Roundtable: The unique allure of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The Gamasutra editorial team weighs in on why Animal Crossing: New Horizons has won over so many fans in this turbulent era.

The Nintendo Switch is proving to be a kingmaker for many of Nintendo's more niche franchises. After The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild showed what the little console was capable of, fans have flocked to games like Fire Emblem and now Animal Crossing in record numbers. 

It'd be easy to chalk up Animal Crossing: New Horizon's success to the once-in-a-century stay-at-home orders being put in place, but surely there's more than an excessive amount of free time that's fueling the frenzy, right? 

In a rare alignment of the planets, all of Gamasutra's editorial staff have been curating their own islands, and have weighed in with their thoughts about why Animal Crossing: New Horizons has turned into a smash hit. Here are their insights:

Chris Kerr (@kerrblimey)

I'm not entirely sure why, but Animal Crossing has consumed me more than any game in recent memory. Full disclosure: I haven't played a mainline entry in the series since Wild World on the DS, but New Horizons feels like a near-perfect distillation of everything the franchise has to offer. The culmination of two decades' worth of promise and refinement.  

It's cozy. It's creatively empowering. It's high-stakes. It's impossibly laid back. It serves up an effortlessly accommodating experience that allows players to set their own goals - whether that's remodeling their island from top to bottom, dipping their toes into the fraught turnip market, spending an evening designing ludicrous garments, or maybe just dropping by for a few hours to catch some fish. 

In New Horizons creativity is its own reward, but it's also a shared experience. One of the best things over the past couple of weeks has been seeing the flurry of interactions between players. It's rare to see a community as warm, welcoming, and genuinely supportive as the one that's gathered around New Horizons, and honestly, that's one of my favorite things about it. Sometimes it can feel like kindness is in short supply on the internet, but Animal Crossing has become a shining example of how video games can be a massive force for good. 

It's also become a huge social outlet at a time when most of us are cooped up indoors. Like most folks, I've been stuck inside for the best part of a month and I have to attribute the fact that I'm still (partially) sane to Animal Crossing. Being able to meet up with friends and family for some low-key hijinks is the perfect salve to self-isolation and social distancing, and I don't think it's a coincidence the games industry has collectively poured itself into New Horizons over the past few weeks.

Given the unique circumstances surrounding its launch, it'll be interesting to see whether New Horizons can maintain this momentum. Some people might be (justifiably) skeptical, but while it might seem like lightning in a bottle, I can't imagine the playerbase will dwindle massively. Animal Crossing has always been designed for longevity, and I think fans buy into that notion. It's not about sprinting to the finish, but carving out your own little slice of paradise and slowly whittling away the hours as the seasons roll on by. Who could say no to that?

Kris Graft (@krisgraft)

I've owned all the Animal Crossing games since the GameCube version but I never "got" it. Animal Crossing was one of those games where I'd admire it from afar and envy the people who were so enamored by it.

But New Horizons is different. I get it now! Maybe it's because social media helped me understand the game better, watching people experience the game in specific ways, leading me to realize that Animal Crossing is a flexible entity that conforms to the way you want to play.

New Horizons in particular is extremely respectful of player time--you can still progress and earn new things just fine if you check in for a short daily sessions. Or you can farm and craft and customize for hours in one session as if it's a second job. Or you can play like me and land somewhere in between. I don't think I've played a social online game that respects a player's time as much as New Horizons does.

I have nearly 100 hours logged on this game (which I realize is beans compared to some of the more seasoned players [looks at Alissa]), but I'd say 75 percent of that time has just been letting it idle, mostly with my gates open to allow friends to swing by at their leisure. I love the idle game aspect to New Horizons--I almost use it like an entertainment appliance. It's just on, there, existing, blessing me with its chill presence. It's therapeutic in a way that say, Doom Eternal isn't (p.s. I love Doom Eternal).

