Recent announcements indicate that Nintendo might be loosening up when it comes to how much control they have over their platforms, and that means big things for the future of smaller and indie titles.
Of all the major console developers, Nintendo has long held the most rigid control over what does and does not make its way onto their platform. Over the last few decades, while cross platform titles have become the standard, the house that Mario built has remained focused on building out exceptional experiences based on their own IP; from the aforementioned plumber’s wide array of galactic adventures, parties, and kart races to the increasingly amazing adventures of Link and Zelda, Nintendo’s systems succeed because of their incredible first-party content built around worlds gamers already love.
But, times are changing. Over 32 million people own the Switch, and a big part of that has been the result of Nintendo lowering the height of the wall around their garden. The system’s main feature, its adaptive portability, has made it an appealing destination for many smaller indie titles, games like Binding of Isaac, Hollow Knight, and Downwell, giving players the opportunity to take these titles on the go for the first time.
This has all put Nintendo in an interesting position, one that’s very new to them. They’ve continued to knock it out of the park on their first party offerings, but it’s clear to the organization’s decision makers that continued support for smaller titles will be pivotal for the platform’s long term success. Moving forward, that won’t just mean allowing more third party titles onto the system, but also bringing more small teams and indie developers into the fold as first-party contributors. They’re now in a position where they know, for the first time, that they’ll need to cultivate smaller teams and younger talent, internally, and it presents a unique challenge: how to maintain the level of quality Nintendo’s products are known for while increasing their investment in a more diverse, expansive library of developers and titles.
“I know some people say we just need to hire more developers,” Shigeru Miyamoto explained during a recent investor Q&A. “We aren’t merely focused on increasing development staff, but we are focusing on nurturing more developers adequately within Nintendo. I want us to actively invest in the products we develop, in order to maintain the quality we desire.”
How do you maintain that attitude of “quality over quantity” while also mindfully working to create more games, released with increasing regularity? It’s an interesting question. As a console manufacturer, their role as it relates to third party and indie developers is similar to that of distribution platforms like Steam, and the latter is a good example of how hard it can be to answer that question. Valve has long valued the openness of their platform, the incredible variety of developers and publishers that are able to launch their products through their storefront. New releases come so fast tit's hard to keep track, and that’s a bit of a problem. Steam has more games than anybody else, but it also has enormous piles of games that should have never seen the light of day.
Simply put: Steam has a curation problem, and it’s had it for a long time.
Because they’re such a dominant force in the space, this hasn’t hurt Valve’s bottom line, but it has lead to the platform having a reputation as a somewhat unwieldy shopping experience filled to the brim with lower quality products, things that get in the way of browsing for and finding the lesser-known titles actually worth digging into. Playstation, meanwhile, has also begun to draw criticism for allowing under-developed games like “Curse of Black Tiger” onto their store. These are extreme examples of the issues Nintendo would like to avoid; situations that could permanently damage Nintendo’s reputation.
All of this is made all the more fascinating by the fact that it’s Nintendo asking asking these questions. Like I said, Nintendo has always had the earned reputation of exhibiting the most control over its products, its platforms, and its content. And yet, this is only one of various recent changes they’ve put into place indicating a change in mindset. They recently dropped most of their controls over monetization of videos and streams featuring Nintendo games, ending the extremely problematic Nintendo Creator Program and opening up money-making opportunities to all creators. That’s something I never thought would happen. Then, they followed it up last week by announcing a partnership with Microsoft, of all companies, to bring Xbox Live features like achievements to the Switch. These are, frankly, unprecedented moves for Nintendo, and they’re a sign of just how strongly they’ve been compelled to change by the landscape around them.
The world of gaming is a better, more exciting place when there’s an ecosystem of smaller indie developers building new, interesting experiences for major platforms. Nintendo putting its flag in the space and declaring that it, too, wants to grow the space and build out its portfolio of developing creators and studios can only be a good thing for those of us who simply love to play great games. The fact that it’s Nintendo, finally, articulating this reality makes me very excited for the future of gaming and the continued expansion of small-team game development. With the major players putting emphasis on the right priorities, the future feels bright.