SAN FRANCISCO — Last year at the Game Developers Conference, Nintendo said that it would look into supporting middleware solutions for its platform. At this year’s GDC, Nintendo is showing us that it wasn’t all talk by focusing the majority of their booth on independently developed Wii U titles utilizing the Unity software development kit.
But the real eyebrow-raising part of this year’s presentation may not be the ease of porting but that Nintendo is now pushing the Wii U as an open and indie-friendly platform.
GamesBeat met with Damon Baker, Nintendo’s senior manager of licensing marketing, to discuss this new indie content initiative and the mess our brains made all over the show floor when the concept of an open-platform Nintendo come-to-life blew our minds.
GamesBeat: You guys don’t talk too much about these types of indie games.
Baker: We’re trying to. That’s my job. I have to convince the powers that be about all of the great content and why we need to amplify those messages and put them in the same light with Mario. I think it is safe to say that E3 this year for Nintendo there is going to be every emphasis on Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 8. There’s going to be a lot of first-party exposure there, but for us, last year was the first year we got indie content into our booth — and then we took it one step further with PAX Prime, then took it even further with IndieCade, and now we’re here at GDC showing as well. So I think you will continue to see an emphasis or a priority in showcasing and display indie content.
GamesBeat: How are these indies releasing these games?
Baker: Through the eShop. We’re then promoting it everywhere and anywhere that we can. Whether it is these events [GDC/PAX] or dot com, social media, merchandising, all of that kind of stuff.
GamesBeat: The key to Nintendo getting their share in all of this, then, is through the store?
Baker: Yeah. Absolutely. We get a royalty for those sales coming through, and that’s a benefit, but we also want there to be something for everyone. Having that e-shop present is an opportunity to have fun content at your fingertips and being able to choose what it is that you like. My challenge within the marketing side of licensing is, you know, making sure that we’re promoting all that content as much as possible. Like that discoverability issue. You got to find ways to amplify the message and letting people know what cool stuff is there so they don’t have to search for it.
GamesBeat: I take it there is some sort of gatekeeper sort of mechanism, keeping anyone from just throwing anything up onto the store?
On the Unity side, it’s basically open range. We have really opened up our arms to anything and everything. A lot of them are coming out with maybe a core that is more geared toward edutainment. I will say that, even though Nintendo is more known, or might be stronger, in kids and family, that digital content is still mostly being acquired by the core audience. They are the ones going into the eShop and spending money on it.
GamesBeat: Are there quality-control issues, though? I have a difficult time imagining Nintendo allowing just anything on its platform.
Baker: Yeah, it’s still kind of a gray area and that’s why it is better if there are things these developers might think is questionable … it’s better to just talk to us about it up front and see if there is going to be an issue or not, but for the most part we’re accepting absolutely anything and everything. The quality assurance all comes down to whether there are game-breaking bugs or if there are things busting our system, for the most part. So we do have a process that reviews that content and makes sure the game is going to function and it is not going to affect the hardware in any weird way. … But other than that, we’ve got a whole variety of content available on the eShop currently. Whether it is for a hardcore audience or more the casual kids and family.
GamesBeat: What things are Nintendo doing to help with discoverability and help promote these games other than, say, Nintendo download email and showcasing these games at GDC? What other steps are you guys taking to help them get noticed on your platform?
Baker: There are quite a few things. We have a bunch of channels that are available, you know, and besides the newsletters we have our dot com, we’ve got the eShop itself in terms of merchandising and pushing certain promotions and amplifying their messages. All of the events we are participating in, whether it is GDC or PAX or IndieCade, or E3 where we are promoting indie developed content. Then we also have other initiative in terms of helping to amplify the message that is already out there from the developer. So we’re trying to get them some additional insight in terms of maybe these guys aren’t experienced in promoting their content or creating promotion materials and things like that. So lending them a helping hand in creating fact sheets or trailers or sizzle reels … stuff like that … and pushing them through our available channels and utilizing Nintendo first party resources in order to help amplify their message as well.
GamesBeat: Will you charge them for that?
Baker: No. Not at all.
GamesBeat: Do they have to apply to get that support?
Baker: It’s really all about being proactive and reaching out to us, and honestly, we have so much content that if we don’t know about it then it’s hard for us to do something about it. … But those guys who are persistent and raising their hands and are asking for opportunities, they’re the ones we know are really keen on doing anything and everything they can to promote their content. Those are the ones we feel that, yeah, we have a responsibility to go out there and really do whatever we can to help out.
GamesBeat: I take this is for the Wii U, but what about other Nintendo platforms like the 3DS?
Baker: Absolutely. The 3DS is huge for us, and we have a lot of developer support on the platform … and a much larger install base since it has been out for a while longer. In terms of the focus on this show, I think we’re really wanting to show how much easier it is to bring that content over to the Wii U. 3DS is kind of a different beast because there [is] a different architecture and even … you know … I’m always amazed by some of the developers that are going [simultaneous] release for some of their titles on both Wii U and 3DS because they are completely different development cycles and time lines. So there are games — they aren’t Unity-based — like Shovel Knight that are releasing on both platforms at the same time.
GamesBeat: Part of the reason I bring this up is because Nintendo has been really good at releasing a home system and then somehow tying their portable system into it. When the Nintendo DS first came out, one of the thoughts that popped into my head was, “WTH are they going to do as far as this integration. There are two screens.” And then when the Wii U came out, I was like, “OK. This.” I can now see developers creating a 3DS and a Wii U title at the same time.
Baker: That makes a lot of sense, but the architectures for those devices are so completely different that we haven’t really made it conducive. I know there is a lot of interest in bringing Unity over to 3DS, which would solve a lot of these problems. You go to any developer conferences, and you ask what engine are people using, and 90 percent of them are using Unity right now. So it would be a huge shortcut to bring it to Wii U, press a button, and then have it available for 3DS but … we’re not anywhere near [that].
