Curt sits down Dan and Damon from Nintendo of America and discuss the eShop, indie games, and third-party relationships.
On the last day of the Penny Arcade Expo this year, I got to sit down with Dan Adelman and Damon Baker from Nintendo World Report. We had quite a nice discussion of indie games, Nintendo's reversals of policies, the banning of The Binding of Issac, what games they would like to see come to the Wii U and 3DS eShop, and much much more. It took a while to get it up, but I hope you all enjoy!
NintendoWorldReport: Alright, so I’m here with Dan Adelman and Damon Baker from Nintendo of America.
Dan Adelman: My name is Dan Adelman, and my role within Nintendo is generally working with the indie community, so that kinda goes in two directions. On one hand, I go out into the indie community, see what they’re working on, and letting them know how they can bring their games to our platforms, the Wii U and 3DS eShop. Kind of letting them know how everything works and getting them through all of our processing. And on the other side, also making sure that everyone at Nintendo has their finger on the pulse of what’s really on the mind of a lot of indie developers, y’know, what we need to be doing to support them better, how we can reduce any sort of barriers to helping them get on our platform, what they are really concerned about. So kind of acting as the voice of the indie community inside Nintendo.
Damon Baker: I’m Damon Baker, I’m the Senior Manager of Marketing at Nintendo of America’s licensing department. My responsibility is handling all of the marketing, PR, promotions, events and advertising for third-party content within the company. So a two-pronged approach there similar to Dan. Externally, I’m working with all the different publishers and developers, and understanding what their upcoming slate of content is, and what they’re doing to market and promote it. And then internally I’m working with the other departments within Nintendo of America to understand what integration opportunities there are, or cross-promotional opportunities there are to help each other out.
NWR: Alright, cool. So my first question is that up until the release of the Wii U, Nintendo hasn’t really been very open to indie developers making games for the system. What brought about this change?
DA: Actually I kinda disagree with the premise of the question, because we’ve always been very open to indie development for… I’ve been with the company about seven years? So from day one we’ve been working with indie developers. You know, games like World of Goo was probably our first big indie game that was unheard of at the time, but it launched on our system. As well as the Bit.Trip series, Bit.Trip.Beat, Bit.Trip.Runner, all the Bit.Trips. Telltale released games, ours was the first console it ever worked on. We actually have a pretty long history of working with independent developers for going on 6 years I think? Since the launch of WiiWare.
NWR: I guess I probably should’ve phrased the question a bit better, in terms of accepting and promoting games from developers without a previous pedigree.
DA: Ah, I think what you’re getting at is having a license to become a developer on our systems. Yeah, so one of our criteria, it was a little harder to become a licensed developer, and we’re looking at ways to make it easier. Probably even more significant than the prior experience requirement, which we called “relevant game development experience”, was the office requirement, so we used to have a requirement that a developer had to work out of an office that was separate from their home. There were some security reasons back in the day. It was a quick shorthand to see that if they were in fact professional game developer, they would work in an office. That was our little fitness test to tell if they were a real developer or not. And we had seen that since the indie development community was growing more and more, more people are choosing to work from home, having virtual teams around the world. So we’ve updated our developer requirements. So we say as long as you can keep the development kits secure, that’s what we’re really trying to go after.
It’s definitely become a lot easier to become a licensed developer. I wouldn’t say it’s really a scene-change or an epiphany saying, “Hey, this is important!” We just realized that it’s been important for a while, we just think that it’s just an evolution of that process, and I think probably the most significant thing that’s changed is that we’re trying to do a better job of communicating that. I think one thing that we haven’t done enough of is really getting up on a soapbox and saying, “Hey, here’s how it all works!” It used to be that either I would have to reach out to a developer to let them know, or a developer would need to know somebody that knows me, and try and navigate that. We’re trying to make it so that people know that. Of course, if people want to reach out to me or anyone else on the team, they can do that. I mean, they don’t even need to do that, there’s a process that they can choose to go through as well, and release games on their own.
NWR: So how has the reception of the eShop been in general from indie developers? Are they satisfied with some of the results they’ve been seeing since they've launched their game on the eShop?
