Amid a rising tide of games, devs reflect on state of the Switch market
The Nintendo Switch has played host to a sort of gold rush for game developers over the past few months, with many claiming great sales on the platform - in many cases far more than Steam or other consoles, and in a much shorter timeframe.
“It was incredible. The Switch is our most successful platform by far. We went past 100K copies sold on Switch a while ago now,” says Omar Cornut of Lizardcube, developers of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap.
“It was definitely a good move to port and publish Morphite on the Switch," says Ben Lee, of Morphite dev Blowfish Studios. "Our game sales for Morphite on the Nintendo eShop have been much higher than other consoles and Steam. It does require more effort to get games on the Switch, but the sales numbers make up for the cost of that effort."
With so many positive claims coming from developers, it almost seems foolish for others not to develop for the Switch. However, with a new console comes new software needs, new controller concerns, new companies to deal with, and all kinds of other factors that devs will want to consider.
More importantly, with all of these games rushing to release on the console, will the Switch soon develop the same discoverability issues as Steam and the mobile market? What problems come with releasing on the console, and which issues are still on the way?
Many developers saw the move to the Switch as an important one, but seeing solid sales numbers wasn’t the only reason they wanted to see their games on Nintendo’s console. Functionality, years of building a customer base, opportunity, and the thrill of having a game on Nintendo's new system all drew developers to it.
"I’m sure the market will be flooded soon, if it’s not already. I don’t see it being a problem. It’ll just make that marketplace as hard to be found on and succeed on as Steam and others have become."
For some, like Brian Kwek of Ysbryd Games, the Switch caught the imaginations of players for a variety of reasons, mixing portability with an appeal to those who’ve loved Nintendo’s games for ages.
“The Switch is a really important platform in so many ways right now," he says. "Nintendo's franchise exclusives, not to mention the portability of those games that have been the domain of fixed console systems, have really captured a huge swathe of old-school gamers. Momentum is clearly building up for an impressive install base.”
Nintendo’s base has previously been split over two systems. While it would be unsurprising to find most Nintendo home console owners also own a Nintendo portable system, this pairing of the power of a home console with the portability of Nintendo handhelds turned out to be a powerful draw, uniting the lion's share of two overlapping audiences into one big userbase.
“The Switch being both a portable device and a console by design turned out to be a big part of the appeal, as this meant that Nintendo directed nearly their entire userbase onto a single device this generation," says Ole Ivar Rudi, Art Director at Rain Games, developers of Teslagrad and World to the West.
That promises devs a huge audience, one that would seem to not have all that many games to play at the moment. “One thing that really truly baffles me is the lack of triple-A third-party support for the system. It's money left on the table, so to speak,” says Thomas Happ, developer of Axiom Verge.
Nintendo has created their largest audience for a single console yet by drawing their audiences together, and yet there seemed to be little interest from triple-A developers for the console. That is likely changing at the moment, but for now, it has left an opening for the fleet-footed to move in and find customers looking to play something on their new console.
2Awesome Studio's debut game Dimension Drive running on the Switch
For those who’ve been facing the sheer glut of titles on Steam, that kind of opening is a godsend. “There is a lot of hype behind the Switch and the market is not as crowded as Steam. Dimension Drive is our first commercial game, launching it on Nintendo Switch was a no-brainer,” says David Jimenez of 2Awesome Studios.
Also, one cannot downplay that sense of how it feels to grow up with Nintendo games and Nintendo characters, and what it means to release on one of their consoles after years spent playing with them.
“Nintendo was also a big part of my life growing up, so having the opportunity to bring Stardew Valley to the Switch was really special to me,” says Eric Barone of ConcernedApe, developer of Stardew Valley.
“Like almost all devs, I’m a fan of Nintendo, and it was always my dream to release on one of their systems,” says Edmund McMillen, developer of The Binding of Isaac and The End is Nigh.
All these things and more drew developers to the plucky handheld and its promises of success.
Bringing a game to another console brings with it all kinds of headaches, but for many developers, it was a very doable act. So doable that some developers released games they never intended to make for the console.
“Luckily, Unity support was very well-developed from the get go on Switch," says Rudi (Teslagrad). "Often, using a middleware engine like Unreal or Unity often means waiting for features from the current PC iteration of the engine to be incorporated in the console builds (this is especially common on systems in their twilight phase like the Wii U or Vita), but on Switch we were able to pretty much start porting directly without doing too many workarounds or rolling back features."
