What’s the state of Nintendo’s indie program? Earlier this year, Dan Adelman — who had long been the company’s most prominent booster of independent developers — left Nintendo after a long period of public silence.
In the wake of that, we began to wonder: What is Nintendo doing for independent developers? What does it want to see on its platforms?
Nintendo has a reputation for being closed off — and it’s clearly earned that reputation. But some independent developers, like Renegade Kid’s Jools Watsham (Mutant Mudds) have spoken about just how easy and rewarding it is to work with the company.
Much more must be going on there than is apparent on the surface.
To find out more, Gamasutra spoke to Damon Baker and David Wharton. Baker is the senior manager of marketing in the licensing department; he works with external developers directly. Wharton is director of marketing and analytics for Nintendo’s network business department, which is its online storefront, the eShop.
The conversation took place at Seattle’s EMP museum, where an exhibit, Indie Game Revolution, opened this past weekend dedicated to independent games; it’s sponsored by Nintendo. The interview that resulted — which is edited, but still long — spells out where the company is as regards independent developers in 2014.
Damon Baker and David Wharton at the EMP exhibit.
The last time I spoke to someone to Nintendo about this was with Dan Adelman. Obviously he’s left the company. So, what’s new in this “new era” of no Dan? I don’t want to focus the question on him, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to you guys about things, so tell me about your thinking.
Damon Baker: Dan was working in our department and we’re still really close with him. He’s doing a great job on his own thing, and we’re going to continue to work with him in the future, so that’s exciting.
In terms of what has changed since, not a lot has changed, because I think he was more of a face for our indie community and our relationship with those developers, but it’s always been a team effort in the organization — whether working with David and his team on eShop and data collection, or working with other departments.
We bring the content through, from an operations standpoint. We have a business development division. We have a marketing division as well. So it’s always been a bunch of people that have been involved in that.
And so, at least right now, we haven’t filled his position, but we have all hands on deck that are answering questions, that are giving advice on what great content they’re seeing. It’s almost more like a committee basis at this point, at least in terms of how we’re working with the independent community.
How do you get games onto your platforms? Do you go look for them? Do they come to you? I’m sure it’s both, but please talk a bit about how it works.
DB: It’s absolutely both. They’re really passionate developers who grew up with Nintendo platforms and they’ve always had a vision of their games on a Nintendo platform, so they’re very proactive about reaching out to us, and we direct them to the developer website and get them signed up as quickly as possible, so they can then get a development kit and get on their way.
Additionally, we are proactive, ourselves, in going to different trade shows and going to different indie meetups and shows, and seeing what type of content is out there, and hearing the buzz that is going on, online, in terms of what we should be paying attention to and what we should be going after.
So it’s a bit of both.
I saw the Nintendo Direct; you were at IndieCade. You were exhibiting titles that were on your platforms, but I’m assuming you were also talking to developers.
DB: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because the first day of IndieCade, they had the IndieXchange, which are the classroom sessions. So we did a presentation, a bit of a background on how to become a developer, and our self-publishing business, the tools that are available — things like Unity and the Nintendo Web Framework, which is basically HTML5 and Java support.
We did some tech demos and live demonstrations of how easy it is to bring content over to the Web Framework, in front of the crowd, so that was pretty cool to be able to do that.
And then we did have the speed dating and the different sessions where people can come to us and pitch their game ideas and concepts, and just get information on how to get started. So it was a busy day. I think we were booked from 9 until 4:30, with meetings every 15 minutes, with the indie developers. And them from 4:30 to 6:30, we had three-minute meetings that were packed back-to-back.
DB: Yeah. It was a speed dating round that IndieCade organizes, and they had a timer, and people came in and had three minutes to do a presentation on their game, so we got exposed to a ton of content over the course of a day. It was non-stop.
What do you look for when you see a game or meet a developer, that makes you say, “Oh, yeah. We’d like to see this on our platforms”?
DB: Well, we don’t really judge, because people have different interests, and we can’t really narrow that down to just whatever it is that I like, or that I think the licensing department likes. So we do have that open-door policy, and allow everything to be coming in.
