‘New Horizons’ Sells Over 41M Copies, With Promise of Healthy Gameplay
Animal Crossing is a goofy video game franchise. The basic model of all of the games is that the player moves in somewhere (a town, island or city, depending on which game you are playing), and makes friends with the animals who live there. In all of the games, you decorate a living space, earn in-game currency, go fishing, and do other daily tasks to participate in the life of the simulated community. All of this seems very cute, but somewhat basic. Why should we be interested in Animal Crossing’s positioning strategy, and how can it serve as a model for other companies?
One reason to pay attention to Animal Crossing is that the franchise has recently received a lot of publicity, and for good reason. The latest series entry, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, was a smashing success. The game sold over 41 million copies, making it the second best-selling game for the Nintendo Switch and the third best-selling game for any Nintendo console in the last twenty years or so.
A Positioning Strategy of Human Connection through Gameplay
Much has been written about how well-suited the game was for the year in which it was released. The pandemic was good for something, as it turns out, and that something was selling copies of Animal Crossing. The game was comforting at a moment when people wanted comfort. Playing online with a friend simulated being in-person together in a way that somehow felt more connected than an actual video call, at a time when many of us were unhappily trapped on Zoom for hours a day. The game allowed and rewarded daily play, and sticking to a daily schedule, at a time when routines were falling apart. All of this has been well-publicized.
However, a release date during a global pandemic or disaster is nothing any company should rely on, or wish for. Another brand cannot copy this aspect of Animal Crossing’s success. At the same time, the franchise as a whole has been broadly successful, and this is not as much subject to chance. One aspect of this success is the Animal Crossing positioning strategy, which has stayed largely consistent throughout the existence of the franchise.
A Closer Look at the Animal Crossing Positioning Strategy
Let’s return to the basic facts about this goofy game franchise to understand its positioning strategy. There are three key elements to the positioning strategy of the Animal Crossing franchise as a whole, which set it apart from other video games, and make it particularly family-friendly. Sometimes video games can have a reputation for being compulsive, hyper-competitive, and violent. While these criticisms of video games can be overblown, nonetheless they pose a challenge to marketing video games to broader audiences or to concerned parents who might want a more wholesome alternative for their children. The three elements of the Animal Crossing positioning strategy discussed in this article help give it a very specific brand identity, which has helped the franchise to keep turning out popular titles decade after decade.
Here are the three elements of the positioning strategy, in brief:
- The game is played in real time and has a limited amount of activities you can complete on any given day.
- The game does not reward or require completionism, and indeed emphasizes the limits of gameplay.
- The aesthetics and gameplay are soothing.
All of these elements combine to position Animal Crossing as a family-friendly and mental-health friendly franchise. Let’s now examine each of these points in greater detail.
Positioning Strategy Key Element 1:
The first key element of the positioning strategy of Animal Crossing as a healthy, wholesome, family-friendly video game is the way it interacts with the clock. The gameplay is in real time, meaning that the game clock is “based upon the real hours in the day.” This means that past a certain hour, some of the main attractions of the game, like the clothing store and the general store, are not open. Furthermore, many of the animals that you might interact with in the game go to sleep at reasonable hours, and the game world itself grows dark in the night time. This incentivizes keeping your playtime:
- within the bounds of the normal hours at which you should be awake (the game more or less signals that you ought to be asleep at night)
- limited on any given day
Let’s explore the second point a little further. One psychologist notes that a positive feature of Animal Crossing from a mental health perspective is that it is “meant to capture a daily playtime limit of sorts.” This soft daily playtime limit is another aspect of how Animal Crossing uses the clock in its positioning strategy. While it is technically possible to keep playing Animal Crossing indefinitely, the really interesting and fun activities in the game, and the ones that the game will punish you for not doing on a regular basis, can be completed in an hour or so. This is still a major chunk of time, but most video games have the same play possibilities in hour one and in hour three of play. Animal Crossing is designed to allow you to run out of things to do, and unlike mobile games that will allow you to pay to unlock new activities early, the game will simply let you get bored, unless you mess with your console’s internal clock. Again, this is an important aspect of the franchise’s positioning strategy as a more wholesome kind of game.
