The success of Animal Crossing reflects the game itself to some extent; Nintendo's most eclectic top-tier IP built up gradually and steadily from humble beginnings, gently ingratiating itself over the course of 19 years and five releases. It's only now that it's dawning on us just how addicted the world actually is to this calmly unassuming little toybox with its charming style, relaxed pace and quirky animal pals.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons outsold both Pokémon Sword & Shield combined on its release in Japan last week, and has performed extraordinarily well in every other market as well; it's almost certainly the biggest single launch weekend for a Switch game thus far, and given Nintendo's remarkable ability to cultivate the longest of long tails for its games, it's also likely to be one of 2020's best sellers overall.
There's a risk that the huge success of New Horizons will be dismissed as an unusual offshoot of the COVID-19 pandemic
Honestly, if you'd suggested only a few years ago that Animal Crossing was going to be a franchise with commercial clout rivalling that of Pokémon or Zelda, quite a few people would have assumed that you'd lost your marbles -- one too many late nights spent chatting to talking animals, perhaps. That the franchise was successful and popular is clear, of course, but there's always been a sense of it as an odd little Nintendo side-project rather than a top-ranked franchise. That sense is borne to a large extent from the difficulty a lot of people in the industry have with actually wrapping their heads around Animal Crossing; something so peculiar and so wilfully tangential to almost everything else the industry does must surely only be a curious experiment, after all.
This time around, there's probably a risk that the absolutely gigantic success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons -- both critical and commercial success and, perhaps most importantly of all, cultural success, with the game being discussed widely across social media since its launch -- will be dismissed as being some unusual offshoot of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already, that explanation is floating around in some quarters; Nintendo has had a remarkable hit because it's in the right place at the right time, with a gently sociable escapist fantasy launching right as much of the world goes into lockdown and quarantine.
If Animal Crossing doesn't make much sense to you as a mass-market title, that's a very comfortable explanation. It may be polished and well made, but it would have stayed in its niche were it not for the unique circumstances under which it launched.
Animal Crossing is baffling to many people because it eschews what we think of as being central to games; conflict, competition
That explanation doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, and I hope it won't come to cast a shadow over the success of this remarkable game. There's no doubt, of course, that it taps into a certain escapist zeitgeist, but the desires to which it speaks and the comforts which it offers chime with an entire generation of players, not just to a specifically awful moment in history. Paying attention to the social media and player discourse around Nintendo in recent years has made the pent-up demand for Animal Crossing -- the last full game in the series was launched in 2012 -- incredibly clear in recent years.
This, too, has been dismissed to some degree as a meme; players clamouring for information on Animal Crossing before every Nintendo Direct broadcast has almost been treated as a joke, but the actual appetite for the series is very real. New Horizons' release on Switch has been anticipated perhaps more than any other game -- yes, even Smash Bros. -- and the extent to which many of the game's characters have become instantly identifiable and beloved arguably places it right beside Pokémon in terms of its place as a cultural icon for a whole generation.
The reason Animal Crossing seems baffling to many people -- the reason why there's so often an attempt to hand-wave away its success -- is because it eschews so much of what we think of as being central to games; conflict, competition, overarching narrative, and so on. It's instead filled with things that are more rooted in the concept of "play" than the concept of "games" -- ideas that are close to one another, for sure, but which reflect a crucially different set of ideas about the purpose of the time we spend in these activities.
Animal Crossing reveals the paucity of imagination among those tasked with greenlighting major titles
Stripping out many of the "game" ideas in favour of a toy box amiably filled with "play" ideas creates something that's oddly alien to a lot of people in the industry -- and, indeed, to many consumers. But the numbers speak for themselves, and the thirst for this kind of experience, largely absent in big mainstream games, is clearly felt by a huge body of consumers.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of all of this is that Animal Crossing -- for all that it lacks conflict and competition, for all that it has no interest in dragging people around saving a doomed world or telling them repeatedly to "git gud" -- is not actually a casual game in the sense that most people imagine. I suspect that a lot more people would be comfortable with Animal Crossing's success if it was a mobile game; as with Farmville, they could dismiss it as merely a fad for people who aren't really "gamers" -- "casuals" that wouldn't be interested in "real games" anyway.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, however, just sold millions of copies at full price to consumers who own a relatively new and pretty expensive game console. That success blows away the argument that the narrow range of experiences offered in so much of the industry's output is a result of commercial reality, and reveals instead how much paucity of imagination there is among those tasked with greenlighting major titles.
It's a testament to just how much diversity actually exists in the games marketplace. Not just diversity among different consumers -- because honestly, if you haven't figured out by now that angry straight white boys aren't even a majority of the marketplace, you're probably a hopeless case in commercial terms anyway -- but diversity within consumers, a desire for different experiences to match our moods and tastes at different times and in different contexts. For reference: I bought both Animal Crossing and Doom Eternal last week, and I suspect I'm far from the only person in that camp.
Coronavirus shouldn't be allowed to become the explanatory factor for Animal Crossing's tremendous success, and the fact that this gentle, beautifully made game is going to be one of the year's biggest titles shouldn't be allowed to be dismissed as just another peculiarity of a year full of weirdness. That's too glib and easy; it ignores the work that went into building this franchise and the cultural momentum it's gathered. More than anything, it lets us all off the hook of having to think hard about why so much of our industry's output still revolves around violence, rather than the myriad other forms of escapism consumers clearly yearn for.