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The Nintendo Switch indie gold rush

In a week where 18 Switch games hit the eShop, we ask developers: Is it already becoming saturated?

At Gamescom, the team was at a publisher's booth being shown a number of indie games.

The exec that was giving us the tour pointed out that most of these titles were coming to Nintendo Switch. "We're doing that before it's too late," he said.

He was referring to the Switch gold rush. With major AAA publishers taking a cautious approach to the console, and with Nintendo spacing out its AAA titles throughout the year, there's been a big opportunity for smaller developers - especially since Switch sales have (so far) surprised even the most optimistic of analysts.

Savvy indies have flocked to the machine and the escalation has been rapid. Last week, some 18 games were made available on the Nintendo eShop. It might not be anywhere near Steam levels, but it raises the question: Is it already 'too late' to capitalise on the Switch opportunity?

Golf Story, one of 18 Switch games released last week

"What's been observed in public is exactly true; every time a new digital storefront for games comes up and gains millions of budding customers, there's a huge market opportunity," says Jaakko Maaniemi from developer 10tons, which released one of the 18 games last week.

"Those who are quick to the market reap outsize rewards. The window of opportunity is always limited though, as competition always flocks to any market where good profit is being made. And the competition is massive in volume these days, due to greatly improved game making tools and every platform holder having embraced indies, making distribution equally easy. The indieapocalypse, if you will.

"Every indie out there who has paid any attention is aware of both the indieapocalypse and the new storefront gold rush cycle. It can lead only to exactly one thing; more competition being acutely sensitive about time to market, and doing everything they can to be one of the actors benefiting from the brief period of low competition. Which in turn leads to the platform holder being the decisive factor in how quickly the gold rush period ends.

"With Switch, Nintendo was early in offering support for popular engines like Unity and Unreal. They seem to have also been delivering dev kits quite rapidly and I haven't heard anything in the way of them throttling game submissions. They have also done an excellent job in how the development and publishing processes are for developers.

"In spring it was about a game or two a week, in the summer it was a handful, in early fall it was close to ten. Right now it's closer to 20"

Jaakko Maaniemi, 10tons

"The result can be plainly seen by looking at the weekly number of Switch releases. In spring it was about a game or two, in the summer it was a handful of games, in early fall it was close to ten. Right now it's indeed closer to twenty. The trend couldn't be more clear. Xbox One monthly release amounts appear to have levelled to roughly 30 or so, so it certainly seems like Switch has exceeded that or at least will exceed that, which makes it close to PlayStation 4. Consoles, on the other hand, are still far away from Steam, which in turn is nowhere near mobile level firehosing."

Indie developer and former PlayStation indie boss Shahid Ahmad adds: "Nintendo has done well to court independent developers. The messaging isn't always perfect, with 'Nindies' implying a kind of ownership that is dissonant. That said, developers love them - I certainly do - and Nintendo has some really great people who just get it.

"There's always going to be a window of opportunity for anyone competent launching a game early in the life of a device; it's high demand, low supply. Few mainstream consoles have had the foresight to capture the imagination of independent developers out of the gate though, I can only think of the PS4 and the Switch as examples of this phenomenon. This works because the big publishers are hesitant to commit when they don't know how well the device will sell, and the addressable market, no matter how good the numbers, is unlikely to provide a healthy ROI for the bigger publishers. This is when a platform often provides incentives to share some risk.

"It's at the start of the life of a device that the pond is small and there are few fish where the chances of a breakaway hit are there. After the Switch's first Christmas, as sales of the device spike, the pond will be bigger, attracting bigger fish just as a lot more small fish are attracted to the growing pond."

Nintendo certainly appears to have done a good job. Almost all the developers we spoke to had warm words to say about the platform holder, and the lack of content has clearly been a boon to sales.

Sumo Digital's Snake Pass was one of the first success stories. Sumo had the game ready for a simultaneous launch across all platforms - not bad when you consider that Switch didn't exist when development began.

Arriving just a few weeks after the console, Snake Pass topped the eShop charts in almost every territory.

"Being first can be a great advantage but it's not without its risks," says Sumo MD Paul Porter. "I don't recall anyone predicting the reaction to Switch would be so positive. It worked out very well for us with Snake Pass but sometimes it's better to wait until there's a bigger install base.

"The Switch sold very well and demand still seems high, which naturally creates other opportunities for later releases. As with any platform, and maybe handhelds in particular, it's about finding the right games for it. It looks like there are interesting opportunities to release older titles as well as new games, which is really exciting. Ultimately the long-term success will depend on the whole consumer experience - from having a varied and a high quality catalogue of titles, to discoverability and the eShop."

Sumo is already working on more Switch titles, and it's not the only studio to enjoy early success. 10tons with Sparkle 2 and Ant Workshop with Binaries - both games that arrived on Switch last week - were pleased with their opening sales. And you don't have to look far to find other examples.

