No one’s had a better financial year than Tom Nook, the proprietor who tasks you with building your own island village in Nintendo’s hit game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Released on March 20th, the game has sold 22.4 million copies as of June 30th. The runaway success of the game has helped Nintendo net an operating profit of $1.4 billion between April and June, and its total year-on-year profit has surged by a truly bewildering 428%.
New Horizons is the fifth iteration of a game series that began in 2001, known for a soft, lighthearted world where you construct a picturesque village and populate it with non-playable animal characters. It’s partly a farming game, partly a building game, and partly a multiplayer social game that allows you to visit other players’ islands. While the series has always had a dedicated following, its current explosion in popularity is unmatched — and the theory is that due to a lockdown that slammed the brakes on people’s usual social lives, a lot of people who weren’t avid gamers have been drawn into the whimsy of the Animal Crossing world for the first time.
Because the game is exclusive to the Nintendo Switch console, released in 2017, getting into Animal Crossing means you have to invest in the Switch or the Switch Lite (a handheld-only version) which retail for $299.99 and $199.99 respectively. Due to the sudden COVID-19-related demand and production limitations, though, console prices surged in late March, sometimes doubling or tripling in online marketplaces like eBay. Even now, months after lockdowns began, the Switch is sold out at many retailers. As of Q2, over 61 million Nintendo Switch consoles have been sold worldwide.
Revealing that you’re deeply involved in the Animal Crossing lifestyle has become a kind of meme, shattering the perception that gaming is a nerdy niche enjoyed only by teenage boys. On social media, people have been sharing pictures of their homes, outfits (there’s even a subset of Animal Crossing hypebeasts) and special virtual events like birthday parties and weddings that many people have been organizing during quarantine. There’s also a stock market mechanic in the game where players buy and sell turnips depending on fluctuating prices. Because prices are different on every island and change twice a day, people have been advertising when they have high prices — one player who did so received a DM from Elijah Wood asking if he could sell turnips on her island. Other celebrities, including T-Pain, Danny Trejo, Chrissy Teigen, and Lil Nas X have also revealed that they play Animal Crossing. Because the game is being regularly updated to add new seasonal events or mechanics, there’s always something new for the AC community to discuss.
Players have also bonded over collective hatred for Tom Nook, who owns the main store on your island and offers you steep loans to build and upgrade your house, among other things. In order to upgrade your house fully, you end up paying Nook over $5.6 million Bells (the currency of the Animal Crossing world). It’s led to a lot of discourse about whether Nook — who is a tanuki, a fox-like animal native to East Asia and a trickster figure in Japanese myth — is a capitalist robber baron exploiting both the player and the island’s resources, or just an entrepreneur trying to eke out a living. After all, he never charges interest.
Regardless of your thoughts on the Animal Crossing economy, it’s clear that a new population of gamers has entered the Nintendo economy in 2020. The company sold over 50 million software units during Q2, which is an increase of 123% compared to this period last year. New Horizons is already the second best-selling Switch game of all time, quickly catching up to Mario Kart Deluxe 8, which was released over three years ago. The top five best-selling Switch exclusives also include Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Pokémon Sword/Pokémon Shield. The video game industry overall is expected to see a revenue of over $159 billion this year.