momentum with a Link’s Awakening remake, indie rhythm game Cadence of Hyrule, and this year’s Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, which acts as a prequel to the Switch hit.

Animal Crossing's laid-back vibes are an essential part of its appeal, but that may not translate well to spin-offs.Nintendo

Apples to oranges

It would be difficult to replicate this approach with Animal Crossing, which has a chill, open-ended gameplay loop that doesn't easily translate across genres.

“Nintendo has shown that they’ll make spin-offs with anything, but it’s hard to wrap my head around that with Animal Crossing,” Stealth explains. “With Splatoon, the series is a shooter, but I can definitely see a strategy or platformer spin-off, even though there haven’t been yet. Could I think of Animal Crossing as a platformer, or an RPG, or a shooter? Not really.”

New Horizons’ success won’t inherently rub off on anything carrying its name. In 2015, Nintendo tried to capitalize on New Leaf with two spin-offs. Happy Home Designer turned house decorating into a full game with mixed success, while digital board game Amiibo Festival was a bonafide financial flop, moving fewer than one million units. Given the potential upside, however, Nintendo’s likely to try that route again post-New Horizons. While a Happy Home Designer sequel could fare better today than it did on the 3DS, New Horizons already offers players extensive decorating and customization options.

A more likely roadmap to success may come from Nintendo’s mobile game, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. In the week after New Horizons released, Pocket Camp saw a 229 percent increase in downloads. Nintendo’s commitment to the mobile game has only grown in the months since. The game’s most recent update adds a Pokemon Go-like AR camera, giving users more reasons to keep the app installed. There’s still room to create an even stronger ecosystem between New Horizons and Pocket Camp, like allowing players to check the Nooklings’ daily inventory or learning about the day's visiting vendors could turn Pocket Camp into a must-have companion app.

With a longstanding reputation for poor support of online games, Nintendo must now navigate an aspect of the modern gaming landscape it has long preferred to ignore. The gaming giant must continue to treat New Horizons as an ongoing game to sustain Animal Crossing’s massive popularity. Perhaps the best mentor the company can look to is Tom Nook, that business-minded raccoon who’s always got that next sales pitch ready to go.

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