DA: I don’t have a specific number of games we’ve helped release on the eShop so far, I think it’s about 10 or 11, but the games are actually doing quite well, relative to the install base. I think we’re all looking forward to the holiday season where we’re expecting our install base to get a huge shot in the arm. People seem to be pleasantly surprised with their results, though I can’t give out any specifics, but I think there’s a new wave of games that are in the pipeline right now that I think is going to make the eShop the go-to destination. This is my hope that all the best stuff is coming to the eShop, and I think we’re really gonna see tremendous growth as well.
NWR: So I’ve noticed that third-party support from the big publishers like EA, Disney, Ubisoft hasn’t been as extensive and supportive compared to the indie developers. Why do you feel this is?
DA: I can’t really speak on behalf what what the large publishers say, but with the indie developers I think there’s a mindset of that they’ve worked so hard on their game and they want to make sure as many people as possible can see it, and so it comes back to whatever we can do to reduce those barriers to make it easy for them. The indie community is very willing and open to trying new things, and I think they’re also more open to taking risks than larger companies that have millions of dollars on the line. Some of the things we’ve done also to make it really easy for indie developers, probably the biggest one in particular, is Unity. We established a relationship with Unity. Normally a developer would have to buy Unity Pro Tools, and I think that’s about $1500, and then to ship a game on a console; the licensing fees are in the tens of thousands of dollars, I’ve heard, I don’t have the specific numbers. But we did a deal with Unity, we’re giving everyone the Unity Pro Tools for free, and they can release their game without paying any license fees. So if they’re working on a game in Unity, it’s literally a no-brainer, there’s no financial risk, so why wouldn’t you also add one more platform? Also you can do a lot of customization and really make the Wii U version the definitive version without making a lot of additional investment.
NWR: Speaking of making the Wii U version the definitive version, has there been any apprehension to using the Wii U Gamepad or its features to its full potential, such as using Miiverse or dual-screen gameplay?
DA: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the game Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party, but that’s the first game so designed around the Wii U’s feature-set, that it would be really difficult to do on any other platform. But I think to take advantage of these other features like Off-TV play, Runner2 is a great example where while the rest of the family is watching TV, you could just be playing Runner2, or Little Inferno for that matter. Every game gets Miiverse support for free, every game gets set up with its own Miiverse community, and every developer is set up with a verified account so they can engage with the community. I don’t recall seeing any deeper integration, but there is the option to pull in Miiverse functionality right into the game. I don’t know offhand if there’s any game doing that.
DB: Scram Kitty is building Miiverse into it. Some of the other titles we have on display here at PAX like World of Keflings are really utilizing the touch-screen, drag-and-drop on the map, which eases the control functionality significantly. And Armillo, they’re looking at integrating motion controls using the gyro sensor into the game as well. A lot of our developers are really receptive to our feature-set, and like Dan said, we’ve integrated that all into the Unity development and that ease of conversion over is just going to make things that much easier for the developers to implement as they bring it over.
NWR: There’s been a lot of games that have been funded through Kickstarter and IndieGoGo that always have a Wii U stretch goal. Is there any particular game that is either being developed or trying to get funded that you would love to see on the Wii U or 3DS eShop?
DB: Everything? [Laughs]
DA: Yeah, that’s a good answer! [Laughs] As you said, there’s a lot of games that have been doing that and it’s been really interesting to see that when some games announce a Wii U stretch goal how that really reinvigorates their donations. I’m trying to recall that there’s one game, I’ll have to look up the name…
DB: There’s been a couple so far, like with Pwnee having Cloudberry Kingdom. Shovel Knight was a Kickstarter darling that we’re super excited to have at the booth right now.
DA: There was one in particular though by some industry veterans, by some of the people who made Earthworm Jim.
