How indies earn that ‘N’.
In February of 2017, Nintendo broadcast its first video focused exclusively on indie games. The Nindie Showcase, just three days shy of the Nintendo Switch’s launch, declared Nintendo’s intention to jump into the already booming indie scene. The gaming giant’s competitors had already embraced independent developer projects years before, but when Nintendo decides to do something, it goes all in. So, indies became Nindies.
In the few years since, Nintendo has become a leading platform for indie games, showing a smorgasbord of highly anticipated indies to its fans throughout the year, but how has that affected the independent projects under its umbrella? We reached out to the developers behind games featured in Nintendo’s January 2019 Indie Highlight to see what they had to say. The three featured studios we reached out to couldn’t be more different, ranging in locations, sizes, and paths to the Indie Highlight. All were happy to pull back the veil to show what it was like working with Nintendo, but first, let’s take a look at Nintendo’s featured indie games.
Image & Form Games, creators of the SteamWorld franchise, is a long-time Nintendo partner. In fact, they were highlighted in that first Nindie Showcase back in 2017. “I was at GDC in San Francisco and had just finished eating breakfast at my Airbnb,” recalls Image and Form’s CEO Brjánn Sigurgeirsson. “The broadcast was just about to start, and I was deliberating whether I’d have time to run to the bathroom real quick before it started.”
“I decided to go immediately after the first segment, and then WHAM! The very first segment was the reel for SteamWorld Dig 2, followed by NOA’s Damon Baker saying that this was the level Nintendo was hoping for in all indie games slated for release on Nintendo Switch. Needless to say, I almost ‘went to the bathroom’ right there and then.”
For January’s Indie Highlight, Image & Form cheered on its newest installment of the SteamWorld saga, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech. “SteamWorld Quest is an epic RPG,” Sigurgeirsson explains, “where battles are fought with cards. The deep pun here is that robots most definitely could go to battle armed with punch cards – fairly simple sets of instructions for what to do next.”
“The core gameplay follows the golden premise of being simple to learn, yet hard to master. Both heroes and foes can play series of cards that interact with each other. It’s breathtaking at times! And then there’s a wonderful overarching story of friendship, and what it takes to be a true hero.”
Meanwhile, Magic Design Studios, the France-based team behind Unruly Heroes is, according to Business Development and PR Playtest Coordinator Meredith Alfroy, “a mix between game developers (mostly artists) from Ubisoft and developers from the indie game sphere.”
With triple-A DNA and passion for their first independent game, it was clear that all hands were on deck working on the newest updates for the game. Alfroy states that Yang Lu, one of Magic Design’s founders, was driven by his desire “to create an adventure game inspired by the Legend of the Monkey King. So, he decided with [the other founders] to create a game studio. MDS was born end of 2015.”
In other words, the studio was formed specifically for Unruly Heroes. The 2D action-platformer is set in a rich, hand-drawn environment where you play as one of four protagonists ranging from a fearless monkey to a greedy pig. Though the game was conceived of in 2015, the project wouldn’t come into contact with Nintendo until two years later.
According to their own website, The Headbang Club is headquartered in a dark garage filled with guitars, drums, and beer corpses somewhere in France. The small indie team is working on Double Kick Heroes, a rhythm game that lets you fight zombies with the power of metal. Its Demon Lord of Code (that’s his actual listed title), David “Blackmagic” Elahee, spoke with me about the game’s journey.
Elahee, despite the ominous tones of his professional title, turned out to be a thoughtful conversationalist who, even with the language barrier, painted the Headbang Club as a team of friends tackling the monumental task of turning a Ludum Dare project into a full-fledged game. “It takes time,” Elahee says, “because you have to rethink the experience over and over. Basically, in a game jam, you do something once. For a full product, you do everything three times every single time.”
Double Kick Heroes released on Steam Early Access last year, and, while the team is looking to a future Switch launch, I had to ask how they originally came up with the unusual premise. Elahee laughingly asserts, “In the beginning, there was not much thought.” It seems the design grew out of the game jam’s constraints – their project had to incorporate the theme of growing and have two button controls.
Their thought process, he recounts, went something like this: “What grows? A zombie horde. What can we do with two buttons? Let’s make a rhythm game […] let’s metal our way into a crowd of zombies.” That’s one unique example of word association.
After delving into their individual studios’ foundations, the creators behind these Nintendo-featured indie games were ready to talk about what it was like becoming Nindies. Curiously though, it doesn’t seem like the path is the same for any two developers. Magic Design Studios’ Alfroy summarizes that “it depends on the project. Nintendo can reach out to you, or you can contact them and pitch your game. Early 2017 – I wasn’t there at this time – we pitched them the game. They were impressed by the quality and the universe.”
The creators behind Double Kick Heroes and SteamWorld Quest both had the advantage of previously working with Nintendo. Elahee volunteers that he had “been working on projects on Nintendo consoles probably for nearly a decade, so we have contacts over there. So, the fact that we were old-timers with Nintendo allowed us to hear from the Nintendo people.”
After cautioning that the full process of becoming a Nindie “is probably under NDA,” Sigurgeirsson asserts that his studio and Nintendo “reached out to each other. As you mentioned we have a good relationship with them from before, so it was more a matter of how, not if, we could collaborate on the release of SteamWorld Quest.”
