The Switch is going to continue growing rapidly this year, which means lots of new owners looking for games to play on their new hardware. And while the eShop has been great for developers and publishers alike, boxed titles are also going to do very well as the console becomes increasingly mainstream in its appeal.
Luke Keighran, MD and owner of Merge Games, feels the time is right to unleash a strong Switch line-up of boxed indie titles: “We just brought out Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap and Darkest Dungeon, then in June it’s Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles and Brawlout – which has been huge on the eShop, so we’re doing a physical edition.”
After that will come the promising roguelike-Metroidvania hybrid Dead Cells – which Keighran tells us sold 750,000 units on Steam in Early Access – and action-RPG Moonlighter from 11-bit, with Keighran adding he thinks "these two particular games are going to be huge.” And recent attention on Steam certainly agrees with that assessment.
He continues: “We’ve always had great independent hits on our books and we’re trying to push those games into mainstream retail and we’re having a lot of success at the moment.”
PACK OF CARDS
The main sticking point for indie titles on Switch are the price points, where the cost of game cards levied by Nintendo can make it hard for publishers to turn a profit without charging more than the digital edition of the game.
“I don’t think the retailers appreciate it, but the problem is we don’t have much choice, because of the cost of goods with Nintendo,” comments Keighran.
One option is to add content or additional materials such as art books to attract consumers: “For Darkest Dungeon we've done an Ancestral Edition, so it has all the DLC in it for five to ten euros more. Still, I think you’ll find most indie gamers expect to pay more for a game in a box. The question is how much more, and that is a grey area.”
That difference depends largely on the price point of the original game. Brawlout sells well at £17.99 on the eShop but the physical version will be £29.99. Getting the timing right is key too, bring a physical version to market too quickly and you risk the game being a flash in the pan, too late and it’s hard to charge a premium for a title that’s been on sale for some time.
Keighran feels strongly though that “there’s a lot of people who just don’t shop on eShop still, there’s all that customer base that we’re mining.”
He also points out that the default space on the console for games is limited. And while it’s expandable with memory cards, many users prefer simply switching out game cards over managing installs. And then of course there’s the gifting market nearer the end of the year.
Whether it’s physical or digital “Switch is a golden market at the moment,” says Keighran. “We’re not sure how long it’s going to last,” he admits, “but we’ve ridden that crest quite well this year – in fact we’ve tripled revenues from last year,” he reveals.
To achieve that, Merge Games has numerous strings to its bow. It publishes indie titles across all digital and physical formats, releases physical versions of self-published digital hits and also acts as a distributor, both regionally and overseas for other publishers without that know-how.
And there’s a lot of Switch hits that Merge can get involved with, as indie developers are now specifically targeting the eShop with the kind of games that sell well there: “If you speak to developers who’ve experienced the Xbox store and PSN too, then the eShop figures are excellent in comparison. That’s given the indies a notion to fund Switch development and get good returns on that investment this year. Whereas Steam is totally flooded, the return on investment there is just not what it used to be.
"We will try to self-publish three to four games a year,” he tells us. “Sometimes we don’t even take our own games to retail because we know they’re not going to work. So we have a very different strategy on retail to what we do when we publish ourselves.”
With indie titles coming from every corner of the world these days, being able to hunt down and sign the next gem is key.
“A lot of people reach out to us, we’re getting more and more known. We were nominated as Indie Publisher of the Year [at the MCV Awards] this year, so that obviously helps. But also we attend all the PAX events – they see the stand, they see the brand, it establishes you more. A lot of the pitches come from the devs, but we’re not Team17 or anything like that.”
The key for Keighran is that publishing is now a service-based business and that Merge, and other smaller publishers, have to offer a range of bespoke services to match the client.
“Publishing is a service. Of course it’s slightly different when you’re investing massive amounts of money in development. But publishing ultimately is a service and you have to tailor that to what they need. Look at Chucklefish: they’ve been able to produce great games and now they’ll end up being great publishers. We can still support those developers because we can take those products to retail.
“We’re a service-based publisher, we’re always trying to delight our customers, because that old adage of being a publisher that just takes everything, those days are well over. The modern publisher doesn’t think like that, you’re an extension of the devs team, you’re an extension of what they want to do. I do still hear stories like ‘I never heard back from my publisher’. It’s just not cool.”
Publishers seem somewhat back in fashion at present, after the promises of digital distribution and crowdfunding looked to sweep away smaller operators for a while. Now the market is saturated with products and publishers are a big part in assisting with discoverability.
“There’s so much market saturation,” says Keighran. “That’s probably why you’re getting a lot of devs coming to publishers saying: ‘We tried to self-publish and it didn’t work’.
“There is already a correction happening in the marketplace. You’re saying there’s a trend of people going back to publishers, and the reason is financial because they haven’t quite been able to make enough money, so they’re turning to publishers to help fund or promote their next project. It's swings and roundabouts, but because there’s so much saturation in the market people understand that there’s only so many dollars people can spend on games, and going with a publisher can get your head above the pulpit to magnify your game and stand out.
"Even publishers can afford to be a bit more choosey, where somebody would jump at the chance to publish [some games] once, not anymore. If you’re going to spend a couple of hundred thousand on a game and there’s similar games out there, it’s not a great return on investment, so we all need to be a bit more careful about the content that we pick up,” he cautions.
If games are becoming services, then it looks like smaller publishers are following suit, adapting to a more developer-centric world, by providing a range of highly-valuable services. Merge Games isn’t alone in this respect, of course, with the UK becoming a hotbed of small, flexible publishing outfits of its ilk. But with plentiful high-quality product to go around this segment of the UK industry only looks set to grow.