And when the Dodo Airlines flight information takes over the screen to let me know one of my pals is coming over, it's still exciting. Of course with the quarantine situation, we all have limited contact with people in real life, so Animal Crossing has filled a void for me in a wonderful, unexpected way. It's hard to imagine a better time in history for this game to have launched.

It's difficult to say if this phenomenon will stick around, but previous Animal Crossing games have shown they retain players for years. As for New Horizons, the next few months will continue to involve a lot of people staying at home, which has already driven a sizable uptick in gaming. It seems like so many people have found solace and joy in New Horizons, and I expect people will continue to play it for the foreseeable future, as Nintendo will sure have some interesting events happening throughout the life of the game. Animal Crossing has always been a series that's on a schedule, one that makes a promise to continue to surprise players with something new nearly every day. 

There's so much more I could say about this game, but this is my start!

Alissa McAloon (@Gliitchy)

I have fond memories of playing Animal Crossing on the GameCube with my sister back in the day—somehow impossibly agreeing to take turns playing while chatting up villagers, completing furniture sets, and paying off our very first loans. Facing down those same somehow charming chores nearly twenty years later is a welcome task, but also one that’s also highlighted how differently I play through games as someone in their late 20s versus as a 12 year old kid. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is great, and so so welcome right now. Managing, planning, and organizing things is somehow super relaxing for me (see also: The Sims, Stardew Valley), so blocking out town layouts and setting up items in different areas to create little parks, cafes, and scenic overlooks makes for like a perfect storm of time devouring chill.

Those additions and things like the DIY/crafting system brings this lovely level of busywork into the game that really compliments that basic Animal Crossing loop in a more accessible way than past games. Day one of New Horizons is really slow, but from there on there’s this well-paced drip feed of new buildable recipes, shops, random vendors, and ways to explore or even later alter the shape of your island that seems to be paced just right to keep players busy and engaged but never overwhelmed.

I know Animal Crossing: New Leaf had some similar stuff in terms of island customization, but from the little bit I played of that one (I have a hard time getting into handheld games!) it felt like any real customization was difficult to access, and not paced quite as enticingly as it is in New Horizons.

So all of this plus the fact that New Horizons came out in a time where chill, distracting social spaces are a much needed commodity has created this incredible sense of community around the game. Like some local friends set up a group text chat for Animal Crossing where we do town tours and shopping trips in the morning, swap DIY crafts through the in-game mail, and pool our fossil reserves to help our museums along. Leaving my island online during the day brings visiting friends from my childhood hometown, Twitter, or work to hangout, shop, or just see the sights. It's really great! 

I think it’s honestly hard to say how long this will last though! A rough introduction to holiday events through the Bunny Day leadup going on right now must’ve soured people on the game somewhat, but even right now at 12 PM on a Monday I still see around 20 Switch friends logged in and playing Animal Crossing, and a handful of friends stopping by my island to say hi so who knows! On its own merits, there’s only so much to do in Animal Crossing and a plateau exists at a certain point, but the amazing social atmosphere that’s sprung up around this one makes Animal Crossing feel like this welcome anomaly in the day and age of social distancing.

Alex Wawro (@awawro)

Alex filed his thoughts via in-game dispatches. Mostly to himself. 

Kris Graft

Update: 120 hours logged.

So I guess today we confirmed that work meetings in Animal Crossing aren't exactly efficient, but that was still a fun experiment!

This game has become such a healthy form of escapism, giving the semblance of order and control in a time when those concepts are in short supply. The ability to make spaces that are welcoming, funny, and just fun, and share those spaces with friends is invaluable right now. This entire game with its myriad joyful details was designed to elicit a feeling of hospitality, belonging, and welcoming (even when you're attacked by wasps, it's cute). It's hard to imagine a game coming out any time in the near future that will stick with me in the same way as Animal Crossing. It's like they reverse-engineered joy.

And speaking of creating spaces, I'm wondering where you all got the inspiration for your island design? I've started work on a BBQ stand (I love to smoke meat, OBVIOUSLY) and I plan to turn my home into a '90s arcade (because video games). 

