The Nintendo Switch knocks it out of the park in a lot of ways, but a common complaint about the console is the cruddy construction of the E-Shop. There are a massive number of titles in the shop and the format makes it difficult to identify games that you might enjoy. As I type up this article, I’ve opened the E-Shop on my Switch and I’m looking through all the stuff that features on the main page. I recognize a couple of the titles – the ones featured in the Indie Highlights stand out as well as Travis Strikes Again – but overall there’s an overwhelming number of games and I have no idea what any of them are about or why I should play them. I might even look at this vast number of unfamiliar titles and declare that they must fall into that most terrible of video game categories: shovelware.
The indie scene gets a bad rep. There are too many platformers, too many roguelikes, too many visual novels. Indie titles are just shovelware, or just a bunch of retro clones. The general consensus is that indie games are too much – they have so saturated the market that the majority of video games are just free-to-play trash with microtransactions meant to make a quick buck for some greasy dude with an associates in software design. I think many of us who have played a few understand that indie games are also a great source of innovative, daring design, of efficient utilization of limited resources, and of beauty and uniqueness that remains unseen in the AAA space. The issue, then, is finding the diamonds in the rough. How do you find the next Undertale or Stardew Valley or Celeste when you have no tools to narrow the search?
Nintendo has answered that question by creating Nintendo Direct -style presentations called the Indie Showcase (in the US) and Indie Highlights (in Europe). These presentations are dedicated wholly to indie titles, giving them space to be shown off their stuff and reach a wider audience. Yet while Nintendo is certainly taking a step in the right direction by offering these presentations, the Indie Highlights this past Wednesday left me wondering if maybe this isn’t quite enough.
The Indie Highlights presentation lasted for a total of 16 minutes and around 45 seconds, in which trailers were shown for nine different indie titles to be released in the coming year. For those not doing the math, that’s less than two minutes per trailer, particular when you count the intro and outro for the video as well as transitions between trailers. One minute isn’t a significant amount of time to spend with a title – for me, it certainly doesn’t tell me enough about one single game for me to decide that the game must be a purchase. How much can you realistically tell me about a video game in a single minute?
“But Ian,” you say, “Nintendo’s first party titles don’t get more time than that in the Directs.” That’s a fair statement – I checked the September 2018 Direct to be sure and for the most part the games shown there didn’t really get more time than the ones in the Indie Highlights. The difference is in established knowledge. When you show me 40 seconds of Luigi’s Mansion or a 15 second teaser for Animal Crossing Switch, I have a history with that franchise that informs my impressions. 40 seconds is all I need to know that I’m going to buy Luigi’s Mansion because I’ve played the other games in the series and Nintendo has established trust. But Unruly Heroes? That game doesn’t have any credit to cash in with me and guarantee a purchase.
Even developer loyalty isn’t necessarily enough to grab my attention. I know Chucklefish is well-respected as the developer of Stardew Valley, and Inmost certainly has a compelling aesthetic that makes me curious about it. But without knowing more about the game than just “it looks creepy,” it’s not a game I’m ready to start saving money for. I need to know what’s special about Inmost – what sets this apart from other puzzle-platformer titles I could buy for my Switch? What about the story or mechanisms makes Inmost a game I have to play? Without taking the time to tell me those things, it’s going to be difficult convincing me to part with my spare dollars.
In a market that’s saturated and where the audience has a general distrust for the quality of a product that they don’t already know, indies are put in a difficult place. They are the games we need to know the most about before we’re willing to buy, but they are also the games with the least press coverage and the smallest amount of screen time. Super Smash Bros – a game many Nintendo fans were already going to buy regardless of what they did or didn’t know about it – got two full Directs to itself as well as the majority of the E3 press conference. By the time Pokemon gen 8 is released towards the end of this year, we will probably know about every facet of the game just from official trailers. But Double Kick Heroes got barely more than a minute, and probably won”t see more than that before its launch without the help of smaller outlets that won’t reach near the audience of the Indie Highlights.
I want to believe that Wargroove will be the next strategy game to ensnare my attention. I’m intrigued by the dark atmospheric storytelling of Inmost. Forager’s trailer had brilliant sound design that expertly wove the game sound effects in with the music playing over the video. But since Nintendo isn’t the one who is going to take the time to tell me about the mechanics and stories of these games and sell me on the concept, it’s up to the developers to do so. But there’s one more force out there that can help these smaller creators to get their work publicized – other small creators.
That’s right, fellow bloggers, I’m talking about you and me! Where the Indie Highlights drop off is where bloggers, YouTubers, and streamers can pick up the slack. Us little people have to stick together, right? Indie developers may not get the press their titles need through the traditional channels, but we’re not the press in the ordinary sense. We can strive to be something better, giving the kind of focused attention that smaller games need in order to reach an audience.
I’ve had the opportunity to spread the word about a few indie titles, some through purchasing and playing them on my own and others through contact with the developer. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn about all kinds of cool games because of the other bloggers that I follow. While the Indie Highlights may not have told me much about Inmost, closer to launch I can check out a video or an article from another creator who got a hands-on look at the things I’m really interested in. How strong are the puzzle elements versus the platform elements? Are there meaningful differences between the three playable characters? What is the basic hook of the story the game tells? I may not know those things yet, but I’m confident I’ll get the opportunity to learn what makes this game special.
I’m curious as to what you think, adventurers. Were the Indie Highlights enough to sell you on these smaller titles? Do you, like me, want to see more about them before you make a final decision? Do you ever cover indie games on your own blog (if you have one)? Let me know in the comments below – I’m interested to learn your impressions of this very brief presentation.