Why indies are thriving on Nintendo Switch

From Golf Story to Celeste, indie games seem to have struck gold on Nintendo's new platform.

You know the narrative of the Switch by now – Nintendo turned things around and iterated on the Wii U in a way that genuinely excited consumers, and now its new machine is selling like a limited-edition Beanie Baby that is capable of cooking hotcakes.  Concurrently, there’s been a trend of indie developers revealing that their games have done far better on Switch than they have anywhere else.

The Switch, despite having a much smaller install base than its competition, has seen enormous digital sales for numerous indie titles. When Death Squared launched on Nintendo’s machine, sales overtook the combined PS4, Xbox One, and PC sales – which had a four-month head start - within three days of launch.  Oceanhorn: Monster of the Uncharted Sea similarly did far better on Switch than it did on the other platforms it launched on simultaneously, as did Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Enter the Gungeon sold 75,000 copies in two weeks on Switch – far more than the developers anticipated – and the Switch release of Celeste has also outperformed the others.

Enter the Gungeon (Devolver Digital)

Super Meat Boy came close to matching its day one Xbox 360 sales when it launched on Switch, despite seven years passing and little marketing behind this new release (and Super Meat Boy being a game so regularly discounted elsewhere that you have to suspect that a lot of people who bought it on Switch already owned it elsewhere). SteamWorld 2 did so incredibly well – selling 10 times as many copies on Switch as it did on Steam – that Image&Form released the original SteamWorld Dig on the system too, figuring that players would want both games in one place. Anecdotally, one of the developers of Putty Pals (a cool co-op platformer) told me last year that the game’s Switch release outsold the Steam version, released about eight months earlier, within the first week. Nintendo’s ability to court indie developers has meant that the Switch has had – by far – the strongest launch year I’ve ever seen a console have.

As of writing this, I’ve just started playing Owlboy on Switch. It’s a game that release on PC in 2016 to critical acclaim, and which has, notably, arrived on Switch before PS4 or Xbox One – the release dates of these versions are still to be announced. At the same time, I’ve noticed a trend of websites and magazines writing about some of these games as though they only exist on Switch – a review of Crawl that lists the Switch as its only platform here; a website that incorrectly lists Nintendo as the publisher of Death Squared there. These are multiplatform games, but for many, they are best known just as Switch games.

This success isn’t necessarily limited to indie titles either, although there’s less evidence to work with in the third-party triple-A release field right now. Doom and FIFA 18 seem to have done quite well, despite being stripped-back versions of games available on other platforms, and Mario & Rabbids was a huge hit (although Mario likely had something to do with this). But the success of smaller indie titles has been particularly interesting to watch, and has led to something of a deluge of titles on the platform.

Old Man's Journey (Broken Rules)

Log into the Switch eshop on any given week and you’ll see a heap of new releases – some you’re likely to have heard of, some you probably won’t have. At the time of writing, this week’s releases include a few notable titles – Layers of Fear: Legacy, Old Man’s Journey, Typoman – along with several titles that most people would have never heard of, like Radiation Island, Ace of Seafood, Space Dave, and Pool (which is, yes, just a digital pool game). Not all of these titles are likely to make it onto the top seller charts, but it’s very clear here that the Switch is attractive to these smaller developers – you’re guaranteed relatively prominent store placement compared to a mobile release, the system is reportedly easy to develop for, and the system’s owners have been embracing these games.

There’s a few factors involved in explaining why this might be the case. The first – and most obvious – is that the Switch fundamentally rules, and people who own them will take any excuse to use them. Nintendo fans are very much in a honeymoon period of the gum they like being back in style, and there’s a giddy excitement around the device that is prompting a desire for players to build up their personal libraries as much as possible.

Nintendo fans also, in my experience, often go into buying games with a different attitude that has been born from years of championing systems that have struggled with third party support. For many, it’s important not only to support creators, but to support their decision to create for a Nintendo platform. After the N64, GameCube, Wii and Wii U all struggled with publisher support to varying degrees, Nintendo fans possibly feel some onus on proving that their system can support developers outside of Nintendo’s internal stable. If the games stop selling, they might figure, then they’ll stop being released, and if that happens, then Nintendo – a company that many people (myself included) have felt a strong connection to since childhood – will be in trouble.

Celeste (Matt Makes Games)

This level of fan investment is unique to Nintendo precisely because its consoles will often go for long stretches with few releases from publishers other than Nintendo themselves. Shovel Knight, for instance, did quite well on Wii U, partly, one suspects, because it was a Nintendo console exclusive for a while. For many of these indie games, the fact that the Switch is far less powerful than the Xbox One and PS4 doesn’t matter too much, meaning that the Switch is missing out on fewer gems than past Nintendo systems have. While a few developers have struggled to get their games running well on Switch right away (Rime and The Sexy Brutale both had issues at launch; Yooka-Laylee required more development time than expected), it’s more viable to port a smaller game to Switch than it is for, say, Rockstar to try and squeeze Red Dead Redemption 2 onto the machine.

But there’s another factor that I’m constantly reminded of with many of the games I play. I find myself, as often as possible, saving Zelda and Mario for when I’m in front of the television, but racing games like Mario Kart, turn-based games like Mario + Rabbids, and the plethora of less visually complex or ‘epic’ indie games all feel right at home on the handheld screen. The more I focus on these games, the more I’m convinced that the success of indie games on the system is also due, in part, to the fact that these are the games we’ve come to understand as suitable handheld experiences. Enter the Gungeon is a great handheld experience because it feels like a much-improved version of a game I might play on my iPhone (and wish I had a controller for), and if Celeste wasn’t on Switch I would want its lovely pixels and one-more-go precision trials on my Vita or 3DS. Owlboy, Stardew Valley, the SteamWorld series – these are games that feel most right in the palm of your hand, and which look best on a smaller screen. When the allure of traditional home-console experiences on a handheld dies down, they’re the experiences we go back to.

Stardew Valley (Chucklefish)

Nintendo’s own research suggests that the Switch’s handheld functionality is incredibly popular, at a time where handheld consoles were seen to be in decline. Mobile gaming has pivoted somewhat - the most successful titles now tend to be free-to-play games that often have aggressive monetization models. The idea of high-quality gaming experiences on-the-go, which seemed like a given a few generations into the iPhone and iPad, has pivoted back into being something of a novelty, and these indies are the ones that are less likely to trigger a ‘this is great, but I wish I was playing it on a bigger screen’ reaction.

Once Nintendo moves its biggest handheld franchise – Pokémon – to the Switch, there’s a good chance that it’s going to be a good example of something similar happening in the AAA space (if you see a 3DS on a bus or train, in my experience, there’s at least a 50% chance the person using it is playing Pokémon). Hopefully, for indie developers, the bubble won’t burst once this happens – it’s good for the game makers who are seeing such high sales, and good for the Nintendo fans who get to see and play through the benefits of their support.