ANIMAL CROSSING EXPLAINED: New Horizons for Brands

We talk to brands every week about how they can – and should – harness the power of video games to connect with customers in new and exciting ways. In the past few weeks, one topic keeps coming up over and over again: Animal Crossing.

I thought it would be helpful to take my expertise in working with brands through games and my passion as an Animal Crossing player to put together this starter guide. The game has been a part of my life since 2001. Throughout the pandemic, it’s taken on special daily meaning for me and my family as we share an island in our house and visit islands from extended relatives and friends across the country.

My mom and I celebrate the flag I made for our island, Stag Heart.

This guide is meant to give you the ins and outs of the game, what makes it so fun, and how and why it represents approachable and affordable opportunities for brands of all kinds to integrate.

What is Animal Crossing?

Animal Crossing is a hit video game franchise developed and published by Nintendo. Each mainline entry is a “social simulation,” putting players in the shoes of the sole human inhabitant of a small society of anthropomorphic animals. The series launched in Japan in 2001 under the name Animal Forest. An enhanced version was brought to the United States later that year as Animal Crossing. Since launch, 5 mainline titles and 3 spin-off games have been released.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the most recent entry in the franchise, released March 20, 2020, for the Nintendo Switch console. The game eclipsed the lifetime sales of all previous titles within 6 weeks of launch, having sold more than 31 million copies as of February 2021 to become the 15th best-selling game in history.

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you land on a wild and uninhabited island after purchasing a package from Tom Nook, a raccoon featured in each game. You explore, craft, and ultimately build the island into a vibrant community. It has become a cultural phenomenon perfectly-suited for our socially-distanced world and appealing to players of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels.

What Makes Animal Crossing: New Horizons so fun?

A Diversity of Activities for a Diversity of Players

New Horizons gives you an island as a playground with many activities to get hooked into at your own pace. The game’s core story enlists you to build up the island itself, starting with your own home and branching outward to welcoming new animal neighbors, decorating, keeping things tidy, and more. You do so through a series of core activities. Craft objects, furniture, outfits, and equipment with recipes using resources found or created at workbenches. Design the layout and experience of your home and the island itself for your inhabitants or any visitors. Collect fish, bugs, fossils, DIY recipes, and even works of art using a variety of tools at your disposal. Earn bells – the in-game currency – for island construction, making purchases at in-game stores, or placing your bets on the Stalk Market. Use custom patterns to put your own stamp on the world and its characters. There are many rabbit holes to go down in this game, and none are forced on you.

This all unfolds in real time. The sun rises and falls in tune with your local time. The weather, terrain, and catchable creatures all shift monthly and seasonally according to your hemisphere. New Horizons reflects the real world enough for constant variety without the burden and full complexity of the real world.

Play With Friends

New Horizons players can also enjoy the game with other players locally or online around the world. For local play, members of the same household can share one island native to one Nintendo Switch System. Players can bring their switches together to visit each other’s islands in the same space using multiple Nintendo Switch systems.

The online play for Animal Crossing: New Horizons brings the game to life in a bigger way than any previous entry in the series. Up to 7 players can visit one island at a time to do any number of activities, including swimming, collecting, and fishing. The real joy in these online experiences is in how simple and limited the game keeps your interactions with one another. Due to Nintendo’s intentional family friendly parameters and protections in its games, inappropriate or destructive behavior is limited or impossible. These constraints make players communicate solely through in-game reactions and small bits of text. The game makes these limitations clear when you play on your own island and extended to when you’re visiting others. The creativity that emerges in sessions with friends and strangers alike is lighthearted and often hilarious. Games like scavenger hunts, hide and seek, and more emerge because Nintendo gives a playground with very clear rules. It’s dynamic, approachable, and safe in a way that few games can achieve.

