How People Find Your Game: Nintendo Switch Edition
A brief guide to discoverability on the system.
[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Weekly, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]
Up to now, I’ve largely been concentrating on PC/Steam game discoverability. But thought it would be good to diversify that somewhat into the console space.
Console games are harder to make - though only marginally harder nowadays, thanks to the portability of game engines like Unity and Unreal, and the increased availability of console devkits. The flattening of the game battlefield has led to a Cambrian explosion of independent console games.
In my view, the difficult bit with console is still the formal submission mechanism & the stricter standards around TRCs - technical requirement checklists. I remember this being a bear when I made console games in the PlayStation 1 era. Pull your memory card out & get the wrong error message, & you have to resubmit from scratch!
Overall, it has improved, & Switch’s console game submission process is one of the more pleasant. But there’s still a lot of details to bear in mind, and you don’t necessarily get to launch immediately after being approved, either.
In any case, for the first year and a half of its life - Switch launched March 3rd, 2017 - Nintendo’s semi-portable was a blue ocean for smaller games. As is often the case, if you can get decent games onto game platforms when there is limited availability, then you will do well.
(My favorite example of this on another platform is Super Monkey Ball on iPhone, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies at $10 each as a premium app, VERY early in the iPhone game lifecycle. Surely, F2P games gross more nowadays, but that was a classic ‘right place, right time’ win.)
So by October 2017, there were just 200 games in the eShop, including a number of smaller games that were doing very decently. And as Perfectly Nintendo shows via some very handy number-crunching, worldwide releases started exploding in 2018 and have got way more explode-y in the last 12 months.
Specifically, across all regions, there are now 2,821 games available for Switch (the vast majority on the eShop), with just 388 coming out in 2017, another 1,298 in 2018, and 1,135 so far in 2019. (That extrapolates out to 1,700 Switch games in calendar 2019 even if the release schedule isn’t accelerating. And let’s face it, it’s probably accelerating.)
This means that, yes, discoverability is getting way more difficult. And not many people have been public yet about the struggles of selling games on the Switch that didn’t make it into the top charts.
Switch is still a RELATIVELY attractive platform, partly because it hasn’t had many AAA games besides Nintendo first-party titles to distract everyone. Plus, it’s quite possible for high-quality indie games to stick in the charts and sell a lot of copies - for example Stardew Valley & Overcooked, both of which did great early in the lifecycle.
I’ve also heard that you sell well even off the top of the charts, if you have a Switch user-based compatible game. Some potential proof of this - at the end of 2018, we (at GDC) did ask this question in our state of the industry survey, with the following result:
So yes, Switch was objectively performing well at the beginning of 2019. And overall, I think the Switch versions are still selling better than Steam or other console versions. But sometimes nowadays, I believe that’s ‘not enough copies on Switch vs. REALLY not enough copies outside of Switch’. That’s… not good.
The Switch eShop Navigation & Discoverability
As the second half of this, I wanted to take a little tour through the main tabs of the Switch eShop online store, which is way cleaner and less cluttered than the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One stores, by the way. (Perhaps not intentionally, it just happened through Nintendo’s unique approach to business development, but it’s true!)
Here were the U.S. Nintendo eShop tabs as of a few weeks ago, with notes on what was in them and the ease of getting into them. And basically, if you’re not in a ‘main tab’ on Switch, or have previously been in one, you may be in trouble:
Recent Releases - the first tab, and natural place that a lot of people look. But the speed of releasing has picked up a LOT. The release icons are three wide, with infinite scrolling down. If you go 30 releases back, that seemed to track to about 10 days worth of releases.
That’s still not TOO bad, depending on how many release on a certain day. So could be ‘above the fold’ on that page for 2 days, if you are lucky. (That’s so much ‘better’ than Steam, where only certain trending games show up at all in a prominent place.)
Featured - up to 30 games, with icons 2x wide and 15x deep, with about 4 fitting on screen at once. At the time I looked at it, it included pre-purchases and newly released games. That included some indie-ish games like RAD and Forager, plus Wizard Of Legend and even Fantasy Strike, as well as some third-party F2P title like Warframe and Realm Royale.
