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Forget Mario: The Nintendo Switch Will Live or Die With Indie Games

March 09,2017 20:08

The annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco is a valuable opportunity for games journalists to get their hands on forthcoming titles, and in a small room in a hotel near the Moscone Center in San Francisco, that's exactly what's happening.

The annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco is a valuable opportunity for games journalists to get their hands on forthcoming titles, and in a small room in a hotel near the Moscone Center in San Francisco, that’s exactly what’s happening. This particular room is packed with new Nintendo Switch consoles, on which press members play a handful of specially selected games, some never played by the public before. But these aren’t Nintendo games. They’re not even games from big Nintendo-friendly studios like Capcom or Traveller’s Tales. Instead, they’re a curated selection of titles made by independent developers. This is the “Nindies,” a showcase that’s part of Nintendo’s surprising push to make independent games a cornerstone of the Switch.
According to Nintendo, 60 indie games will be coming to Switch in 2017—a mixture of original titles and ports from other platforms. These games range from one-person projects, like Matt Thorson’s hyper-challenging fantasy platformer Celeste, to work by full fledged independent studios, like a new version of Yacht Club Games’ beloved sidescrolling throwback Shovel Knight. Together, these titles represent a new approach from Nintendo, a move to embrace the work of small studios and make the Nintendo Switch a destination for the quirky, playful, original ideas coming out of independent developers.
It makes sense—the Nintendo Switch needs indies. But it’s not yet clear if indies need the Switch.

I’ve had my Nintendo Switch for a little over two weeks now, and I’m a big fan. Unlike some of WIRED’s other writers, I’ve been fortunately free of technical problems, leaving me with a system that has a few really compelling tricks and a comfortable form factor. The phablet size and the detachable controllers make for an ideal handheld—for me, anyway. It’s a device that I can actually envision myself playing on the go (or in bed) without significant discomfort. The question, of course, is the question that every game console faces in its early days: What am I going to play on this?
 
A gaming device develops its personality through the software released for it—and Nintendo hasn’t always had the easiest time articulating that vision. The Wii U, in particular, failed largely in part due to the lack of a sense of driving vision behind it. Was it a continuation of the more straightforward, casual-friendly fun of the Wii, or a return to something more like a traditional console? What kind of games were going to be released on it? It wasn’t clear, and the console suffered tremendously for that. The Switch has a more coherent sales pitch out of the gate—but if the Nindies Showcase is to be believed, the console’s software identity is going to hinge significantly on indie games.
 
It makes sense: the flexibility of the console makes it perfect for the unique, smaller-scale experiences favored by much of the independent development community. Nintendo representatives at the Nindies showcase emphasized the company’s efforts to reach out to small developers, as well as seeking out compelling games on other platforms and seeing if those developers would be interested in bringing their work to Nintendo’s new console. (One Nintendo rep even mentioned the PC gaming platform Steam, something I’ve never heard Nintendo directly reference before.) In return, Nintendo can offer high-functioning, reliable portability, backed by a Nvidia chip architecture that is already familiar to a lot of independent developers—along with a bevy of Nintendo fans looking for things to play on their new toy.

According to Graeme Struthers, co-founder of independent publisher Devolver Digital, working with Nintendo has been promising so far. Nintendo of America reached out to them to express interest in some of their games—particularly Enter the Gungeon, a challenging 2D dungeon crawling game where your enemies are bullets (who pack guns of their own). “[Nintendo] has been very open,” said Struthers. “They’ve responded very well in terms of getting us development kits that we needed in the hands of people we’ve needed to have them. They’ve also made huge strides in getting people from [major third-party game engines] Unreal and Unity on board, which makes a huge difference in terms of support.”
It helps that the Switch aligns more closely with the types of machines indies are used to working with. “It’s essentially a powerful kind of tablet-type architecture,” said Andrew Parsons, a producer at Devolver who’s working with the team porting Enter the Gungeon to Switch. “Since the iPhone, recent trends in game creation have been toward creating games and game architecture which supports that structure. And the fact that the Switch has a more traditional control layout is, I think, a relief for a lot of developers. People like to play with controllers and they like to design with them. For a lot of devs wanting to make more ‘traditional’ indie games, that was wonderful.”
What remains to be seen is just how far Nintendo’s support will go. There are still a lot of unknowns with the Switch, particularly in terms of online infrastructure, which is an important element for a large swath of independent developers. The online storefront only has a handful of games on it at present, so those indie titles are front and center. Once the Switch library grows, though, promotion and discovery will become more of a challenge: How prominently will Nintendo feature indies? Similarly, Nintendo has yet to indicate, even a week after the console’s release, what online multiplayer is going to look like in games—or if robust multiplayer support on Nintendo’s end will even exist.
Enter the Gungeon, coming to the Switch at an unannounced dateDodge Roll GamesWhile Nintendo’s plans are still unknown, the company has plenty of examples to look to for inspiration. Over the past few years, Microsoft and Sony have worked closely to promote select indie titles, giving games like Inside and No Man’s Sky stage time during conventions and treating them like tentpole releases. That type of support can mean everything to a small team—and without it, a port that looks great for Nintendo could end up being a drain on time and money without equivalent gains for the developer.
Nintendo has always focused on having a tightly controlled, focused ecosystem of games built around tentpole first-party releases, and in that sort of climate Nintendo wields significant power over the attention each individual game receives. For indies to succeed on the Switch, Nintendo is going to have to be willing to open up control just a little bit, and to do that thing which they’ve traditionally been somewhat unwilling to do—adapt.
If they can, the Switch could end up being something special for the independent community and its audience: a portable machine that combines the distinct market advantage of first-party Nintendo games with with a robust ecosystem of indie titles.
Andrew Parsons is hopeful. “I think Nintendo is showing that they’re willing and able to move with the times,” he said. “The changes they’ve made with even simple things like the user interface—they’re clearly watching what’s going on with the wider world and adapting to it. That points toward not only a hardware company but a software company that is willing to change.”
That adaptability is key, because it reflects one of indie developers’ strongest traits. Independent developers are nimble enough to adapt to fit the needs of the friendliest platforms: they’ll pivot to go where they’re supported, and they’ll move to get away from where they’re not. If Nintendo is willing to give it a go, so are they. And that may mean a whole new life for a company that could sorely use one.

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