Switch is many things to many people, and that fact is arguably the key to its success. The way it fits into your life whether you're reclined at home on the sofa, playing in handheld mode when the TV is taken or curled up in bed with Nintendo's console, it's always ready and waiting to conveniently slip into your busy schedule. The fact that every Switch is a portable system makes the argument for going all-digital with your game purchases more compelling than ever, especially with other platforms. When it's possible to take every single game in your library with you, why bother building a bulky physical library at all?
Still, there remains a sizeable audience for physical releases - as evidenced by the immediate "Physical release?" response to each and every indie game announcement on the platform. We're constantly told that physical media is going the way of the dinosaur, yet companies devoted to limited releases and video games on cartridge and disc are flourishing, not least on Switch. One of the leaders in the field is Super Rare Games and today the company is celebrating its second anniversary.
Back at the start, it was a very quick process where the only question was whether I liked the game or not.
With physical releases of some truly excellent games under its belt, including Snake Pass, Steredenn: Binary Stars, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, SteamWorld Quest, The Gardens Between and the recently announced World of Goo (to name just a few), Super Rare has focused solely on Switch releases since forming. In just two years the company has amassed an impressive library of 27 Switch games in its ever-growing library of cartridges, and there's no sign of demand abating despite the 'inevitable' digital future to which we are inevitably bound.
"It's all quite surreal about how things have panned our over the last two years," says George Perkins, Super Rare's 'Head of Doing Stuff', when asked to pick a highlight from the company's history to date. "I don’t think anyone at Super Rare would have imagined we would be in such an amazing spot after only 24 months as a company. The response from Switch lovers to our company has been overwhelming so without being cheesy, it's all been a highlight. Releasing SteamWorld Quest was one of my personal highlights as its one of my favourite indie games of all time."
Looking at Super Rare's catalogue, it's more than just the sheer number of titles that impresses; it's the quality of those releases, both in the packaging and presentation but also the games themselves. You'd imagine that signing these games - many of them hit indie releases - would have been tricky, although that's not really the case. "I can’t think of any particularly difficult titles that we have released, but we have 4 or 5 big projects still in negotiation which have taken a while to get over the line. Fingers crossed they all come off as they would all be great additions to our lineup."
From the beginning that lineup has been carefully curated, although the process of choosing potential projects has become more complex over the past two years. "Our signing policy has become much more rigid than it was before," Perkins continues. "Back at the start, it was a very quick process where the only question was whether I liked the game or not. This quickly changed as we got more popular and I didn't feel that we couldn't just release genres and titles that I like! Now it's still very much down to whether I like the title, but now we spend a lot more time analysing each title and the demand it has for a physical version."
I would say the average time [from preliminary contact with devs to shipping a game] is 6-8 months.
The process may have changed, but the team at Super Rare is much the same now as then. "In terms of the team, we have been the same 4 of us since the start. I can definitely see the way each member has grown as a person and helped shape the direction we have gone as a company. Over that period, our efficiency and professionalism as a company has certainly risen with every game we have released, and it's crazy to me that we have almost released 30 games with such a small team."
Beyond the growth to the team and the very personal opinion which guided the initial releases, Perkins acknowledges ways in which things have changed, both personally and company-wide. "I was reading through emails I was sending out two years ago, and it's truly crazy to me about the way I have personally changed in the time period. I was sending out such poor emails back then, so on a personal note, it's amazing to see how much better I am now. I was only 19 at the time so maybe I can be forgiven."
As both Perkins and the business have grown, you'd be forgiven for expecting the time from first contact with a developer to having a physical product ready to ship might have decreased after two years of lessons learned, but in reality that isn't the case. "The time between initial contact and actually announcing the releases has definitely gone up over time. This is mainly down to the fact that as we have increased in size, our slots have begun filling up quicker and quicker. At the moment we have 18 games lined-up already, which is crazy! With that said, we are always completely upfront with developers and we let them know exactly what month to expect there physical release to come out. I would say the average time is 6-8 months."
The success of Super Rare forced the company to address an issue where games would sell out very quickly and fans would miss out on picking up a limited release. To combat this issue the company launched The Super Rare Club Membership, a £30 annual subscription that offers a variety of bonuses - the most attractive being 48 hours advance warning and opportunity to reserve each new release. By all accounts, the scheme has gone down well. "Last year we polled members of the club, and we had 90% of people rate the service as a 8/10 or higher, so people in the club definitely seem happy," Perkins tells us. "We also had an increased sign-up rate of about 20% this year, so demand has increased for it as well. It's certainly seen its fair share of backlash, but my hope is that we can offer both our club members, and normal customers, an equally amazing experience with us."
We ended up not getting to work on [Yooka-Laylee], I was devastated for days and hardly left my bedroom for a week. In hindsight it was a great lesson...
Too much demand to handle is obviously a nice problem to have and is something the team has had to deal with. On the whole it has been relatively smooth sailing for the company so far, although there have been challenges along the way, especially in the beginning. "Right at the start, one of my dream games to sign was Yooka-Laylee," Perkins reveals. "I hate talking about my age, but at the time of discussing us working on the title I was a teenager and still was very naive about business. Wrongly or rightly, I had a high expectation that we would get to release the title."
Of course, Yooka-Layee would get a physical release on Switch, helmed by rival company Limited Run Games. After initial pre-orders rapidly sold out, the company eventually teamed up with US retailer Best Buy and the game became more widely available in physical form, but the realities of business hit Perkins hard. "We ended up not getting to work on it, I was devastated for days and hardly left my bedroom for a week. In hindsight it was a great lesson and I am over the moon that the game found its home and that I can own a copy on my shelf."