Endless and Evolving Gameplay

Though the game’s core story pushes you to build up your island’s society, your in-game life can continue long after the credits roll. Animal Crossing is a persistent and dynamic world that is constantly evolving. The best part? This continued support comes at no additional cost. Players purchase the game for $60 MSRP and that’s it. Nintendo itself implements regular free updates adding new functionality, activities, characters, and items often connected to real-world holidays and milestones. Players wind up fostering an entire second life within the game’s world. There’s a reason why many played the previous entry, 2012’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf, for thousands of hours before bidding farewell when New Horizons released.

Why is Animal Crossing a good opportunity for brand integration?

Many brands have already leveraged Animal Crossing: New Horizons to connect with current and potential customers in exciting and unexpected ways. There are many reasons why the game has so much appeal:

  • The player base is massive, diverse, and growing. The game attracts players of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels.
  • The Pattern Tool enables customization of thousands of existing in-game objects like furniture and clothing. These can be used to design everything from fully-interactive branded island experiences to shareable digital versions of the latest fashion trends and products. More on the Pattern Tool later.
  • New Horizons is affordable to integrate with. Brands can use the same tools designed for players to bring life to their custom islands. These tools were made to be intuitive and simple without being overwhelming or requiring programming experience. All you need is a Nintendo Switch, a copy of the game, a Nintendo Switch Online account, and an internet connection to build, maintain, and welcome visitors to your island.
  • The gameplay is endlessly shareable with tons of viral appeal. Every Nintendo Switch system includes simple tools for players to share their experiences on social media right from the device. The content and its shareability have made New Horizons a never-ending meme machine since it launched.
  • New Horizons has clear limitations that automatically makes your brand approachable for players. By using the same system they use to build and design their own island, brands big and small automatically meet players where they’re at. This can easily be achieved while abiding and protecting enforced brand guidelines.
  • The game trains players on how to use it well before they can even visit other islands or download patterns. This means every possible player will understand the fundamentals of how to interact with a branded island without additional guidance. You can add more complexity depending on your goals.
International sportwear giant Fila brands an entire room.

How can brands actually come to life in Animal Crossing?

Envisioning

You’ll need to define your goals and align them with what is or is not possible within the confines of the game’s structure or guidelines. Possible directions include shareable designs that players can use on their own islands and entire branded interactive islands that players can visit. Look at the menu of what the game can do to lead or support upcoming campaigns and promotions.

Island Experience Design & Flow

All islands welcome visitors from the same building, the Dodo Airlines airport. It’s important to consider where you want visitors to go from there. They walk along a set path using fencing, signage, and varying terrain levels (including water, ramps, and bridges). Different areas can open up along the way to evoke different feelings and encourage different activities. Think interior design but the island is one massive room.

Build, Customize, & Place

Once your core design is in place, it’s time to build! At this point, it’s all about terrain, patterns, and placement. For terrain, the in-game Island Designer App allows you to terraform, creating hills, water features, and more. A pattern is a fully-customizable box (32×32+) generated using the in-game Pattern Tool. You can apply the custom pattern to certain objects, outfits, terrain, and characters. From there, you can share the pattern itself via 14 digit pattern code or QR code. Whether designing an entire island experience or just a design that players can bring to objects on their own islands, the Pattern Tool is essential.

This is a sample of the in-game Pattern Tool for clothes.

While you cannot apply patterns to everything, the New Horizons does feature thousands of items that you can curate and place as-is to create custom experiences for players. This makes the actual design of a branded island a combination of graphic design and experience design, aided by a sort of “collaging” of items that fit well with your brand and intended island experience.

Anatomy of an integration: The 9 diamonds represent unique custom patterns that bring KFC island to life. The rest is simply arranged without pattern customization.

Welcome & Engage

Once your island is complete, it’s time to open your gates! At this point, players can experience all your island has to offer. To visit an island, the player must have a Nintendo Switch, a digital or physical copy of the game, an internet connection, a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, and the unlocked ability to visit other islands.

Dodo Code is the shareable 5-digit code for up to 7 concurrent players to visit an island via Dodo Airlines. You can use visits via Dodo Code for a more active and engaging experience. These require a representative from the island to be present in order for visitors to join. For Dodo Code visits, additional simple games like tag and hide-and-seek offer more opportunities for players to have a truly unforgettable and unique time with their favorite brands.

