Nintendo has an atypical approach to promoting indie developers at E3 -- as it does to the show overall.
While Microsoft put its [email protected] program at the center of its presentation, and Sony retreated from its "We <3 Indies" branding of previous years to showcase only No Man's Sky and some Devolver Digital titles, Nintendo launched a promotion on Monday, called [email protected], that lets Wii U users in North America and Europe download and try upcoming independent games on their Wii U consoles. If they play the demos, they'll get a discount on the final game, too.
Damon Baker, senior manager of marketing in the licensing department at Nintendo of America, looks at E3 like this: "In the grand scheme of things it's a small segment of the industry... how do we open this wider?"
The company's approach has been to spread its E3 coverage across the whole week (with the Nintendo World Championships on one end and Treehouse Live streaming on the other); [email protected] is the "indie" part of it. "We wanted to surprise a bunch of people with that content," says Baker.
Games chosen for the promotion were a mix of games from developers who already have a close relationship with Nintendo (Renegade Kid of Mutant Mudds; Two Tribes of Rive) and those Nintendo's team "just liked," and a lot of behind-the-scenes work went into getting these games, some of which will not be out for six months, through the certification process and onto consoles.
How'd the Humble Nindie Bundle go?
This promotion comes on the heels of the Humble Nindie Bundle -- the first Humble Bundle run by a console platform holder, which featured both 3DS and Wii U games.
"We were quite pleased with how it went," says Baker. "The main objective of the promotion was really to reach a wider audience, and let as many people know about this great indie content as possible."
It's clear that Baker looked at the bundle through a marketing lens: Get people aware that there is a wide variety of indie content on the eShop, for both platforms. And interestingly, he says that a number of games sold well at full price: "We promoted those same Nindies for the two weeks in the eShop, and their full version prices of those games were actually increased in sales."
This has been independently confirmed to Gamasutra by Brjann Sigurgeirsson, CEO of SteamWorld Dig developer Image & Form.
Defining Nintendo's audience for indie games
But both promotions open up a question: It seems that the games that perform best on Nintendo platforms are pitched towards a "Nintendo" audience. Shovel Knight, for example, has performed wonderfully on Nintendo's consoles.
"It seems like a lot of the Nintendo fans and consumers they gravitate towards nostalgia, they gravitate towards platformer and puzzle action games," Baker confirms. "If I had one wish to be fulfilled, I would love to see Nintendo fans and consumers take more risks on eShop."
"It's my responsibility to make sure everything gets as much exposure as possible," Baker says. Some games included in the [email protected] promotion are a "natural fit," Baker thinks -- like Runbow -- and some are a bit left of center for Nintendo's audience, like Lovely Planet.
"There are titles that share a similar DNA to what makes good first party games," he says, and those tend to perform well.
You must promote your game yourself, if you want to succeed
Another thing that makes for good performance on Nintendo's platforms: Taking care of your own marketing. While the company does promote games via things like its Treehouse Live streams, it's up to developers to do the heavy lifting in community-building, Baker says.
For the duration of E3, there were five indie games chosen for Treehouse Live: Runbow, Mutant Mudds, Brainseed Factory's Typoman, Shin'en's Fast Racing Neo, and Image & Form's SteamWorld Heist. Many have established relationships with Nintendo; Fast Racing Neo is a Wii U exclusive, while SteamWorld Heist launches first on 3DS before transitioning to other platforms.
"The content that performs best on our platforms are the developers that have already been really proactive in creating a community and a lot of buzz," he says. Developers that expect Nintendo will take care of things for them, well, "there hasn't been a lot of examples of where that's been a successful relationship."
"That's the truest definition of what is doing well or isn't doing well on Nintendo platforms," he says: Self-motivated developers who build communities.
Opportunities for promoting indies...
Speaking of lifting up indies, does Baker see room or promotions akin to Microsoft's Summer of Arcade, or Sony's Spring Fever?
"We look at these opportunities all the time," Baker says. He describes himself as "green with envy" when he looks at those promotions.
"We've done these super indie sales," he points out, but these are "primarily driven by the developers -- but we put a lot of support from first party behind it." For example, Drinkbox (Guacamelee) proposed a promotion and gathered other participants, and then Nintendo put its stamp of approval on it and helped promote it. "I definitely have a vision of doing bigger grander promotions and activities," Baker says.
...and funding them?
The company has not changed its policies -- it doesn't directly fund indie developers, and nor does it pay for timed exclusives, which are moves in both Sony and Microsoft's playbooks.
"We've given lots of thought to it," says Baker. "Nintendo is pretty famous for being pretty tight with our money; we want to be efficient with our funds. We continue to look for other ways to promote that key content, and that stuff we consider to be priority."
"We've given a lot of consideration and we may have programs that we may offer in the future but nothing we can confirm at this time," he says -- though he does say that "we constantly have discussions" about the issue internally.
A quick update on Unity for New 3DS
Finally, Unity support has been announced for the Nintendo New 3DS -- but it hasn't launched yet. "It's getting really, really close, and there is a ton of interest," Baker says.
Nintendo's goal is to get the first Unity games out on 3DS "this year," and the tools to developers "really, really soon."