Following its launch way back in 2017, the Switch’s eShop has become a key marketplace for indie titles. With a quick perusal of the top selling games at any moment being bound to show a selection of such games sitting alongside Nintendo’s first-party goliaths.
The mix has proven a solid strategy for Nintendo, the company’s first party titles are released somewhat sporadically, and the technical limitations of the platform mean that the Switch is rarely the best choice for third-party, multi-format titles, if they even see a Switch release at all.
A constant stream of popular independent titles, that don’t require a high-end machine to run, keeps Switch owners engaged and provides a stable income for Nintendo and a valuable one for indie developers.
Speaking on a personal, anecdotal level, the Switch’s portability has easily made it my favourite place to play indies. While I might want to show off the latest triple-A release on the largest television I can find, there’s something more enticing about being able to take Undertale or Sayonara Wild Hearts with me on my quarantine-approved walks between the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.
Despite its undeniable success, many developers have concerns about discoverability on the platform. Nintendo itself commented on the problem back in 2018, promising to address the lack of discoverability – though the changes made, such as the introduction of the ‘Discover’ tab, do not seem to have fully solved the issue.
Joseph Humfrey, co-founder of Inkle (creators of 80 Days and the upcoming Pendragon) and Mike Rose, founder of No More Robots (publisher of Descenders and Yes Your Grace), explain to us how the core design at the heart of the eshop is making it difficult for developers to bring attention to their games, and what can be done about it.
DELUGE OF CONTENT
“The primary mechanism for indies to get featured on the eshop right now isn’t really in the eShop at all,” states Humphrey, “it’s in the news app.”
“Nintendo currently does a popular roundup of each week’s releases, and thankfully they chose to feature 80 Days. We believe this was the main way that 80 Days received new players outside of our own marketing efforts.
“Beyond this we haven’t had any help from Nintendo, though it’s not very surprising since we’re so new to their platform. We entered at a time when indie competition had already become very fierce, and it’s an old port rather than a platform exclusive.
“The newsfeed is certainly better than nothing for getting noticed, especially since you have the potential to be featured right from the lock screen of every single device worldwide. But it’s also pretty transitory – once you’ve sunken down the chronological list, that’s it.
“By comparison, when 80 Days first came out on iOS, it was featured prominently by Apple. It was exclusive, we specifically designed the art style with Apple’s then brand-new iOS 7 minimalism in mind, and having already released games on the platform we already had a contact on their App Store team. It then stayed within their regular rotation, being included in a multitude of features over the years.
“In terms of organic discoverability, the main problem with the eshop is that it’s simply too basic. There’s such a small number of pages where you can be featured, that it massively limits the breadth of potential discovery.
“Yes, they have a Discover page, but it’s just one page, where games of all genres and types have to fight for visibility. Beyond that, they have Recent Releases (which you’re guaranteed to be on, albeit for a very limited period of time), Current Offers (which appears to be full of games that are err… gaming the system), and the Charts (which doesn’t even break down into genres as other stores do).”
Humphrey isn’t alone in these complaints. Particularly on the “gaming the system” remark. Anybody who spends enough time on the eShop would struggle to miss the games that appear with enormous discounts – sometimes as much as 80-90 per cent.
It seems strange to point out sales promotions as a problem – Steam has built a remarkable reputation for its sales, to the benefit of both developer and consumer. But as No More Robot’s Rose points out, these sales are illustrative of a problem in the way the eShop was designed.
“I mean, they’re not just gaming the system, they’re unfortunately using the system the best way they can. Massive discounts are now the core way to sell on Nintendo Switch.
“If you’ve ever wondered why there are just reams and reams of 80-90 per cent off titles on Switch – including at their bloody launches – it’s because the store is ranked by units, not revenue.
The top charts are the games with the most downloads in the last two weeks. So in other words, if you put your game on 90 per cent off, and as a result, inevitably get a ton of downloads, you shoot up the charts. Then once you’re at the top of the charts, you automatically get a ton of extra sales due to being at the top of the charts.
“I really hate it. I try to scream at game devs all the time “don’t devalue your work! Don’t deep discount!” At No More Robots, we haven’t discounted any of our games by more than 40 per cent, even titles that have been out for more than two years.
“As a result, we see incredible sales on Steam every single day, because consumers have learned that we’ll never deep discount. Now I’m stuck in a situation where I may be forced to deep discount on Switch, otherwise I literally cannot sell units on Switch. It’s heartbreaking, and it makes me really sad for the eShop.”
“The way it’s going now, I reckon in around a year’s time, the eShop is going to look like the App Store – tons of cheap-looking titles that were clearly thrown together in the space of a few months, all selling at a dollar each. And everyone trying to make an honest living on Switch, won’t be able to anymore. I can’t imagine how else it’s going to go”
Rose shares Humfrey’s misgivings with the Discover tab too: “From my experience, [the Discover tab] doesn’t do a great deal,” says Rose. “We’ve had two games in the Discover tab (mid-lower, mind you), and I don’t think we’ve really seen many additional sales. In fact when our games disappeared from the Discover tab, we saw no drop in sales. I imagine it’s different if you’re in the top six slots, but realistically, those are usually always filled with the Deal of the Day / Game of the Day, and Nintendo games, so getting into those is unlikely at your launch.
“The eShop has proven the hardest store for us. On Steam, you get tons of automatic promotion guaranteed, and there are plenty of ways to utilize the Steam store. On Xbox and PlayStation, it’s all about getting the store placement, getting Xbox Wire and PlayStation Blog posts etc. On Switch, for the vast majority of devs, it’s solely on you getting the word out before launch, and then knowing all the intricacies of how the store works.”
“Now I’m stuck in a situation where I may be forced to deep discount on Switch, otherwise I literally cannot sell units on Switch. It’s heartbreaking, and it makes me really sad for the eShop.”
Both Humphrey and Rose note that the issue here is in the design of the eshop, one that Rose is particularly pessimistic about.ƒ
“The truth is that it wasn’t obvious how badly set up the store was at first – but once the floodgates opened, it became incredibly obvious very quickly why this store wasn’t going to work in developers’ favour.
“The eShop wasn’t built for discovery – it was built to be a catalogue of games. So that’s exactly what it is, and realistically, you need to know the game you’re looking for, before you even boot the store up, so you can search for it. I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” says Rose.
Humphrey adds that it’s not a matter of Nintendo being dismissive of indies – in fact, the company does make efforts to be hugely supportive in other areas. It’s simply the design at the heart of the storefront causing these issues.
“The strange thing is that Nintendo has actually invested in curation,” Humphrey notes, “they have multiple pages on their various international websites, such as #Nindies, Indie World and their Indie Games page. Indie World even produces editorial content – interviews with developers and so on. The problem is that this content isn’t being replicated in the one place where players need it – on the device itself.
“My opinion as a developer is that this is a simple organisational problem. The website editorial and content teams are probably entirely separate from those responsible for developing features for the software running on the device.
“My hope is that Nintendo will release a big software update in the future that will merge the news and eShop app together into one to create a seamless editorial and store platform all in one place. Currently the transition between reading a news item and going to a relevant eShop page is pretty painful. If they could do that while expanding their curation (and categorisation) effort within the eShop itself, that would be great!”