“Our initial plans for the Switch were originally just to port our second game, World To the West, but when we first got the development kit we did some tests using Teslagrad as it's a smaller, less complicated game," he continues. "We were very surprised by how well the initial build ran on the hardware, so we basically decided on a whim to spend a couple months polishing it for the platform as a side project alongside the World To The West port and releasing both.”
Tom Spilman of Sickhead Games LLC, the company that ported Axiom Verge to the Switch, also found the process to be a smooth one. “Axiom Verge was created with Microsoft's XNA, and we had already ported it to Xbox, PS4, and PSVita using MonoGame. The Switch is a great platform and technically great fit for the game, so it seemed like an obvious next port to target.”
“Immediately we had to try to get into the Switch development program," he adds. "We were lucky and got into the program in late 2016 which let us start porting MonoGame to Switch before it launched. Switch was really a great platform to work with, and the port of MonoGame and Axiom Verge went very well. Within a few months we had the game fully running.”
This relative ease of porting allowed Spilman to bring over several titles to the console in an impressively short period. “Beyond Axiom Verge, which was one of the first games shipped on Switch based on XNA/MonoGame, this work let us help a bunch of other developers too (Writer’s Note: including Barone’s Stardew Valley)," writes Spilman. "There are over 15 indie titles coming to Switch using MonoGame in 2018.”
The Dragon's Trap devs chat with us about the experience of launching on Switch as we play through a bit of the game in this Twitch stream from last year
“From a technical point of view, it didn’t affect us very much because Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and its engine were designed to be easily portable. Even though we were busy finishing the game itself and the Switch SDK were in their earlier versions, we had a basic version of the game running in less than a month. It also helps that Nintendo really improved the quality of their development ecosystem for this generation,” says Cornut.
Not that it’s a guaranteed snap to port to the console. “All of our ongoing ports are for games developed in Unity, but two of our games are experiencing serious issues with loading times. So we're currently spending a fair bit of time on problem-solving here,” says Ysbryd Games' Kwek.
Porting has also put a great deal of strain on some development teams for various reasons. “Besides implementing Nintendo APIs for things like saving, Joy-Con input, and the like, the main difference was optimization," says Jimenez. "We devoted most of the Switch development time to optimize Dimension Drive to run at 60 FPS while keeping the visuals as close as possible to its PC counterpart. Obviously, the PC version can run at 4K with lots of dynamic lights and shadows which is something we had to reduce for the Switch version but other than that, they are equal. We were developing the PC and Switch versions in parallel and that put extra pressure on us.”
“We had planned some extra DLC, porting to some other devices, and starting a new title, but these got pushed back as my time was taken up porting to the Switch," says Dave McCabe, writer for The Darkside Detective dev Spooky Doorway. "As our team is remote and we don’t have a large budget, QA became difficult as we had only a single device. We ended up hiring a contractor with a dev kit to help us out.”
No port is ever something to take lightly, always coming with its own set of unexpected problems, but for many devs, the ease of porting was just another appeal for an already-appealing console.
With ease of porting and so many reasons to want to get on Nintendo’s console, one major fear is on every developer’s mind.
“I’m sure the market will be flooded soon, if it’s not already. I don’t see it being a problem. It’ll just make that marketplace as hard to be found on and succeed on as Steam and others have become,” says Tracey McCabe, programmer for Spooky Doorway (The Darkside Detective).
This GIF, published by Nintendo UK in October, celebrates the rising tide of games on Switch
“It is difficulty to say what will happen, but if we look at the trend with other platforms and markets it is very possible that the Nintendo Switch eShop will see similar problems faced by others. Visibility and the amount of games released per day or week could become a problem in the near future,” adds Jimenez.
For many developers, they feel there’s a solution to that if Nintendo is willing to try. “I do see there being a point where discovery may be a problem for the system, and that’s a conversation Nintendo needs to have with developers and the public to work out the best path forward. A welcome page with the latest, currently on sale, and best-selling on one screen could be one way. Another is recommendations,” says Jon Price, programmer and writer at aPriori Digital, developers of Aperion Cyberstorm.
