To say Nintendo’s lineup for the second half of 2019 is stacked would be an understatement. The company admittedly started the year off at a crawl with the likes of New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, and Yoshi’s Crafted World making up the entirety of the company’s lineup of exclusives before E3. Ever since June, however, the hits haven’t stopped coming. Super Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Astral Chain, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake are making for one of Nintendo’s best summer lineups in years.
So, how’s Nintendo pulling it off? In a year where Sony is largely absent and Microsoft’s release schedule has been scattered at best, how’s the Switch getting enough heavy hitters to compete with either company at their peak?
The key: a killer third-party exclusivity strategy.
Imagining this would’ve been laughable just three years ago. Though the Wii U enjoyed plenty of support early on from the likes of EA, Ubisoft, and PlatinumGames among others, that support dropped off as soon as sales started to slip. Naturally, Nintendo couldn’t produce enough first-party efforts to fill the calendar themselves while simultaneously juggling 3DS software production. This ultimately resulted in a yearly lineup plagued by months-long dry spells and player frustration.
Ever since the Switch blew past the Wii U’s lifetime sales in less than a year, however, external support has exploded. Nintendo has leveraged this in three major ways:
- Investing in exclusive third-party projects,
- Publishing Switch-exclusive versions of existing games, and
- Focusing heavily on indie partnerships.
A Chain Effect
Perhaps most notable out of aforementioned summer blockbuster lineup is Astral Chain, a PlatinumGames-developed sci-fi epic that was only announced six months before release. The title is a powerhouse; its unique brand of investigative gameplay, innovative combat that only Platinum could pull off, and a strikingly futuristic art design all come together to make for one of the best games released this year…and it’s only available on the Nintendo Switch.
Nintendo’s relationship with PlatinumGames goes back 10 years to Madworld in 2009. Despite finding massive success with 2017’s Nier: Automata, Platinum still relies on publishers to bring their off-the-wall ideas to life. Bayonetta 2 never would’ve seen the light of day without Nintendo’s assistance and, based on co-founder Hideki Kamiya’s recent remarks, Astral Chain likely faced a similar fate. Nintendo presumably reached out for an additional game to invest in besides Bayonetta 3, funded the project, and now has yet another highly rated exclusive for the year. In return, Platinum gets to follow through on their creative vision, enjoy the acclaim Astral Chain is receiving, and sell well enough to claim their first No. 1 charting game on the UK sales charts.
Smart third-party exclusivity deals aren’t just about investing in talented developers, however; strategic partnerships also play a major role. Alongside Bandai Namco, Koei Tecmo is one of Nintendo’s most trusted collaborators. Not only have they been granted multiple first-party licenses for Warriors spin-offs, but they also did a significant amount of the footwork on the Switch-exclusive Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Thus, it’s not too surprising that Team Ninja (owned by Koei Tecmo) was commissioned to develop Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order.
Though MUA 3 ultimately came out to middling reviews, the marketing push behind it–coupled with its near-perfect timing following Avengers: Endgame in April–made it a major exclusive release with a fair amount of buzz behind it. The message at E3 was clear: the Switch is far more than just a port machine.
The Definition of “Definitive”
The Switch’s position of being released in the middle of a console generation didn’t come without some growing pains. Many studios that had been developing games for the Xbox One and PS4 for years prior simply didn’t have time to work in a Switch version by release day. Though many started porting older versions on their own once the platform proved itself to be a sales powerhouse, Nintendo has also taken a proactive approach in ensuring players will be willing to double-dip: version-exclusive content.
The most heavily publicized example of this is the upcoming Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition. The game shifted a whopping two million units in its first two days in Japan, with its total sales breaking four million worldwide as of November 2018. So, what was Square and Nintendo’s strategy to get the Switch audience (especially in Japan, where the game has already sold incredibly well) to pick up the definitive edition? By including an absolutely monumental list of additional features, including tons of gameplay improvements, story additions, a fully orchestrated soundtrack, new enemies, new voiced dialogue, the 16-bit style from the 3DS version in Japan, Photo Mode, and a deluge of other additions. Plus, in publishing the game themselves on Switch, Nintendo has ensured that these additions will never leave the platform.
The Switch has, in many ways, been something of an indie darling ever since its release. The attractive form factor and enticing low price of dev kits has made it a welcome home for smaller developers struggling to be seen on Steam, the PlayStation Store, and other platforms. While the Switch eShop could use a redesign to increase visibility itself, there’s no denying that we’ve seen countless indie success stories on Switch over the years.
Nintendo hasn’t just noticed this, but has actively tasked its Developer Relations team to foster a thriving indie community on the platform. Just as these efforts include special Indie Highlight presentations (now rebranded as “Indie World”), they also include nabbing promising exclusives such as Snipperclips, Golf Story, Azure Striker Gunvolt, and Dragon Marked for Death. The Switch’s status as a premier platform for indies has also garnered it a wealth of console-exclusive titles like the brilliant Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King and Gato Roboto. Perhaps most telling of all was Nintendo’s full-on collaboration with Brace Yourself Games to develop the Cadence of Hyrule for the Switch, one of the very few times the company has ever lent its major properties to an indie studio. Judging by its success, they might start consider doing it more often.
Full eShop Ahead
So, it’s safe to say that the Nintendo has done a fairly solid job of cultivating experiences that can only be found (or, at least, the best versions can only be found) on their system. However, what are things looking like going forward? Have the last few months simply been an outlier?
It certainly doesn’t seem that way. Game Freak (a second-party studio) is bringing Little Town Hero to Switch next month, and SEGA is co-publishing Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to the platform in November. Though Nintendo itself has only announced Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition as first-party 2020 releases, they’ve also already planted several enticing seeds:
- Aside from Astral Chain (and a possible sequel somewhere down the line), Platinum has also been hard at work for at least two years on Bayonetta 3.
- Atlus has likely been hammering away at Shin Megami Tensei V since its initial reveal at the Switch presentation in January of 2017 (and is bringing the revamped Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore exclusively to Switch in January 2020). As mainline Persona games are exclusive to Sony, mainline Shin Megami Tensei games are exclusive to Nintendo.
- Grasshopper Manufacture is planning to launch No More Heroes 3 exclusively on Switch sometime in 2020.
- Sidebar Games put out the call for a pixel artist in March of this year, roughly a year and a half after Golf Story’s release. That same month, it was also revealed that Golf Story is still one of the Switch’s top 10 best-selling indie games to date. Though there’s no definitive word on exclusivity for their second effort, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising given the marketing push that fueled the success of their first.
As Microsoft and Sony are gradually gearing up to launch the next console generation in a little over a year, we can only hope Nintendo keeps their third-party relationships firmly in focus. If Astral Chain’s recent success is any indication, it’ll be in everyone’s best interest.