After stepping into the new world of download gaming back on the Wii with its 'WiiWare' service, Nintendo was well on the way to embracing the medium. In some aspects it was a trailblazer with that first service, though tough entry requirements - combining policy and system limitations with rules such as a 40MB file size restriction - meant that rival platforms arguably gained an edge. With the 3DS and then moreso the Wii U, however, Nintendo's rules softened and the doors were flung open.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than on the Wii U eShop, with the system's support for Unity and even web-based tools - through the Nintendo Web Framework - allowing developers of all stripes to make their mark. The open door policy hasn't been without critics, however, with some decidedly low quality content clogging up the virtual shelves. Nintendo, evidently aware of that, stated in a pre-launch 'Nindie' Direct that curation would be a distinct factor on the Switch.
Nintendo of America's Damon Baker made this clear in the Nindies Showcase broadcast in early March:
Our teams have been working closely with independent publishers and developers to secure a constant flow of innovative content that showcases the fun of playing games. This is the magic of independent developers, their efforts help make Nintendo platforms something special, and we feel privileged to partner with them. It's our mission to prioritise unique and original experiences and curate an amazing line-up of content that will feel perfectly at home on Nintendo Switch.
In some respects that's a commendable stance, and we've seen it in action during the Nintendo Switch launch - though there have been a few release weeks crying out for additional titles, we've seen a batch of interesting games arrive on the Switch eShop so far.
Not long ago, however, we were contacted by and followed up with multiple respected and established 'Nindie' developers unhappy with aspects of Nintendo's approach to the Switch eShop. Issues related to curation and communication have been at the core, and we were painted a picture of an arrangement and set of policies that undoubtedly pleases those in the door, but has left those on the outside at times frustrated, ignored and in some respects embittered. Some were hesitant to be quoted even anonymously due to upcoming business with Nintendo, while others were happy to share their perspectives - directly and indirectly quoted - while being un-named.
In addition to Nindies with notable track records of quality eShop releases on previous systems, we've spoken to a small number of other developers that are new to Nintendo hardware and making their first steps. In talking to these developers, with records of high quality and intriguing download titles on various platforms, we agreed to share their perspectives anonymously. There's a willingness to discuss aspects of Nintendo and the Switch eShop, but not at the risk of damaging future business and publication hopes. We're naturally respecting this.
That said, some have tempered complaints and issues with on-the-record moderating remarks on the challenges Nintendo undoubtedly faces, so we'll also reflect that perspective. The goal is to show that, underneath the 'Nindie' PR and positive talk of curation, Nintendo faces challenges in order to avoid alienating some of the developers and projects that will be needed for the eShop's future success; that's the story to be told.
"Arrogance", Silence and a Lost Relationship
First of all, let's start with 'Nindie 1' - anonymity protected - that has an established reputation and top-rated eShop releases. It's important to also note that these quotes, and those that follow in this piece, are all related specifically to Nintendo of America. We also only sought out Nindies for this article that have released highly-rated titles, and not those with releases that were arguably not of a high standard on previous eShops. We spoke to companies with games that can add to the quality of the Switch eShop through its curation policy, not those that will likely be excluded on the grounds of game quality.
Much of the discontent for Nindie 1 began back when the Nintendo Switch was the 'NX' and a mystery to most of the world. As the Summer of 2016 wore on Nintendo seemingly had a number of leaks relating to the system, some accurate, some clearly made up, but beyond all of that noise developers wanted in on the ground floor. The trouble is that a Nintendo in lockdown is likely to keep indie developers at length, even 'Nindies'.
Perhaps that's fair, but a problem that apparently arose was the nature - or lack - of communication. After years of developing relationships those Nindies we spoke to felt cut out of the loop. When the Switch was then unveiled in October 2016 and some developers, many of them in Europe, boasted of the fact they were already working on the hardware, frustration was inevitable. For the veteran publisher / developer comfortable with being quoted in this article - Nindie 1 - all they experienced from Nintendo of America was a cold shoulder and a lack of detail. The tone was an issue, in addition to the slowness and infrequency of communications.
