In a presentation at the White Nights conference last week, Valve business development head Jan-Peter Ewert put some figures on the disturbing reality for indie developers: the market is still very, very crowded. With the removal of Steam Greenlight and the straight-to-door Steam Direct approach, around 180 games get released every single week.
Even if most games find no audience at all, the increased noise makes it infinitely harder for good games to stand out. Fortunately, there’s one platform where indies are continuing to find a second lease of life, or a successful first one.
The behavioural pattern of a Switch owner has been good to indies thus far. After being drawn into the platform with Nintendo’s top-draw exclusives — Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey or even something like portable Mario Kart 8 — users dive into the eShop for indies, and they’re lapping them up.
In a recent interview with Destructoid, Fox n Forests director Rupert Ochsner revealed that the Switch was far and away the best target market.
Since launching on May 18 (local time), Fox n Forests has sold four times more copies on the Switch to the PS4, and three times as much on the Nintendo console as the PC. All three platforms took roughly the same amount of dev time, with the studio using Unity as their base.
It’s a story that’s increasingly common.
Image: Hollow Knight
Last year, NVIDIA openly revealed that the locally made Hollow Knight (in Adelaide, actually) had sold over 500,000 copies on PC alone. The game was developed in Unity, and while Unity has made multi-platform launches easier for indie developers, Team Cherry has focused exclusively on the Switch thus far.
Launching in the middle of E3 -- hours after the Nintendo showcase finished -- paid off. Hollow Knight has sold over 250,000 copies on the Nintendo console in a fortnight, no small feat considering that it took almost a year for Hollow Knight to hit the same figure on PC.
"Every indie loves to say the Switch is a perfect fit for their game, but we really do think that's true for Hollow Knight," Team Cherry's Ari Gibson told Kotaku.
"Despite our relative obscurity (Hollow Knight is our first commercial game) the team at Nintendo were enthusiastic and supportive right from the very beginning of development and it seems we're not alone with that support."
Gibson added that Hollow Knight, on top of its success on the Switch, has sold over one million copies across PC, Mac and Linux. Most games, indies in particular, never come close to that. But that doesn't mean the eShop hasn't been kind to other indies who fell on hard times elsewhere.
"If you put a shit game on the Switch it won't sell that well," Ashley Ringrose, founder of SMG Studio, said over email. "If you put a great game on there it’ll do better than most other platforms because the Switch audience is just hungry for games."
"The Switch is 99% gaming. I mean you can read the 'news' but [there's] nothing else to do on it but play. Xbox and PS4 you can watch Netflix, YouTube and so many other things. So people don’t always go to the store to buy."
— SMG Studio: Buy Moving Out for Xmas! (@smgstudio) September 13, 2017
Death Squared's performance isn't all platform based. When the game originally launched, it did so during the worst possible period: the Switch had just been released, meaning players were heavily invested in Breath of the Wild.
Players were also discovering Horizon: Zero Dawn at the same time, and much of the gaming press were under embargo for Mass Effect: Andromeda. That's a rough combination.
But as Ringrose explained, even the long-term trend for games on the Switch is more positive. "The tail on switch is much fatter than other platforms," he said. "Even games that sell 'badly' still get more sales then we do on Steam. While there’s a definite trail off (once you leave new releases) there’s still an upward trend on most games."
Joe Park, the studio director at Harmonious Games, said their co-op adventure Putty Pals experience a similar Switch-powered second wind. "Unsurprisingly, Putty Pals did a lot on Switch than it did on PC." The game sold more copies on Switch in a single day than it did "in the previous 8 months on Steam", Park told Kotaku.
"[The] Switch has continued to dramatically outsell Steam since. The tail has been pretty similar to Steam in regards to relatively slow normal units sold with spikes during sales."
A point made both by Ringrose and Gibson was the eagerness of the Switch community for content, particularly amongst the gaming media. That was backed by Giant Margarita, the Tasmanian studio behind Party Golf.
"The community has been very supportive with the press, bloggers, and content creators in general being hungry for games and talking us up," a representative told Kotaku.
They added that "indies on the Switch have a great shot" on Nintendo's platform, but they weren't sure if that would the case going forward. "It's unclear if it's just an advantage from being early in the console's cycle. As time goes on and the number of games in general increases, indies may struggle more to get noticed. We'll be doing an internal comparison between Party Golf and Party Crashers in that respect."
The studio, however, didn't think the Switch's lack of media apps "had a net effect either way".
A big factor amongst all of this is that the eShop, right now, simply has less clutter. Nobody was certain the console would be as big a hit as it was, and without that certainty, major publishers weren't prepared to come out swinging with support when the Switch launched.
So indies filled the void. The consequence of that has been a flurry of games that not only run well on the Tegra hardware inside the Switch -- since they were never developed to push top-tier gaming PCs, the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One X in the first place -- but games that are cheap. It's not always comparable to what you could get at the height of a Steam sale or during the holiday period, but the prices on the eShop, even in Australia, are low enough to make a lot of indies an impulse purchase.
That'll be crucial to the platform's success going forward, too. There's an obvious appetite for content on the Switch, but that hasn't resulted in a flood of ports from the major publishers. Bringing cutting-edge games to the Switch has a ton of technical challenges: the Switch's lack of memory and lower-clocked CPU can be a nightmare for games trying to load things from memory, displaying hundreds of enemies on screen, draw distance, and streaming in general.
Some studios have an affinity for it, as Panic Button showed recently with their port of Wolfenstein 2 and the work they did with DOOM. But that also requires a degree of flexibility from the game engine used, on top of the technical skill required to manage it all.
Fortunately, that's not a hardware challenge that most indies face. So in between the occasional Mario, Fire Emblem and Pokemon, it'll be the smaller studios of the world that will fill the gaming void that exists on the daily commute, in bed, on the toilet, the airport lounge, the backseat of a car.