Talking Point: iDÉAME, Unity and Nintendo's Continuing Indie Crusade

Yet more evidence of the vital role of smaller studios

If you go back even a relatively short amount of time, for example ten years, most gaming was locked down by fairly high profile releases from the great gate-keepers of the games industry, such as Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Capcom, EA, Activision, Ubisoft and more. These names are all familiar and have enormous, immediately recognisable brands behind them, which is still true today.

A lot has changed in recent years, however, in that the competition to these behemoths is more organised and, most importantly, visible. Lower budget titles from small to medium studios are no longer niche affairs found in independent game stores or via online retailers and traders, but they're now grabbing our attention on download platforms alongside the big boys. The launch of the Wii U eShop was an example of Nintendo embracing this idea, with the download-only titles happily sharing virtual shelf space with big-name retail titles — though whether those smaller titles should have enjoyed more prominence is a debate for another time.

In fact, the purpose of this article is to highlight some examples that show Nintendo at the vanguard of encouraging developers of all sizes to publish games on its systems. While WiiWare and DSiWare were reasonable starting points — especially when accommodating for technical limitations of the hardware at hand — they undoubtedly had problems, meaning that the big N's digital platforms were, arguably, functionally weaker than rivals from Sony and Microsoft. The challenge has gone beyond conventional dedicated gaming hardware competitors, of course, with iOS and Android platforms gracing many smartphones and tablets, yet the 3DS eShop arrived and made vital improvements; the Wii U eShop has continued the trend.

We should also acknowledge the differences between Nintendo's platforms and those from Apple and Google — the eShops won't compete on price to that degree, and they're still license-driven and structured in releases, rather than the rampantly open markets on phones and tablets. They could be deemed to be negative differences by some, but they can also be argued as positives, with a controlled and licensed output helping to encourage quality from publishers and rules to prevent cloning. On pricing we're seeing regular and tempting price discounts on both 3DS and Wii U, while the rapid expansion of new developers emerging from the sources such as Kickstarter, and confirming 3DS and Wii U development, shows that Nintendo is being supportive in helping studios of all sizes get signed-up and to work with dev kits.

Those are all general points, but perhaps Nintendo isn't quite getting the press and praise it deserves for its specific efforts to support developers. Take for example iDÉAME13, a game developer's conference in Madrid this past weekend. Hosted by Nintendo, it brought many eShop developers together to show off their games — some of which were being revealed for the first time — and gave vital networking and debating opportunities for attendees. A glance at this official web page for the event (thanks, Andrés) shows which developers attended, and we imagine that attentive Nintendo download gamers will be familiar with many of these studio's names.

While perhaps not grabbing headlines like the Games Developer's Conference (GDC), it was an assembly of a number of companies that, either recently or for a number of years, have joined Nintendo's online platforms. Whether recognisable names that have stayed loyal and/or exclusive since DSiWare and WiiWare, or multi-platform companies taking tentative first steps, the list of companies happy to say they're fans of working with Nintendo continues to grow — including many others than didn't attend this event. If Twitter is anything to go by, it seems that developers and members of the public enjoyed the occasion a great deal; below are just a few tweets sharing the mood.

As the heading of this article made clear, we feel another important step being taken by Nintendo is its continuing development of tools utilising the Unity engine. There are other areas where different tools are being made useful (including HTML5), yet the licensing agreement with Unity is one of the most significant for Wii U, particularly, as it's a popular engine for smaller developers aiming for high-fidelity graphics with modest resources. Here's what Tracy Erickson, who is in charge of Developer Relations at Unity, said to us in our interview following last year's worldwide licensing deal.

Unity is easy to use and ideal for small teams. Our engine is designed to be straightforward and intuitive so that you don't need programming expertise to use it. Artists, designers, and coders are able to collaborate in the engine in ways that would be cumbersome in other engines. Unsurprisingly, this fosters more creativity and puts the focus on game design rather than building internal tech.

At GDC this year Nintendo also gave a presentation where it highlighted its Nintendo Web Framework, particularly suitable for apps, while a beta of an improved Unity development setup is available for free to eligible developers, with an emphasis on tools for easily integrating a game onto the Wii U GamePad and the system as a whole. It's all an important part of giving developers every reason to publish on Nintendo systems.

While it's debatable whether a robust, small-to-medium sized developer-driven download store is a selling point for either Wii U or 3DS when consumers are browsing the high street, they're arguably vital ingredients in keeping gamers interested in the months and years after they buy the system. Retail titles from major publishers often seize attention, but the regular and reasonably priced games on the eShop stores bring invaluable diversity and freshness to the systems. With its recent efforts at iDÉAME, GDC, increasing price freedom and discounts on both eShops and in promoting easy-to-use development tools, Nintendo is doing all it can to show the smaller developer's community that it can offer unique opportunities. Through concept-driven hardware and an established audience, the Kyoto-based company is encouraging developers to push the boundaries of gaming; without a big budget.

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