While the first year of the Nintendo Switch’s lineup has been dominated by beloved twists on classic franchises like Super Mario Odyssey and IGN’s Game of the Year The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the system has also been supporting a thriving indie community. Affectionately titled “Nindies,” Nintendo highlighted these games both alongside AAA releases and in their own Direct-style Showcases in 2017, emphasizing Nintendo’s support of indie developers on the Switch isn’t just lip service. It’s as important to the system’s lifespan in ensuring Switch owners have more than enough unique experiences to play.
IGN spoke via email with Kirk Scott, Manager of Business Development at Nintendo of America’s Publisher and Developer Relations department, to take a look at the success and shortcomings of that first year, and what lessons Nintendo is applying to the future of the Switch’s Nindies lineup. IGN also interviewed four indie devs of upcoming Switch titles, two of which IGN can exclusively confirm are coming — Steam early access hit Dead Cells and tower defense/platformer hybrid Aegis Defenders — about the Switch indie ecosystem and their experiences adapting to the new platform.
Parity is important to Nintendo — no matter the size of the game, the company aims to make sure an indie game created by a handful of people can shine as brightly on the eShop as Nintendo’s latest first-party releases. And Scott believes that has proved to be true so far on the store.
“If you look at the best sellers on the eShop, you will obviously see Mario and Zelda, but you will also see the best-selling indie digital titles,” Scott told IGN, noting games like Axiom Verge, Overcooked, and Stardew Valley are a handful of Nindies exceeding Nintendo’s expectations.
That sales success appears to be something the industry has taken notice of, too. The GDC State of the Industry 2018 survey of nearly 4,000 developers indicated many devs who responded said their games sell as well or even better on Switch than on other platforms. And 2017 was populated with success stories solidifying this stat, from Oceanhorn selling more on Switch than on its other four release platforms combined, and SteamWorld Dig 2 sold 10 times as much on Switch as it did on Steam.
In Scott’s view, that success has come hand-in-hand with the Switch’s record-setting sales.
“…The momentum of the hardware really dictated the momentum of the indie scene. People gravitated toward the console and found the indie content they wanted,” he said.
Of course, while these sales successes have occurred, the Switch has also seen its fair share of what appear to be quick mobile ports and other games that can’t quite crack the critical and sales ceilings. This trend especially becomes notable as the Switch has week after week of over a dozen releases. It is a worry that developers do at least consider.
“We’ve seen a number of great indie titles have very successful Switch releases in 2017, which is very encouraging and really just great news for some of our friends,” Sebastien Benard and Steve Filby, members of Dead Cells developer Motion Twin, told IGN by email.
“While this might change with the influx of games coming to the platform, we still think this console has and will have a lasting positive impact on the indie scene and increase the sustainability of indie studios for the next few years.”
And, according to Scott, there’s not too much worry of the system’s gems being lost in the shuffle.
“As with any marketplace, especially a video game marketplace, the cream will rise to the top, but we are always looking to increase visibility for standout games,” Scott said.
Part of that comes in the aforementioned Nindie Showcases or Nintendo Directs, but Scott said the team also looks to the Switch’s built-in tools as a way to highlight games.
“[The Switch News tab] is an effective tool and we continuously explore ways to increase awareness and visibility of titles,” Scott said, noting the developers themselves have gotten into the mix of promotion on the Switch too, as with the recent Nindie-specific sale on the store.
Sometimes, Scott believes, it really does come down to how good the games are in allowing them to find success.
“There are so many examples of titles that have performed at very high levels on the eShop because they are great titles,” Scott said.
All of these avenues of promotion can come with unexpected slipups, though. Dating back to the February 2017 Showcase, several games like Zoink Games’ Flipping Death and Shakedown Hawaii haven’t been released yet.
“At the end of the day if the game is not ready, then it’s the decision of the developer when to release it,” Scott said. “We don’t want to rush someone’s opus.
“If Stardew Valley had been released after 2 years of development instead of 4, would it have been the Stardew Valley that people know and love? Our hope is that our announcements line up more closely with anticipated dates but development can be unpredictable at times.”
That patience in understanding the necessity of delays is a sentiment appreciated by developers.
“…We were very excited to be included in the Switch launch window line-up,” Celeste developer Matt Thorson told IGN. “Our release date estimates [for Celeste] were way too optimistic, however, and we slipped out of the launch window. We missed a few more internal deadlines, but Nintendo was very patient with us and gave us time to finish the game right. We’re really happy to have a working relationship with Nintendo, and very grateful they stuck with us through the delays.”
