How is the Nintendo Switch Indie Scene Holding Up Two Years Later?
To celebrate the 2nd anniversary of Nintendo Switch, DualShockers talked to several indie developers to discuss the current, crowded state of the eShop.
After revealing SteamWorld Dig 2 at the start of Nintendo’s first ever Nindies Presentation just a week before the system launched, Nintendo Senior Manager for Publisher & Developer Relations Damon Baker said that Nintendo was aiming to “secure a constant flow of innovative content that shows the fun of playing games” and pledged to “prioritize unique and original experiences and curate an amazing lineup of content that will feel perfectly at home on Nintendo Switch.” In the early days of the Nintendo Switch’s life, this policy was in full force, with the indie games available being limited but also of extremely high quality.
The success of titles like Kamiko, Fast RMX, Golf Story, Snake Pass, Stardew Valley, and more gave the Nintendo Switch eShop’s indie scene an excellent reputation for being both friendly and inherently lucrative to independent developers, or Nindies, as Nintendo likes to call them. Since then, more and more indie games are coming to Nintendo Switch every week, making the eShop more bloated with content of varying degrees of quality than ever before.
As today marks the second anniversary of Nintendo’s hybrid console, I wanted to take the time to reanalyze the indie scene on Nintendo Switch and see if it is still as enticing for indie developers today as it was back in the consoles’ early months. I recently talked with several indie developers who have released games on the system to learn more about why they brought their games to Nintendo Switch, their individual experiences with Nintendo in releasing the games on the platform, and if they think the indie game market on the Nintendo eShop is thriving as much as ever.
To get a better idea of the current state of the Nintendo Switch eShop’s indie scene, we first have to learn why indie developers and publishers decided to or continue to release games on the hybrid console. For people like Gunman Clive creator Bertil Hörberg, a key element is a “good working relationship with Nintendo” and a stable audience on their platforms. This reasoning also applies to Circle Entertainment and Flyhigh Works, a closely knit pair known for early hits like Kamiko and VOEZ.
“Both CIRCLE Entertainment and Flyhigh Works have always been heavily focused on the Nintendo eShop, even going back to pre ‘eShop’ days on DSiWare, for example,” Circle Entertainment’s Thomas Whitehead told DualShockers. “We were very active on the 3DS eShop in particular, so the Switch store was a natural progression when the system was released. The system is also a good fit for quite a few of our games. They work well on a TV, of course, but some of our games are undoubtedly very much at home when playing the Switch as a portable.”
As that comment suggests, the Nintendo Switch’s unique technology also seems to have been a draw. “The Switch is a platform that can suit a very broad range of games, and as we like to publish a variety of styles that would have naturally made it extremely appealing at launch and beyond,” elaborated Circle Entertainment. That being said, developers do sometimes have to wait for technology like Unreal Engine 4 to catch up. Uppercut Games Co-Founder Ed Orman told DualShockers that the “release of Fortnite on Switch opened that door” for the developers to release City of Brass on Nintendo Switch last month
That being said, Ed also gave the more friendly and general reasoning of wanting to “put it in front of as many people as possible.” This sentiment was also reflected by Sumo Digital, who told DualShockers in a Snake Pass interview that “We definitely wanted to get [Snake Pass] to everybody…we just want people to be able to see what Sumo Digital can do, and hopefully that be done through the Nintendo Switch as well.” For a lot of early Switch indie developers, the platform was able to do just that.
Many early adopters also liked the fact that the Switch was easy to develop for. Snake Pass‘ developer famously said that they were able to port it over in only a week, and it still seems to be a fairly smooth process to this day. “Start to finish was around three months. It was probably the smoothest port we’ve worked on,” Uppercut’s Ed Orman told us. Success also motivated developers to continue to support Nintendo Switch. “Those early successes certainly helped! They were huge positives of course, and that early wave gave plenty of encouragement… Continued support is part of the agenda,” commented Circle Entertainment in regards to the previously mentioned Kamiko and VOEZ.
That being said, Nintendo’s indie scene hasn’t always been spotless. Early on, Nintendo was reportedly stingy about letting simple indie ports on the system. N++ developer Metanet Software complained about this in a Reddit thread almost two years ago, and its existence was confirmed to me by Bertil Hörberg. “I really can’t speak for them, but I assume they just didn’t want to flood eShop with ports right out of the gate,” Bertil told me. Still, he said the he “can’t blame them” for doing that to keep the quality of titles available up.
Now, as the shop seems to have gotten more and more crowded, the bar for quality seems to have gone down, and it’s harder than ever to get noticed. “We don’t believe any system or eShop can be taken for granted anymore, as far as release profitability is concerned. There’s no shortage of great games in general…so if a developer or publisher’s marketing plan is one point: ‘Release on Nintendo eShop, stat.’ that’s risky, to say the least,” Rodrigue Duperron, Marketing and Communications Specialist from Sundered: Eldritch Edition developer Thunder Lotus Games, told DualShockers back in December.
Even Circle Entertainment, an indie publisher heavily associated with Nintendo Switch, told DualShockers that “as the eShop’s become more crowded, however, we have started to expand some releases into being multi-platform, albeit gradually.” They did stress the fact that the “Switch remains our most prolific system” though before giving a helpful and seemingly spot on glimpse at what the “eras” of the Nintendo Switch eShop have been:
“The Switch eShop has had multiple ‘eras’. Early on, when the store was curated and you’d maybe get 5-6 new games a week, undoubtedly you’d get far more visibility just from releasing a game and letting the market look after itself. As curation eased off we’d get into double figures for new games each week, competition increased and people’s spare money gets split.
