Feature: 12 Days of Christmas - Animal Crossing Helped 3DS Turn Over a New Leaf

A game for all

While a number of 3DS titles have performed well for Nintendo in 2013, Animal Crossing: New Leaf has been a notable success story. While its core sales numbers have been impressive, it's perhaps been the cultural impact of New Leaf that's been the most pleasing for those keen to see 3DS success.

To give some context of how well Animal Crossing: New Leaf has performed, Nintendo's latest financial reports showed 6.35 million sales of New Leaf around the world as of 30th September — notably just over two million of those sales were outside of Japan, even though the title only arrived in the West in June this year after its 2012 release in Japan. Its success helped to drive the 3DS hardware business, by extension, and before the inevitable sales behemoth of Pokémon X & Y seized the day New Leaf was easily the best selling 2013 release on the system and is, in all likelihood, already well on its way to catching up with other lifetime system leaders such as Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land.

Yet it's the impact beyond sales that we'd suggest truly matters; while Animal Crossing: Wild World on the DS was also a significant success — New Leaf has time to work up to its levels of sales — it's the social imprint of New Leaf that may be the most vital. Quite simply, the days, weeks and even months after its release demonstrated the power of the brand in attracting gamers of all kinds; the evidence was online. Social networks don't always hum to the sound of Nintendo game hype — the likes of Twitter can sometimes be a lonely place for big N enthusiasts — yet New Leaf was everywhere. Age, game genre preferences and gaming experience didn't seem relevant; everyone was playing the latest Animal Crossing title. Nintendo even offered an Image Share service that was used a great deal, while Miiverse is now an option for those still playing regularly.

And plenty still are playing it, while the game keeps selling. Its presence in the UK top 40 has been assured since launch, defying the trend of 3DS games appearing then plunging from the charts the following week, while it's still kicking around in the Japanese top 20 after more than a year. When we refer to Nintendo games having ever-green qualities, this is one such example.

It's also a game that's delivered significant download sales, with impressive numbers in Japan particularly and Nintendo emphasizing its continually increasing download revenues; it's a shift in the buying habits of consumers. In some cases, even in the U.S., around 20% of the game's sales have been downloads. It's a case of format and software aligning perfectly, as New Leaf is a game that demands daily attention where possible, and dipping in to check on your town is more convenient when not worrying about swapping out cartridges.

Nintendo, unsurprisingly, has taken its opportunities to ride the wave of New Leaf's success. Regular free SpotPass content is the norm, while specific promotions with retailers have been utilised. The game has had its own rather attractive 3DS XL model released worldwide, while it's a title often seen in bundles at retail, especially with the 2DS. Marketing campaigns are still in full flow, capitalising on its year-round seasonal qualities, and the Animal Crossing Plaza is a free app on the Wii U to introduce home console gamers to the series — well, those that haven't also enjoyed City Folk on Wii. That plaza has grown, too, with stamps and opinion polls recently introduced.

Those are all important parts of what makes New Leaf a winner of 2013, but the defining qualities that have driven this triumph can be more difficult to define. It's enraptured millions with its strange little world of talking animals, an economy of Bells and a mixture of chores and relaxation. This isn't an experience where you can 'jump ahead', and in fact it makes you wait for progression not in terms of game-time, but in real days. If you want money you have to work for it, whether by shaking trees, finding valuable items to sell or by utilising the in-game economy in other ways. You make friends, look after your constituents, undertake public works and fundraising, maintain the beauty of your town and relax in the local nightspot. Then there are ways to visit and share with other players, through online and StreetPass, that's portrayed on screen as a train leaving the station or a fantastical showhome exhibition.

In some respects it's like real life, but wrapped in rainbows and happiness. It's a world where you can wear a silly hat and fake nose and will prompt laughs from your residents. There are some animals you'll like, others perhaps not quite, and sometimes they'll want to leave you or desire that you ask them to say; it's quite possible you'll become genuinely attached to your animal friends, or work in the coffee shop just because you can.

All of this may be familiar to those that indulge in any manner of online social games, in particular, but New Leaf stands apart because it's so typically Nintendo. It's cute and charming, yes, but it's also honest with you; if you want the best of the game you need to give it commitment, but it won't ask for anything else in return beyond the initial purchase. The company has dabbled with paid-DLC in other games, but Satoru Iwata described the idea of these extras or micro-transactions in New Leaf as unwholesome. How right he was, and it's that purity of purpose that shines through.

Sometimes good games, both in terms of execution and their spirit, get the success they deserve. We'll close with the words of producer Katsuya Eguchi in an interview earlier this year; we'd say his team achieved its goals.

At a certain point it will end, but in the same way that life does, every day — to day, to day, to day — it keeps going. In the same way, we wanted your life within Animal Crossing to keep going, so we built into the game a mechanism to be sure that there are always new discoveries for players. You like something one day, and then you may discover that you didn't like it as much as this other thing. So there's always something to strive for.

We also built into the game a feedback mechanism, where you're always getting feedback from within the game, from animals saying they like certain items and asking you if you'll trade with them, or playing with friends. Friends may give you feedback and you can see what they're doing with their towns, and get new ideas.

So it's always about this constant discovery, and also adding a lot of variation within the game. There are always a lot of different paths you can decide to go down. We want it to feel like a story that was never going to be done. It was never going to be finished. So that was something we tried to achieve.