Greg Wohlwend is an accomplished independent game designer and artist whose résumé includes critically acclaimed mobile titles Threes, Ridiculous Fishing and Puzzlejuice. His games tend to be whimsical and playful, and his latest project, TumbleSeed, is no different in this regard.
TumbleSeed is a "rolly roguelike" -- players guide an adorable rolling seed up a treacherous, procedurally generated mountainside pockmarked with deadly holes and dangerous creatures. Fall into a hole or run into a nasty beast, and players are sent back to the base of the mountain to begin the climb all over again. The concept is easy to grasp, but the game itself is difficult to master, Wohlwend says.
In that sense, it's reminiscent of early Nintendo Entertainment System games like Tetris or Dr. Mario. That's one reason Wohlwend wanted to bring TumbleSeed to Nintendo's new console, the Switch.
"TumbleSeed has a lot of the same values a Nintendo game has," Wohlwend says. "It's colorful and easy to get into. But it also has a lot of the things from the NES days, especially difficulty. We've spent a ton of energy on getting TumbleSeed to fit that combination of natural-to-learn mixed with challenging and fun, even after playing for two years. That's how long we've been playing, and we still genuinely have fun with it."
To get TumbleSeed on the Switch, Wohlwend reached out to Nintendo this past summer. He describes the process as a pain-free experience.
"We always felt like TumbleSeed would really be at home on a Nintendo console, so we cold-called them, and, luckily, they felt the same," he says. Wohlwend's experience with Nintendo should be a positive sign for other independent developers looking to get in on the Switch.
Nintendo has been rehabilitating its image as an indie-friendly studio for years now. In 2013, the company removed a handful of onerous restrictions on independent developers looking to develop games for the Wii U, including the requirement that they have "relevant game-industry experience" and a separate, secure office outside of the home. These regulations were out-of-touch with the rising independent market -- Nintendo's competitors, Microsoft and Sony, were courting indies with hassle-free registration processes and headlining spots during their major press conferences.
Today, Nintendo isn't as walled-off as it once was. Registering to be a Nintendo Developer requires basic personal information, and the company highlights its indie selection with special events like the #Nindies Summer Jam. A handful of larger indie studios have released games on Nintendo consoles, including Shovel Knight from Yacht Club Games, Octodad: Dadliest Catch from Young Horses and Severed from Drinkbox Studios.
As it prepares to launch the Switch, Nintendo is dedicated to the indie space, a spokesperson tells Engadget. "Nintendo greatly values its collaborations with indie developers across the world, and is working closely with them on a wide range of content," the representative says. "We look forward to discussing more as we approach GDC 2017."
The Switch is set to get a smattering of independent games, including modern cult classics like The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+, massive hits including Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove and Terraria, fresh IPs like Rime and Redout, and, of course, TumbleSeed.
These changes have bolstered Nintendo's reputation as a hub for independent games, but many low-profile developers still feel locked out of the company's systems. Take Robert Boyd, for example: He's the co-founder of Zeboyd Games, the studio behind Cthulhu Saves the World and the Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness series. Zeboyd is working on Cosmic Star Heroine, a PC, PlayStation 4 and Vita game that raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter back in 2013.
On January 11th, Boyd said on Twitter that he was interested in bringing Cosmic Star Heroine to the Switch, but he didn't have access to a developer kit because he didn't have an existing relationship with Nintendo.
"As far as I know, it's impossible to get Switch devkits now if you're an indie who Nintendo isn't specifically seeking out," he said.
@ShaunMusgrave It's looking like unless Nintendo makes the first step, you're not getting a devkit until post-launch.
— Robert Boyd (@werezompire) January 14, 2017
Boyd isn't alone in his assessment of Nintendo's indie-outreach efforts. A handful of independent developers, including Yacht Club Games and Tequila Works, recently told US Gamer that Nintendo should be doing more to build relationships with talented independent developers.
However, Wohlwend's experience with Nintendo suggests there's hope for a studio like Zeboyd. Wohlwend has historically specialized in mobile games, and TumbleSeed will be his first game on a Nintendo platform.
"I can't speak for what's happened in the past because this is the first time I've worked with Nintendo, but I can say they've been a joy to work with," Wohlwend says. "They're truly as excited about TumbleSeed as we are about being on the Switch, and so it's been a really solid partnership so far."
Wohlwend is excited about the Switch's ability to be both a mobile and a living-room console, and the new HD Rumble system. He says that in TumbleSeed, the Switch's HD Rumble gives players a sixth sense of where they are in the world and how fast they're rolling. Plus, he says, the console itself simply feels right, seamlessly shifting between hand-held and big-screen gaming.
"There's a wonderful invisibility to the console that I think all beautifully designed objects have," Wohlwend says. "It gets out of the way and showcases the games like no other console I've owned."
That's precisely why many other independent developers want to bring their games to the Switch. Developers like Boyd still face Nintendo's invisible walls, while others like Wohlwend get lucky and find an easy in. If the rules continue to relax and Nintendo takes feedback from frustrated developers seriously, the Switch could represent a new phase of third-party, independent development for Nintendo -- a phase four years in the making.