March 26, 2013 4:00 AM | Staff
If you want to get your indie game onto Nintendo's platforms -- the Wii U and 3DS -- you'll want to talk to Dan Adelman, who works as the company's liaison with indies.
While his title is "business development manager," he's best known as the man who helped World of Goo and the Bit.Trip series, among many others, land on the WiiWare service for the original Wii. He joined Nintendo in 2005 to help build that service; Since then, the company has transitioned to new platforms, and offers a much better shop on them, called the eShop.
The abovementioned games were notable successes. Some other developers, however, later spoke out against Nintendo's policies and practices, and shared dismal sales numbers for WiiWare titles. The company has quietly been changing its policies, but has had a difficult time getting the word out.
As GDC begins, in this extensive interview, Adelman fills Gamasutra in on exactly what indie developers want to know about releasing a game on the Wii U and 3DS.
Let's state this simply, to start. Is it possible for an indie to get a game onto the eShop service right now?
Dan Adelman: You know, it's crazy that there are so many developers who don't realize this, but yes, it is not only possible for an indie to get a game onto the eShop service, we've tried to make it as frictionless as possible.
Developers have always been able to make their content available on our systems since the WiiWare days, without the need for an intermediary publisher between the developer and Nintendo. Nor do they need to mount a big PR campaign just to be allowed onto the service. Our philosophy is that if you believe enough in your game to build it, we want to do what we can to support you.
Do developers need to be registered Nintendo developers? What does that entail?
DA: Yes, they do need to become licensed Nintendo developers, since they will need access to our development tools. It's actually pretty easy to become a licensed developer. We really have only a few requirements to sign up as a licensed developer with Nintendo. The most notable ones are that you have to have some experience making games, you have to be able to keep any confidential materials like dev kits secure and you have to form a company. None of these should be prohibitive to any indie developer.
In the past, you've required developers to have an office, but many indies work from home or are individuals. Is this policy changing?
DA: So that second requirement -- the ability to keep confidential materials secure -- was originally defined in terms of an office that was separate from the home. Back when that rule was created, that seemed to be an appropriate way of defining things.
As you point out, more and more people are working from home, and we recognize that developers are forming virtual teams around the world. I know we've shied away from talking about these things publicly in the past, so I'm glad that I can officially confirm that the office requirement is a thing of the past.
I've heard from developers that to publish on your services, they need an address in the territory in question, for example a Japanese address. I've even heard that Canadian developers need a U.S. address to publish in the U.S. Can you explain what's going on here?
DA: That's actually not the case. Anyone from any country can make their games available on the eShop within the NOA and NOE region -- i.e., pretty much everywhere outside of Japan.
Steam is the obvious market leader here. Developers are used to Valve's functionality, like sales, preorders, preloads, and painless patching. Can you talk about your plans around these four aspects of your service?
DA: Developers set their own pricing for their Wii U and Nintendo 3DS content. As one example, Little Inferno launched at $14.99. They did a sale for $9.99, and it went so well, they decided to make that price change permanent. It's completely in their control.
Updating games is also fairly straightforward. If they find an issue they need to fix, they can. In terms of other Nintendo eShop functionality, there's a dedicated team working through a roadmap of new features. We'll be able to announce those as they get closer to release.
What kind of outreach are you doing on the tools side, since Nintendo platforms require custom dev kits?
DA: Dev kits are actually not all that expensive. They're about the price of a high-end PC. Nothing that should be a showstopper for anyone.
There are a number of really exciting things going on in this space right now. We recently announced that we're providing Unity Pro 4 for Wii U to licensed developers at no added cost. So if a developer is currently working on a game in Unity and has a Wii U dev kit, it should be super easy to bring that game over to the Wii U console -- and not just do a straight port but also take advantage of any features of the console they want, like motion controls, Miiverse or of course the second-screen GamePad controller. Or vice versa -- making a game for Wii U and then going to other platforms should also be seamless.
Is someone who's licensed to publish to the eShop for 3DS also capable of going to the Wii U and vice versa, or are these separate?
DA: The process and policies are virtually identical. If they're licensed developers for one, it's a fairly straightforward process to become a licensed developer on other systems.
What's your payment schedule like? Indies need quick and frequent payment. Have you changed your policy, which previously didn't pay out until a game crossed a 6000 unit threshold? What about frequency? Quarterly or monthly?
DA: We tend not to talk about business terms, since those are considered confidential. That said, the unit threshold is something that's been a problem for a lot of developers, so I'd like to address it head on.
