COVID-19 and Gaming: What Game Developers and Game Studios Can Learn from the Success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

As Covid-19 changes every aspect of our lives, from how we work to how we spend our free time, there’s a unique opportunity for game developers and studios to adapt their marketing strategy and fill a new hunger in the market. The cancellation of key gaming events and conferences has changed the industry, and the success of games like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons points the way forward during these troubling times. Let’s take a look at what makes New Horizons so special.

A Feat in Games Marketing: New Horizons’ Record Breaking Launch

In Japan alone, New Horizons set a Nintendo Switch launch record by selling 1.88 million copies in the first 3 days after its release on March 20th, 2020 — as Japanese citizens were being asked to follow more and more quarantine restrictions.  After just 10 days, New Horizons exceeded 2.6 million sales in the region. This doesn’t even include digital sales. Woah, that’s a big launch!

Animal Crossing is outselling Nintendo's top titles
In the first few weeks since launch, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is outselling Nintendo’s top and fastest selling Switch titles: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Data from Game Data Library

While we don’t have any North American numbers yet, it’s clear that New Horizons is a phenomenon this side of the pond as well. What can game publishers and studios learn from this success?

Tapping into Nostalgia

The first Animal Crossing game was released in North America in late 2002 on the Nintendo GameCube. For many gamers who were not so enamored with the fast-paced fighting game Super Smash Bros. Melee (released the year prior), Animal Crossing provided a more casual gaming experience. No longer were players subjected to being crushed by their older brothers in Melee, but instead enjoy building our quiet little villages and not worry about being competitive.

Animal Crossing also introduced a novel game mechanic: using the GameCube’s built-in clock, the game ran in real-time. Along with its cheerful graphics and soundtrack, the real-time gameplay made Animal Crossing unique and memorable.

With the last game in the Animal Crossing main series being released in 2012, fans of the franchise have been trying to fill the hole in our hearts with farming simulators and spin-off games like Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp for mobile.

In the wake of this pandemic, I’ve missed coming home after school to plant money trees, interact with my animal neighbors and yes, even be yelled at by Mr. Resetti for turning off my game without saving (oops!).

Animal Crossing: New Horizons provides the familiarity that so many have been looking for right now. Players don’t need to learn new mechanics as the game plays similar to previous titles. They get to interact with their favorite characters and relive good memories through the nostalgic tunes of K.K. Slider. Now that the world feels so chaotic and unpredictable, the nostalgia is comforting.

Nostalgia can be a driving component in your game’s marketing strategy. Check out how AE helped a major record label to use nostalgia marketing to engage their fans.

Routines for “Normal” Living

With social distancing measures and parks being shut down, we’re no longer enjoying weekly outings with friends. We’re wanting to complete projects around the house, but are faced with the dilemma of whether or not it’s okay to order gardening tools because it’s not really essential.

In comes New Horizons, a game that provides the player with an escape to a chill, stress-free world. On my island, I don’t need to worry about the risk of going to the local garden centre — Nook’s Cranny is open and I can plant flowers if I want to. Players have a chance to feel productive in New Horizons without the stress that real-world productivity can bring.

New Horizons runs in real time. There are certain tasks (like finding fossils) that can only be done once a day. So instead of my daily walk to work in the morning, I’m running around my island to dig up fossils. Players are encouraged to do these tasks daily through in-game rewards. We can establish a regular routine, something that many of us are craving in these uncertain times.

The game also has little, if any, consequences and the players’ success is entirely self-defined. There’s no “losing” or “game over” in New Horizons, and that’s incredibly appealing in a world where we all feel like we are “losing” right now.

Virtual Social Events

In the times of social distancing, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of New Horizons’ gameplay is the ability to connect meaningfully with others through the game. While developers like Epic Games have hosted hugely successful in-game events as part of their marketing strategy, New Horizons allows for smaller, more intimate social interaction.

New Horizons allows for players to visit and interact with their friends’ islands, something that people have been taking advantage of in order to hold social events that they currently cannot have in the real world. One Reddit user even held an in-game wedding in light of having to cancel their real life wedding due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reddit user holds in-game wedding in Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Reddit user Ashmush said “My fiance planned it out with our best friends, Im [sic] graduating from med school and not getting a graduation and our wedding was cancelled.”

Direct Sharing

Since the pandemic, many of my non-gamer friends have come to the darkside of being forever indebted to Tom Nook. While Animal Crossing has always had a large fanbase, there’s been a substantial influx of new players with the release of New Horizons. Many people are even buying a Switch or Switch Lite console for the sole purpose of playing the game!

Players of Animal Crossing: New Horizons are talking to their friends and family about the game. I’ve personally been texting or messaging non-gaming family members gushing about it, and have had non-gamer friends reach out to ask for my “friend code” so that they can join me in game.

Redditor's mom sent them a text about Animal Crossing
Redditor WhiskerMeowTown’s text from their non-gamer mom.

Without our normal activities to keep us busy, for more and more people the answer to “What are you up to right now?” is becoming “I’m gaming.” Animal Crossing: New Horizons shows that these virtual conversations are a key factor in the acquisition of new players to a game’s overall success.

The Importance of Social Media in Games Marketing

Social media is ablaze with conversation about New Horizons. As reported by Forbes, Animal Crossing saw a 71% rise in overall conversation on Twitter after the release of New Horizons. The number of subscribers on the Animal Crossing subreddit also skyrocketed, rising from 330k at the end of February to over 642k by the end of March.

71% rise in Animal Crossing conversation on Twitter
Twitter gaming usage statistics. Credit: Forbes, Twitter

Not only are gamers telling their friends and family about New Horizons, they’re engaging with the game on social media. They’re tweeting memes about Tom Nook’s shady business practices. They’re making a TikTok about how much they hate the new animal that has moved into their village. These posts are getting hundreds and thousands of views, spreading the word about New Horizons and reaching people who are new to gaming.

Want to know more about the role of social media in marketing strategy? We talked about social media and Ariana Grande’s digital marketing strategy here.

Opportunities for Your Game Launch Marketing Strategy

With initiatives like #PlayApartTogether, the gaming industry is beginning to recognize the unique and important part that video games play and will continue to play in our changing world. Now, more than ever, video game publishers and developers have the opportunity to attract new players to the space.

Here’s the takeaway lessons from the launch of New Horizons that you can apply to your game marketing strategy:

  • Highlight the nostalgic aspects of your game. Players are looking for a safe, familiar space that reminds them of the good times.
  • Look for what people are lacking in their lives right now. How does your game meet needs that can otherwise not be met (e.g. productivity and routine)?
  • Provide a virtual social space and emphasize the social aspects of your game, whether those aspects are in-game on another platform such as social media.
  • Give gamers something to talk about and encourage conversation about your game.
  • Actively build a social media community around your game.
Roxanne's Animal Crossing villager waving goodbye
I’m off to enjoy the fabulous spring weather on the island of Pearadise with my friends!

Animal Crossing isn’t the only game we love. Check out our top 10 video games here!

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About Roxanne Baker

As AE’s Marketing Magician, I’m involved in multiple areas – social media, analytics, sales and more! I’m an artist, gamer, and avid podcast listener so outside of work I'm often found painting my favourite characters while binging a new pod.