On top of that some of the biggest download publishers then started to see that Switch was succeeding as a platform and joined in. Now that the eShop has matured it’s hugely competitive and crowded. There’s no getting around the fact that every week is very busy, so it’s harder than ever to be noticed.”
Still, Nintendo does not seem to be concerned with this; in fact, they are happy about this increased support from developers. Nintendo of America’s Vice President for Publisher and Developer Relations Steve Singer has recently stated that “the ever-growing community of talented independent developers sees the benefit of releasing creative games on the versatile Nintendo Switch” and that Nintendo is “happy to support their work and contributions on our platform as we further grow our strong relationship.”
Nintendo seems to be going all in and encouraging as many indies to develop and port games for the system as possible. City of Brass developer Ed Orman told me “There was no push-back from Nintendo, no – in fact, they encouraged us to get the game on to the Switch!” This is interesting when you consider Nintendo was hesitant about direct ports of games like N++ just two years prior.
Despite the crowding of the eShop, all the developers I contacted spoke highly about working with Nintendo. “I think Nintendo has been a leader in indie support throughout this generation and the last,” Matt Raithel, Studio Director at Hive Jump developer Graphite Lab told me. “We had Nintendo staff backing Hive Jump even when we were in Kickstarter which is a pretty strong testament to their interest in helping indies succeed… It’s been really great to see and we’re happy to be a part of it… I’ve not seen Nintendo’s passion shift or decline.”
“Nintendo’s attitude has always been – in my experience and I believe more generally before I joined CIRCLE / Flyhigh Works – very good. The core support that all developers and publishers have to bring games to the eShop is strong; the infrastructure is there,” Circle Entertainment’s Thomas Whitehead said to me. “In my experience the eShop teams are helpful, quick to respond and try to offer support where possible. In our case we’ve had some trailers shared on official Nintendo channels, and extra support like that is always a big help.”
In fact, Bertil Hörberg thinks that generally, the situation has improved. “Their development tools and submission processes have improved a lot though, making life easier for indie developers. Obviously, there has been a huge shift in indie presence on their platforms, whether it’s because they’re more open or because more developers are realizing that they’re not that hard to work with and that there is a market there.”
Thunder Lotus also supported these claims, with Rodrigue Duperron telling me “the specific people we’ve had the pleasure of dealing with since 2015 have always been enthusiastic about working with us and indies in general… in our experience, [Nintendo] never made us feel anything less than valued partners.”
The general consensus from the developers I talked to, most of whom have released new games within the last two months, is that while indie games can still be successful on the system, the scene is clearly out of the honeymoon phase where developers can just release a game for the system and hope for the best. “I’ve little doubt that the eShop remains an important platform (it certainly is for us) because the Switch userbase is very much interested in download/Nindie games. As a store it’s still really good for developers, even if the peak of the gold rush may have passed as the competition heats up,” Circle Entertainment concluded to DualShockers.
Meanwhile, Uppercut Games’ Ed Orman says that “there is clearly a lot of opportunity there, but that is also driving more and more competition into the ecosystem all the time.” Bertil Hörberg even highlighted some specific things he’d like to see improved to me: “I do think Nintendo could do more to highlight interesting titles within the eShop, make it easier to browse titles by categories, and maybe bring back the rating system from the 3DS eShop.”
Even with the Nintendo Switch eShop being more crowded than ever, developers can still find great success on the hybrid console. As Graphite Lab’s Matt Raithel pointed out to DualShockers. “Hive Jump Switch sales outsold our total Wii U sales within our first week on the eShop. Our reviews have been stronger. Our fan support has been stronger. It’s been really encouraging to see… Overall, we’re really happy with the results and consider it a smart move to have invested in Hive Jump on Switch.”
He thinks the problems with the Switch’s indie scene stem from the fact that “there is just more attention and interest for the Switch than there was on Wii U, so it may be harder to just jump right on to the platform than it was on Wii U due to that volume of interest.” City of Brass has also been successful on Nintendo Switch, with Uppercut Games telling DualShockers that “we’re definitely seeing a positive reception from reviewers. It helps a lot that the game has had such a long time to mature, so that first-time players on Switch are seeing the best version of the game.”
Following Nintendo’s first Nindies Presentation, Steve Singer stated in a press release that Nintendo was “working with both mainstream and independent developers to make Nintendo Switch the destination for entertaining games and experiences.” Two years later, this seems to have been a truthful statement, even if the current system isn’t without its flaws. The Nintendo Switch eShop was bolstered by some great titles at the start of the system’s life, and while the honeymoon phase may be over, many gamers, myself included, still use the Nintendo Switch as their primary indie machine, and for developers success always seems to be possible with enough hard work and planning.
“Successes are harder to earn, just because of the challenge in trying to stand out each week, trying to earn press coverage and so on… every aspect of selling a game on the eShop is arguably harder than ever, Circle Entertainment points out to me, really encapsulating the Nintendo Switch indie scene’s current situation. “At this point, it is clear that developers can’t expect to simply throw their games on Switch and be successful anymore; instead, they have to fight to be heard and encourage Nintendo to improve visibility and the like in order to ensure more games find success.”
Graphite Lab’s Matt Raithel put it best when he told DualShockers the following: “Like any product release, developers need to be thoughtful in how they approach [Nintendo Switch]. The eShop, and by comparison Steam and all the other storefronts, are not guaranteed gold. Developers should press every effort into creating compelling game experiences supported by aggressive marketing and PR support if they want to be successful on the system.”