Also featured: third-party notables like Dead By Daylight and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, and big-budget stuff like Smash Bros or Mario Maker 2. These don’t rotate very swiftly, and you presumably need some kind of friendly Nintendo contact/interaction for this boost, so it’s rare but valuable.
Great Deals - looks like this deals list is ranked by sales numbers, rather than total revenue. One notable thing is that a lot of games have very high discount rates, some as high as 90% off ($0.39 instead of $3.99, for example).
Some publishers & games have a habit of extreeeeme discounting to get noticed. I think this is a bit dodgy, especially if you stay in the Best Sellers area after the game costs more again. [UPDATE: since I wrote this but before I published it, Kotaku published an article on this exact topic, of extreme Switch discounting and discoverability in general, and I highly recommend it.
There’s a couple of insane quotes in there, particularly: “Membrane has been placed on sale a few times now, with Perfect Hat experimenting with different price points—from 50 percent off all the way down to 99 percent—to see what works best. What worked best, he found, was the 9-cent price point.”
I guess that particular game has sold 100,000 copies now, many at 9c (!!) Nintendo, I think you should maybe put some more rules around this, both maximum percentage off and the amount of times people can discount. It seems like a messy long-term trend. In the meantime - please discount responsibly!
Best Sellers: this chart is only viewable on eShop and not the chart on the Nintendo website, by the way. It’s sortable between ‘All Games’ and ‘Download-Only Games’, you can get in there just by being popular, and it’s fairly real-time, which is great!
But there’s also some oddities - when I looked, Quest For The Golden Duck was #5 in all games and cost $9.99, but that was just after a 98% off sale which discounted it to 19c. (I only worked that out by lots of Googling.)
So that’s another side effect of the extreme discounting problem(tm), since this chart seems also based purely on units sold, not revenue.
To give you a good idea of the Switch ‘top sales’ chart as I saw it at the time, in descending order:
Fire Emblem: Three Houses ($59.99)
Dragonball Fighter Z ($17.99, and is 70% off)
Quest For The Golden Duck ($9.99, but formerly $0.19 which is how it got so high!)
Super Mario Maker 2 ($59.99)
Doom 3 ($9.99)
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 ($59.99)
Super Smash Bros Ultimate ($59.99)
Doom 2 ($4.99)
Stardew Valley ($19.99 )
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe ($59.99)
Zelda; Breath Of The Wild ($59.99)
Fishing Universe Simulator ($9.99, but was formerly $0.99.)
Hollow Knight ($19.99)
Timber Man Vs. ($1.99, I think might have been $0.19 just before this.)
Super Mario Party ($59.99)
Layers Of Fear Legacy ($19.99)
I believe it stops there and doesn’t infinite scroll. But overall, there’s definitely a mix of bigger AAA titles, ‘top indie titles’, highly discounted titles, and first party Nintendo titles. As a ‘top indie’, if you’re one of the few titles in that top list, then you’ll be very happy, I suspect.
Otherwise… if you’re a ‘Switch-friendly’ game you may be selling well, or you may be one of the many that never made it to any charts, and are now selling disappointingly due to the glut of Switch games.
Coming Soon - this two game-wide section is just picking out select interesting games. You have to be picked by Nintendo to get into this area, I think they just screen for interesting games, and it presumably helps with discoverability.
And that’s it. So, my advice for you on Switch is simple. Don’t believe that it’s naturally a gold mine, especially given evidence of the market being swiftly flooded. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of Switch games coming out right now that are selling hundreds of copies in their lifetime (!), and that’s it.
But do believe that Switch is less flooded than e.g. Steam, there are a lot of committed buyers who like purchasing small/medium sized games. And discoverability for innovative small/medium sized games, especially ‘Nintendo-inspired’ ones, is significantly better than on other consoles.
So… don’t give up. But be realistic, we’re not in the first 6 months of the Switch’s release here. It’s crowded out there.