Most Influential Projects 2020

40 Animal Crossing: New Horizons


For offering gamers community when they needed it most

Katsuya Eguchi has said his work on the original Animal Crossing videogame was inspired by the heartache he felt after leaving family and friends to move from Chiba to Nintendo’s home city of Kyoto, Japan.

Nearly 20 years after the original hit shelves, much of the world was experiencing a similar sense of isolation and loneliness, as COVID-19 spread and social distancing rules kept friends and families apart. Then along came Animal Crossing: New Horizons, offering community and companionship—even during The Great Lockdown.

Created for Nintendo’s handheld Switch console and developed with a strong emphasis on community, the new Animal Crossing became an instant sensation. The wildly popular simulation game lets players customize their private islands and dress their anthropomorphic avatars to the nines. Then they can fly off to visit friends’ virtual homesteads or host their own gatherings. And one never knows who might show up, since even homebound celebs have been tempted by the New Horizons siren call: Actor Elijah Wood, Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams, rapper T-Pain and U.S. politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are just a few of the famous faces known to make in-game appearances.

It seemed like impeccable timing. But the release date was actually due in part to project delays. New Horizons was originally slated for a 2019 release, but when executives realized hitting that target would require a taxing schedule for the team, they pushed the date back to March 2020. In a deliciously ironic plot twist, a decision to help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance ended up producing windfall profits. 

While the title’s 20 March release gave it less than two weeks to contribute to the company’s fiscal year’s totals, New Horizons sold an unexpected 11 million copies by month’s end. By mid-May, the game’s sales had surpassed its lifetime target. For fiscal year 2020, Nintendo reported a profit of JPY259 billion, up 33 percent year over year.

The game’s influence has spread well beyond Nintendo, becoming a veritable pop culture phenomenon. Homewares brand Olivia began offering interior design consultations for users who wanted to upgrade their virtual living spaces. Designers Marc Jacobs and Valentino created custom looks for New Horizons avatars. Fast food giant KFC Philippines opened a virtual in-game chicken shop. Automaker Chevrolet offered downloadable Corvette gear. One fan-made retailer, Nookazon, allows players to trade for rare or themed in- game accessories. The 25-year-old developer who started the site told The Washington Post it was boasting 270,000 daily users within a month of its launch.

There’s no way to know whether New Horizons will have staying power after social distancing ends or whether it will spark a larger wave of collaborative, open-ended gameplay. But one legacy is clear: The game brought people together when it felt like the world was falling apart.

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