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The Nintendo Switch indie strategy: release new games every week

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The Zelda machine has bigger plans

SteamWorld Dig 2
SteamWorld Dig 2

Nintendo has a revised strategy for indie games: look forward rather than backward. That goal is a bit loaded. On one hand, it speaks to a general concept of newness. Its slate of upcoming indie games, which will be charged with filling the Switch’s slim release calendar, are largely new releases, many debuting exclusively on the portable-console hybrid. That is to say, few of them are releases of games that have appeared elsewhere (Stardew Valley being the obvious exception). But “looking forward rather than backward” also speaks to the company’s ongoing relationship with the people who make and publish indie video games — a group it has, to this point, largely neglected.

In recent years, Sony — with its PS4 console and Vita handheld — has been aggressive about courting indie game developers. Now, Nintendo appears to be cribbing from its competitors playbook. Nintendo of America has formed a dedicated indie team to improve relationships with independent developers and publishers. Nintendo still evaluates Switch candidates on a case-by-case basis. But according to Nintendo representatives at GDC 2017, once a game is greenlit for release on Switch, the publishing process has been smoothed. Porting games from PC is simpler than it’s been in the past. The development kit, a modified version of the console used by game makers, is “cheaper” than previous Nintendo dev kits. And the company itself is more responsive with partners.

Shakedown Hawaii

“In the past, you wouldn’t hear back from other platforms for a few days,” said Brian Provinciano, the creator of Shakedown Hawaii. “Now sometimes I’ll send five emails back and forth in a single day.”

Provinciano was one of a handful indie developers on hand at Nintendo’s Game Developers Conference event to demo their games and attest to Nintendo’s improved relationship with the indie game community. Ash Wednesday, a co-designer on the two-player fighting game Pocket Rumble, said that Nintendo, after being shown a demonstration, was eager to get the quirky game on its hardware. But in the past, an indie fighting game on Nintendo hardware would have been a tricky proposition for a small team.

Fighting games typically require numerous updates, tweaking the game based on player’s discovering techniques and bugs. Patching games on console can be tricky for smaller developers, but Wednesday is impressed by Nintendo’s updated plans for the Switch. “[Nintendo] has made it cheap and fast to patch,” said Wednesday. “It doesn’t cost anything to patch. [And] patching is a big, big deal for us.”

The indie team at Nintendo doesn’t only work with individual developers. It helped the company secure day one support for middleware, including the engines on which many indie games are built. Games running on Unity, like role-playing game I Am Setsuna, will release at launch. And a number of games using Unreal Engine 4 — Rime, Snake Pass — will be released later in March.

Nintendo claims over 60 indie titles will be coming to Switch, many in the coming months. And while it’s launching with few games alongside the Switch, Nintendo representatives confirmed the system will see the release of new games every week.

One of those new games will be SteamWorld Dig 2, a follow-up to the critically acclaimed indie title. Its developer, Image & Form Games, has create games for Nintendo DSi, Nintendo 3DS, and the Nintendo Wii U — along with other non-Nintendo hardware. The company’s CEO, Brjánn Sigurgeirsson, is particularly giddy about Nintendo’s new system. When asked which hardware has been the best to make games for, Sigurgeirsson replies “Switch is by far the easiest.”