DA: Yes! So that one is like a claymation adventure game. I found out about it and got in touch with the developer, and got them set up as licensed developers and they said, “Hey, since we’re licensed developers we can add a Wii U stretch goal,” and I think I’ll take all the credit for it! [Laughs] All these different Kickstarter projects seem to have a U-shaped curve where there’s a lot of excitement at the beginning and then a big push at the end. The timing of the announcement that they were a Wii U developer and they were adding this stretch goal, combined with the uptick of the second part of the U where they were on an up-ramp, I think there was already a lot of momentum and we kinda pushed them over the top. We’re trying to make it really easy for people to add a Wii U stretch goal, all they have to do is let us know, and we can get them the codes that they need for their backers. So if any of your readers have a game that they think they can release on Wii U, we can help them out with that.
NWR: So we’ve talked a lot about Wii U, but is there a similar ease of getting games on the 3DS eShop?
DA: It’s actually virtually identical. The process is the same, becoming a licensed developer is the same, so a lot of times when they become a licensed developer they don’t realize that they become a licensed developer for both. The hardware of course is very different, games that run on Wii U might not run on 3DS, and something that’s more appropriate on 3DS might not be as appropriate on Wii U. There’s always going to be that difference. Right now, Unity is not supported on 3DS, so whenever we’re talking about Unity we have to specify that it’s focused on Wii U for now. But everything else is really the same.
NWR: On platforms such as Steam and Playstation Network they have what they call a Cross-Buy feature, so when you buy a game on the Playstation 3 or on a Windows PC, you can play the game on PSP/PS Vita or Mac/Linux, respectively. Is there any system in place right now or in the future to enable a similar Cross-Buy feature? For example, a game comes out on the Wii U that the 3DS can also run, and if the developer wants to enable customer play the game on both?
DA: We don’t have anything new to announce on that, but I believe that the idea’s been talked about. So it’s something we’re definitely up to considering if there’s enough demand from developers, but nothing to announce for right now.
NWR: About a year or so ago, there was a game that was planned to come to the 3DS eShop called The Binding of Issac. There was some controversy regarding the game’s narrative, and was denied release on the 3DS eShop. Has there been any changes in policy in terms of how a developer tells its story with the Wii U or 3DS eShop since?
DA: Actually, the issue at hand was not how they tell stories. We have some concept guidelines which they were, unfortunately, in conflict with, particularly around religious themes. The principle is that we don’t want to have overly-religious content. There are other concept guidelines like no “adver-gaming” and things like that. Unfortunately, Binding of Issac was deemed to be in conflict with one of the guidelines. There was nothing wrong with any of the violence in the game, people have speculated that’s why. I think we’re always looking at re-examining our platform requirements to see if they still make sense. On a personal level, it kind of kills me that we had to say no to The Binding of Issac. I’m a big fan of the game, I’m a big fan of Edmund McMillan, I would’ve loved to play it on my 3DS, but it was one of the hardest phone calls I ever had to make. I’m a big fan.
NWR: One last question. Do you have any words of encouragement to anyone that wants to create a game, but feel as if their voice or vision won’t get out to that many people?
DA: I would say the only thing stopping you is you. There has never been a time like this in the industry where it’s been so easy for one person with a great idea to realize the vision and get it out in front of consumers.That would’ve never been possible back in the day. There were people who would sell their software in sandwich baggies at trade shows, and that was the distribution method. Years later, budgets became too big, so smaller teams were shut out or developer tools were too complicated. Now, it’s the perfect storm, or whatever the opposite of the perfect storm might be, where all the stars are aligning. Developer tools like Unity are so simple that I’m teaching my daughter how to use it. It’s simple enough, and there’s even online tutorials where people can learn how to make a little game. I encourage people who are just interested in game development to try out the tools. They are easier than most people think.
It’s kind of like the idea of how to become a great writer is to write a little bit every day. If you’re interested in becoming a game developer, just keep making stuff, even if it’s stuff you intend to throw away. Just come up with a new little game mechanic and then throw it away and start on the next one. After you do that 20 or 30 times, you’re going to find one that you won’t want to throw away, because there’s something really special there. You can build that out, and there are more avenues than ever before to get that out in front of other people. It’s a really exciting time.
NWR: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us at Nintendo World Report, and I hope you guys have a wonderful rest of PAX!