Positioning Strategy Key Element 2:
Encouraging Limited Play
This limited daily play ties into the second key element of Animal Crossing’s positioning strategy, which is discouraging completionism and emphasizing instead the limits of play. Again, this steps away from some of the most addictive and obsessive elements of video games, and helps the franchise to execute on its brand positioning strategy as a more sane, healthy kind of video game.
What is completionism, and what does it mean to say that Animal Crossing embraces a more limited ethos? Matthew Gault writes for Vice that taking a completionist approach to a video game:
“means getting all its achievements, finishing every side quest, and scooping up every collectible.”
Earlier in the same article, Gault notes that his tendency towards completionism was one reason “video games helped destroy [his] first marriage.” Someone who wants to complete everything a given video game has to offer will spend a lot of time on some of the least fun elements of the game, and they may also spend so much time on video games that it injures their relationships or their career prospects and schooling.
Animal Crossing’s positioning strategy as a more moderate video game is demonstrated in the way that it does not embrace completionism. First off all, as discussed earlier, the game naturally limits playtime, but it goes further than this. The basic concept of the franchise is that the player could have many different possible animals to live with, but they only get to live with a few at a time, and they do not have control over which animals they have. This is one way in which Animal Crossing: New Horizons strays from the positioning strategy of the franchise as a whole. In ACNH the player has much more influence over which animals show up on their island and who gets to stay. At the same time, the player still does not have complete control, and it would be very difficult to encounter every animal by simply playing the game without purchasing any amiibos or aggressively searching through the online forums for people who have a particular animal on the island.
In essence, the most fun way to play ACNH, and the franchise as a whole, is not to attempt to complete every possible recipe, have every possible piece of furniture, or encounter every animal. Instead, the game is designed for players to enjoy the serendipity of chance encounters, and to express themselves by customizing their in-game residences and their characters with the items they do happen to find.
Indeed, this is much more like real life. In real life, you do not look at every possible sweater before you purchase one; instead, you buy a sweater that is good enough, and in the grand scheme of things, good enough is pretty great. By teaching this life lesson to its impressionable young players (and even perhaps to its hardened, older ones), Animal Crossing has a moral and ethical element to its positioning strategy which may be part of the reason for the franchise’s continued success.
One video game blogger (pseudonymously known as “Pixel Poppers”) notes that Animal Crossing should lean into this positioning strategy even harder, by eliminating mechanics that encourage optimization and completionism. He writes that Animal Crossing could be improved by:
“not setting things up so that the mechanically optimal way to play is also the most enjoyable way to play. Animal Crossing is actively setting traps for players who want to optimize.”
In other words, because some elements of the game admit of mechanical optimization in a way that decreases pleasure, the game has not yet perfected the art of disincentivizing completionism. Pixel Poppers argues that by eliminating these elements of the game, the franchise could improve. This would further strengthen Animal Crossing’s positioning strategy.
Positioning Strategy Key Element 3:
A Calming Aesthetic
The final element of Animal Crossing’s wholesome positioning strategy is the game’s aesthetic, which includes the art and the score. According to an article in the Washington Post, Kazumi Totaka has written all of the Animal Crossing scores since 2001. Michael Brodeur, a music critic for the Post, writes that “Totaka’s music is inspired by the fantasy of normalcy.” He goes on to describe the game’s “menagerie of adorable anthropomorphic neighbors, [and] its stubbornly sunshiny aesthetic,” finally concluding that the score and the sound effects “contribute to the calming rhythms of Animal Crossing.” The game’s music is not intense or heart-pounding; it does not raise your blood pressure.
The visual design of the game is intended to evoke positive feelings. These aesthetic choices also contribute to Animal Crossing’s positioning strategy as a more wholesome or healthy alternative to other video games. Where other games are intense, Animal Crossing is mellow, right down to the music.
From the way it interacts with the clock, to its anti-completionist ethos, to its soothing art and music, the Animal Crossing franchise has had a consistent positioning strategy as a game that not only avoids some of the more unhealthy tendencies in video games, but even can teach its players to use video games in a way that will be better for them and ultimately more pleasant. Certainly the franchise has earned my brand loyalty!
Insight to Action can help you design a positioning strategy that propels you to success, just like the Animal Crossing positioning strategy. To learn more about positioning strategy, and other key topics like customer segmentation and competitor analysis, please visit our resources page. Our team members will be happy to speak to you more about these topics at our office hours. Finally, we put out a newsletter for those interested in learning more and keeping up with the latest at Insight to Action.