“I think what I look for, though, are those things where the developer is passionate about it, and has also done their homework in terms of how to maximize the opportunity.”
I think what I look for, though, are those things where the developer is passionate about it, and has also done their homework in terms of how to maximize the opportunity. It’s one thing to come in and say, “I have this great idea,” and it’s written on a piece of paper, and they have nothing to show for it.
But there’s the different level where they’ve done their research, they’re integrated into the community, they’ve talked to other developers that have brought content to Nintendo platforms, and they already have some idea of best practice. And then it’s about amplifying it, and taking it to the next level, so that more people can see it. And there are some really great opportunities out there.
Do you help make those connections? If I were to think about what indies you should speak to about bringing content to Nintendo, it would be Nicalis, it would be Image & Form, it would be Yacht Club, and Renegade Kid.
DB: Our “Nindie” community!
Those would be the obvious ones. But do you facilitate those conversations?
DB: Yeah, we help with that. But they’re also very proactive on their own accord. All of those guys have actually written stories and essays and revealed a lot of insight in terms of what to expect as an indie developer, your first venture into this space, and I think a lot of that is amazing educational material.
[Ed. Note: There are examples of just this thing on Gamasutra already. Nicalis’ Tyrone Rodriguez talks about the 3DS’ potential for game sales here; Image & Form’s Olle H�kansson writes about designing SteamWorld Dig here; Yacht Club’s David D’Angelo talks about Shovel Knight‘s sales here; Renegade Kid’s Jools Watsham blogs about self-publishing here.]
Do you fund indie games?
DB: No. We don’t have a Pub Fund type of thing. Really, our point of differentiation is on the relationships that we build with those guys. We invest a lot of time and energy and internal resources supporting these guys.
A lot of independent developers are amazing coders, and amazing at bringing experiences to life, but they may not be as familiar with how to market their game, or how to promote it, or how to take that to the next level. So we put in a lot of resources there to kind of hold their hands and show them examples of how they can make the most of it, and they can then use those tools for all of their future releases as well, regardless of platform.
Some obvious promotional channels that Nintendo offers are the eShop itself and Nintendo Direct. Is there anything I’m missing?
DB: Well, we participate in different trade shows, showcasing indie content there. We do media tours across the country. We have newsletters, social media, YouTube. Our YouTube channel is fantastic in terms of promoting all of their videos and trailers that are coming out. We work really closely with David and his team on marketing and merchandising opportunities within the eShop.
David Wharton: On top of that — on top of just all of those channels — we try and create a whole bunch of promotional opportunities that independents can participate in. Where rather than promoting a single title, we’re making them be part of something larger. Because one of the things we’ve found is that when we have a bigger story to tell, consumers respond to that.
Whether it’s an indie sale or whether it’s something around a particular theme, or a particular event like PAX or E3, if we can tell a bigger story, we can create these promotional events that they can participate in. When they can take advantage of the fact that we have a whole bunch of people all coming to the platform at the same time.
DB: Yeah, IndieCade is a big deal for us, in that we’ve participated in the last two years with the booth space. It’s completely dedicated to third-party content and indie developers. And also, over the last two years, we’ve been able to tie that into Nintendo Direct promotion as well, and amplify that message and that presence we’ve had there. Those developers are absolutely thrilled to be getting that type of exposure to an expanded audience.
So, when you’re going to go promote someone’s game, how do you make that decision? I feel like, on the 3DS eShop in particular, there are a lot of little games I’ve never heard of. So how do you make the choice of who’s going to get a little bit more of a push?
DB: There are a lot of factors that come into play. But we’re looking for quality. We’re looking for unique experiences. We look for people that are utilizing our console functionality in unique ways — so if they’re embracing using the [Wii U’s] GamePad or using 3D or touch-screen, or motion control, or any of those types of things, that helps create a point of differentiation that we can then, it gives us more bullet points we can point out and promote across the board.
I would say the number one thing is back to the relationship-building. If you’ve got a developer that is reaching out to us, that is communicating with us, that is giving us advance notice on when their release is coming out and where it is in the pipeline, what they’re doing to help promote it, then we are much more prone to helping promote their content when it becomes available. But if we only find out about a game at the last second, then it really limits the amount of opportunity we have to maximize that launch period.
