Dan Adelman has been a key player at Nintendo of America for nearly a decade. As head of digital content and development Adelman was the man in charge of Nintendo’s indie program, reaching out to make sure that games like Shovel Knight, Cave Story, and World of Goo make it to Nintendo eShop. Recently, he announced that he had decided to part ways with Nintendo, but his work with indie developers continues.
Adelman continues to help indie developers with the business and marketing end of the industry, and recently announced Axiom Verge as his first post-Nintendo project. We caught up with him for an interview and discussed life at Nintendo, life after Nintendo, the state of the indie market, and more.
You’ve spent almost a decade working with Nintendo, but you recently moved on to something new. What’s life after Nintendo like? Tell us about your new job
My focus for the last decade or so has been on helping a wide range of indies be successful on Nintendo. That was incredibly rewarding, as I felt like I was able to help foster a new age of creativity in game development. Over the years, though, I felt like there were too many aspects of the indie scene I wasn’t involved in. All of the other platforms is one obvious one, but a less obvious one is the ability to “go deep” on just a few games. While I was at Nintendo, by necessity I had to divide my attention among hundreds of games, so I could only check in on some of them once every few months. Now that I’m on my own, I am excited to be rolling up my sleeves to be involved in a smaller number of games in a much deeper way.
It sounds like you’re very passionate about indie games! Was going solo a tough call to make?
It was and it wasn’t. I’d thought about it for years and years, and for the longest time it felt like a pipe dream that would never really happen. Then one day it just seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. I can’t really explain it. Nothing in particular happened that triggered it. It was some deep part of my brain that seemed to say, “OK. It’s time.” Now that I’m on my own, it definitely feels like the right call. The complete lack of income right now is a little unsettling though!
You’ve gone “indie” yourself!
Exactly! It’s interesting that there seems to be a small but growing trend of freelance indie specialists, so maybe I’m part of that trend. There are people who focus on providing music for indie games, or just doing trailers for indie games. I’m trying to provide my own area of expertise to the indie community as part of that community.
Speaking of providing your expertise, you announced your first project yesterday. What can you tell us about Axiom Verge, and what’s your role with the game and its developer?
Axiom Verge is a really well-executed retro-style Metroidvania game. It’s being all made by one guy, Tom Happ. Tom’s doing the coding, animation, art, music, writing — everything — and he’s been working on it for almost 5 years now while holding down a full-time job. The one area he didn’t have a background in was the business side. I think it would be a tragedy if this game launched next year and not everyone knew about it. There are so many fans of the genre who have been hungry for a game like this. So I’m going to help Tom get the word out to those people. I’m also going to help him with business development opportunities, planning for international releases, other distribution outlets — all kinds of business-related stuff.
We certainly look forward to seeing and hearing more about it in the future! Are you currently working with any other developers? Any games out there that have caught your eye?
I am! I’ve been having a lot of conversations over the last couple months, and I think for many of them we just need to nail down exactly what I should be helping them with. I expect I’ll be making a few more announcements pretty soon. I do want to be careful about not spreading myself too thin, though. In order to have a real impact on each of the games I work on, it’ll need to be an almost obsessive full-time job type thing. One thing I want to make sure of, though, is that I’m working on a wide variety of game styles. I’m a big fan of Metroidvania platform-shooters, but I also love more artistic games as well.
Artistic in terms of a unqiue art style or a deeper gameplay experience?
Exactly. “Indie” is a broad label that has all but lost its meaning, but one of the unifying themes about indie games is that they are borne out of personal passion. Tom had enough passion to create the ultimate retro-style Metroidvania game. Other indie devs have the passion to communicate an idea or an emotion that’s very personal to them. I love the fact that games can do that. A lot of the time these more artistic games may not be as commercial, but they’re absolutely critical to the future growth of games as a medium. So I definitely want to do whatever I can to make sure those games thrive.
Nintendo has been perceived in the past as not being particularly “indie-friendly,” but it seems like they’ve tried to ease up on some of the restrictions in the past couple of years or so. Was this something you pushed for internally?
In some ways Nintendo was ahead of its time in terms of indie-friendly policies. Indie developers were able to self-publish from the beginning, and there were never any concept approvals. Nintendo was also the first to do a deal with Unity to cover the license fees for all games released on the Wii U — a deal that has since been replicated by both Microsoft and Sony. On the other hand, there were some really old-fashioned limitations. The fact that developers had to work out of an office instead of their homes is one well-known one. It took years to get rid of that! Another limitation was the fact that on WiiWare, you had to sell a certain number of copies to qualify for rev share — a policy that sounded as strange then as it does now. A lot of these issues have been fixed, but it took a while. One challenge is that a lot of the policies and processes were initially designed with the retail/physical media market in mind, and it’s a slow process to redo those process for a digital distribution world. All three console platforms struggle with this. You can tell that Steam, iOS, and Google designed their process from the ground up for digital distribution, since they never had a physical component. It winds up being a very different approach.
I think the rise in the popularity and relevance of indie games is increasing faster than the rate at which companies are adapting to the new market.
Very much so. Large companies are by nature slow to react. There is just too much institutional inertia. There are some things that large companies can do that small companies cannot, but adapting quickly is not one of them.
That’s why we have people like you!
That’s actually true. I think it’s really important for large companies to have someone act in the role of agitator for change. I wish more companies would take a more active role in supporting that kind of function, because agitators almost by definition usually don’t make many friends!
Now, we know that you and Nintendo parted ways on great terms, but there were times in the past where you clashed over policy issues , and I understand you were discouraged from using social media or making media appearances. Did this play into your decision to move on from the company?