“As more games come to the system, showcasing the ones some may miss promotes a diverse catalogue to pull people in. On the flipside, listen to the community to see if any games are getting attention which Nintendo missed, both those already on the system and not. It gives the former a second wind, and the latter a new audience to meet. A win-win for both,” he continues.
"I think [Nintendo] could do more to help third-parties with marketing and sales. Sony I think is still the best in this department - at least in my case, they keep in touch regularly and let me know what kind of sales promotions are coming up so I can opt in or out."
“Store curation is always going to be the key to this," adds Kwek. "It would be awesome for Nintendo to communicate to devs and publishers that they are interested in growing the curation options on the store beyond the current New Releases, On Sale and Best Seller charts. I've always thought Apple does an incredible job curating stuff on the App Store, as unfathomably large as the iOS ecosystem is, and Nintendo could stand to take a few cues from Apple there!”
“If Nintendo can add more features for the player community like Achievements and the online module, that will help devs create more varied and unique games. Those features may also improvement player engagement if used correctly,” says Lee.
“I think they could do more to help third-parties with marketing and sales," opines Happ. "Sony I think is still the best in this department - at least in my case, they keep in touch regularly and let me know what kind of sales promotions are coming up so I can opt in or out. Nintendo is more hands off and it's up to you to do your own marketing and make up your own sales. I think they'd benefit from doing more big banner style promotions (Spring fever! Summer madness! Autumn PTSD!)”
“The idea that there will be a lot of games on Switch is not an issue in my mind, in the same way that there are a ton of games on PS4 or Xbox One," says Richard Atlas, CEO and programmer at Clever Endeavor Games, developers of Ultimate Chicken Horse. "The onus will be on these console companies to update their algorithm to make sure that relevant stuff is being shown to users who are interested in it. I'm under the impression that this saturation isn't a problem that we can't solve; great games are still finding ways of getting discovered on PC and consoles regardless.”
Visibility is always going to be a concern as the amount of titles on the system grows, and many developers have suggestions on how to fix that problem. From what some are already seeing from Nintendo, it seems that the company is concerned about helping the games on its console get seen -- and be worth seeing.
For starters, Nintendo is still regulating who can release on their platform, and is doing so with a much less strict hand for content than it had been years ago.
“Like any platform, I think overcrowding will cause some issues, but I’m not too worried about that on the Switch. It’s great that Nintendo seems on board with tons of dev and they are being very progressive with their policies (especially when it comes to content) so that’s always a win-win situation for indies,” says McMillen.
“Unlike with PC or mobile, Nintendo is a much stricter ‘gatekeeper’, though it's lightened up a lot since the days of the NES. I'm really excited actually by how many great indie games I've been able to play on it,“ adds Happ.
Nintendo has also shown a willingness to do some promotion to support the developers they’ve partnered with. “Nintendo has been pretty good with promoting indie games on the Switch. With Stardew Valley, they shared trailers and announcements on their official channels, and after the game came out well, they featured it prominently in the eShop," says Barone. "I hope they continue to feature promising indie games in their promotional materials, and frame the indie game sector as a vital part of the Switch experience.”
“The support and help we got from Nintendo was outstanding," Jimenez says. "We got featured during Nintendo Summer Sizzle that Nintendo America did. Nintendo of Europe brought us also to EGX as part of the Nindies booth. And during launch, Dimension Drive got featured on-device and also as part of the 6 Nindies for Winter. In summary, working with Nintendo was great and we are looking forward to bring more games to the Nintendo Switch in the future.”
“I think they have been doing a great job so far. The quality of titles in the eShop is very good at the moment. We hope the process keeps being curated to a high standard,' he continues.
Nintendo has made a show of how many indie games are coming to Switch, for better and for worse
“Nintendo has been very active in terms of promoting indies under the 'Nindie' umbrella so far both on the storefront and in social media," adds Rudi. "Hopefully they'll keep that up and expand on it even as the list of first party releases grows. Seeing more dedicated spots for Nindie games during Nintendo directs would be great!”
Nintendo knows that even the best games need support, and as such, there is hope that it will be willing to listen to developers and their suggestions on how to deal with the imminent issue of saturation.
Perhaps in doing so, it can prolong the Switch’s gold rush era and keep giving developers more solid reasons to bring their games to the system.