GamesBeat: Oh, yeah. I definitely don’t think this is something that can auto-magically happen.
Baker: Yeah, we are working on that. We are working with other middleware providers as well — nothing to announce right now — but we are trying to make it as easy and as intuitive [as Wii U and Unity].
GamesBeat: Unreal engine?
Baker: Possibly … I mean we have content from Unreal that people have brought over, stuff like Q.U.B.E: Director’s Cut. We showed that off at previous events, that was done in Unreal. So there are opportunities to bring that over but we haven’t built specific support for it. So it’s if anybody creates their own engine, they are kind of on their own as far as figuring out how to get it onto our Wii U platform.
You know, a lot of [indie Unity Wii U developers] were surprised, bringing [their project] over to Wii U with a button that compiles it and within a minute they’ve got a game running. It’s not optimized, but it’s running on a Wii U and on the Gamepad, and it’s this shocking moment of, “Oh my God, that was really easy”. The tough part is over. Now you need to tweak it.
GamesBeat: I’m sure part of that shock too is that Nintendo … well, the Big Three have this legacy of being closed off. We’re still growing out of this sort of “hands off” feeling to home hardware. That era of “If you’re not a big publisher, if you’re not a big developer, then stay away because you’re not getting on here.” Especially Nintendo. So I’m sure that is a big shock for most indie developers to be like, “Holy crap, I just put something on a Nintendo box.”
Baker: It really is, and I think we just want to change that mentality, but you can’t do it over night. That’s why we’ve been hitting that message as much as possible over the last year. So even coming to an event a year later, we’re still educating people about the availability of these tools. Even the head of our developer relations, he did a presentation at the Unity booth that showed people this is how you become a developer for the Wii U and how you become a part of the Nintendo family and how easy it is to get through that process.
GamesBeat: Where is this big push “to bring the indies in” coming from within Nintendo?
Baker: A lot of it is coming from us in the licensing department, you know, kind of similar to what you just said. There are certain parts of Nintendo that are shrouded in mystery, and licensing is one of them. There is so much attention toward Nintendo’s first-party products and what they’re doing with Mario or Zelda or Donkey Kong … but we [the licensing department] have always been fighting since the very beginning to try to push third-party content and look for integration opportunities. …And on the developer’s side, you know, we’ve been supporting indie content for a really long time. It’s just … we haven’t shouted it from the mountaintop.
I mean, we were doing self-publishing back in the Wii days when we launched the Wii Shop. We launched the World of Goo, and that was an indie darling that started on Wii. We had the Bit Trip series, we had Cave Story … all those games started out on Wii, and people kind of forget about that because there is this huge push from the other console makers about how indie friendly they are.
So, we have some catching up to do, though, because we had some old processes … because we’d never done it before … so now we’ve been slowly tweaking that over time and trying to make it as easy as possible for these guys [indie developers]. I think the thing with Unity is, we’re the only platform that gives all of their stuff away for free and we don’t ask for anything in return. We’re not asking for exclusivity or for them to utilize certain features, it’s more that they need to look at their ROI. …If they are making something in Unity, they have every right to bring it out to as many platforms as possible.
GamesBeat: I got to tell you, man, if you had told me several years ago that Nintendo would be doing this, I’d say, “No fucking way.” You guys had a legacy for a time where you didn’t seem to even care about the third-party all that much. I’m talking about the big publisher third-parties at that.
Baker: I know, and this is heart-breaking for me. This is my job, and it was really, really hard.
When we had such great third-party content and a lot of it coming out exclusively, and Nintendo really hasn’t taken advantage of it so, we’ve been fighting hard for these opportunities. One of the proudest moments of my career so far has been IndieCade, where we had this opportunity to have seven teams interacting there, showcasing third-party content and not a single Mario game. Not a single Zelda game. It was all third-party, and it was just really cool to have that opportunity to promote cool innovative stuff coming out. That’s what we are trying to do more of.
It’s always going to be a struggle because Mario makes a lot of money, and we have to give him some attention, but at the same time these guys [indie developers] deserve to be next to Mario.
GamesBeat: I realize you can only speak for Nintendo of America, but how is Nintendo of Japan reacting to this?
Baker: Nintendo of Japan is really open to it, and actually, they have asked us, as well as Nintendo of Europe, to continue looking for quality indie content that may be appropriate for the Japanese market … and really try to help them get more exposure on what is resonating with a Western audience and how to introduce that locally within Japan as well. So I know that is an added initiative and something our internal teams are working on as well, and they are working on making more and more content available over there.
GamesBeat: What about the Japanese market having, essentially, a Japanese version of this initiative? Where you have Japanese indie developers getting onto the Wii U in the same way you have it happening here at GDC? Is something like that under consideration?
Baker: Well, they do have indie support, but it’s not like this huge initiative over there. They’re not putting a whole lot of visibility into it. It does feel more like a Western focus, and I think it is because it is resonating really well with a Western audience. I think on our side, we’re not really looking at it from that perspective. We’re looking at it as there’s all this amazing content out there and Wii U consumers deserve the opportunity to play it … especially if it is as easy as a simple port if they are using Unity, for example.
GamesBeat: Again, I know you can’t speak for Japan and that’s not really the focus here. But still, Nintendo of Japan makes a lot of the big call, and I imagine if they don’t like what’s going on here.
Baker: That’s a really good point. Japan has a totally different market, and that indie theme we would bring to Japan … I don’t think it is as promoted or as evolved as it is over here … and so we’re at a point where we could educate them on what is happening over in the West and what is really resonating, so they can have that exposure … because they might not be seeing it first-hand in their own region.