Not really. It was certainly frustrating not to be able to join in the fun and hang out with my developer friends on Twitter, but that’s not a reason to leave a perfectly good job and career! It really came down to the feeling that I had learned everything I could learn at Nintendo, and I’ve grown as much as I was going to grow. In order to stretch myself and have a bigger impact on the industry, I really had to strike off on my own. Everyone at Nintendo understood and was very supportive of that.
So it’s safe to say you’ll still bring indie games to Nintendo platforms if a good opportunity arises?
Axiom Verge is a Sony exclusive because Sony had been supportive of the game from really early on, so Tom really wanted to give Sony (and the PC) all of his focus for now. It’s really hard to do more than one console platform at a time anyway. Other games will not have that same history, so if a game comes along that would be a good fit for Wii U or 3DS, I’ll definitely be bringing it Nintendo’s way!
Speaking of Wii U and 3DS, you (and many others, myself included) felt Wii U was a poor name choice for Nintendo’s console. I have to ask, what do you think of the “New Nintendo 3DS” name? There seems to be a lot of confusion over whether this will be treated as a new handheld or a new model.
There are companies out there that specialize in helping companies name their products. Nintendo clearly doesn’t use them. I have a feeling I’m going to get myself in trouble for that!
Haha, well you won’t get any disagreement about that answer from me. Do you think it will impact potential sales at all? That was something you feared was true of Wii U’s name.
It will really come down to the value proposition to the consumer. What games are going to come out on it that will compel someone to go out and get a new piece of hardware?
Hopefully plenty, as I plan on getting one when it comes stateside! So back to the industry in general, as I said earlier I think the popularity and relevance of the indie gaming scene has seen an astronomical rise in recent years. With so many quality games available at affordable prices, do you see the standard $60 price model being challenged in the near future?
Right now indie games don’t seem to be cannibalizing the $60 retail market as far as I can tell. Gamers can fall into 3 categories: primarily retail only, primarily indie, and a good mix of both. I’d love to see some actual market research on this, but it seems to me that the majority of gamers fall into the first two categories. I’m solidly in the primarily indie category. The last retail game I really played a lot of was Skyrim, though I’m trying to work my way through Last of Us since I’ve heard so many great things about it. I couldn’t care less about Destiny, Call of Duty, or any of the other AAA fanchises. 95% of the rest of the games I play are indie. I talk to a lot of people who spent a lot of time playing, but they may only be playing retail games. They may have picked up 1-2 indie games but they don’t really follow it. That’s something I’d like to change. I think there’s tremendous opportunity for indies to make some headway with the traditional AAA consumers, since frankly a lot of those games kinda suck from a pure gameplay perspective.
It’s hard for smaller games to achieve that same level of “household name” recognition without the vast marketing budgets of a publishers like Activision or EA, regardless of quality. How willing are companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft to advertise quality indie games? Is any one company leading the charge in this category in your experience?
Minecraft is the obvious exception to this, but I definitely take your point. If you were to take a survey of console gamers who only play retail games, I think you’d be surprised that they’ve never even heard of some of the games that you or I might consider the megahits of the indie scene. I think there’s tremendous opportunity there. Believe it or not, there are people who have never heard of Super Meat Boy or Spelunky or World of Goo or Braid who would be blown away by them if they knew they existed. Some of the best selling games in the indie scene top out at a few million dollars of revenue. That’s definitely significant for a small team, but it wouldn’t put you among the best selling retail games of all time.
That’s something I’m hoping to impact long-term. By helping indie developers learn how to do basic marketing, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to grow the audience for indie games. To answer your question, I think all 3 consoles are doing a decent job of highlighting their indie games. It’s a larger priority for some than others, and I think of the three, Sony seems to be the one that most consistently makes it a priority. But it’ll be important for indies to be able to stand on their own and work out ways to reach their audience without a huge marketing budget and without needing to rely on a large company to help them.
So, closing thoughts, what advice would you give to aspiring indie developers hoping to make it in the industry, and how can developers contact you if they’d like to pitch a game and receive your help?
My advice to aspiring indie developers is two-fold. And unfortunately both pieces contradict each other. On the one hand, to have any hope of doing well, it’s critical to go all in. Make your game the best it can be. Don’t just ship it when it’s “good enough” — go back and polish and iterate and iterate again until it’s perfect. Treat it like your career depends on it. Develop relationships with the press, go to shows, get feedback, talk about your game to anyone who will listen. So that’s advice #1. Advice #2 is to hedge your bets. Indie games is an incredibly fickle business. There are great games that do a ton of marketing that just don’t get any traction. There are more games coming out than ever before. And when games don’t do well, they REALLY don’t do well, so make sure you’ve got some alternative source of income or that you can survive if your game doesn’t do well. Obviously, keeping those two pieces of advice in balance is much easier said than done.
I’m planning on being more active on my blog,
www.dan-adelman.com, giving more tangible advice about how developers should market their games, how to negotiate contracts, how to think about strategy — all kinds of business issues. I think the right time for me to be involved in a project is somewhere between 6-12 months from launch. Early enough that there’s plenty of time to have an impact and grow awareness for the game, but far enough along that there’s a real game to talk about and start building plans around. I’ve been in the extremely fortunate and flattering position that I’ve received more inquiries than I’d ever be able to support, so I’m trying to focus on games that I personally can feel very passionate about. Any developers interested in working with me can reach me on Twitter (@Dan_Adelman) or via the link on my site!
Thanks a lot for your time, and good luck with all of your future ventures!
Thank you so much!