Interview: Dan Adelman on the Indie Scene, the Nintendo Years and His New Venture
Posted by Darren Calvert
Still in the indie's corner
Dan Adelman's official job title at Nintendo of America used to be Head of Digital Content and Development, but in practice he was regarded by many as Nintendo's most recognisable ambassador for download and 'indie' games. Well known and liked among developers, he's widely attributed as helping to drive Nintendo towards offering greater support for small developers, and to some was the embodiment of the company's increasingly open polices that gave new developers a route onto its systems.
Adelman is also a professional with forthright opinions, and his rather open attitude to engaging with the Nintendo community saw him disappear from Twitter in 2013 on the orders of his employers. It was perhaps an indication of the ongoing conservative nature of Nintendo's relationship with the public, and the loss of such a public and highly regarded face to download development on Wii U and 3DS was considered a blow. Of course, from the early days of WiiWare and the DSi Shop much has changed, with Nintendo now having a team focused on pushing the platforms download stores forward. When Adelman confirmed that he'd left Nintendo to start his own business, it represented an end of the era, though he was quick to point out that Nintendo's eShop business remains in good hands.
We last spoke to Dan Adelman in late 2012, in one of the relatively rare instances where he opened up to the media as a Nintendo employee. Now that no such restrictions are in place we caught up once again to discuss his new venture in providing management and consultancy services for independent developers, to reflect on his years at Nintendo and gauge his overall perspective on the current 'indie' scene.
Can you tell us more about your role at Nintendo throughout your nine years at the company?
Sure. When I first started at the company, I was doing a few smaller jobs. I think they were still trying to figure out where I could plug in. So I worked on some game deals for Nintendo to publish and did some market research to figure out the ideal pricing policy for Virtual Console on the Wii. Virtual Console was Nintendo’s first real attempt at digital distribution, so instantly I started thinking about what other new games we could distribute. I don’t think anyone doubted we’d open it up to 3rd party developers, but there was no real plan or process in place. I kind of just took it on myself to make that project my own, and I drove it ever since. I really was looking for something to reinvigorate the games business, since I was feeling at the time that all of the games coming out at the time were variations on the same tropes and themes. I looked around for people who were trying to do something new, and fell in with the indie games scene.
What prompted you to leave your job at Nintendo? Was it a difficult decision to make?
I’ve wanted to try my hand at running my own independent business for years, and the indie devs that I worked with really inspired me even more. I think it’s a difficult decision to for anyone to leave a steady paycheck and go off on their own, and it only gets harder as you get older, since you have to worry about taking care of a family, saving for college, and stuff like that. I think it was especially difficult for me, since my family had a series of health problems this last year, and the way the US health care system works, it’s way too easy to go bankrupt if you don’t have good insurance. And the best way to get decent insurance is through a large employer. I should mention that Nintendo was great about giving me all the flexibility and support I needed to help my family out with the different health issues, and everyone’s doing much better now!
But I also think it might have been the health problems that finally gave me the courage to take the leap. By the end of what turned out to be a really crappy year, I started to think that running my own business would be a piece of cake by comparison!
Indie game development is a highly risky business so it’s scarily common for a developer to slave away on a game for a couple years only to wind up generating a few thousand dollars in revenue.
Now that you are self employed, you’re offering marketing and business development support for indies. Can you outline what specific services you’ll offer and why you feel this kind of support is of value to them?
The conventional wisdom is that it’s critical to boil down your value proposition into a single-phrase elevator pitch, and I guess mine would be that I help indie developers avoid the need to get a real job. Indie game development is a highly risky business so it’s scarily common for a developer to slave away on a game for a couple years only to wind up generating a few thousand dollars in revenue.
Basically I want to help developers apply business best practices so they’re maximizing their chances for success. On the marketing side, it really starts with the game they’re making. How does their game compare to what else is out there? Which customers like this kind of game? How can they those players out about it? What’s a fair price? On the business development side, it’s about helping them get what they deserve and not be taken advantage of.
What sort of advice would you have for indies who are planning on launching a game and need to get noticed?
Awareness takes time. It’s really important not to assume that everyone’s read the one article that a journalist wrote about your game. No single article or Let’s Play video is going to turn your game into an overnight success. You need to be constantly getting it on people’s radar before it really starts to sink in.
Also, indies should ask who they need to get noticed by? If they’re working on an abstract artistic game, it does them no good to generate a bunch of awareness among people who aren’t into that sort of thing. There’s an audience out there for almost every game, but that audience is harder to find for some games than others.
Since the days of World of Goo on WiiWare, the indie scene has changed beyond all recognition. What are your thoughts on how it’s evolved since 2008 and where do you predict the movement is heading?
The early days were great, because everyone had very similar motivation. It felt like the indie scene was very close-knit and all about perfecting the craft. No one really expected to become a millionaire overnight because no one ever had. They weren’t in it for the money, they were in it for the games.
Over time, the scene has fragmented a bit, but the core of it is still very recognizable. It’s really part of the maturation process. Now that it’s been established that there’s a viable business opportunity, more and more people are entering the scene, which is for the most part a very good thing for gaming and gamers.
