How Nintendo Is Changing Its Approach To Indie Developers

by Brian Shea on Dec 28, 2017 at 10:00 AM

With each passing generation of consoles, the criticism against Nintendo’s lackluster third-party support has only strengthened. While the Switch has seen Nintendo attempt to make strides in the realm of triple-A publishers with games from giants like Ubisoft, Bethesda, and even Rockstar, the company is also focusing its efforts on independent developers to expand the library of its most recent console.

This feature originally appeared in issue 295 of Game Informer.

Falling Behind

The Wii U was notorious for its lack of third-party titles. Near the end of its lifecycle, players were provided with a barren wasteland, where months passed between major new releases. Due to poor sales, a difficult-to-develop-for infrastructure, and a form factor many viewed as a half-measure, the Wii U was not viewed as a destination platform by triple-A publishers or independent developers.

In the past couple of years, Nintendo has made it a mission to try and change that perception of its hardware. In early 2016, Damon Baker stepped in as head of partner management for the publisher and developer-relations department after nearly 10 years of working in licensing and marketing. Ever since, Baker has pushed to improve relationships with third-party publishers at Nintendo.

Baker says that while it may seem counterintuitive, the third-party department never had a dedicated account-management team and instead relied on connections the team members brought in with developers through the relationships they’ve established. “For the last two years, I’ve been asked to head up this initiative, at least here in North America, to reach out to different publishers, from triple-A publishers all the way to independent developers, and evangelize what [Switch] is all about,” Baker says.

If all goes well with the initiative, the hope is that Nintendo can attract more third-party talent than ever before. The Switch could break the cycle of this traditionally weak area for Nintendo, especially if it becomes a destination platform for indies. Nintendo thinks it has the right formula for success with Switch, and the developer hype surrounding the platform backs up that confidence.

Making The Switch

Though Baker openly admits the Switch being a shiny, new platform is a good way to attract developers, he claims the way the team operates now isn’t too different from how it did near the Wii U’s final days. Late in the Wii U cycle, we saw some new approaches to court more third parties, with tactics like providing Wii U owners the ability to download several indie game demos and try them out at home during E3 2015. However, with poor sales and an unfriendly framework, it was too little to save the sinking Wii U ship.

While it’s too early to tell if the Switch will ultimately be different, the platform seems like it’s on the right path. Instead of attributing any kind of radical new approaches, Baker feels that the Switch is a much friendlier platform to developers. He acknowledges that while Switch has a lot of hype surrounding it since launch, several additional reasons are to thank for the influx of third-party developers – particularly indie developers – flocking to the Switch.

“Developers could certainly go to any of our competitors and have a much larger install base to work with,” Baker says. “The reason why they’re really interested in working with us is because of some of the features and functionality [of Switch], but it’s also because we’ve created a framework that is much easier for these developers to bring their content over.”

The fact that the Switch is a home console with portable capabilities is attractive to many developers, including indie publisher Adult Swim Games, which brought Trinket Studios’ Battle Chef Brigade to Switch in 2017. “Indie games can generally be consumed in smaller chunks than triple-A games,” associate product manager at Adult Swim Games Jacob Paul says. “I think it’s the perfect platform for pick-up-and-play as people are going on the bus or on planes.”

The technical side of the Switch is also attractive to developers. Frozenbyte has plenty of experience with Nintendo's platforms, having brought Trine and Trine 2 to Wii U, and Has-Been Heroes and the upcoming Nine Parchments to Switch. “Switch is much easier to develop for than the Wii U,” says marketing manager Kai Tuovinen. “They have the Unreal and Unity support as well, so those guys who are using those engines can easily bring their games. Also for people like ourselves who are using our own engine, it’s really easy for us to put our games on Switch as well.”

Though Team Meat, the developers behind Super Meat Boy and the forthcoming Super Meat Boy Forever, never released anything on Wii U, CEO and lead programmer Tommy Refenes says Switch is incredibly easy to port games to, calling Nintendo’s leap ahead from the Wii development tools “night and day.” “I ported [Super Meat Boy Forever] in like two days – from nothing to working in two days,” he says. “Microsoft used to always be the people with the crazy good tools because they make Windows, so of course they’re going to have good stuff, but Switch’s tools… I’m legitimately surprised by how well-thought-out everything was.”

While Refenes implies that Nintendo is eclipsing Microsoft in terms of developer-friendly framework, he also asserts that Nintendo is overtaking Sony in a completely different area of supporting its indie developers: promotion.

Spreading The Word

Refenes isn’t alone in his feelings. Many other developers who are releasing games on Switch shared the notion that Nintendo is going above and beyond from a promotional standpoint. “Over the past two years, I’ve seen how much Nintendo has been putting into getting the word out about indies and trying to help the indie community get more popular and get more support,” says Goichi Suda, CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture and director of Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes. “It’s really obvious to me that Nintendo has really started caring more about indies.”

The promotion of indie developers by Nintendo came to a head in late August at PAX West 2017. Not only did Nintendo host its annual “Nindies @ Night” event, where fans could play upcoming independent games on Nintendo platforms on the eve of the expo, but it also set up a dedicated Nindies Arcade at the convention center where PAX attendees could take a break from the main showfloor and play a curated collection of indie games. However, the biggest promotion came in the form of a Nindies Showcase video that corresponded with PAX, where Baker introduced players to a host of independent titles coming to Switch.

“We’re always looking at unique vehicles to be able to promote this great content,” Baker says. “We also have a program where we have a free hardware-allocation program for our partners. So, if they’re attending their own events, they’re attending other shows, we can give them the hardware they need to show off their own content independently.”