DW: We also look at “who’s that game for” and whether we have a broad base of content that targets that consumer. So if we know we’ll be launching some full game download — whether it’s first party or third party — we’ll want to merchandise smaller content that might also suit that audience at the same time.
We’ll find that people will come in for one title and wind up buying two. So we want to make sure we have some titles that have some kind of halo effect. We’ll match that same audience type. So having a clearly defined audience is important.
The other thing is we look at what our consumers are interested in. There are some titles that surprise us. Every once in a while I’ll look at the sales results and go, “What is that game?”
And all of the sudden we’ll see a spark in interest, and sometimes it’s what the developer has done, sometimes it’s something that our communities have done through their own social media, or what have you, and sometimes there’s a sudden spike in interest around a title and we’ll just bring it to the forefront to see if we can amplify it.
That actually touches a question I want to ask. A little while ago, you gave a presentation about the demographics of the eShop. The gist of it is that it would be similar to the audience you see on Steam: A little bit older, maybe, than Nintendo has a reputation for. That makes sense to me. But the more important question is not so much demographic, but what is it that these people actually like?
DW: Behavior trumps demographics every time.
Right. So do you have that information, and can you share it with devs? Or is there anything you’d like to communicate to devs about who plays, and what kind of games matter to them?
DB: I think, back to David’s earlier point, it’s really about the type of gameplay experiences that people enjoy on the platform in the first place. So if you’ve got a lot of people coming in and playing Mario Kart and Smash Bros. on Wii U, you know there’s a big fanbase for local multiplayer or couch co-op.
So, upcoming titles — like, we just launched Sportsball today, which is an amazing multiplayer game that really encourages some extensive trash-talking, and then Chariot, and then Runbow coming out in 2015. These are titles that people, they already like these types of games, and they’re seeing how indie developers are putting their own spin on them and doing something unique with them, and it’s like, “Oh, this makes a lot of sense.”
I think it’s also cyclical. Because you look at an amazing-quality title like Shovel Knight, and it’s got sensibilities that would resonate with a Nintendo type of game. But the eShop also has a bunch of platformers, a lot of retro-inspired games, pixelated artwork. So you could dumb that down and say, “Well, there are a bunch of other games that are like that out there.” But the fact is, it’s got heart; it’s got something that resonates above and beyond the other offerings that are out there. I think that’s what people are gravitating towards.
I think there are plenty of knock-off games that are out there, and they’re going to sneak into the eShop. But those aren’t the types of things that are getting promoted heavily. Those aren’t the things we’re wanting to make as an example of the cream of the crop of our content.
We really want people to have the visibility in the eShop, in the merchandising of quality experiences. We’re not saying we’re going to ban those types of games; you’re just going to have to search for those knock-off types of games or the other kinds of experiences that may not be on par with the great offerings in the eShop.
One thing about Nintendo platforms is always that they’re unique.
The Wii U has the GamePad. The 3DS has dual screens, touch. So the closer a developer caters to your platforms, the more risk there is — because they’re tied more closely to them. What do you say to that? Because I would assume you’re interested in seeing people focus on the Nintendo specifics.
DB: Oh, yeah. We encourage it, for sure.
“I think the titles that take advantage of those features tend to be the most successful, because they offer some of the uniqueness that’s key to our platforms.”
DW: And I think the titles that take advantage of those features tend to be the most successful, because they offer some of the uniqueness that’s key to our platforms. So while I can understand the perspective that there might be risk there, but there’s a ton of opportunity as well. Because it offers an experience you just can’t get on other platforms.
DB: But we also don’t limit the opportunity if you don’t have the feature set or functionality. So utilizing some of those development tools, like Unity, makes it really easy for developers to port that experience to multiple platforms. But we also give them the tools with the Unity engine that if they want to add off-TV mode, or if they want to add motion-control, or touch screen, or the microphone use, or whatever — those tools are available if they want to create a point of differentiation as well.
Do you think that independent developers can sustain themselves by developing for Nintendo platforms exclusively?
