Friday, November 4, 2016

Healthy Time for Indies?

Every videogame developer/publisher faces the decision of which platforms to support with their new creations. Often, this decision is based on where they believe they can sell the most copies of their game, but sometimes is it influenced by an emotional bias. As far as I know, no one has a crystal ball that shows us the future, which means all decisions have the potential for success and failure – although, the odds for success are surely on the side of those who use market data to help them decide.

The videogame industry is at an interesting point in time with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both now three years old (first released in North America November 2013), and we have the recently unveiled Nintendo Switch home console / handheld platform on the horizon (set to release in March 2017). The Nintendo 3DS is over five years old (first released in Japan February 2011), and the Nintendo Wii U is four years old (first released in North America November 2012). Sony’s often forgotten handheld device, the PlayStation Vita, is now five years old (first released in Japan December 2011). And, finally there’s Steam as the #1 source for PC/Mac games – a huge market!

Based on previous platform cycles, we have at least four or five years of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One support before we potentially see their replacements released. It is difficult to predict how the Nintendo 3DS market will be impacted in 2017 with the release of the Nintendo Switch, considering its hybrid nature. It is likely Christmas 2017 will be Nintendo’s last big push for the Nintendo 3DS. Sadly, the Wii U’s era has come to a premature end, having never reached its potential in the market. I think the PlayStation Vita still has some life in it, especially for enthusiasts, but no one knows when or if we’ll see another handheld from Sony.

In the home console market, PlayStation 4 is the current leader over Xbox One in terms of hardware units sold to date. Sony announced PlayStation 4 has sold over 40 million units, compared to a speculated 20 million Xbox One units. In the handheld space, Nintendo 3DS has sold over 61 million units, compared to a heavily speculated/debated 10 million PlayStation Vita units. The Wii U has sold over 13 million units. I am not sure if there is an accurate estimate of how many active Steam users there are, but I think it is safe to say that it is likely tens of millions.

61 million | Nintendo 3DS
40 million | PlayStation 4
20 million | Xbox One
13 million | Wii U
10 million | PlayStation Vita
TBD | Nintendo Switch
Tens of millions | Steam

So, where does this leave developers who want to release their games in the future? The clear favorites are PlayStation 4, Nintendo 3DS, and Steam with a tremendous number of hardware units in their respective home console / handheld / computer markets. However, these software markets are all highly competitive with a great selection of first-party and third-party titles to choose from and many more high-quality titles on their way. The Xbox One and PlayStation Vita also have great software libraries, with the PlayStation Vita currently seeming to lag in software support compared to Xbox One. Sadly, releasing titles on the Wii U right now is probably unwise. Fortunately, there are plenty of other healthy markets to consider.

Let’s throw the Nintendo Switch into the mix. In contrast to the reveal of Wii U, the Nintendo Switch has generally been received very positively by the public, gaming enthusiasts, and the media. What was a confusing and fumbled message with Wii U, is a clear and interesting concept with Nintendo Switch. The Nintendo Switch is different, fresh, and intriguing. None of these things could have been said to describe the Wii U reveal.

For indie developers, the launch window of a new platform can be a great opportunity to release new original games. It is a time when players are generally more willing to consider buying new games to get the most out of their new hardware purchase. It is also a time when the number of titles available is at its lowest, potentially offering less competition. However, there is likely strong first-party and third-party AAA launch titles to compete against. The best strategy is to not directly compete with the big AAA titles, but offer your own unique experiences instead.

Since a new hardware release begins with zero hardware units sold, the sales potential can be difficult to determine. In the case of Nintendo Switch, it seems likely that it will have a better launch than Wii U, but that sadly is not saying much. In the month of January that followed the Wii U’s November launch, only 57,000 units were sold. By comparison, the original Wii sold 435,000 in January, also two months after launch.

As such, putting faith into the sales potential of an exclusive launch title on a new hardware platform is a risky endeavor. Therefore, we often see ports of older games at launch from third-parties, or we see non-exclusive new titles that are included as part of a multiplatform launch strategy. In some cases, the hardware manufacturer may be able to offer incentives for developers/publishers to release exclusive content within the launch window of a new platform to counter the increased risk.

All things considered, the best strategy for the average indie developer at this time seems to be a multiplatform approach. If you want to support a single platform, there is not a definitive option. Steam, Nintendo 3DS, and PlayStation 4 offer the largest install base, which is important, but they also have extensive software libraries to compete with. However, they do still offer great potential for a single platform release, with each having very different audiences. The type of game you are releasing will play a big part in which market might be best suited.

For technical and logistical reasons, not everyone can support a multiplatform release. In my experience, a staggered release of a title on multiple platforms can have negative results. I believe a simultaneous release on all platforms is the best bet for maximum exposure of your game in the press and subsequently, potentially greater overall sales due to this. If a small delay is unavoidable, I think a week or two delay between platform releases will result in minimal loss of momentum/exposure/sales potential. Larger delays between platform releases will result in loss of buzz with less media coverage, and result in potentially less sales.

For the past 10 years with Renegade Kid, we released our games primarily on Nintendo handhelds. Fortunately, the Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS were both successful in hardware sales. As a small developer, with minimal overhead, we could develop big games on small budgets. When we had the bandwidth to bring our games to other platforms, it was typically many months after the initial launch of the game. This resulted in less media coverage/excitement and therefore less-than-stellar sales.

Unfortunately, we are not currently able to consider releasing a launch title for Nintendo Switch, because Nintendo of America has restricted developer access to Nintendo Switch information. As a consumer, I am very excited about the Nintendo Switch. I’ll be buying it on day one! As a developer, however, we must wait until we are given developer access to the platform before we can consider Nintendo Switch for any of our future titles. It appears many indies in North America are in the same boat as us, whereas many indies in Europe already have access to Nintendo Switch devkits.

We have two new games currently in development. Chicken Wiggle will be released exclusively on Nintendo 3DS in early 2017. If it is received well, we will consider bringing Chicken Wiggle to other platforms at a later date. The other game we’re finishing up is the eagerly anticipated Treasurenauts, which was first revealed way back in 2013. Due to various reasons, the game has been put on hold numerous times to enable us to complete the development of smaller games. Thanks to the partnership with our good friends at Nighthawk, we are finally able to finish the game properly and fully realize its potential.

Treasurenauts is an interesting title because it is the type of game that could work very well as a multiplatform release. It features a fully-fledged single-player campaign as well as cooperative multiplayer “couch play” for two players on a single system (split-screen). Even though the game started out as a humble 3DS title, it has since increased in ambition and scope. As such, we brought home consoles into the plan long ago to maximize the games’ potential in terms of player-enjoyment and hopefully sales. I will have information to reveal on the release date and the supported platforms for Treasurenauts soon.

In closing, I think it is a healthy time for indies to release their own games. There are some clear favorites in regards to potentially successful single-platform markets, and some great opportunities for multiplatform releases. The future inclusion of Nintendo Switch is sure to add one more healthy option for indies to consider for their creations. It’s a good time to be indie.

Thanks for stopping by. Please share your thoughts below.