Here they talk about a relationship forged over a number of years, and how it fell apart over the past 12 months:
I've had a long-standing relationship with Nintendo for many years. We've gone out eating and drinking multiple times, and I consider many of them to be my friends. I've always brought my A game to Nintendo platforms and have been responsible for some of the highest rated games on their systems, so it had always been a good relationship. I reached out to them very early on back when the Switch was still called NX and people didn't even know if it was a handheld or a console. It was a bit of a slap in the face that after all of the years of partnership, I would get very formal corporate responses to my emails.
I had always felt that Nintendo was trying to help us succeed in the past, but now that they're the only platform with a new system, they're just turning their backs on their most loyal partners. It felt very impersonal and arrogant. I'll still probably make games for the Switch once I'm let in, but as soon as the honeymoon phase for the system is over, they are going to be way down on my list. From this point on, I no longer feel like I have a personal relationship with Nintendo. It's 100% transactional.
The developer emphasizes that, in the past, communications would be direct and personal, but in their case responses have often "read like a form letter", lacking that personal approach.
A second Nindie based in North America - Nindie 2 - also discussed with us the nature of some announcements following the October reveal of the hardware, with their own frustration at the evident progress some European studios were enjoying. Delays in contact and a lack of clarity, in the cases of these developers, led to them feeling marginalised. In these cases it's geographical, with NOA being the point of contact and similar criticisms not being levelled at Nintendo of Europe or NCL.
It's not difficult to identify how Nintendo is currently curating the Switch eShop, meanwhile, and it's been referenced by developers already. There's talk of 'waves', with partners that were given early access being plotted in for 2017 or even the launch window, and others either turned away or told to wait until later before bringing their titles to the system.
Nindie 1 is yet to get in the door with Switch, and argues that the eShop team - formally called the Publisher & Developer Relations department - in North America doesn't necessarily have the experience to perform the curation / gating role it has. They make the point, partly substantiated by another source later in the article, that the team is also using a curation remit to "try and force developers to create exclusive game modes or commit to some time-based exclusivity just for the right to release games on their system". The word "arrogant" is used when referencing the drive by Nintendo to gain some forms of exclusivity while offering little in return, a conflating of publication approval with "strongarm" demands for unique content.
When it comes to the curation, and what we've seen to date, Nindie 1 has stated the belief that there's inconsistency in the supposed policy at work. Nintendo has worked to share the impression of seeking new and unique experiences, but releases to date haven't always followed that apparent goal.
There's no doubt that Nintendo systems have been plagued by shovelware over the years. But Nintendo's solution to this is broken. First, they're being very inconsistent. Their stated policy is that they're not allowing any ports. And yet, about half of the games are ports! Second, because the people in charge of making the decisions are marketing people with no experience on the development side, they don't know how to evaluate games that are still in development. They look at a game that's 20% complete and then they can't extrapolate what it will be like after an additional year or two of development.
It's a huge step backward for the industry for indies to be put in a position where we have to pitch games to a marketing guy who's never made a game before. That's the way the industry was ten years ago when the only way to release a game was through a publisher. Now indies should be able to go directly to consumers. And it's the height of arrogance for Nintendo to think that it can predict where the next big hit is going to come from. Didn't they learn anything from Nintendo 64? They tried this same approach back then and lost virtually all publisher support.
When talking to these Nindies, one that we've cited directly and one indirectly, we were well aware that emotions were high - after numerous critically acclaimed releases and a previous status in the eShop 'club', they have felt dismissed and marginalised. The relationships forged over recent years have made way for curt corporate responses, slow communications and in some cases surprise rejections. The frustration may be justified, but it's still a particularly emotive perspective.
