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How the Nintendo Switch became the hottest indie game platform

How the Nintendo Switch became the hottest indie game platform


For now, at least

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Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Last year, just ahead of the launch of the Switch, Nintendo unveiled some ambitious plans to support independently developed games on the platform, including launching a new game every single week. It was a big shift for a company that wasn’t known for being indie-friendly in the past. One year later, the initiative seems to have worked: the Switch might be the most vibrant indie platform of the moment.

It’s thanks to a combination of factors, including the unique nature of the device, stellar early hardware sales, and some small but important changes that have made it an easy platform to develop for. Nintendo has also kept its promise to keep the Switch stocked with great indie releases through its first 12 months, and that trend looks to continue going forward. “All the stars are aligning for a very bright future for the platform,” says Damon Baker, senior manager of partner management at Nintendo.

This week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Nintendo announced 14 new games coming to the Switch. They include notable remasters of classics like Mark of the Ninja and Lumines; a new edition of mobile game Reigns: Kings & Queens, which adds co-operative play for the first time; and the hilarious stick figure adventure West of Loathing.

Reigns: Kings & Queens
Reigns: Kings & Queens.

The company also revealed some details on the success of the platform, explaining that, for the first time in Nintendo’s history, digital sales eclipsed packaged games in the US. And Baker says that indie games make up a “significant chunk” of those digital sales. “The strength of that digital business is definitely on the back of the indie content that’s coming to the platform,” he explains.

So what’s different now? The breakaway success of the Switch is, of course, a big factor. Developers can sell more games on a platform that’s a hit, and the Switch managed to outsell the underperforming Wii U in less than a year. But there’s also the nature of the Switch itself, which straddles the line between portable and console, meaning a greater range of experiences can comfortably fit on it. At GDC this week, I spoke to developers working in mobile, console, and PC, and there was interest in the Switch from all groups. In fact, a recent GDC survey revealed that smaller game creators are flocking to the platform.

“We always liked Nintendo.”

One of the games announced this week was Bomb Chicken, a goofy platformer about a chicken that uses bombs to move around. It’s the first console release from Nitrome, a British studio that initially made its name by releasing more than 100 Flash games; when that market dried up, the company shifted to mobile. In an attempt to diversify its offerings, Nitrome decided to move into the console space as well, and the Switch proved particularly enticing. “We didn’t want to end up in the same scenario as when we had that difficult transition to mobile,” says CEO Mat Annal. “And we always liked Nintendo.”

One of the keys to the Switch’s appeal for developers is Nintendo’s attitude and the relative ease of developing for the Switch. In the past, it’s been hard for smaller creators to even get in touch with the company, and once they did, platforms like the Wii U weren’t exactly simple to develop for. But that’s changed with the Switch. Since launch, the console has supported Unity and Unreal Engine, the two biggest middleware game engines, and this week, the company also announced support for Game Maker Studio. Developers I spoke to also say the company is more communicative than ever before, listening to developers and taking feedback to heart, including helping find new ways to use the Switch hardware. “Whatever you want to try, they’re very interested in the feedback,” says Annal.

Bomb Chicken
Bomb Chicken.

It’s a change that’s been a long time coming. Nintendo’s “Nindies” program dates back to the Wii U, and Baker says that the company has been slowly adjusting it to better serve developers. Over time, Nintendo has created a centralized portal where creators can communicate and ask questions, made development kits easier and cheaper to acquire, and started offering greater marketing support. These improvements, combined with the success of the Switch, seem to have created a perfect storm. “All of these things have been a work in progress to create an environment that’s much easier to navigate,” says Baker, “and it’s really been resonating with the indie community.”

“It’s important to the company.”

The question now is how long things can last. Other platforms, like the iPhone and Steam, have been similarly great for indie games. But eventually, as the platform matures and it starts to become saturated with new releases, it becomes less viable. “It’s definitely a problem getting noticed,” admits Annal. It’s much easier to sell a lot of games on a console when you don’t have a lot of competition. But as the Switch enters its second year, and Nintendo continues to release a regular stream of independent games, the golden period for indie developers could come to an end.

Baker says that the company is working to avoid this by redesigning its digital eshop to make it easier to find games, as well as putting more effort behind marketing initiatives. It’s a problem that big companies like Apple and Valve have struggled with, so it’s unclear whether Nintendo will find the answer. But Baker insists that Nintendo is working hard on it and that its interest in indie games won’t be a short-lived affair. “It’s important to the company,” he says. “This is a long-term play.”