Amidst the chaos of 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, representing a shining beacon of positivity, has undoubtedly become part of today’s culture.

For those who aren’t familiar, Animal Crossing is a popular social simulation video game series created by Nintendo. The latest title in the series, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, launched in March 2020 for the Nintendo Switch in the midst of the global pandemic. In New Horizons players build their community from the ground up on a deserted island, which involves completing various activities like gardening, fishing, catching bugs, crafting items, and trading. Most importantly, players can show off their island utopia to family and friends — or pack their bags and visit theirs.

The perfect distraction from the stress of self-isolation, the game quickly became a commercial success and sold more than 13 million copies in its first six weeks, and has been the topic of many conversations on Twitter and in the media.

Brands, aware of the success of past marketing campaigns in video games like Fortnite or Minecraft, quickly caught on. Apparel brand Marc Jacobs recreated six of their favourite looks for the fantasy world, while Deliveroo sent a virtual delivery rider to visit players in-game islands and give away real-life promo codes. Getty has gone one step further and let players pick an artwork from their Museum’s collection and download it to exhibit it in their own game.

While the speed at which these brands were able to activate within the game was truly impressive, there are still further opportunities to leverage the game and its ecosystem beyond tactical activations. 

A recent example of a campaign we’ve run on New Horizons was #GlobalPrideCrossing, the first international virtual Pride festival to be hosted on Animal Crossing. The festival aimed to galvanize players to celebrate Pride by hosting their own Pride parades on the platform, particularly those who have never been able to join in a Pride celebration before. Outside of the game, the campaign was amplified across social platforms in the lead up to Global Pride Day on June 27th. 

While putting this campaign together, we’ve learnt a couple of things that we thought would be helpful for brands and marketers to navigate this unique social environment. Here are some tips for a start.  

Don’t just watch what gamers are doing. Be a gamer.

Social games are like any other social platform: they host communities with their own values, habits and codes. The first step to any strategy of this kind should be to listen and observe how these communities behave and what they are talking about especially on gaming-centric social platforms like Discord, Reddit, Twitch or even Twitter.

In our case, we detected around 20,000 LGBTI+ related Animal Crossing mentions on Twitter, where we learnt that the thriving LGBTI+ gaming community already saw Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a creative outlet for expression. This gave us the confidence that our campaign was a right fit for the game. 

But you shouldn’t stop here if you really want to understand what exactly gamers are talking about. Experiencing the community dynamics and game features first hand, by actually spending time playing it, will earn you invaluable knowledge about the intricacies of a game’s subculture, and allows you to check if it actually connects with your brand’s values and message.

Give a fresh perspective on how players can experience their game

Gamers buy games to experience something specific. They play Sea of Thieves to become pirates, they play Fortnite to be the best player over a hundred, they play Animal Crossing to create their own little world with the creativity that is theirs.

Anything that brings value in this context would be welcomed by players and have a higher chance of success. While providing cosmetic items such as “skins” is a good first step in marketing your brand, marketers should think of how they can elevate the player experience to make a real impact. For example, hosting player challenges or an exclusive event only available within a specific title would provide new, unique experiences for players that will leave a lasting impression. 

For #GlobalPrideCrossing, not only did we build Pride Island that a happy few could visit, but more importantly, we empowered Animal Crossing players to be the hosts of their own Pride parade in the game. Beyond the boundaries of the game itself, we shared Pride-related Animal Crossing UGC on Twitter and Instagram to amplify the sense of community and togetherness. By the end of the campaign, the #GlobalPrideCrossing hashtag organically amassed 25.2 million impressions. 

It is also clear that activations within games may pose scalability issues - while your audience may be interested in your campaign, they may not have access to the game and would miss out on the experience. For example, New Horizons costs around $60 and is only available on the Nintendo Switch. 

This is why your experience should also be “streamer friendly”, allowing you to scale up easily and have a much larger audience experience your activation through their favorite entertainers on Twitch or other streaming platforms. 

Step up your production game

Like in any social thinking process, once you have listened and once you have a concept, it’s time to execute and make your idea shine.

Producing content in or from a video game is its own discipline, brands need to adapt to a new set of rules that are dictated by the game itself. Production and creative teams have to be especially clever in executing their ideas by using all the tools available to create in-game items, experiences or campaign assets.

It took no less than 300 hours for our production partner Swipe Back to craft the Pride Island in New Horizons, all from a single Switch system. For example, they planted thousands of flowers in-game using dozens of shovels that break after a number of uses. They also had to create a virtual green screen so we could produce films using the in-game characters.

All of this is possible, only if your team has a deep knowledge of the game’s mechanics, and understands tricks and workarounds that can be used to go push the limits of what is feasible in-game.  

We believe these learnings apply not only to Animal Crossing: New Horizons but to any game with a social element. The main takeaway here is that marketers should not see games solely as an untapped advertising space, but as a way to connect with a passionate audience around common values and experiences worthy of interest. 

It is critical to take the time to understand the aspirations and subcultures of each gaming community, come up with ideas that augment their gaming experiences, and finally be smart with how you will bring all of this to life.

As video games become increasingly open and accessible to a wider audience, we will surely see more brands explore this new medium. We’re really excited to see how such campaigns evolve as the industry builds deeper knowledge and finesse in the concept and execution of such ideas.

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This article was originally written for Marketing Interactive by Arnaud Robin, Innovations Director at We Are Social Singapore.