Aware of that we spoke to other developers, one at length and multiple others in shorter email exchanges, that are largely new to Nintendo hardware. They corroborate the guts of what the Nindie sources told us, albeit without past relationships perhaps muddying the waters.
Back and Forth
We spoke to a developer (let's call them Indie 1 for clarity), new to Nintendo systems, that's released games on multiple platforms and is arguably the kind of creative and dynamic studio that the Switch eShop purportedly needs. Its games are intriguing, each carefully constructed and stylish.
Indie 1 tells an interesting tale of approaching Nintendo and initially making progress. The problem? Nintendo was setting down relatively demanding requirements in the 'NX' days, which wasn't the way the studio was accustomed to working.
They wouldn't give any details (on what Switch was) but wanted us to give them a game pitch, essentially. They were excited to work with us but wanted new content that would be exclusive to what is now Switch.
So really we just had that first contact and thought it went really well, though we hadn't decided if we wanted to do that. I don't think it's good for indies to be exclusive unless the deal is really good. It was like "we want a pitch for a new game that'll be exclusively for our new platform that we can't tell you anything about".
Rather like with Nintendo publishing and acquiring the IP rights to Snipperclips - Cut it out, together!, which the UK-based developer was clearly happy to produce with Nintendo in Europe and Japan, Nintendo of America initially sought ownership of the potential pitch from Indie 1. It was a proposal that never got far as, ultimately, this studio didn't want to go down that route. The problem was when the studio's enquiry then shifted to its own hopes, in this case porting an existing project.
We asked about porting but it wasn't really answered. They didn't seem like they were interested in that yet.
I think we just went into it expecting to talk about our current game and they just wanted us to pitch something new and exclusive. And all subsequent queries about our current game were ignored.
The story they tell is of back and forth. Communications ended, there was a resurgence when another approach was made, but then more silence when the pitch for a port was reiterated. This studio has begun to make progress since, and they tell of an eShop team that isn't dismissive, in this case, but perhaps undercooked and not always equipped or organised enough to move discussions forward.
They are pretty responsive again now. It was just a weird run-around, the guy we talked to (seemingly an 'exclusives' guy) should have pointed us to the right channel but he just kind of went silent if we weren't talking about new exclusives. If we hadn't pursued it through other industry people we would've been left with ostensibly a dead end.
It was just weird hearing that Nintendo wasn't interested in ports of existing titles, then seeing Stardew Valley and Binding of Isaac up there. With our talks it was strange - they want a new exclusive from us, they don't want a port from us, ports of other games then appear.
You have to find the right person to talk to, and we had the same trouble with other platforms in the past. I'm not sure how it would be for indies starting out who don't have the contacts we do now. I imagine it'd be tough.
This image of an eShop team struggling to manage relationships is reinforced elsewhere. A second indie studio (Indie 2) tells us that though communications are now up and running, "before then it was silence". The "focus" and size of the team - according to Indie 2 - is seemingly a problem for developers trying to make progress; a number of devs we spoke to ultimately had good words for the professionalism and intent of those they've liaised with at Nintendo of America, but long periods of silence and stalled progress have held back projects.
When quizzed on their most notable complaint around Nintendo and the Switch eShop, however, there's an interesting change of direction from another source (Indie 3). Some developers new to Nintendo hardware may be surprised that dev kits cost as much as they do. It's notable that Nintendo and Capcom recently talked up how affordable the kits are at a recent conference in Japan, yet the reality is that rival platform holders give these dev units out for free in various cases. Indie 3 told us that "Nintendo is the only platform where we have had to pay for dev kits. We're not an Indie game of the size of Shovel Knight, but with Xbox and PS4 we have gotten all the dev and test kits for free".
That, of course, is not policy set by Nintendo of America, but from a fourth indie (Indie 4) developer's experience it aligned with poor communications to leave them with a mixed first impression of publishing on the Switch eShop.
Getting a Wii U devkit took a week of work (basically nothing), while it was impossible to get our hands on a Switch. We had to go to a publisher for it. Our only other complaint is about under-communication.