Shovel Knight's strongest launch performance was on Switch

"Shovel Knight, which was almost 3 years old when the Switch launched, sold more units out of the gate than any other platform," says Yacht Club's David D'Angelo.

"I believe many developers right now are experiencing the same phenomenon. At the moment, games definitely stand out when they launch and consumers are excited to purchase, but at this rate there will be an over-abundance of games. We hope Nintendo updates the eShop to make it easier to highlight and find new and old titles."

Of course last week was a bit of anomaly. Although Switch numbers have been increasing, we've not come close to that quantity before. It seems that some indies were eager to dodge the competitive Q4 release window.

"This week certainly was a bumper crop, though I would be surprised if it continues at that rate," says Ant Workshop's Tony Gowland. "I suspect this particular bump is folks trying to get their games out before Mario Odyssey and Christmas.

"Obviously as more games get released discoverability will be tougher, though at the moment you can still realistically scroll through the complete eShop catalogue - try that on Steam."

That's the message from most of the developers we spoke to; the window of opportunity hasn't closed yet, but it won't stay open forever.

"Switch versions are still outselling Xbox One and PS4 combined, so I'm not too worried"

Olivier Penot, Plugin Digital

"Switch versions are still outselling Xbox One and PS4 combined, so I'm not too worried," says Olivier Penot from PlugIn Digital. "The console has great momentum and the install base is growing. A key moment will be when Switch hardware sales plateau and Nintendo opens it to anyone registering online. Hopefully at this time a new PlayStation or Xbox console will release."

Martin Mathers, developer relations at publisher Rising Star (which also launched a game last week) agrees: "The fact that there's suddenly a flood of indie games on Switch just shows that everyone had the same good idea at the same time - get some games onto the eShop, pronto. That we all seem to have arrived at the same time is obviously amusing and frustrating in equal measure, but at least there's almost no fat in there; most of what's landed is good quality, so we haven't reached the tipping point yet where the Switch's eShop has so much shovelware - unlike the 3DS eShop, which is overloaded with it.

"I don't think the opportunity's passed for anyone that's not in this sudden rush of titles, mainly because getting a spot in that Coming Soon tab is just as vital as appearing in the main store. That might change next year when the inevitable 'Holiday AAA' window closes and another glut of titles arrive, but there's still plenty of visibility right now. What's reassuring is how open Nintendo is being to titles from indie developers and publishers, and titles that might have been lost on other platforms are getting positioned front and centre."

There are just over 150 games on the European Nintendo eShop, that's not a great deal of product even for a machine that has a limited install base. However, one studio warns against moving too quickly on Switch, no matter how tempting it may be.

Lovers In a Dangerous Spacetime is amongst this week's releases

"There's definitely a rush, everyone wants to get their titles to the Switch as fast as possible, which in my opinion isn't in the best interest of Switch owners," says Tom Tomaszewski of Crunching Koalas.

"Some developers and publishers are releasing very unpolished builds - just look at the number of patches released on the eShop in recent weeks - or very un-complex titles that require a relatively small amount of work to be ported to Switch. I know that 18 titles were released this week, but how many of these have a true chance of succeeding? I think just a handful.

"It's still not to late, but you can't release just about anything - there aren't many shooters or puzzle games. And if you're an indie bringing a game that's already on the market, on a different platform, definitely add some new content for the Switch; it'd make your marketing much easier, and maybe even the nice folks at Nintendo will help with your visibility.

"We just brought two games to the Switch: Lightspeer and Butcher. They're completely different and are showing promise in terms of sales, but I have no illusions that this will last forever."

"The whole point of easy access for a developer to a platform's digital store is not to guarantee sales, but to give them a shot, where they didn't have that shot"

Shahid Ahmad, Ultimatum Games

As for the future, the studios we spoke to expect Nintendo to update the eShop to introduce categorisation and improve discoverability. Some also anticipate a change in how they manage sales and promotions going forward.

Yet even if the window of opportunity on Switch is getting smaller, the consensus is that this is a good home for indie developers - they just might need to be smarter about how they work with the platform going forward.

"The time is fast approaching where you can't just put anything out and expect it to sell well on the eShop," says Tony Byus of Rainy Frog, which has already launched two Switch titles.

"It's going to be important to make sure your game has an audience on Switch and accept that few games perform well in all territories. Whereas the market is now dominated by hardcore players, after Christmas I can imagine that more casual games will find an audience. The trick is to persuade casual players to buy games from the eShop."  

And Shahid Ahmad concludes: "Developers, by and large, love Nintendo and it is a sensational device, so I expect them to keep trying even when the numbers aren't in their favour.

"I do wish some people would drop the scare stories though. This isn't rocket science. The market gets tougher as the quality of software improves from both small and large developers as the addressable market also increases. So what? Saturation will be an issue, but that's hardly a surprise. 

"The whole point of easy access for a developer to a platform's digital store is not to guarantee sales, but to give them a shot, where once upon a time they didn't have that shot, at all. I do wish some of the doom-mongers would remember that."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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