In what's surely been one of the most notable shifts of power in recent years, download and 'Indie' developers have gone from being underdogs struggling to release games to being central in a home console battleground. The continuing and extravagant growth of the PC Steam platform, along with the rapid expansion of smartphone / tablet gaming, has seen a lot of games industry money flow towards this area of the market; the big players in the console market have noticed.
Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony supported download games in the last generation, of course, but under rather different terms. With the increased market relevance of this content, it's become increasingly easy for developers to bring their games to specialised gaming systems, rather than being driven to iOS and Android for the easiest access and most favourable terms. In a feature gauging how this revolution came about, Develop spoke to key figures from Sony and Nintendo, with Nintendo of Europe business development manager Ed Valiente stepping forward for the latter.
With the Wii U in particular opening doors with free Unity tools and HTML5 support, it has a good chance of attracting download content. The benefits, from Valiente's viewpoint, include the diversity of games that smaller developers can deliver.
In the current market, the traditional triple-A game concept may lean towards conservatism, for a multitude of business reasons.
Indies on the other hand can practice auteur game design, as in a sense they are free from many conventions and business constraints, so they can focus on the creative vision for their game. This is an incredibly powerful motivator and we’re seeing indie games becoming a driver of innovation in modern games design.
That spirit, paired with the broad access to development tools nowadays, results in fantastic new game experiences developed in a frequency never seen before. Such new experiences are what the industry needs to deliver consumers in order to grow further.
It's difficult to argue that download-only games can drive console sales on their own, but a case can certainly be made that a cumulative effect of a strong eShop library can help with public perception.
I think that the key element to a successful platform is content and quality; if there are interesting, creative, innovative and fun games, consumers will come.
Nintendo always strives for this type of content on its platforms, and through indies it is possible to have another way to have this type of content. I think that having a breadth of high-quality games ultimately makes a system and its marketplace successful.
...If we take indie games as a general offering and outlet of creativity, their growing relevance could be the difference between someone investing in a new platform or not. In the end, good, high-quality content is part of creating a successful system.
There were issues with the DSi Shop and the Wii Shop in terms of both layout and visibility, something Nintendo's improved on the 3DS and Wii U. Some can argue that improvements are still due in these stores — particularly the former — but it's clear that each gives new download games a chance to shine and grab attention. This, as Valiente explains, is where Nintendo takes its role of driving visibility seriously.
Once the product is out, we are the shopkeeper, and our main responsibility actually turns towards the consumer – offering them content they are interested in is the only way to run the shop successfully. As a consequence, indie games often take centre stage on Nintendo eShop.
One thing that differentiates us very clearly from being a publisher is that on the Nintendo eShop, the developer is in control of the pricing of their products at any one time; they decide at what price to sell, when, and how to change it.
There are still areas that can be better, of course. Nyamyam co-founder Jennifer Schneidereit, whose studio is bringing Tengami to the Wii U eShop, had praise for various Nintendo policies and levels of support — the process and level of contact, non-restrictive requirements and access to tools, hardware and documentation are all highlighted as positives. Yet regional separation in the process is an aspect that could be smoothed out.
Ideally there wouldn’t be a territory separation and you would just sign one set of contracts, do one certification process and so on and be able to release your game in the Nintendo eShop worldwide. The territory separation makes the process a bit more bureaucratic than it should be in my opinion.
Nintendo Japan’s stance on self-publishing for indies is not quite clear to me at the moment and I would like to hear more about this. In the best case scenario they follow in the footsteps of Nintendo US and EU and adopt a company-wide, unified approach across the territories.
Initially with the 3DS and increasingly so with the Wii U, Nintendo has drastically changed its policies and treatment of small developers. With more titles appearing and still due in 2014, these shifts in focus towards download content may yet reap more rewards.