Last week, I looked at the potential for fashion to create a crossover channel with the videogame industry – following in the footsteps of the movie and music sectors, both of which have used games as a way to market and even sell, successfully, to a growing, diverse demographic.

In that primer, I focused primarily on Fortnite – Epic Games’ headline-seizing wrecking ball – for two reasons.  First: its cultural clout and brand partnership history is second to none, and everything from a Travis Scott skin to a pair of customisable Air Jordans has featured in the in-game store.  Second: it offers the path of least resistance from brand to player, being free to play, available on almost any modern device, and using a comfortable licensing model with a clear and measurable return.

This article picks up a different part of the fashion-to-game crossover spectrum.  One that’s grabbed more press coverage than any other, and one that comes closer to offering a genuinely new channel – albeit one with several caveats.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the digital side of fashion will be familiar with Animal Crossing: New Horizons.  No game before has captured the zeitgeist quite like the calm, expressive, non-violent utopia that Animal Crossing: New Horizon (hereafter Animal Crossing) presents.  From headline coverage across the fashion media sphere, to becoming the venue for a Hollywood writer’s celebrity talkshow, Animal Crossing has bottled lightning and united gamers, industry commentators, fashion dilettantes, and designer brands.

Part of that success is down to Animal Crossing’s newness.  Although it’s actually the fifth game in a long-running series (I played the GameCube original in my university days) New Horizons’ release in March of this year means it remains fresh enough in people’s minds to still be the subject of intense discussion online. 

But a key factor in Animal Crossing’s breakout success was its accidental good timing.  Structured around an online community, and offering broad appeal, the game dropped just as the world was going into lockdown – providing a perfect release for people stuck at home to socialise and feel some measure of escapism.  In Japan alone, the game shifted close to 4 million copies in less than two months.

Beneath its breezy surface, though, what exactly is Animal Crossing? It slots into the “life sim” genre, which is a fairly broad category that encompassing everything from incredibly dry recreations of driving a cargo lorry across America (which is a real, and surprisingly popular game series) to more abstract games that are designed around similarly mundane goals.

In Animal Crossing, players move to a deserted island populated by talking animals. Starting out in a tent – I pitched mine on the beach and regretted it later – you slowly work to create a thriving village.  You make friends, plant flowers, landscape garden, harvest seashells, catch insects, and much more – all while you’re paying down the mortgage on your tent in order to build successively grander houses.  The game clock follows the real world clock and seasons, giving Animal Crossing a very sedate, grounded pace.  Crucially, anyone can visit your island if you invite them, and everyone’s island is different – with other residents, different native fruits, different items in the in-game shop, and much more.

Unlike Fortnite, Animal Crossing is not free to play.  As a piece of boxed software that was, during the initial coronavirus outbreak, scarce, Animal Crossing cost upwards of $60 US.  It also has no mechanism for further in-game purchases with real money, which would seem, on the surface, to be the death knell for fashion brands’ involvement with the game.

And yet Animal Crossing has played host to official brand presences from Marc Jacobs, Net-A-Porter, Valentino, Gucci, and a raft of others – all of whom have partnered with Animal Crossing content creators on in-game and Instagram marketing campaigns.  And in fact there are services that pay players – outside the game, naturally – who can deliver interior design and style consultation services for others who want to spruce up their island’s image.

If that sounds like a lot to swallow, I’d understand.  The videogame industry can be opaque to outsiders in even its simplest form, and Animal Crossing, in its full-blown online community form, is anything but a simple game.  So rather than twist myself into any more knots, I turned to Crossing The Runway, which is the pseudonym for a pair of creators and fashion obsessives from New York City, for their wisdom:

“I think it’s similar to when eCommerce first became a thing.  For the people we grew up around, the idea of ordering something online used to make people hesitate, whereas today we buy pretty much everything online and have it delivered to our doors.  We have totally robust online storefronts now, same or next-day shipping, and it’s just accepted that what was a new channel not too long ago – in our lifetimes, even – is now the main channel for a lot of people.  And we think the next iteration of that same cycle could be digital marketing using games and other online channels.”

Not wanting to date myself too much, I’m old enough to remember the first wave of eCommerce, and as forward-thinking as my parents were, there was certainly reticence there.  To put it as simply as possible: they didn’t quite trust a new channel to deliver the same experience – or better – as the one they were used to.

The key difference, of course, is that when eCommerce sprang into being, physical stores stayed open.  Today, brands have had many of their traditional routes to market taken away from them, which is why I suspect Animal Crossing has been embraced as quickly as it has as a channel for reaching a young, connected audience.  Not only is it new and exciting… it’s also, in a literal sense, one of the only games in town.

