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Nintendo loses one of its few known forces for positive change

Working with independent developers is a full-contact sport, and it involves maintaining relationships, being flexible enough to deal with a wide variety of teams and their immediate needs as well as supporting platform rules that help keep your ecosystem strong. It's not an easy job, and it's by necessity a public one.

Dan Adelman, the head of Nintendo of America's indie program, has left the company. His tweet says just about everything you need to know about how much Nintendo understands about the modern world of development.

Adelman's history with the company is a laundry list of Nintendo's tin-eared reactions to the changing world of game development, and Adelman's departure, combined with the company's recent $97 million quarterly loss, is the latest piece of evidence that Nintendo is having a hard time finding its feet in the modern market, despite the recent win with Mario Kart 8. It's time to talk about what it's like trying to turn Nintendo around from the inside.

What went wrong

"Dan Adelman, the head of Nintendo's indie initiative, was not allowed to speak with us," Brandon Sheffield wrote in an article about dealing with the company. "This is the sort of corporate policy that perpetuates the stereotype that Nintendo doesn't work well with third parties, and is an emblem of Nintendo's reluctance to change and become more open as markets shift. As an indie developer, this is very troubling to me."

The article goes on, in detail, about Nintendo's issues in the modern world of video games.

"It's Nintendo's policy not to privilege the individual. It's Nintendo's policy to keep messaging corporate, not personal. These policies originate all the way up in the Japanese office, as staff members continually tell me, but this approach is not the way of things today, and it shows how far behind Nintendo is in terms of its relationship with third party developers, and how it operates as a company: keeping everyone in check, rather than letting innovation and new ideas lead, as its executives keep saying they want to," he continued.

This is a company that kept its head of indie relations off Twitter. By force. Because apparently having a relationship with the folks you're supposed to support on social media was too risky.

Adelman, to his credit, worked to try to fix some of the backwards policies that had held Nintendo back. One such policy was the requirement for developers to have their own offices. If you ran your studio out of your home? No go. And according to Adelman that rule was strictly adhered to.

"It was crazy. There were people whose job it was to look up addresses in Google maps to see if the business address was a home or an office building. And if it looked a little residential, they'd ask for photos," Adelman told Kotaku. "There would be e-mail threads with literally a few dozen back and forth exchanges about whether the couch in someone's office was really used for business purposes or did someone really live there? That policy, thankfully, is gone."

It wasn't the only improvement that happened under Adelman's watch.

This is a company that kept its head of indie relations off Twitter

"Another big one is the performance threshold. During the WiiWare days, developers had to sell a minimum number of units in order to qualify for rev share. The intent was actually noble," he stated. "We wanted to discourage shovelware. Unfortunately, some developers who were taking risks with their game development but couldn't find an audience were getting penalized. So we got rid of that for DSiWare and both eShops."

Adelman discussed some of these wins with Polygon before he was gagged by Nintendo. "Not a day goes by when I'm talking to a developer who might say, 'Yeah, I'd love to release a game on a Nintendo system, but I work from home and I know you guys have this requirement to work out of an office.' I'll say, 'Actually, we got rid of that.' And that will be a big surprise," he said. "Or they're working on a game in Unity, and say 'I hear on consoles to release a Unity game ... costs tens of thousand of dollars.' Actually, we have a deal with Unity so we've covered the licensing fees for the entire platform. So it's free for you to release on our system.

It's possible that these improvements will continue, it remains unlikely that whoever takes Adelman's place will be able to have a public relationship with the developers they're supposed to serve. Nintendo's quarterly reports are bleeding red, the company is far behind its competitors in ease of use across consoles and platforms, and the Wii U can't compete on power, third-party support or online implementation.

The loss of Adelman is significant. He commiserated with players frustrated with Nintendo's backwards policies. He talked about how to make games like The Binding of Isaac welcome on Nintendo platforms. He fought for change from within the company, and his wins helped developers on the platform. His reward was being silenced by the company, and only after he quit was he able to openly speak openly about the program's evolution to the press.

In some ways he's serving Nintendo better now than he was able to when cashing his paychecks; he has nothing but kind things to say about the company and the individuals who will be continuing his work.

The individuals that I, as press, will likely never be allowed to speak with.

Nintendo needs to change. It needs to work harder. It needs to stop being scared of the press and its customers, and to begin to modernize how its consoles operate. You need to work harder when you're in third place, and there's little front-facing evidence that Nintendo is taking that position seriously. It's likely Dan Adelman will do great in going indie himself. What's depressing is that it's ultimately Nintendo that will suffer.

This is just another symptom of the disease, one which we hope isn't fatal.

Correction: Gamasutra writer Brandon Sheffield's name was originally misspelled as Brendan Sheffied.

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