The big challenge right now is that supply has far outstripped demand. I think one of two things – or some combination of the two – will happen in the next stage for the maturation process. First, a lot of people will lose a lot of money when they work on a game for a couple years and it just doesn’t sell. As that trend goes on, some of the people who rushed into the scene because of dreams of riches will leave it. At the same time, I’m hoping that awareness of indie games and the marketing reach of indies will expand. There is a surprisingly large number of self-described gamers who have never tried an indie game. If we can get more players to expand their expectations of what a game is and should be, I think the demand could catch up with supply and grow the pie enough so that more games can be successful.
As a result, over the long term, prices will have a tendency to drift down to nothing – and all the other games have to compete with that. This is the race to the bottom problem.
How difficult a challenge is pricing, in an era when we’ve seen a race to the bottom in some areas. Are methods such as in-app purchases sustainable in the long term for helping developers make a return?
I’ll be honest that I’m not an expert on the free-to-play model and in-app purchases. Although there is an ethical way to do in-app purchases, I personally find the idea of using psychological tricks to manipulate players into opening their wallets or exploiting so-called whales repugnant.
That said, the economics of game development and distribution are stacked against developers. To see why, consider a thought experiment. Let’s say you’ve got a game that you spent 2 years working on and put all of your life savings into. Let’s say it even sells reasonably well. Now imagine someone comes up to you and says that they have no plans to buy your game, but they would consider it if the price were 1 cent. The rational thing to do would be to take the 1 cent. It’s 1 more cent than you would have had otherwise and costs you nothing. As a result, over the long term, prices will have a tendency to drift down to nothing – and all the other games have to compete with that. This is the race to the bottom problem. Most other industries don’t have this problem. It’s unique to digital products. On the positive side, once you’ve finished all of your development, if everyone wants your game, it doesn’t cost you anything to meet that demand.
What are your thoughts on the Nintendo Web Framework? Do you think it opens the door to more developers in a positive way, or is there a concern that the standard of games from the platform aren’t necessarily up to home console standards?
The question of standards really comes down to a problem that all of the platforms have, which is discoverability. As I mentioned before, every game has a market. If the game is really bad, that market may be contained to the developer’s family and friends! But every game has a market, and none of the platforms has done a particularly good job of helping match players up to the games that they would enjoy. It’s not an easy problem to solve by any stretch. The problem with low quality games isn’t that their existence in and of itself is somehow detrimental to the platform. Rather, the problem is that it makes it that much harder for the good games to be seen.
Many of our favourite indie devs struggle to release their games in Europe in a similar timeframe to the US launch. Can you tell us from their perspective what some of the difficulties might be?
Nintendo is structured regionally. In essence, NOA handles the Americas, and NOE handles Europe. Unfortunately, developers have to go through the process separately in each region. Indie developers have very limited resources, so even if the processes are almost identical, developers need to prioritize which process they’ll tackle first. NOA happens to be a larger market, so that’s where a lot of developers start. In addition, there are a few additional requirements that are outside of NOE’s control, such as the added time for European age ratings.
How would you summarise Sony and Microsoft’s current efforts in supporting indie devs in their stores, and where does Nintendo stand in comparison?
Sony’s done a great job improving their processes and making them much more indie friendly. I give a lot of credit to Adam Boyes, but he often says that there was already a grass-roots effort underway at Sony just waiting for someone like him to show up. I really commend Sony HQ for giving Adam the reins, but I give Adam even more kudos for knowing what to do with them.
Nintendo’s approach is actually really similar to Sony’s. In fact, in many ways Nintendo has led the way on a lot of the key areas. Nintendo allowed any developer to self-publish since day one of WiiWare. Recently the policies have become increasingly flexible, allowing developers to set their own price, put their games on sale when they want, and providing a free Unity license to all developers.
Microsoft really has the furthest to go. Last generation, they were the leaders of digital distribution, but they unfortunately earned for themselves a pretty negative reputation among developers. Many of the developers I’ve spoken to have all said great things about Chris Charla and what he is hoping to do with ID@Xbox, but change is very slow at Microsoft. Some well-known indies have dev kits and are working on their games, but I’ve heard that most people have not heard back from Microsoft at all – even ones who have been officially accepted into the ID@Xbox program.
A lot of developers seem intimidated by sending an email to someone at a large company, but have no qualms about reaching out over Twitter or other social media. It just made me, and by extension, Nintendo, more casual, approachable, and individual.
So, how good does it feel to be back on Twitter?
It’s a lot of fun. For the longest time I just didn’t even look at Twitter, since I knew it would be too tempting to join in the conversation. It’s such a productivity killer, though. My inbox got flooded on the day of my announcement, and I still haven’t caught up yet. But every time a notification pops up, I compulsively need to check it.
There was some attention last year when you stopped tweeting - did this limit your effectiveness in your role, and if so how?
I completely understand Nintendo’s stance on why they wanted me to stop posting on Twitter. I am very passionate about making life better for indies, so I can’t help but be vocal about it. Even if I add the caveat that my opinions may not be shared by my employer, people still viewed me as a representative of the company. Unfortunately, I think being off Twitter did make me less effective. A lot of developers seem intimidated by sending an email to someone at a large company, but have no qualms about reaching out over Twitter or other social media. It just made me, and by extension, Nintendo, more casual, approachable, and individual.