Dream Code is the shareable 14-digit players can use to visit via lying down in their in-game bed. Dream Code visits should be more passive and less interactive, featuring limited interactivity and not requiring an island representative onsite. In-game signage and other signifiers can help direct visitors without the need for a live host.

Left: The Dodo Code is generated to welcome visitors online. Right: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visits the islands of Twitter followers via Dodo Airlines.

Capture & Share

Use the shareability of Animal Crossing to your benefit! Create a trailer for island visits using in-game footage highlighting the unique features of your island. You can do the same with patterns you want to show off on characters or objects. You’ll want to capture in-game footage with your guests while they’re there and encourage them to do the same. It’s simple to do it on your end or theirs via the Nintendo Switch’s share button and gallery menu. If you create an unforgettable experience for players on your island or theirs (via patterns), encourage them to share what a great time they’re having with your brand in-game on social with screenshots, videos, and key hashtags!

As with any announcement or launch, it’s important to make a big splash from the get-go. Welcome influencers to your island for streamable sessions and shareable moments before you share your Dodo Codes and pattern codes with everyone else. From game shows and talk shows to casual tours, there are so many ways to build and sustain hype around your Animal Crossing: New Horizons integration!

Maintain & Build

Players love the constant stream of updates Nintendo brings to the game. If you want more than just a one-off pattern set or island experience, you can foster your own sense of community with players through updates of your own. Update your island with fresh games, items, and activities to keep players coming back. Release new patterns alongside new product releases. These can align with seasonal changes and holidays by region or your brand’s own release and PR calendar.

Whether you take the one-and-done approach or want to build over time, there are so many ways to plug in.

Creating an Authentic & Standout Experience

By now it’s clear that Animal Crossing: New Horizons offers the flexibility and ease to extend your brand in exciting ways. Here are some of my favorite ways that brands have leveraged this incredible game so far:

  • Netflix launched an Enola Holmes-themed island to coincide with the release of the new series. This included custom pattern codes for players to download character skins.
  • Ally Financial launched “Ally Island,” including exclusive turnip deals for thousands of players. This promoted financial literacy through AC’s ‘Stalk Market.’
  • Valentino + Marc Jacobs launched in-game replicas of their outfits via pattern codes. The brands amplified this release through social media, allowing players to redeem the exclusive outfits.
  • The Detroit Lions released their 2020 game schedule through a video captured entirely in Animal Crossing. It debuted on social media the same day they did their schedule release on TV, bringing a creative spin in a particularly challenging year.
  • Chuck E. Cheese launched ‘ChuckEChz’ island where players could host Chuck E. Cheese-themed parties. Alongside the island, the brand created a custom in-game character to visit players on their birthdays. This included key moments on Twitch.
  • Sentosa Island, Singapore promoted “travel” during the COVID-19 lockdown through a virtual version of the vacation destination. The team enlisted 22 designers to complete the project in about 12 days.
Netflix celebrates the launch of Enola Holmes with a custom island.

As you chart your brand’s course within the game, keep Nintendo’s Usage Guidelines for Organizations and Businesses in mind. Nintendo is very protective of its IP. It won’t need to get involved unless you violate the guidelines listed.

New Horizons Ahead

I hope this list gives you some idea of what’s possible in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. These examples and my notes above only scratch the surface of this exciting, evolving, and ongoing game.

Don’t forget: people who play games – as with any other form of entertainment – can sense a cheap tie-in from a mile away. Don’t just place your logo into the game and hope for the best. Take the time to really consider an authentic approach to integrating your brand with the game. If you’re looking for help, we’d love to hear from you. We build game experiences for brands of all kinds.

Gaming is impossible to ignore. It’s the biggest entertainment medium on the planet. Animal Crossing is a great place to jump in. It’s time to reach new horizons for your brand through play.

Dan Butchko


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