Remade, reborn: How Nintendo's fixing digital for Switch

Katharine  Byrne
Switch multiplayer

Ever since the launch of the Wii U, Nintendo’s third-party support, or lack thereof, has been a constant source of contention for the platform holder. During the Wii era, third-party support was at its highest level ever, with Nintendo’s own figures showing an impressive 1,206 disc titles in the US at the end of 2016. That’s 201 third-party games per year over the console’s six-year life cycle.

The Wii U’s figures, on the other hand, make for pretty grim reading. We already know its 13m hardware sales pale in comparison to the Wii’s 101m install base, but at the end of 2016, the Wii U had just 118 third-party disc titles to its name in the US, giving it a rate of 30 per year. That’s a fall of 90 per cent compared to the Wii. 

Admittedly, this data doesn’t include new digital releases, but it still points to a console that received little love from third-party developers. With Switch, however, Nintendo seems more determined than ever to put itself back on the map, making its new hybrid console the go-to place for third parties. 

The developers MCV’s spoken to seem to be in full agreement, too. They speak of a much more modern, streamlined submission process, a more pro-active approach in getting developers onto the platform, and a much wider variety of tools for easy development. Here’s what they have to say about how Nintendo’s putting indies at the forefront of its new console and what it’s doing behind the scenes to make that happen.

ONE UP

At the forefront of this transformation is a brand-new digital publishing platform, which has been completely “remade” according to Mikael Forslind, PR and marketing manager for Flipping Death developer Zoink Games. David Dino, designer and PR analyst for Sumo Digital (pictured left), concurs: 

“It’s a new system and interface with the Switch, so there were definitely some learning curves on our part. To their credit, everyone from Nintendo was really helpful in ensuring we provided the necessary assets to have a smooth launch and their portal was straightfoward to work with. Their support has been spot on in getting Snake Pass onto the platform.”

Likewise, Frozenbyte’s marketing manager Kai Tuovinen speaks of “technical improvements” that made launching its recent rogue-like Has-Been Heroes “all the better for us.”

Julius Guldbog, community manager for SteamWorld Dig 2 developer Image & Form, adds: “In the past, publishing for Nintendo consoles has been, not a nightmare, but pretty close. [With the Wii U] they had QA gates, and they made sure every QA gate was good enough. It took months, and you had to do that for every region, and if you fail, it takes even longer. You have to get a new slot, and release dates are pushed back. 

"From indie-focused events to Day of the Devs in San Francisco,
you can be sure Nintendo is there."

“But with the Switch, we only have to make one version and only have one launch, and that’s one version for the entire world, so we’ll have the same version in the US, Europe and, a little bit later, Japan and China as well. That saves so much work. It means we can do the translations ourselves and we don’t have to have a new publisher for one specific region. It’s going to be so much easier. They’re basically taking the Steam or App Store approach: one version of the game for the entire world.”

IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE

Nintendo’s also actively pursuing developers to come and make games for the platform, whether it’s approaching them at shows or making specific trips to their offices.  

“Nintendo is absolutely brilliant to work with,” says Forslind (left). “They really take care of their ‘Nindies’. They’re one of the few platform holders that have actually been to our office. I can’t remember who started talking to who first, but I know we’ve been talking to each other for a long time.

Nintendo’s welcomed developers to its own European headquarters as well, says Shin’en’s art director Martin Sauter. “In general, it’s easy to work with Nintendo, especially as they have their EU headquarters in Frankfurt, so we can simply take a short trip [from our offices in Munich] if something important is coming up.”

For Drool, who’s bringing its ‘rhythm violence’ game Thumper to Switch later this year, Nintendo approached the studio while they were over in Japan.

“I met some nice people from Nintendo at [the Kyoto-based indie game festival] Bit Summit last year,” says the studio’s co-founder Marc Flury. “I was showing Thumper and they were interested in bringing the game to their new platform. In particular, they thought Thumper could work well with the HD Rumble. We were all excited to start working together.”

Nintendo aren’t just courting developers at events in their home country, either, as Dino explains: “At all the events we’ve been at prior to launch, we’ve seen Nintendo actively have ‘boots on the ground’ to discover and talk to indie developers about what their games can offer the Switch platform.

"From indie-focused events such as EGX Rezzed (where we first met them) to Day of the Devs in San Francisco, you can be sure Nintendo is there.”

STAR SWITCH

Another point Nintendo’s been keen to stress is just how easy it is for developers to make games for the Switch. In the run-up to the Switch’s launch, both Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo’s managing executive officer Shinya Takahashi spoke to investors about how its internal teams had “mastered” the Unreal engine after feeling the “ease of software development” afforded by the console’s Nvidia Tegra chipset – a point that might seem quaint in today’s development landscape, but one that’s no less important to smaller developers looking to port their games to the new console.

Left to right: Dant Rambo (Choice Provisions), Julius Guldbog (Image & Form), David D'Angelo (Yacht Club Games)

“It’s one of the best Nintendo hardware development experiences we’ve ever had,” says David D’Angelo of Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club Games. “It was very easy. They’ve been great at helping support us from every angle.”