Professionalism is there, there's no doubt about it. But hardware access was way more painful than needed for sure, especially compared to Xbox One. Outside of that everything else makes sense and it's in-line with industry standards.
For some, in fact, going the old-fashioned route of working with a publisher seems to be the easiest way to move forward quickly. Our 'Indie 5' spoke warmly of their publisher and how quickly everything happened with them on board, from initial contact to receiving dev kits. For some others that's not a preferable option, of course.
All Part of the Game
In the interest of balance, while there's certainly disgruntlement among some, and others more tolerant that are still having problems with the Switch eShop process in North America, a number of developers we spoke to didn't feel that way. Over half of those we contacted either weren't at a stage where issues have arisen, or are well into the process (including major games already announced) and have no complaints to make. It seems to us that those that get through to the eShop team and past initial pitches and discussions are generally happy, as would perhaps be expected.
Others have simply suggested these complaints are part of the game, inseparable from the business of working with a console manufacturer. John Warner of Over the Moon Games (The Fall) was happy to talk on the record. From his perspective challenges and delays in releasing a game are part of the indie life, as he states below.
Everyone I've talked with has been polite and supportive. Efficient - as much as possible. Sometimes things take a while to move, but they've got a lot of plates spinning. These things take time.
While it's true that they can sometimes be a bit slow to respond, I'm guilty of that too, and they're probably busier than I am. Let me be clear - bringing a game to a console sucks, always. The emergence of indie games only makes this process more complicated because the sheer number of games a given platform holder needs to be able to process has sky-rocketed - that's a serious problem that needs solving. I wish that I had a dedicated person at every major console who would call me in the morning and ask how I slept, but I'm afraid they've got bigger fish to fry.
As an indie, I need to admit that I'm not the next "Destiny" and frankly, I'm glad for what I can get. I know I sound like a Dickensian street urchin here, but Nintendo has built a massive amount of goodwill over the last 30 years and if I want a little of that light shined in my direction, I've got to try to play on their terms and try and be patient as they sort through the five billion other devs who want the same. Why would it work otherwise?
As for curation, Warner also feels that's as justifiable approach as any, even if it adds to the time it takes to sift through projects.
The challenge, presumably, is sorting through the veritable explosion of new games, and trying to evaluate which ones will connect with what part of their large market. I think that's probably the problem that every platform holder needs to solve. There are a lot of games being made. How can you tell which one is the next "Stardew Valley"? More specifically, how do you create an environment where that game emerges on your platform without blowing your entire budget manually sifting through the twenty-five trillion indies who are all confident that they've got that game? If you've got the answer please email me, because we will be rich.
Another developer happy to talk up for Nintendo of America's eShop team and its policies is Zhenghua Yang (Z) of Serenity Forge; it's a studio with some intriguing games that was actually a registered Wii U developer but didn't finalise any of its releases; it's currently working towards publishing on the Switch eShop. Within the praise, however, we're told once again that Nintendo of America's team is likely under-resourced, especially in comparison to rival companies.
It's actually surprisingly easy to establish a relationship with Nintendo. Nintendo was actually the first console manufacturer that reached out to us back in the day, and the Wii U dev kit was the first dev kit we received. I think a lot of people assume Nintendo is impossible to get a hold of because of their corporate culture. Truth is, the Nintendo of America folks are all working pretty hard within their power to give 3rd party developers the resources they need.
I think now-a-days the eShop teams across the board have been amazing people to work with, and Nintendo is no different. From what I can tell, both PlayStation and Xbox teams have very dedicated teams and account managers working with their developers. Nintendo, on the other hand, is probably more short-staffed. Each person always seems like they're juggling a lot on their plate. If anything, as a developer I hope that Nintendo would bring on more people to help out the eShop team.
