The Wii U and 3DS have been part of a truly first-party generation for Nintendo. As the leading dedicated gaming handheld - by a mile - the 3DS has had some decent support and occasional major third-party exclusives, yet for the Wii U it's been a different affair. Its sales struggles have seen most publishers drop away - there can be debate over whether some bailed too early, but since 2014 in particular it's been the sensible decision for these companies. The home console simply hasn't delivered enough sales.
It's fallen to Nintendo and its partners, for the most part, to pick up the slack; there have been decent efforts at retail, and the current library certainly has a body of excellent - occasionally unique - games to enjoy. With the falling away of notable major partners - to varying degrees - such as EA, Ubisoft and Activision, not to mention the absence of Nintendo versions of the majority of 'triple-A' games, Nintendo has had the opportunity to focus on other areas. No-one can sensibly call the Wii U a success in commercial terms, but its issues have allowed a focus on strengthening smaller but vital areas that could be important to Nintendo's future.
Namely, we've seen the rise of download gaming, with Nintendo consistently boosting its revenues from the eShop platforms in consecutive years. Part of this is down to selling retail downloads, bypassing the standard physical media and high street avenues, but there's also been a stepping up of 'Nindies', a batch of talented developers that have embraced the platforms.
Nintendo has no doubt realised long before now that compatibility is key in attracting smaller developers. The 3DS may have the larger userbase, but its ageing technology and awkward development infrastructure limit the number of new downloads it receives, with plenty of the usual names keeping it going. On Wii U, however, the support for Unity and web-based code such as HTML5 have brought previously unseen - on Nintendo hardware - developers of varying standards to the fore. The whole 'Nindies' term is typically used by Nintendo for what we'd call Indies with a capital I - studios producing high-quality, clever experiences that are often critically acclaimed. Perhaps we can think of lower case indies as those somewhat learning on the job, serving up - at this time - weaker games.
While Nintendo's policies have opened the door to indies, it's the Nindies gang that are truly the focus. This feels like a recent progression, too - yes, Nintendo supported the Wii U eShop and its prospective publishers / developers from the start, but it's been ramping up its initiatives in the past 18 months or so. This feels like a reaction to the dawning reality of the console's place in the market, with Nintendo of America and Europe taking a bad situation and finding some positives. Making lemonade from the lemons the regions have been left with.
Across regions we've seen a rapid growth in promotions and marketing support - the 'Nindies' term is central to this, and whether you're in Europe or North America (Australia, sadly, misses out on some offers) there have been various themed sales and initiatives. Bundles of games that offer hefty discounts if you own others from across the range, and the excellent E3 [email protected] demo collection that will also bring further discounts. Nintendo's caught up with functionality to support free-to-play and cross-buy, too, giving small developers more of the tools they need.
Then there's the kind of support that prompts wide eyes and appreciation from cash-strapped Indies. It's become almost standard for Nintendo booths at Expos to have a Nindie section, yet it's easy to overlook how priceless this is for the developers in question. Various studios have explained to us in the past that attending and exhibiting at an expo can cost thousands of dollars, yet Nintendo can take a modest section of its sizeable area and effectively give it to download games it values highly. Naturally high quality games get the nod, but it shouldn't be forgotten that for many developers this assistance is a big deal.
There was also the Humble Nindie Bundle - sadly restricted to North America - that was a trailblazer, the first ever console Humble Bundle. It gave players a chance to grab a whole load of games for a price of their own choice, with $10 scooping the whole lot. There can be debate around whether this approach is healthy in an age of rush-to-the-bottom pricing, but it was bold nevertheless.
Then we have recent developments. Nintendo of America hosted a wonderfully attended and full-on event, [email protected] in Seattle; excellent for attendees, of course, but also more invaluable marketing for the games featured. It also brought the official reveal of the most surprising download promotion / collaboration yet - the Shovel Knight amiibo. There's a lot of work and at least a year's preparation that goes into bringing an amiibo like this to market, and it's an extraordinary escalation in Nindie partnerships; NoA's Damon Baker described it as an indication of the "constantly evolving" relationship with download developers.
There are question marks over whether the Shovel Knight amiibo is 'good' in principle - it seems it'll be the unlock for some pretty attractive content, which won't please everyone unless those features can also be bought separately. In some polls that we ran recently 35% of voters said they liked the idea of the amiibo but are "cautious about how much content is locked behind it", with around 17% being outright unhappy with the details they've heard so far. Whatever your stance on those issues, though, it's undoubtedly a significant product, with Nintendo offering notable support to Yacht Club Games.
Shovel Knight, of course, has enjoyed success on a level that not many eShop games can. It's sold impressive numbers on Wii U, 3DS and elsewhere, won numerous Game of the Year awards and has physical retail versions on the way. Also released 'first' on Wii U and 3DS - alongside PC - there's been plenty of mutual admiration between the small Indie company and Nintendo.
When you consider the Shovel Knight amiibo alongside the general Nindie marketing push implemented by Nintendo in both North America and PAL territories, you get an overall picture of this being viewed as a pivotal area in the big N's business. The major retail scene outside of first-party games has been problematic on Nintendo hardware for some time, with Sony and Microsoft establishing their respective brands as at the vanguard of the multiplatform triple-A scene. Nintendo can achieve sales success when it combines its IPs with a winning concept, of course, with unique games and a generally varied library contributing enormously. The download scene therefore offers an opportunity for Nintendo to grow a key selling point for its systems.
The real market power of download games is, of course, up for debate; sales on these DL platforms are growing, but it's debatable whether eShop line-ups sell any notable system numbers. Perhaps the source of inspiration for Nintendo - and its rivals - is Steam on PC; yes, the PC market is a unique beast, yet the community on the Steam platform drives a lucrative 'Indie' market. A look at top-sellers on the store often has a healthy blend of retail games and smaller, download-only efforts, with plenty of studios making a name for themselves on the platform. Perhaps promotions like the Humble Nindie Bundle - an idea typically associated with PC and smart device games - are a sign of Nintendo eyeing the prospect of becoming pre-eminent in the console download space.
Looking ahead to the NX era - whatever the hardware will be - there's a sense that downloads will be ever more important. In this generation we're even seeing retail games such as Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water emerge as eShop-only in North America and eShop-focused - with a limited edition at retail - in Europe. Nindies can be integral in this space to supplement the limited retail slate, with exclusives, first-releases or game versions with special features being vital. From Year Walk, to Runbow, to SteamWorld Heist and again to Shovel Knight, we're seeing releases that are 'definitive', early or exclusive.
As highlighted above, download stores may not be system sellers - that responsibility still falls to Nintendo to produce major releases and attractive concepts - but they can be crucial in a console's image and reputation in the gaming community. In an age where there's a massive audience also enthralled by smartphone and tablet games, there's a significant market to be tackled. Perhaps it's more vital for Nintendo to court download developers and some of the billion dollar iOS and Android success stories than it is to try and get the next Assassin's Creed game. The days of trying to keep up with the multi-platform triple-A scene may, potentially, never return.
Nintendo's putting a lot of resources and support into its eShop stores, and this is only likely to increase further into 2016 and beyond.