DB: I think it depends on the experience and the level of investment that they’re putting into it in the first place. But from what we’ve seen, we’ve got a range of sizes of teams, with development teams: Indie developers, from one or two-person teams to anywhere from 25 to 30-person teams. And they all have varying levels of success based on the revenue and what it is that they’re getting out of the shop.
So I think it really depends on a number of factors, in terms of how much money and how much energy they’re putting into it on the front end, and what is that return. But we’re seeing a lot of developers that are doing a fantastic job on the shop.
DW: And I’ll say that we’ve seen a fundamental difference over the last couple years in our consumers’ interaction with the eShop. The eShop is now one of Nintendo’s top retailers. We sell as much software as some of the major chain stores through the eShop.
“Our consumers expect to be able to buy digital content on our platforms and are voting with their dollars in favor of digital content in a big, big way.”
Our consumers expect to be able to buy digital content on our platforms and are voting with their dollars in favor of digital content in a big, big way. It’s been a dramatic shift over the last couple of years, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. There are certainly examples of individual titles that have done really well. But as a category, the audience is there and they’re willing to spend money. The eShop has just grown a tremendous amount.
DB: I think the message is, we don’t want to send out an assumption that if you bring out content on the eShop that you’re automatically entitled to success. Any developer has to put in the effort on their side; they have go out there and promote their own game, market it. They have to create their own success. But we’re there to help amplify that.
DW: And it is easier, in some ways, to stand out on our platform, because of the way we do merchandising. Because of the way we present content, it is easier for some of these indies to get traction with us and with our audiences, for sure.
Something I saw recently is that Reggie said that 20 percent of Smash Bros. copies were sold digitally on the 3DS, which seems like a pretty high proportion.
DW: It’s even higher on a couple of other titles.
So, you’re seeing a lot of traffic to the eShop. I think the eShop is a little bit of a black box to people outside of Nintendo. I mean, all the online shops are, to an extent. We don’t really know what’s going on there, both on the Wii U and the 3DS.
I don’t know if you can share any actual data, but you can probably give me an idea. What percentage of users who have the systems purchase download content? Is it a common occurrence?
“We’re seeing a high percentage of the audience, of every one of our console owners, come into the eShop for different reasons.”
DW: Yeah. A couple of things; first off, I mentioned this earlier, but we’re seeing every new console that we sell connected within a couple days, and a majority of those folks will come into the eShop at some point. And people use the eShop for a variety of things: They use it for demos and videos and for games, but we’re seeing a high percentage of the audience, of every one of our console owners, come into the eShop for different reasons.
The percentage of revenue and percentage of sales of our titles, which you’ve alluded to, has grown. Again, 20 percent of Smash Bros. sales is through the eShop and, as I said, it’s even higher on some of our titles. And our unit sales and revenue from 2013 to 2014 was about 200 percent growth. So, I’m not going to get into specific figures per se, but we expect that kind of growth to keep going in 2015.
DB: I think Nintendo has already released a lot of first-party content as dual-distribution titles, and depending on the type of game it is and the genre it is, I think some of those are much more prone to being digitally downloaded, just to keep it on your system.
Animal Crossing. You want to keep it on your system.
DW: Tomodachi Life.
DB: Fire Emblem, or any of these games you’re investing a lot of time and energy into.
DW: And for a lot of these things, you’re seeing that we’re producing DLC for these games: Mario Kart, Fantasy Life has some as well. Hyrule Warriors has DLC, and the DLC is very successful. We’re seeing very high attach rates for DLC on our platforms as well.
Another thing that’s going to help us grow this part of the business is that we’ve launched the ability to buy off-device, and download to device, recently. And expanding that functionality is not only going to bring awareness digital content, but the ability to buy in that moment. If I read there’s DLC, now I can click and buy it and it’ll be on my advice when I get home. That’s going to be really important.
Now, is that going to expand to not just first party content, but everyone’s content?
DW: We’re going to keep working on expanding that functionality as much as we possibly can. Of course, we want our entire library to be available that way, whether it’s first party or third party.