Forslind agrees: “Getting Flipping Death to run on the Switch was quite easy and didn’t take long for us. We’re using Unity and we’ve previously released games on most platforms so it was a pretty smooth process. We’re hoping it’ll stay that way.”

Meanwhile, Dino praises Epic Games’ early platform support for its Unreal 4 engine, saying “our team was able to get a playable build of Snake Pass within two days with few issues that needed resolving. It’s definitely a testament to Nintendo, and their partnership with Nvidia and Unreal, ensuring there is support for widely used development tools right out the gate.”

Left to right: Kai Tuovinen (Frozenbyte), Marc Flury (Drool), Martin Sauter (Shin'en)

Guldbog goes further, saying Nintendo’s finally achieved parity with Sony and Microsoft: “It’s great [to develop for]. We’ve had no problems at all. It’s up there with the PS4 and Xbox One. It’s not as easy as PC – PC will always be the easiest, of course – but it’s up there with the big leagues, which is really good.

“The overall tech in the Switch is so much more modern. The APIs are up to snuff, the chipset itself is really streamlined, it’s modern, it’s nice. [It] isn’t as powerful as the PS4 or Xbox One, but it’s pretty darn close. Just look at Snake Pass, or Fast RMX. Snake Pass is extra interesting, because look at how good the graphics are compared to the PS4 version. It’s so cool how well it holds up, so if developers put their mind to it and optimise the game for the Switch, it can run anything.”

Even developers using their own custom engines have felt the benefit, with Sauter saying it simply took “a matter of weeks” to get Fast RMX running: “We also made sure all the Switch’s controller configurations work nicely with our game,” he adds. “Fast RMX is the perfect game to show off the Switch. It’s a showcase for [its] graphical power.”

Admittedly, Flury says that porting Thumper’s custom engine “was a lot of work” for him as the studio’s sole programmer, resulting in a brand-new shader just for the Switch version, but in the end his experience was a positive one.

“Fortunately, the hardware is capable and the tools and support have been top-notch,” he says. “As soon as we got the game running on Switch, I wanted to curl up in bed and play it. We’re excited to bring the game to a mobile platform. With the Switch, we can make it portable without sacrificing any of the visual or gameplay quality.”

PROJECT REVOLUTION

Nintendo’s relationship with independent developers hasn’t suddenly changed overnight, though. Sauter implies the platform holder’s looking “to curate more with the Switch in comparison to the Wii U, which we think is a good approach,” but D’Angelo says that publishing Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove on the Switch has been “pretty similar” to the studio’s experience with the Wii U.

This is echoed by Choice Provision’s Runner 3 producer Dant Rambo, who says Nintendo’s current strategy for the Switch is very much an extension of what it started with the Wii U.   

“I think their approach to indies with the Switch is in many ways an evolution of their approach to indies with the Wii U,” he says. “They’ve really made an effort in recent years to share the spotlight with smaller developers, which is something we’ve absolutely seen the effects of in terms of sales and coverage. Nintendo has, in our experience, always made an effort to provide good placement to smaller titles in the eShop and in their marketing, and we feel this is why Runner 2 sold as well as it did on the Wii U.”

That said, it was console itself that prompted the studio to make Runner 3 a Switch exclusive: “As a smaller team, focusing all our efforts on one platform made a lot of sense to us,” Rambo continues. 

“It didn’t take us long to decide on the Switch. Nintendo’s focus on accessibility and creating a platform for the hardcore and non-hardcore alike were the biggest factors for us, but we also loved the idea of our game being playable at home or on the go. We feel like that’s a really great fit for the Runner series, which we’ve always tried to design in a way that allowed for long and short gaming sessions.”

NX STEP

It’s still early days for the Switch’s eShop. For Dino, the console’s news notifications and having titles appear alongside larger first party titles is “a nice evolution of what [Nintendo was] accomplishing with the Wii U”, but many developers are unsure how their visibility will be affected once more titles start jostling for the same amount of pixel space. 

One thing is clear, though. Nintendo has taken a huge step forward wih the Switch. A renewed focus on making it as easy and painless as possible to do business on the console is exactly what it needs to get developers, publishers and players back on side.

“Nintendo is taking the Steam or App Store approach:
one version 
of the game for the entire world.”

With over 60 Nindie titles already confirmed for 2017, not to mention the games coming from Activision, EA, Take-Two, Ubisoft, Warner Bros and Bethesda, the foundations are certainly there. However, later this year the war between Project Scorpio and the PS4 Pro will push hardware expectations further than ever. The Switch will need to prove it can avoid the pitfalls of its predecessor and offer something truly different.

A big part of that will be a robust digital storefront that sidesteps the discoverability problems of its “bloated” competitors, says Forslind, but from what we’ve seen so far, Nintendo could well have another Wii-sized success story on its hands. 

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Tags: Feature , indie development , Nintendo Switch , Nintendo Switch Partners

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