Bryant Francis (@RBryant2012)

When I was younger I personally poured hundreds of hours into the GameCube version of Animal Crossing, the series’ launch in the West. The appeal then was the same now—a life sim that operated on a real-time clock? A billion little mysteries that shook up what seemed to be daily routine? The challenge in the interim has been that every new game has been a forced start over, and for a long time, repeating the Animal Crossing experience on the DS and 3DS just never captured the magic of the GameCube version for me. 

New Horizons has, and it seems to do so because Nintendo’s attention to detail has reached astronomical new levels that reward all the myriad ways to play. The basic systems and rules are very similar to prior generations, but the depths they hit are incredible. 

Villagers have unique reactions to the layout of the island. A fruit-gathering run leads to a chance encounter with an insect min-maxers would DIE to get their hands on. There’s flower crossbreeding! You can crossbreed FLOWERS!  

The success of the Switch entry's sales seem to have buoyed the game’s multiplayer features too, though here Nintendo’s weakness in the world of online begins to manifest. The in-game “stalk market” (it’s a triple-layered pun) sends players into a frantic search for islanders whose turnip prices have shot up, but the animations that roll before every islander arrival and some rough connection issues can turn it into a tenuous process.

Nintendo games aren't exactly known for offering robust online experiences, but in my defense, K.K Slider drops by right on your first day and says the game is better with friends! (And we’re not exactly meeting up in-person to do Animal Crossing hangouts right now are we…)

That said, the Switch’s online sharing features may be what drives the game to at least a year of incredible growth and gameplay for Nintendo. Every time something interesting or unique is discovered, its existence spreads like wildfire. Did you know Easter dresses sell for 7,500 bells? I found out thanks to a Twitter screenshot. 

It seems Nintendo is also using the game’s online nature to constantly push patches (4 since launch!) and has somehow timed in-game events to online play. One friend of mine didn’t get the Easter event because she was moving and waiting for her new internet connection to start up. Depending on Nintendo’s ambitions, it could mean in-game events are developed the way live games operate, with the potential for new events every year. 

The ultimate power fantasy

It’s all so much! And I admit, at times, somewhat overwhelming. I’ve made peace with the fact that my island does not match the glorious resplendence of Alissa's, but I look at some other islands and wonder if my own creativity is just muddled. Kris, you asked if we’re planning any themes for ours, and I admit I have no master plan! My only goal right now is to create small dioramas with the props I have, and those are distributed the slowest in this game. 

But every time I start to hyperventilate about my island’s status, I try to breathe and remember Nintendo genuinely wants me to take this game slow. Though I am rewarded for pushing through Nook Miles, a simple 20 minute check-in also helps keep me calm, and doesn’t make me feel bad for taking time to grind dailies in Apex Legends, or spend the night playing X-Wing with friends. (Yes, I’m still playing X-Wing, even in quarantine times. Yes, I am also staying in my apartment.) 

Kris Graft

Bryant, I'm glad that you hinted at a sense of being "behind" in terms of your own island's progression, because that's something I meant to address earlier. After visiting a particularly well-done, advanced island with an impressive museum collection, legitimately great town layout, and rare items, it kind of takes the wind out of your sails in regards to your own island.

That sounds hilarious--it's just a game, Kris--but it's a true feeling that isn't unique to me!

So what I've found is that, like you intimated, you just have to remind yourself that it's okay to take it slow, or if your island isn't as spectacular as another. To the point I made before, Animal Crossing is a flexible game that highly respects player time, and is rewarding in small stints or longer marathons. It's such great design.

What I'm also finding is the satisfaction of helping new players gain their bearings. You know, not everyone has been playing this game from launch day. This game hasn't even been out for a month yet (and yet I can't imagine life before it)! A friend of mine picked it up recently and after other people helped me get up to speed in my first days, I was able to pay it forward and hook my newbie friend up with some better attire, basic tools, and some tips to help him navigate the many nuances of this game. Super gratifying!

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