What about regional launches? I know it works differently between the first parties. If you can launch on Xbox, you do it once in whatever region you reside in, and then you can do it globally. For Sony, there are different processes for Europe, Japan, and America. How does it work for Nintendo?
DB: It is separate entities that they have to work through, but we collaborate really closely with Europe and NCL in particular. So a lot of our launches, we try to create consistency, or coordinate that on a global basis. But it is two separate entities: One in Europe, and one in America.
Like, Shovel Knight just came out in Europe. It’s been out for a while here.
DW: The shops are managed regionally. The actual shop management and content management is handled regionally.
So they’re going to have to interface with someone in Europe if they want a game to come out in Europe?
DW: But we facilitate that.
DB: We do. We’ll start that conversation, and make sure that it gets through to the end.
DW: We talk.
DB: There’s a lot of communication.
Is it the same for Japan, or is Japan its own thing?
DB: Japan is kind of its own thing, to be perfectly honest. But that is a developing relationship. We have a lot of communication with them as well, but they have a very unique region and culture, in terms of that content. But they are really interested in what is happening in North America and Europe, and they are looking at how they can explore that area more fully.
One thing Sony will do is lend people dev kits. Do you do that, or do you only sell them? How does that work?
DB: We actually have a program where we can — I don’t know what the term is for it, but basically we will allocate dev units, and then you can pay us back after a year. It’s like a one-year loaner program. That gives developers enough time to actually finish their game, get it launched, start making some money, and then they have to pay it back. But the dev kits aren’t actually that expensive. They’re the price of like, a high-end PC, basically.
Who has the final word about what games get approved to be on the eShop: I mean, like, “yes, this can go through.” Who gives a yes, and how does that work?
DB: We don’t bias it, at this point. Basically we are open to any and all content. There are a couple of guidelines — we don’t do advergaming, for example. We don’t allow that kind of content.
So no Toyota Yaris game?
DB: No Burger King. That was such a goofy game! It was awesome, though. [laughs] So we don’t allow those types of things. But other than that, our policies are pretty much open-door.
Does anything ever get shut down?
DB: It has, in the past. There has been questionable content — things that are very, very controversial. Nintendo is sensitive to that. But I think what we always encourage is, we would always rather have an up-front conversation with the developers about that early on in the process rather than waiting until the last minute to find out about that. So if a developer has something that they know they’re putting something questionable in there, or not, then it’s better to have that conversation so we can, at least, guide them through it correctly.
Now, you do have a lot of games that debut on your platforms, particularly, as you say, from the “Nindies.” The Shovel Knights of the world. I know it was also on Steam, but there’s kind of a line there.
But you also see games like Guacamelee come out, probably a year after it came out on the PlayStation systems. Do you encourage that? Is it about being a fit? Guacamelee, obviously, it’s a Metroidvania, so that fits pretty well with the Nintendo audience!
DB: And it’s an amazing game as well. I think the Super Turbo Championship Edition is one of the highest-rated games on Wii U right now.
DW: It’s a great game.
“But we’ve seen that multiplatform releases, if they launch simultaneously across all platforms, then they do better.”
DB: I think, for us, we always prefer to have a game simultaneously at launch. But if it’s a great game and we can at some point give our consumers an opportunity as well, then that’s all that we ask for. But we’ve seen that multiplatform releases, if they launch simultaneously across all platforms, then they do better.
That’s because you’re building up on that launch momentum. If you launch a game a year later after it’s been out on other platforms, then you have to basically reinvigorate your marketing campaign from scratch again, and it’s really, really difficult, especially for a small studio. So we work with all of our developers to try and get those out as close, or as simultaneous, as possible.
You work with analytics, David. So you collect a lot of data from the eShop and purchasing, I assume.
DW: We do.
Do you share anything with devs besides how many units they sold?
DW: We do share general information with people about the eShop and the eShop audience. We don’t want to obviously share much in the way of competitive information. But we provide the information we feel is necessary to help people make good decisions about their content, how best to market it, and what their opportunity really is. To make sure they know what they’re getting into at the outset.
DW: I was just talking to someone from licensing the other day. We’re providing licensing with more and more access to the data that we have so that they can help developers on the fly, as well.