You’ve said the Wii U branding is “abysmal”. Just for a bit of fun, what would you have called it?
As soon as I saw headlines quoting me on that, I immediately started kicking myself. Before I entered the games industry, I was one of those guys on the forums giving my opinion on any topic I felt like, and I still have a habit of assuming that I can just toss out a random comment and have it go unnoticed.
I really don’t know what I would call it. I really loved the Wii’s code name, Revolution, back in the day. Maybe something along those lines.
There have been arguments in the past, unlikely to be a reality now, that the GamePad should be de-bundled to make the system cheaper. Where do you stand on that and the controller as a whole?
I think de-bundling the GamePad from the system would be a huge mistake. Games wouldn’t feel comfortable supporting it since they couldn’t be sure that every Wii U owner has one. The GamePad is really the main thing that makes the console unique. Throwing that away makes it like any other hardware. I do wish that there were more examples of gameplay that would be impossible without it.
The 3DS, meanwhile, has established itself with a sizeable userbase. What are the main factors, do you feel, behind that success?
If you remember, the Nintendo 3DS started out very slowly. Nintendo even had to drop the price significantly to stimulate demand. Once a few must-have games came out for it, people needed to have it. I think the game library for the Wii U is just now starting to reach that point.
Have you been happy with the progress of the 3DS eShop? Would it benefit from support for engines such as Unity, for example?
There have been a lot of great games for the 3DS eShop, like Gunman Clive, SteamWorld Dig, and Shovel Knight among many others. I think games that do best are ones that are created from the ground up for 3DS.
Overall, how would you summarise the evolution we’ve seen from Wii Shop, to DSi Shop, and now the eShop stores? Has it been a major change over the years, a steady evolution?
There were some major changes that happened between platforms rather than during the platforms. For example, from the Wii Shop to the DSi Shop, the model by which developers could qualify for royalties changed. Between DSi Shop and 3DS eShop file sizes and the user interface changed considerably. Between the 3DS eShop and Wii U eShop, pricing policies became much more flexible. At each step, developers got more and more freedom to run their businesses the way they want.
You speak Japanese. How did you learn and are you still fluent? Did you ever chat with Bill Trinen at the water cooler in the language?
From the time I was very young, I had always wanted to learn a foreign language and experience living overseas. So I decided to spend my junior year of high school in Japan as an exchange student. I learned enough to have a basic conversation, but I wanted to go back and learn more. I studied a little more Japanese in college and then moved back to Japan for another 6 years afterwards. I went to graduate school there and eventually worked at a company in Tokyo as the only non-Japanese person in the office. I met my wife while in graduate school, but now her English has improved while my Japanese has gotten worse. I’m lazy, so now I speak about 80% English at home.
I actually didn’t chat much with Bill in Japanese while at Nintendo. There are actually a lot of Japanese speakers at Nintendo – not even including native Japanese speakers, so we couldn’t even use Japanese to tell secrets!
Nintendo, in contrast, is much more hierarchical. A lot of decisions come from headquarters in Japan, and there was definitely a protocol by which you needed to escalate ideas.
Before working for Nintendo, you occupied a similar role at Microsoft. How did you find the change in moving from a relatively new Xbox division, to the much more established Nintendo?
In the early days, Xbox felt a lot like a really well-funded startup. We were given a lot of freedom and independence from the rest of the organization, and it felt like a very flat organization. If I had a suggestion for Robbie Bach, the head of the division, I actually felt like I could schedule an appointment with him and make my case. A lot of CEOs and division heads will say that they have an open door policy, but at Xbox it actually felt that way. Nintendo, in contrast, is much more hierarchical. A lot of decisions come from headquarters in Japan, and there was definitely a protocol by which you needed to escalate ideas. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that Xbox has become a lot more like a traditional large company. I think that’s just the nature of large organizations. They inherently need some structure.
To finish on not-so-easy questions, what are some of your favourite indie games of the past 5 years?
Now I’m really going to get myself in trouble! I guess World of Goo and Cave Story are out, since those were more than 5 years ago now, as hard as that is to believe. I know I’m going to think of about 10 more that should be on this list, but for now I’ll go with Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, Papers Please, Electronic Super Joy, and Journey. One that really should be on that list but isn’t right now is Spelunky. I’ve played it in short bursts multiple times, but I really need to block off about 100 hours to find all of the depth in that game. So many people whose opinions I really respect keep raving about it, and I feel guilty about not having spent enough time with it. If it makes Derek Yu feel any better, though, I’ve bought it about 3 times now!
Finally, if you had to pick one Wii U eShop and one 3DS eShop game, what would they be?
For Wii U, I think it would probably be Runner 2. I 100%ed that on every difficulty level, and it took me about 40 hours I think. For 3DS, it would be either 1001 Spikes or Shovel Knight. Don’t try to pin me down on something like that!
Thanks to Dan for taking time to speak to us. If you are a developer needing help with business development then you can get in touch via his website.