It was a lesson worth learning; the market for physical editions of indie games has fast become crowded in the two years since Super Rare's arrival on the scene, as Perkins acknowledges. "The whole ‘limited-print’ market has certainly changed a lot over the last two years. When we first announced ourselves two years ago, we were the first company to really adopt this model for the Nintendo Switch. Since then, there must have been 6-7 new companies pop up."
With so many competitors, standing out in the crowd becomes more difficult. Super Rare releases include extras like reversible covers, manuals (a personal favourite), stickers and trading cards, but the boutique, limited press video games market is a challenging one. "One thing that we have been very big on is our customer service and the quality of our products," says Perkins when asked what sets Super Rare apart from the pack. "We try to ship every order within a couple of days receiving it and not many companies can match that level of service. Our helpdesk always reply within a very short amount of time. I think this coupled with the fact that we only release Switch games [...] and the high critical acclaim of our games mean that we are certainly a front runner in the Switch collecting community."
it's very rare that we actually sign a game until we see the reception it gets after launching digitally.
Looking at the demand for physical releases across all platforms, that community appears to be in rude health right now, despite the dilemma faced by many collectors - should I wait for a physical release? With Super Rare's focus on critically acclaimed titles, the issue of supporting indie devs by reluctantly buying a digital copy only to get stung when a physical release is announced - sometimes only days after pulling the trigger - is ever more acute. We asked Perkins whether he thought the time frame between digital and physical versions (or their announcements) might shrink in the future.
"It's a difficult situation," he agrees, "as often strong digital success is what leads to a physical release being considered. When it comes to traditional retail, the majority of the time you will see the physical release come out at the same time, but with indie products it can be much more of a risk to commit to doing a boxed copy. To give it a bit of context, it's very rare that we actually sign a game until we see the reception it gets after launching digitally. We are looking out for the review scores and also the buzz it generates on social media before we confirm the release."
Despite having built contacts within the industry, there are other factors which play a part in delaying the launch of a physical version, including patches and other content. "Having better relationships with developers and publishers certainly means that the bigger games we release might certainly come out sooner physically than before, but to be honest it's a hard one to reduce much further. We also like to wait for all the content to be added to a game before working on a physical release, so this can sometimes add much longer waits for us to announce our partnership. It's certainly a tricky one for consumers and we often tell developers to tell people that a physical release is coming in the future so that they are informed."
Many people who have gone all-digital with Switch might point to the oft-referenced and inevitable all-digital future. Indeed, with subscription services like Netflix and Spotify permeating so deeply and rapidly, many younger people these days are understandably baffled by the idea of keeping data on CDs and Blu-rays in bulky boxes. As card-carrying physical media aficionados with a healthy paranoia that it would take far, far less than a zombie apocalypse for our online licences and library access to be revoked, even we must concede that the convenience of digital media is compelling, especially from a larger, cosmic perspective.
I currently see Limited Run Games as being our one, main competitor and it would be amazing to reach the heights that they are at in terms of the quality of games they release. I have a lot of respect for them
The all-digital future has been touted for many years, yet it still hasn't ousted the genuine physical article just yet. "With the introduction of streaming services and subscriptions models, I think we will certainly see a reduction in physical media over the next 10-20 years," muses Perkins. "Nintendo has always been a traditionally physical based company, and if you look at the sales figures for there first party games, I can’t see it drastically changing over the short term for the Switch and neither for whatever will follow it. There will always be a place in gaming for physical products. We can see with things like the Vinyl comeback that this will always be the case. The question is more, how big will that side of the audience be? The key thing will be keeping the younger generations interested in physical releases and ensuring that in 30-40 years that people still see the joy in collecting physical media." If the rebirth of vinyl teaches us anything, it's that there is always a market for novelty, and as physical media is usurped by the ephemeral online equivalent, there will always be a demand - however niche - for games you can touch with your fingertips.
Thanks to the unprecedented success of Switch and some canny signings, after just two years there's plenty to look forward to over at Super Rare Games. "We want to keep growing as a company and keep releasing better and better indie games! At the moment we see ourselves as one of biggest indie physical publishers for the Switch, so we want to keep pushing it further to be the best."
With the best indies being courted by multiple companies when it comes to physical releases, that only encourages Perkins to work harder. "I currently see Limited Run Games as being our one, main competitor and it would be amazing to reach the heights that they are at in terms of the quality of games they release. I have a lot of respect for them as a company and am a big fan for the founder, Josh Fairhurst. We have a few secret projects in the works that really could elevate what we are doing to the next level, so hopefully we can share more in the next year about that!" Intriguingly, he hints that this may be different from the traditional releases Super Rare has engaged in to date. "This would be something completely separate from what we are doing at the moment and would really diversify what we are trying to achieve as a company."
If the company continues to produce physical editions of the quality they have been putting out, we'll certainly be adding to our Super Rare collection in the years to come. Asked which classic Nintendo property he would release physically on Switch given the chance, his reply didn't disappoint. "Easy one! An Advance Wars bundle of the first three games (I don't acknowledge the fourth game as being a true part of the series). It's one of my favourite games of all time! I spent my childhood playing the games so would be a dream come true to see that on Switch, let alone to be involved in it."
Looking at Super Rare's catalogue of physical Switch games to date, a hypothetical Advance Wars release would fit in beautifully. Still, even if the coming year doesn't involve that particular revival, and as digital sales continue to grow in number and popularity, the future seems surprisingly bright for physical games on Switch. Here's to that!
Our thanks to George for his time and congratulations to the Super Rare team on its second birthday. Have you got any of Super Rage Games' titles in your physical collection? Let us know below.