Refenes felt that eagerness to help indie developers firsthand when he put feelers out to the platform holders to see if there was interest in debuting new Super Meat Boy Forever information at PAX and Nintendo scooped it up immediately. “It used to be Sony was the one that was pushing the indie devs so much,” he says. “I think Nintendo is pushing harder than Sony is now. […] I think right now they’re just offering more exposure.”

Tuovinen agrees Nintendo’s approach to promoting indies is special. “The support from Nintendo for different events and promotions is overwhelming,” he says. “We really couldn’t be happier with how things are.”

For publisher Adult Swim Games and developer Lienzo, Nintendo’s rapport with its fans is a big advantage over its competitors. “When Nintendo speaks and calls out a game for being good, the fans really listen,” Paul says. “It’s a very dedicated fan base.”

Edgar Serrano, director and game designer at indie developer Lienzo agrees that having Nintendo’s approval is something that can translate to success within its fan community. “Once you’re in with Nintendo, it generally boosts up your visibility and people care more about it because if Nintendo gives you something to work with, then it must mean that your game is worth it,” Serrano says.

Baker understands that Nintendo’s hardcore fan base outshines any promotional help his team can give or unique traits the Switch may possess. “As much marketing or PR support that any of us can possibly give to any particular game or any particular franchise, the strongest message out there is the word-of-mouth messaging,” he says. “That’s more powerful than anything we could do.”

For many of the bigger indie games coming to Switch, retro-gaming experiences from past Nintendo platforms like Advance Wars and Mega Man serve as the core inspiration for games like Wargroove and Shovel Knight, while Super Meat Boy Forever capitalizes on Nintendo’s long history with platformers. Because of this built-in player base that has this preexisting love for these genres, many indies see the Switch as a great fit for their games.

“It definitely seems like an ideal platform [for Wargroove],” says Chucklefish community manager Tom Katkus. “In a way, a game like this, it’s almost like coming home, coming back to a Nintendo system. I think everyone in the studio would have felt we were underserving everyone if we didn’t have it on a Nintendo system.”

Baker also believes that indie titles like Wargroove and Shovel Knight that draw inspiration from classic titles from Nintendo’s past are perfect fits for Switch’s player base. “I think they share a very similar audience,” he says. “There are a ton of fans on Nintendo Switch that are huge fans of Zelda and Mario and Metroid and all these other franchises that have come out in the past. It’s very natural that new games that are inspired by some of those franchises or that type of creativity would also do well on the system.”

The special connection Nintendo has is not only limited to its fans, as multiple developers say that it carries into the way the company deals with its stable of developers.

Keeping Things Personal

Another key factor that was brought up repeatedly by various indie developers is how Nintendo delivers a more personal touch in its approach. From the company’s presence at conventions like Japan’s BitSummit to actual visits to indie studios across the globe, many developers feel personally catered to in ways not seen with other major companies.

I witnessed the rapport Baker, who serves as a point-of-contact with Nintendo for several of these developers, has with Suda for myself. As Suda and Baker’s paths cross, I watch as the two stop to compliment each other’s sneakers and make small talk.

Suda says he feels that the team at Nintendo has shown that they really care about the No More Heroes series. He says that it culminated with an invitation to be included in the full reveal of the Switch system in January. “In my entire career as a video game creator, I’ve never had that chance before,” Suda says. “I’ve never had a platform or company really show that they care about my games or my series this much, and really offer this much support for it. I really appreciate that and it’s one of the reasons I’m really glad to be working with Nintendo. They show that they do care. That sort of care is something that I’m able to receive from Nintendo that I don’t really think I’d get from anywhere else.”

This approach allows Nintendo to not only keep lines of communication open with its developers, but also get early visibility into projects and offer suggestions about direction or what players are looking for. “I think it’s refreshing for a lot of our partners, and I think it helps us establish lifelong relationships with these developers,” Baker says.

Part of establishing a long-standing relationship with independent developers is understanding what best serves the developer. Baker says that while Nintendo loves having third-party games from indies arrive exclusively on Switch, his team doesn’t force developers to go that route unless it makes sense for them. That holds true, as many of the developers featured in Nintendo’s indie lineup are also releasing on other platforms. “We know that every one of these independent developers needs to make business decisions that are right for them,” he says.

Going Worldwide

Though Nintendo Switch still lacks in third-party titles when compared to other platforms, the strides the company is making are undeniable. Baker says the team will continue to support independent developers while keeping Nintendo’s core philosophy of bringing games for everyone.

Nintendo hopes to further its attempts to make this initiative more globally focused by removing barriers for developers to get their games in additional regions. Previously, developers often needed an existing entity in Japan to release a game in the Japanese market, but through this new global approach, games like Shovel Knight, which are a good fit for the Japanese market, have been able to release on Nintendo platforms.

At the end of the day, Nintendo still has work to do. For all its progress in securing more third parties and big-name independent developers, many have still yet to jump in with both feet. The age-old argument from Nintendo fans that nobody buys a Nintendo system for the third-party games holds less water with each generation. Thankfully, Baker knows that while the first-party offerings from Nintendo are undeniably strong, not everyone is going to be interested in the latest Mario or Zelda game.

“It’s our job to go out there and find the things that [the players] are interested in and the types of genres that they can sink their teeth into,” Baker says. “Already there’s an amazing catalog of content available. When I look at what’s coming out over the next couple of years and the stuff that we’ve even just most recently announced, people are going to be spending a lot of money on eShop because there’s so much great stuff to choose from,” Baker says with a laugh. “We really do believe that there’s something for everyone.”