Let me give you a sense of the thought process behind the threshold in the first place. Even as far back as the early WiiWare days, we allowed developers to forgo the need to hire an intermediary publisher to get their content on our system. We didn't believe that Nintendo should screen game concepts. That should be up to the developer who's making the investment. Instead, we wanted to have a mechanism that would encourage developers to self-police their own game quality.
The threshold was thought to be a convenient way to go about it. Unfortunately, some great games that just didn't find an audience wound up being penalized. So for all systems after WiiWare -- DSiWare, Nintendo 3DS eShop, and Wii U eShop, we decided to get rid of the thresholds altogether. Developers receive revenue from unit 1.
Has working with indies like Vblank, Nicalis, and Gaijin Games helped change your tune? Have you been taking feedback from your existing stable of developers on board?
DA: Absolutely. I like to think we've built up a relationship of trust with a lot of the developers on our system, so they know they can say whatever's on their mind. And not just when they have an issue that needs to be resolved, either. We try to take a proactive stance with developers and solicit feedback from time to time. How can our development tools be better? What kind of functionality do you want to see in the eShop? How can we improve our processes to make life easier? I kind of see a big part of my role as representing the indie community inside Nintendo to make sure that we can make our systems as friendly as possible.
How are you on responsiveness? Nintendo has a reputation for having a lot of corporate overhead -- how do you get indies the things they need quickly?
DA: A lot of our processes were originally created in an environment where there was a set number of large publishers who had employees on staff whose sole job was to interface with the different console platforms. Those people had to learn how we were organized and know who to call for what issue. That obviously doesn't work for smaller developers.
As a result, we've narrowed everything down to a single point of contact -- one alias that developers can write to for any issue. There's a core team at Nintendo who then tracks down the information and follows up. We have an internal goal of getting every question a response within 24 hours. And if we can't get an answer in 24 hours, we at least will let them know when we expect to be able to get them what they need.
What kind of editorial staff do you have working on the eShop (both platforms), to make sure good games get featured prominently? I've noticed changes there, but can you outline how that works to some extent?
DA: We really try to make sure that we're not setting Nintendo up as the arbiter of what is a good game. That's for the market to decide. We try to give visibility to every new game when they launch. The nice thing about the Nintendo eShop is that we have a lot of flexibility on this point. We can make adjustments without much lead time. Beyond that, we look to things like user ratings, review scores, and in the case of Wii U, Miiverse activity to see how people are responding to certain games.
That said, there are a few times when we do take a little editorial license. Sometimes there's a game that we recognize is a great game for a niche audience or is trying something so new that people may not get it right away. In those cases, even if a game doesn't have big numbers right away, we want to make sure that we give it time to find its audience.
To me, one of the best things about the indie scene is its willingness to try out new ideas and take risks. If someone is attempting something that has never been tried before, I want to do everything I can to support that. Little Inferno is a great example of that -- a game about buying things and burning them! When Kyle Gabler from Tomorrow Corporation told me about the idea a few years ago, my response was that I loved the fact that I could not imagine what that game would turn into. As an industry, we need more of that!
And let's not forget about Unkle Dill, the dancing pickle in Runner 2. So very, very awesome.
Any stats or comment on what portion of your audience has downloaded an independently-developed game from the eShop, on both platforms?
DA: I can't give out any specific numbers, but developers seem to be pretty happy with the sales numbers they're seeing for their games.
Nintendo platforms are unique. If a game is going to feature very Nintendo-specific functionality (e.g. 3DS dual-screen play, GamePad play on Wii U) will you consider working more closely with a developer on their vision?
DA: It's great when developers see the features of our platform and decide to build around those as pillars for their game. Mutant Mudds by Renegade Kid did this brilliantly. In many respects, it was a traditional 2D platformer, but it was designed around the 3D functionality of the Nintendo 3DS. It was one of the first games that used depth of view as a game mechanic.
Fractured Soul by Endgame Studios is another great example. That whole game was designed around the dual-screen functionality of Nintendo 3DS. One of the core mechanics is to switch back and forth between the two screens, keeping an eye on both at the same time.
That said, it's really important that developers see these platforms features as opening up new design options for them. They should never feel obligated to tack on a feature if it doesn't make sense. It's completely up to the designer to figure out what's best for the game. Because making great games is what it's all about.
For sister site Gamasutra's full GDC 2013 event coverage this week, check out the official GDC 2013 event page.
[Christian Nutt wrote this article originally for Gamasutra]