But what form do these collaborations actually take? In a nutshell, Animal Crossing gives players a grid-based design editor to create with, and then allows them to print those designs onto a range of things – from walls to garments, accessories, and shoes.  Using those pared-down tools, players can design their own sweaters, for example.  And depending on the player’s skill, and their knowledge of the existing library of silhouettes and styles that the game offers, it’s possible to create quite unique, intricate looks.

vogue italia may 2020 cover; collaboration by crossing the runway

Once a player is happy with their design, they then have the option to share it with the world.  This happens randomly in the game itself – the back wall of the Able Sisters’ clothing shop (they’re blue hedgehogs) pulls a selection of designs from the community pool to display.  But creators also have control over how they share their designs outside the game: they can generate an alphanumeric code that allows other players to follow them, as a creator, or bring a specific design into their island.

In earlier games in the Animal Crossing series, these capabilities were mostly used to create outfits from other games, or to generate new clothes that made style in-universe, but it didn’t take long for creators to emerge who had a keener eye for fashion.  The Crossing The Runway team got their start in around 2014 by setting out to recreate, as closely as possible, past runway collections, looks, and styles from real, top-flight designer brands.  And while this might sound, at first glance, like something of an intellectual property nightmare or a curiosity, it’s actually an opportunity that brands have embraced with New Horizons, as Crossing The Runway explain:

“Back then, a brand might see a collection of theirs that we’d recreated and think it was neat but niche; now we’re being approached for full-on collaborations.  We recently did one with Italian streetwear brand GCDS, who approached us and were very open to taking our suggestion on board, and having us work within the silhouette and technical limitations of the game.  Then right after GCDS we did an in-game shoot for Vogue Italia, recreating their cover for a recent issue, and shooting other specific scenes for Buro magazine in Malaysia, themed around working from home in quarantine.  It can be a little overwhelming at times, to be honest, because we never really expected to have to pour so much energy into what started as a hobby, but the fashion community that’s grown around New Horizons is so massive that we’re just grateful to have been in the right place at the right time.”

original garment by gcds; collaboration by gcds x crossing the runway

In the last article in this series, I drew on demographic data to paint a picture of the typical gamer, who is not at all what you might expect.  As I explained last week, more than 65% of all people in the USA play videogames in some capacity.  But what is less clear is what percentage of those are also interested in fashion beyond a basic level.  Given that Maison Valentino’s official Twitter account points to a code for bringing some of its S/S 2020 collection into Animal Crossing, we can presume there is some crossover, but how far do the two circles in that Venn diagram actually overlap? Is there a significant audience of fashion devotees and even fashion professionals who game?  And what do they get out of bridging the two worlds?

“You might be surprised, but a lot of our followers actually work in fashion,” explain Crossing The Runway.  “Recently, for example, we recreated quite an old collection – from maybe ten years ago – and we received a message from someone in the industry who’d just bought, on consignment, something from that collection because that particular mood had resonated for them for so many years.  They were, to put it mildly, freaking out that they could hop on their Switch and dress their islander in that same piece.  And I think a lot of people are on the same wavelength, really.  Having a bridge that connects that spark of passion from real life to a digital world, and being to recreate something that’s so iconic – it’s fulfilling a fantasy for a lot of people.  And in some cases the collection or style they’re obsessed with might not be something they feel they could pull off in real life, whereas Animal Crossing or another digital space they can be more liberated.”

It seems clear, at least, that there is an audience – potentially quite a large one – that’s invested enough in both fashion and videogames to represent a lucrative sector for marketing and community engagement.  But what’s less apparent is how that marketing opportunity can be converted into a sales channel.  Animal Crossing’s closest analogue is the “modding” scene, where communities work to add to and reshape games with the approval of the original developer – but those mods are very seldom sold, and Animal Crossing carries through that sense of altruism.  So far, too, actual licensing revenue from games has been confined to safe household brands like Nike.

Somewhere in between those two extremes lies the real untapped potential of the fashion / gaming crossover channel: a way to market and sell either digital versions of existing collections, or new, all-digital ones.  But that opportunity is currently clouded by caveats like platform exclusivity, engine conflicts, and a lack of standardised player identities between different digital worlds.

This is something I plan to dig into the future, but for now this article serves as a capstone on The Interline’s extensive coverage of 3D.  Our attention turns to “Factories of the Future” from tomorrow.

Readers interested in future brand collaborations can follow Crossing The Runway here.