Nintendo has this thing, kind of in general, where on one level you’re competing with Sony and Microsoft, and on another you’re sort of not.
DW: Doing our own thing, sure.
So how does that reality apply to the eShop, to download games? Does it?
DW: We arrived in that place by focusing on us, and what we do, and what we’re trying to accomplish, and not trying to focus so much on what Sony and Microsoft are doing. And that’s true for the eShop as well.
Yeah, of course, there are best practices across digital storefronts and we want to make sure we’re not doing anything dumb. But at the same time we’re really trying to cater to our audience and we’re really trying to do the best thing for the content that we have in our shop and build a unique relationship with our consumers.
We are all biased toward quality and anything that is unique and different and really expands the overall value, not only of that particular title, or the eShop, but the Nintendo ecosystem more broadly. That’s what we’re really looking for. We’re just focused on doing what we think is right for our consumer. And that has worked for us for more than 20 years — more than 30 years, now. We just want to keep doing that.
“If you’re making a game in Unity, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be on Wii U.”
DB: Again, back to those development tools. We want those developers to make the most of every opportunity that they have. If it’s really easy for them to bring that content over, because it’s been developed in Unity, then we encourage them to do so. If you’re making a game in Unity, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be on Wii U.
DW: The last thing is — it’s part of the reason that we’re here at EMP and here at this exhibition. We embrace the fact that we’re unique and different. We are who we are. We don’t try to be anybody else. We think that this show is a great expression of what’s great and unique in gaming, and we just try to focus on that as much as we possibly can. And express it through the eShop and the eShop merchandising as much as we can through anything else.
I know the people who do the similar stuff at Microsoft and Sony really well. Chris Charla at Microsoft is a very plugged-in guy to games; people like Sony’s Shane Bettenhausen and Nick Suttner are very well known figures in the indie community. They also know a lot about games. Do you plug into indie communities in the same way? Do you go out there, do you meet people, do you get to know them?
DB: Oh, yeah. We’re going to the same events. We’re friendly with all of those guys as well. We also tap into our internal resources on that, too. Because we have a ton of just fans of games within the Nintendo organization, so we get a heads up from people throughout the entire company of, “Oh, I saw this game. You really should check it out.” “Oh, this Kickstarter just went live. It looks interesting. You should talk to these guys.” We collect all of this as well. Yeah, I think, every week we’re getting exposed to something brand new around the corner.
The last question I have is: A lot of this conversation has been about, “We’ll build this relationship with the developer. We’ll share with them. We’ll give them best practices, we’ll give them info, we’ll help them along.” For developers, what is the best way to get in touch with Nintendo’s independent development team?
DB: That’s a really good question. So, if you are a prospective developer, then we encourage people to go to the wiiu-developers.nintendo.com site. That is your first point of contact where we get alerted that somebody is interested in being a developer. We help you fill in the form, and everything, and we start the relationship there, in terms of getting them officially signed up so that they can then get development kits and all of that.
We also have the Wario World website for existing developers, and that’s a fantastic resource and forum to not only reach out to us but to other existing Nintendo developers and share information there.
And then we’ve also got a third-party publisher alias, within Nintendo. So [email protected]. And that email proxy goes to the licensing department, and we field all sorts of inquiries, no matter what type of question it is. If it’s marketing it comes to me, if it’s operations it goes to another person, biz dev it goes to another person.
And finally, I’m on Twitter as well. I’m no Dan Adelman when it comes to Twitter, but people can reach me online and I’m pretty good at responding back or taking the conversation offline so that we can point them in the right direction.
Say you’re at a festival. You’re at IndieCade; you’re in the booth. Somebody has a great game. Would you want them to walk up to you and say, “Hey. I have a game!”
DB: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. So even though — I’ll go back to that Thursday classroom experience. We saw so much content. It was hard to keep all of it straight. But we had those guys — everybody came back up to us throughout the course of the show. It was about building that recognition and relationship: “Hey, remember me? I showed you so-and-so game.” “Yeah, that was great. Let’s have a deeper dive into it. Let’s have a closer look at it.” We really do encourage people being proactive in their outreach so that we can have those relationships.