Indie developers have grown used to fielding a standard set of questions from eager fans as they bring games to market. The first two are simple: When will the game come out? And on what platform? After that, things get a bit more specific: When will the game be released for the Nintendo Switch?
Steam and Itch.io are often go-to platforms for indies developing on PC and Mac, getting access to millions of dedicated gamers in the process. For game makers, computer gaming is the place to start. But even today, the console market is an easier way to play for millions more in a decidedly varied market. And the Switch, in particular, is a quick way for a lot of new and casual gamers to enter the market. There’s a reason stock of the console ran out as the COVID-19 pandemic kept people inside looking for things to do, and it’s not just Nintendo’s notorious supply issues.
While Sony and Microsoft plan the next phase of their hardware war, the Switch remains a popular and decidedly different device. It’s also become particularly suited for indie gamers to explore the console market and tailor their games to its unique features. In the process, it’s become the destination for a lot of smaller titles searching for a place in the console market.
“We knew from the beginning that the Switch would be a very, very good match for us,” said Rune Drewsen, co-founder of Dutch gaming company Triband. The company’s physics sim What The Golf? hit PC and the Apple Arcade in 2019, and an announce trailer for Nintendo’s versatile console hit the web in August. But it took nearly another year for a console version to come out, which meant the company dealt with plenty of questions.
“It’s very hard to juggle development time and pleasing the audience at the same time,” Drewsen said. “Because as soon as you say you’re going to do a Switch launch you get those emails instantly that say ‘When is it going to launch on the Switch?’
The Switch has a variety of advantages as an indie console, starting with the fact that its portability means gamers can take full-scale titles with them anywhere. Its storage is also expandable, and SD card prices have gradually fallen to the point that it’s now possible to bring every title you own with you in your backpack. Some gaming computers can say the same, sure, but there are other attributes the Switch has that also offer developers the chance to go the extra mile with Switch games.
What The Golf, for example, uses the Switch’s motion controls to bring a set of 3D-style levels to play independent of the standard console’s television dock. A very different golf title — 2017’s brilliant Golf Story — uses the console’s HD rumble feature to make golf shots out of the rough feel tougher. Tumbleseed is another game that deftly uses that often-overlooked feature of the console, and not every developer makes the most of its unique features. Ports are inevitable that miss the mark, but it’s another example of a way the console becomes more attractive to indie developers.
Drewsen was careful not to speak for the entire market, of course, but the Switch was “the easy match” for his game after the success it had on the Apple Arcade.
“We had to go on that console because that just seems like the perfect console for What the Golf. The game is light, the game is funny. The game is easy to pick up and it’s actually a game that you really want to show your friends,” he said. “But you also want to show your mom or your dad or something like that, and I think it’s one of those consoles that people understand the most.”
Drewsen noted that Nintendo has a history of accessibility — even going back to the Nintendo Wii — that can invite new gamers into the fold.
“From a perspective of age, at least, that’s definitely the Switch. Because you just pick it up and you get it,” he said. “You don’t have to fiddle around with a bunch of stuff and you don’t need to sit on a couch. You can give it to your mom in the kitchen, you can give it to your dad on the golf course or whatever. And I think that was so appealing to us.”
The evolution of the console has made for an interesting dynamic. While many AAA titles and bigger titles reach and are largely preferred on the Xbox and PlayStation, gamers often choose the Switch when it comes to indie titles available on multiple platforms. The Outer Wilds, for example, took a few extra months to land on the Switch after a fall 2019 launch, but for developers of smaller games, it’s often the place where their work can truly shine.
“We really felt like we had to do that extra thing for the Switch,” Drewsen said. “Because that kind of competitive two-player mode were just fit like a hand in a glove.”
Developing a versus mode for the Switch took some extra time, and some hurdles to clear with Nintendo approval are always an issue for any developer. The console has certain rules developers must adhere to when it comes to using JoyCons properly that can make multiplayer games a challenge for small indies. But multiple indies have explained the extra effort is worth it, and the console’s features have made it the recipient of some truly innovative titles. Drewsen said What The Golf tried to poke fun at gaming in general, but also try something very new.
“In a way we’re just trying to show what computer games have done in 20 years but also by exploring unknown country,” Drewsen said. “On the edge of the map, that’s not been explored where there might be dragons.”
It’s tough to occupy space that’s both on the edge of that map while staying accessible for a wide market, but the Switch is certainly the closest console to date to succeed at both.