However different their paths were, the developers were all very clear on what it was like to join the ranks of Nintendo’s elite indie team. “It meant everything when it happened,” recalls Sigurgeirsson, “we were nobody at all, we’d made so many work-for-hire games and had nothing to show for it. We borrowed so much money to complete SteamWorld Dig and without Nintendo betting on us we would’ve probably disappeared.”
“Although we’re not exactly a small studio anymore – there’s about 25 of us at Image & Form – I’m very proud that the Nintendo community associates us with Nintendo. Both we and the community know what the name Nindie stands for.” Alfroy echoes his sentiment saying, “We were very proud! It’s cool to see that our work has been recognized and appreciated by the Nintendo team and Nintendo community as well.”
Elahee, belonging to the smallest of the teams, was happy to explain that his whole group was happy their game was now a Nindie and also elaborates on what it did for their game. “We still don’t know the extent of what it means yet,” he muses, “but usually our videos get 5,000 to 15,000 views, and then this [trailer] was viewed 50,000 times. Nearly three or four times the count! So, there’s a lot of impact and everyone is really serious about the message. When [Nintendo] does something, they really do it very well.”
So, how did the moment of triumph feel for these newly minted Nindies? It’s surprising to discover that the three disparate studios not only agreed on what it was like to watch their game on the day of the Indie Highlight, but they all felt equally as nervous as they were excited. Thinking back, Elahee says the whole thing was, “a little stressful because you have to prepare it a few months in advance. So, when it comes out, it’s more relief that everything is going fine, and the trailer plays. It’s scary two months before and then you are so tired you just feel relief.” Alfroy relates that the emotions in the studio ranged between “very proud, excited and also a little bit anxious.” The Unruly Heroes developers asked themselves the whole time: “How people will react? Will people like the game?”
It seems like the veteran of the group, Sigurgeirsson, was able to use his experience to temper the more nerve-wracking elements of watching your game up on such a large stage. He describes the show as being “ceremonial in a way, and very exciting. When it was about to air, we gathered everyone in the office and sat at the edges of our seats. When our segment ran, we wanted to scream but we sat breathless until it was over, and then we shouted and applauded like crazy.” Though SteamWorld and Nintendo have a long-standing relationship and Sigurgeirsson has seen his games become Nindies before, he still declares that “you never get used to it.”
What Happens Next?
“Being part of the Nintendo Highlight is a great opportunity for an indie game. Everybody – including Nintendo fans – had an eye on the Nintendo video live, and the news gets broadcast around the world.” That is how Alfroy sums up the immediate aftermath of the Indie Highlight. The advantage of this, as Sigurgeirsson points out, is that “Nintendo only features games that they can stand by, and the community knows that. It’s like an automatic seal of approval.“
“We’ve received a huge amount of emails and code requests,” Alfroy continues, “from big media [outlets] to smaller bloggers and streamers.” The Double Kick Heroes team also “got a lot of requests for reviews,” according to Elahee. “Our Steam numbers were jumping a lot, that was a big and good surprise. We have a lot of new algorithms that are detecting the game.“
“So, it really helped, and [we] discovered some new communities. It was especially cool to have the song featured in the trailer get a big hit in listen count. What we learned is that for niche games like ours, you have to get every player one after another. Every event, every tweet, every message, every Discord you can reach, every person counts.
After becoming Nindies, the studios set to work to reach the goals they set in Nintendo’s Indie Highlight but none of them stopped there. Alfroy happily announces, “Unruly Heroes will launch May 28 on PS4! Finally! Our community has been very patient. That’s why the PS4 players will be the first to play this version including the Challenge Update.” Since their game launched on the Switch the day of the highlight, Alfroy enthusiastically adds, “But the game will be updated by the end of May on the other platforms. No need to be jealous!”
Double Kick Heroes “should be [releasing on Switch] by the end of the summer,” Elahee says. “We are really trying to aim for that because after that, it becomes too complicated to release a game […] there will also be free updates and probably DLCs.” He then teasingly adds, “There are still many months to go for this game, but we haven’t announced everything! We have some things in the bag. We are also working on future games which will be quite different in different settings.”
Everyone was eager to thank Nintendo for the opportunity the company gave to their indie games. Sigurgeirsson pensively asks, “who knows where we’d be without them?” His last message though was not for Nintendo, but for the fans. He emphatically suggests that gamers should “play MORE games. Step out of your comfort zone and try games you think you wouldn’t like. You really stand to gain a lot from it.”
Unruly Heroes and SteamWorld Quest are already available on Nintendo Switch if you are just itching to try them out. Double Kick Heroes will make its way to Nintendo’s console by (knock on wood) this summer. Don’t have a Switch? No problem! Unruly Heroes is out on Xbox One, PC, and PS4.
For those with Steam accounts, you can check out Double Kick Heroes on Steam Early Access and Image & Form recently announced via their twitter page, @ImageForm, that SteamWorld Quest is releasing on Steam May 31. To watch for news on the other two featured Nindies, you can follow @headbang_club and @Unruly_Heroes. Now, like Sigurgeirsson said, get out there and play more games! We have some suggestions, if you don’t know where to start.
Jill decided to ditch her life behind a desk to follow a dream and write about video games. She’s previously written for Game Informer, and always has time for a good indie.