pax 2015

Nintendo Tries To Win Over The Third-Party Market With Indies

by Brian Shea on Aug 28, 2015 at 12:30 PM

Going into the Wii U life cycle, Nintendo was set on improving relations with third-party publishers after years of negligence in favor of first-party content.. The Wii U launched with an impressive line-up of games from publishers like Ubisoft, Activision, and Electronic Arts in support of its typically strong first-party offerings. Unfortunately, the support of these publishers has largely petered out and the Wii U has fallen into the all-too-familiar trap of being a console that many use to only play games published by Nintendo.

This attitude permeates every part of the Nintendo fan culture, from the release calendar to the games that Wii U owners are most excited about. Though this has just become an accepted attitude to take toward Nintendo consoles, one area defies this environment: the eShop. 

The eShop plasters images of Mario, Link, and Donkey Kong all over your two screens, but Nintendo’s independent-gaming section also gets its share of promotion. These indie games are often far from exclusive, but Nintendo has made it a point to emphasize the importance of independent developers.

Damon Baker, Nintendo’s senior marketing manager of publisher and developer relations, has taken on the task of ensuring that independent-development partners are well represented on Nintendo platforms. While Baker acknowledges the notion that many fans don’t buy Nintendo consoles to play non-Nintendo games, he sees the area as more of an opportunity than anything else. “It is true that we’ve got a really loyal and passionate fan base for Nintendo-developed content, but it also drives them to go to the eShop to check out what’s new – to see if there’s new DLC for some of those first-party games or new releases, and while they’re there, they’re seeing this independent content being highlighted right next to Mario and right next to Zelda and right next to all our major franchises,” he says. “So we do a pretty good job of keeping it in the same light.”

Baker says that another advantage Nintendo has in dealing with independent developers is that they can realize their visions in new ways thanks to its hardware’s distinct capabilities. “You look at our hardware, it’s unique, it’s different, and it allows for different experiences,” he says. “It allows for developers to utilize the features and functionality in a unique way where they can use the touchscreen, they can use a second screen, they can use 3D and they can use that to realize their vision differently than they can on any other platform. We have the same mentality from a first-party perspective as well.”

Those unique control schemes that the Wii U can deliver are exemplified by games like Kerbal Space Program, which was announced this week as having exclusive controls in the Wii U version. In situations such as this, Baker says that it’s not a set process for determining what titles can deliver new exclusive features. While there are times that developers approach Nintendo with ideas for how to capitalize on the different hardware, Baker says that Nintendo also takes part in the brainstorming. 

“Sometimes we’ll be proactive in reaching out to different developers and publishers to say, ‘Hey, this is a great idea. What do you think about utilizing it on our platforms? It would be perfect to use a second screen, or it would be awesome with a touchscreen to be able to manipulate these characters or movements,’” he says.

On the next page, Baker talks about Nintendo’s nostalgia factor and why the company typically avoids having independent games as exclusive titles.

Though Nintendo thrives in the realm of delivering exclusive first-party titles, Baker states that the company is less than assertive about locking up exclusive independent games. Baker is candid as to why that is. “We’re not known for exclusive [indie games] in particular, and that’s because we’re not throwing around a lot of cash,” he says. “We also don’t see a huge benefit to developers in driving exclusive deals with platforms and consoles. They need to do what’s right for them from a business perspective, and we want to help complement that and make sure that they’re making the most from the experience on our platforms,”

While it’s commonplace to see an exciting, new indie game hit PlayStation 4 or Xbox One first, Baker says there are reasons why he thinks indie devs should more frequently consider simultaneous release options. “We very much encourage all of our development partners to release simultaneously across all platforms,” he says. “We’ve seen the data that proves that the developers are the ones that are going to benefit from that versus going with an exclusive arrangement. We’re certainly not going to frown upon those people that are bringing exclusive content over to us, because we will make the most of it and make sure they are doing a great job with it. I think that we have a strong focus on multiplatform content, and that’s because we do have a point of differentiation with our control schemes and what these developers can create in a unique environment.”

Games that have shown so much promise on Nintendo platforms, like Shovel Knight and Hive Jump, are clearly inspired by games from Nintendo’s past, something the company is keenly aware of and is not afraid to use to its advantage. “The fans are familiar with Nintendo content; they’re familiar with some of those retro games, so when they see a game that is inspired by that or takes things to the next level, I think they’re willing to jump in because it feels trusted or something that’s familiar to them,” Baker says. “I think that can work to the advantage of developers and to Nintendo in general, but in the end, it always comes down to that gameplay experience.”

Despite this, Baker acknowledges that games cannot succeed on nostalgic fumes alone, however. “I think it always comes down to what the fans are looking for and what drives them to purchase. You can’t just rip off something and call it good. People, especially in this day and age, they demand more and they’re a lot more savvy. And that‘s why titles like Shovel Knight, Guacamelee, and the Shantae series have done incredibly well on our platforms, Mutant Mudds, things like that. They’re inspired, but they take things to the next level, and I think the fans appreciate that different take, and it’s why they’re hungry to see what else is coming.”

With Nintendo making such strides in the independent games market, particularly in the last year or two, it will be interesting to watch how its upcoming project, codenamed "NX," supports indies.  Nintendo has improved its commitment to indie games, and by continuing to strategically implement its strengths  – nostalgia, unique form factor, different hardware capabilities – it could very well position its platforms as a strong option for independent game developers looking for a place to call home.