This is a bit of an expansion over a couple of Mastodon posts I made yesterday. (On what account? Here!)
Animal Crossing New Horizons was an amazing hit for Nintendo. It hit right at the start of the pandemic, and so quickly became the second best-selling game on the system.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? 27 million copies. Super Mario Odyssey? 23 million copies. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate? 29 million copies. These are all very high sales figures. Nintendo has made bank during the Switch era.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons? 40 million units sold. That’s over 2.4 billion dollars in gross revenue, and not even counting Nintendo Online subscriptions and the paid DLC! The only Switch game to surpass it has been Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which has sold 47 million units.
You’d think a game like that would have a long support life, but you’d be wrong. Three years in and it’s been over a year since the last meaningful update. Nintendo has largely abandoned the audience of the most popular Animal Crossing game ever made, by a huge margin.
Why is this so strange? Most games don’t update after a couple of years, after all. There are games that have made a go of a long-lived, if no perpetual, update cycle. Team Fortress 2 famously went on for like a decade of frequent updates, and while Valve has cooled on it since it still sees a lot of play. Stardew Valley is still updated from time to time, and it’s an indie game, although one with a very low overhead.
Animal Crossing, however, has, from the beginning, been a form of gaming that almost demands to be played for a significant period of time. People have played the Gamecube version for many years, keeping their island alive through decades of real time.
Before consoles could connect to the internet, of course, they couldn’t even be updated. But with the introduction of the internet a lot of options became available. The possibilities for a game-as-service approach to Animal Crossing have been great and, in large part, unexplored.
The thing that really made this all visible is the New Year’s Arch item. The first year the game was released, they made available an archway, made of balloons, with the number 2021 set at the top of it. Then for 2022 they made another version of it, but notably, it didn’t involve hardly any new geometry; it was just the 2021 arch with different colors, and a 2 in place of the 1. It looked almost a if it had been auto-generated, like maybe the game itself had support to make arches programmatically. The item’s catalog description, which was identical for both arches, is even careful not to mention the year on the model: “An arch bearing the Gregorian calendar’s number for the new year.” Why be so elliptical about it if it wasn’t intended to be reused many times?
But no, that wasn’t the case. 2023 saw no new arch at all. The first two arches now stand out in the inventory as a stark reminder of that brief window of time when New Horizons saw active support. Ten years from now, people who come back to the game, or (heaven help them/us) never left it will still see only those two arches, mementos of the time when the game was new. It’s not like a new arch would be a huge addition: there’s obviously already a content pipeline that can be used to add new items fairly easily, and a 2023 arch made along the lines of the 2022 one would probably be about five minutes of work.
No one expects Nintendo to add new features indefinitely, or always for free, but the lack of a new arch, the lowest-effort update imaginable, makes it clear that absolutely no additions will be coming to the game, probably ever, not even extremely minor things like updated yearly items. ACNH updates were something that Nintendo could have comfortably milked for years. It’s not like we aren’t already paying them for online server access.
Animal Crossing is not like other games, but Nintendo doesn’t seem to realize that, has never really understood what the series is about. The archway is just another example. And it doesn’t make a fan of series want to buy any new versions if they know they’re going to be supported only for a brief period of the game’s lifetime.