The biggest strength by far in how Nintendo curates the eShop content, though, is that it further defines the Nintendo vision. When picking up any Nintendo game, you know that it would have "fun" at the centre of its design. Alternatively, speaking on its weakness (and almost from a fan perspective), I personally wished that Nintendo games could follow the growth of its core audience over time. I own and have played every Nintendo console since the original Famicom (in China), and I've always loved them. However now-a-days in a busy lifestyle, it's harder to find Nintendo experiences that are really catered towards me. I think as a corporation, the steps that Nintendo takes in investing in unique experiences like Pokemon GO, or Fire Emblem Heroes are the exact answers I've been looking for. Additionally, it's been easier than ever being a 3rd party developer for Nintendo. I think it's only a matter of time, now that the Switch dev kits are sent to the developers, for the eShop to be filling with a variety of content.
That final point, most would agree, is the perfect end goal for the Switch eShop.
Curation Wins and Loses Friends
After sifting through the interviews and perspectives gathered for this feature we were left with a mixed bag of viewpoints. On the one hand slow communication, occasional dry and corporate responses, paying for dev kits, dealing with requests and demands that are never seriously contemplated - that's all part of the download publishing process. On top of that, those talking both scathingly and more positively often returned to one common refrain - the eShop team in North America appears to face excessive demand, struggling to find the resources to meet the workload of eager developers that want in on the Switch ground floor.
That said, there are clearly things that have gone wrong. The established Nindies we spoke to - though only one wanted to be quoted even on an anonymous basis - have released games worthy of top marks in our own reviews here on Nintendo Life, and they're well known studios. It was eye-opening to see how disconnected they now feel, individuals that have - in the past - spoken about Nintendo with reverence and loyalty now say it's just another company. Any old platform. That special feeling of being on Nintendo hardware has been sullied by their recent experiences. Though Nintendo of America may face notable challenges managing the Switch eShop, some that have been outlined in this feature, they evidently handled the task poorly in some cases; we were also told of others in a similar situation that simply did not want to risk talking on any level.
Perhaps, in the end, these are the worst cases in the growing pains of a new eShop process. After dropping the bar on Wii U to the point there were practically no limitations to publishing games, now Nintendo is going the other way and curating content. It's a major policy shift that has led to some high-profile casualties.
The key takeaway for now seems clear - Nintendo has a plan and a mission with the Switch eShop, but also has plenty of room to improve to ensure that the current generation of Nindies feel the same loyalty and passion for the system as those that have graced the 3DS and Wii U. Slow communications, evidently abrupt and impersonal at times, can frustrate those trying to share their games with a Nintendo audience or, in the worst case scenario, alienate those that had forged a strong relationship over many years.
While some individuals within the Publisher & Developer Relations department have perhaps made errors in managing relationships, the most common theme is that it's a team that simply seems under-equipped. Nintendo has dramatically moved the goalposts with curation on the Switch, which is arguably for the better, yet appears to be trying to do so with small teams previously in place for light-touch management of the Wii U and 3DS stores. To curate a download store that'll be the envy of other consoles, a sizeable and well-resourced group is surely needed.
What we're also left with is the big question - how far should curation go? After all, different regional approaches still bring us games like Vroom in the Night Sky, which we feel is a poor game from any angle. Inconsistencies in policies are also baffling, in which we get quality re-releases like the Tomorrow Corporation trilogy but see the likes of the brilliant Axiom Verge get rejected.
However Nintendo's policies towards the Switch eShop evolve, one thing never changes - it's all about the developers. Indies, Nindies, whatever you want to call them, Nintendo's teams around the globe have the tough responsibility of encouraging and supporting the most talented developers. Falling short isn't an option, as those left disillusioned have plenty of other suitors on PC, PS4, Xbox One and even smart devices.
Nintendo's name and brand power isn't enough - it needs to work hard and setup the resources necessary to keep indie developers on board. Without them, the Switch eShop is just a hub for pricey retail downloads.
We gave Nintendo of America a full right of reply to this article, but the company declined to comment.