In other instances, those Showcases have included accidental messaging — a couple of games, like Super Meat Boy Forever, and their exact exclusivity for Switch were mislabeled in August’s Showcase, as the developers told IGN at the time.
Scott assures Switch owners, and the developers involved, that “Messaging accuracy is super important to us and we’re committed to relaying the right info at the right time, but things can change in the development of a game and circumstances around launch can and do shift slightly.”
But chasing those exclusives — whether they be launch windows or feature inclusions — is a core part of Nindie success on Switch.
“We believed early on [in the lifespan of the Switch] that indie developers around the globe were making some of the most innovative and fun games on the market,” Scott told IGN. “We learned that leaning into features like portability and multiplayer out-of-the-box was key, over other aspects of the unique hardware. This led to a great variety of indie experiences on the platform that played well with the console’s DNA.
And that’s certainly clear in some of the upcoming games coming to the Switch.
“We are trying to use the HD rumble as much as possible. HD rumble in combination with the singing mechanic in Fe fits really well together since the rumble has such subtleties,” Klaus Lyngeled, Director of Zoink Games’ Fe, told IGN via email. “You can also control the singing style of Fe with by tilting the Joy Cons.”
“On any platform, our game allows you to use drop-in co-op at anytime but on the Switch, the ability to just slide off one Joy-Con and play co-op anywhere takes it to another level,” GUTS Department Game Director Bryce Kho said of upcoming Switch release Aegis Defenders.
And even for those who haven’t fully utilized the Switch’s features — and almost every developer IGN spoke to highlighted the system’s portability — developers are excited about the potential of incorporating them into future projects.
“We would love to,” Dead Cells developers Sebastien and Steve Filby of Motion Twin told IGN of adding in Switch features. “We’re currently working on it, but some of the cooler stuff may come post release as we work in conjunction with the Switch community and respond to their requests.”
“We love the Switch and all its quirky features. In the future we’d love to experiment with designs specifically tailored to the system,” Matt Makes Games’ Matt Thorson said.
“Mostly, developers are making what they want to make on our platforms, and adapt their titles to take advantage of the uniqueness of the hardware,” Scott said.
And though it’s early in the year, we do have an idea of some of what’s to come in 2018 for Nindies. Last year’s August showcase teased titles like Travis Strikes Again and the final Shovel Knight expansion, King of Cards.
Scott couldn’t offer too many details on those specific plans, including how if at all Nintendo’s upcoming paid online service will affect Nindie debuts on Switch. He noted it’s really a matter of when, in collaboration with an indie dev, they feel comfortable sharing their game with the world.
“When indie developers tell us they are making a game on the platform, we work with them to plan an announcement. It’s pretty much their call when it’s announced, but it’s a collaboration with both sides to coordinate when is best for the developer.”
And there are a few games yet to come we first learned about from even before the Switch’s launch, like TowerFall: Ascension from Celeste dev Matt Makes Games and Flipping Death from Zoink.
“Our plan was always to wrap up Celeste before working on the Switch TowerFall edition,” Matt Makes Games’ Matt Thorson told IGN. “We know a lot of fans are eager to play TowerFall on the Switch, and I’m excited to see it on there myself. But it’s more important for us to move forward with Celeste and put all our energy into making it as good as possible before revisiting TowerFall again.”
Making sure these experiences, whether they’re debuting on the Switch or being ported from another platform, are a right fit for the platform is important to Nintendo. And in properly promoting them, Nintendo has ensured the first year of Nindie success on Switch has been proven again and again. As important as it is to have these games succeed, it’s key to Nintendo that Nindies, regardless of their scale or the dev team size, can stand alongside a massive open world Hyrule adventure or an odyssey-hopping Power Moon chase.
“If you look at the best sellers on the eShop, you will obviously see Mario and Zelda, but you will also see the best-selling indie digital titles — and that speaks to the quality level of the Indies launching as well as the consumers looking for indie content,” Scott said.
That’s a sentiment echoed by the developers bringing their games to Switch.
“It’s great that small innovative games can be featured right next to giant games like Mario and Zelda, it obviously also helps them get a bit more variance to their Nintendo Direct shows,” Fe director Klaus Lyngeled said.
“Continuing into 2018, our team wants to make sure consumers are just as excited to jump into the eShop to see the Nindie content as they are about starting the eShop to download a Zelda or Mario game,” Scott said.
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Jonathon Dornbush is an Associate Editor for IGN who is happy more awesome games are coming to Switch but is worried he will not have enough time to play them all. Follow along with his thoughts on what he does play on Twitter @jmdornbush.