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Indie games could help save the Wii U

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Nintendo may finally understand why small studios are important

Owning a Nintendo console means being patient. While the company's internally developed games are as amazing as ever, the Wii U, and to a lesser extent the 3DS, are largely bereft of third-party content. Once Mario Kart comes out, all you can do is wait until The Legend of Zelda arrives. But the company may finally have found a solution for the quiet periods in-between big Nintendo games: smaller, digital releases from indie studios.

It's far from a unique concept; Sony has been aggressively pursuing indie developers for some time, while Microsoft recently followed suit with its ID@Xbox program. Nintendo has also released a number of independently developed titles in the past, but it never approached the endeavor with the same fervor and excitement as its competitors. And though Nintendo's current indie ambitions still appear relatively small, especially in comparison's to the huge list of new indie games announced by Microsoft yesterday, they could be incredibly important. Indie games might be the key to ensuring the Wii U is more than just a box for playing Super Smash Bros.

Affordable Space Adventures

Affordable Space Adventures

At this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Nintendo showed off a small but impressive slate of upcoming games for its digital eShop. Some are familiar faces, already available on other platforms — like new versions of hits Don't Starve and Octodad — but Nintendo has also courted a few intriguing exclusives for its online marketplace, many of which make great use of the Wii U’s unique hardware. This includes games like Affordable Space Adventures, a dark and mysterious sci-fi game where the console’s Gamepad controller acts as a control panel for a spaceship, as well as Runbow, a hectic, colorful party game where up to nine players can battle against each other (provided you can wrangle together enough controllers).

"This is super exciting."

In the brief time I spent with them, the games were fun and creative — exactly what you'd expect from a Nintendo platform — and the company appears to be pushing these kinds of smaller releases in a way that it hasn't in the past. "I think they're doing everything they can to make it visible," Lau Korsgaard, creative director on Affordable Space Adventures, says. "This is super exciting, that they really want to push this." That includes holding indie-focused events for the press like at GDC, as well as with added promotion in the eShop. The company recently introduced a deal that got you a bigger discount on indie games if you already owned one or two of the featured titles.

And for a company that has historically been strict when it came to the rules put in place for small studios (at one point having an office was required to be a licensed Nintendo developer), it seems that Nintendo is easing up in that regard as well, making it easier for indies to get their games in the eShop. "It was a surprisingly accessible process," says Dave Proctor, producer and narrative director at 13AM Games, the studio behind Runbow.

Don't Starve

Don't Starve

The game actually started life as a prototype at a local game jam in Toronto, and Nintendo liked the idea so much that it approached 13AM to bring the game to the Wii U. Runbow will be the studio's first-ever release, and it's an example of Nintendo actively seeking out these kinds of experiences for its consoles. "The majority of my time is spent on digital content for the eShop," explains Damon Baker, senior manager for licensing at Nintendo of America.

In fact, Nintendo is also making these experiences itself, in addition to courting indies. This week will see the release of the downloadable puzzle game Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars on the 3DS, while Hal Laboratory — the studio behind the adorable Kirby series — is working on a delightfully simple black-and-white game called Boxboy.

On their own, these releases won't sell many on a new Wii U. But if Nintendo continues along this path and garners a large, interesting eShop library, downloadable games could finally solve one of Nintendo’s biggest problems: when you're done playing the few first-party games available for your console, what's next?

The answer could soon look a lot like Runbow.