In 2012, Nintendo rejected popular indie game The Binding of Isaac because of its questionable religious content. Three years later, the developers announced a remake of the game would be coming to the New Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U.
The approval of the game for Nintendo platforms marked an important shift in the way Nintendo decides what to allow and disallow on its systems.
"There's before Binding and there's after Binding," said Damon Baker, who heads up indie content for Nintendo of America. "With before [Binding], I want to say there was still a little confusion on how we handle some of that questionable or controversial content. And it was a bit before my time, when we were dealing with that," Baker said. "What I can talk to about now is that we have changed our guideline in that we are looking more at having ESRB or ratings systems determine what is appropriate or not, instead of Nintendo looking at, 'Is this approved or not approved?'
"So we've taken that totally out of the mix at this point and we really do rely on ESRB to make the determination on whether something is appropriate for certain ages or not, and we trust them to do that. So if it passes ESRB then we're fine to put it on our system."
That means any rated game that doesn't receive an Adults Only rating and isn't an advergame is allowed on Nintendo's platforms, Baker said.
"For the most part if it's going to be M-rated, then we have an age gate and parental features and we rely on those to make sure that the content is appropriate for those who are playing the systems," he said.
Back in the "Before" times, Nintendo internally weighed in on that decision. Binding developer Edmund McMillen said at the time that the game was rejected for the 3DS due to the game's "questionable religious content." McMillen later praised PC gaming store and platform Steam for the freedom of expression it afforded developers.
The game's push to come to a Nintendo platform was helped by a trio of the game's supporters and high-up employees at Nintendo: vice president of licensing Steve Singer; Mark Griffin, a senior manager in licensing game development at Nintendo; and the company's then-head of indie development, Dan Adelman.
Adelman eventually left Nintendo after calling the company out on Twitter over its region-locking practices and a need to be more flexible in terms of what content should be allowed on the company's systems.
Sometime after that, Nintendo changed its approach to how it approves games.
Once Binding was approved, getting the developer on board wasn't that hard, Baker said.
"We've had a strong relationship with that whole crew for a really long time, and you know [developer] Nicalis has been involved in bringing that to other platforms as well. And we've had a long-standing relationship with Nicalis as well, so it seems like the stars have aligned and are coming together.
"We know how passionate the fandom is, and how great a game it is, so we want to see a Nintendo audience have an opportunity to see it for themselves. We think it will be exciting, and the fact that it's coming to both Wii U and the New Nintendo 3DS means that we'll have a huge opportunity for fans to check it out."
About two months after news of Binding coming to Nintendo broke, another big indie surprise was announced by the company: It was teaming up with Humble Bundle to sell a batch of indie titles.
The timing seemed beyond coincidental.
"We have had conversations with Humble for years, to be perfectly honest with you," Baker said when I asked him about it. "Last year, we really started exploring whether this is something that could actually happen, if it was the right time to be launching something like that on the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS."
The two companies worked closely together and managed to find a middle ground where Humble Bundle could work within Nintendo's process and Nintendo could work within Humble Bundle's, Baker said.
The decision to team up with Humble, he added, was driven by a number of factors, including wanting to bring more audiences to the eShop and put a spotlight on indie developers.
"We also had to do a lot of analysis internally to make sure that if we do something like this that we're not cannibalizing any potential sales," he said. "Because in the end it's about these indie developers, and we want them to be successful and we want them to make the most out of it."
The promotion was a massive success for everyone involved.
"It was a two-week promotion, and we are really encouraged by the results, and the flexibility from Humble, and the fact that we were able to do I think it was in excess of $120,000 for charity, and the developers did great as well," he said. "But on top of that, we were able to look at sales within the eShop, because we actually promoted all that same content. It was like 13 titles. We promoted it in the eShop at full price and we actually increased the number of full-price sales for that same content."
Baker calls the fact that the Humble Bundle titles sold better than average on the eShop store during the promotion "super weird."
"What it proves is that there is a different audience," he said. "If people had come from Humble, they weren't purchasing the full-version content, because they just got it for a certain price. So it meant that those people were coming into the shop to see Splatoon, or Puzzle & Dragons, or newer releases. They were actually going in there and saying, 'Hey, this indie content looks really good, let's purchase this at the same time.' So it was really nice to have that proof that we're able to really expand that audience and really get as much exposure for that great content as possible."
With the first-ever Nintendo Humble Bundle wrapped up, the company is now "digesting all of the numbers," Baker said.
"We've had a lot of conversations with Europe, because they're certainly interested in participating" in a Humble Bundle, he said. "Nothing to announce at this point, but I think everybody has come away from the experience with a lot of learnings, and they're really happy with the results. And I think there's every opportunity to collaborate again. I think the positive thing is Humble is not set up as a retailer for Nintendo. And so it opens up another avenue where in the future maybe we can promote through the Humble Store, incorporate first-party content into the mix. There are tons of opportunities that we can expand on, now that we've helped build this relationship."
"Tons of opportunities"
The first run only included third-party titles because Baker said there is more flexibility when working with those games created outside of Nintendo.
"If we start incorporating first-party content then it's a grander conversation with NCL [Nintendo Co. Ltd.] and with our head office and other departments that really manage the marketing and support with all of that content," he said. "I can personally only control the content that we're responsible for, and so we saw it as a great opportunity, and it also taps into the roots of Humble as an organization. They started off supporting indie content and you know it was a few years ago when they started supporting publishers, and now to move into the console space and handheld space, I think we wanted to make sure that this was something that was still a part of what is true to Humble and true to their roots as well, and it seemed like a really natural fit."
One of the negative things to initially come out of the Humble Bundle was the realization that unlike all previous bundles, this one was region-locked.
Baker said that was mostly done to protect the developers.
Region-free Nintendo Humble Bundle could happen
"The fact is that some of that content hadn't even been released in Europe yet," he said. "And so releasing it on a global scale would have been really difficult because either the content hadn't been released or had been recently released and it would have been detrimental to those developers to already have such a drastic discount associated with it. So, we had to make that tough decision to make it region only, I mean to North America only. And Humble were really gracious to support us on that, and really supportive in the media and on the blog in supporting that decision because they saw that what the offer was, and that it was this great content and developers, that that was what was important to promote."
But that doesn't mean potential future Nintendo Humble Bundles might not include region-free sales.
"I think that's something we could totally do it in the future," he said. "So, nothing to formally announce at this point, but I think we're certainly exploring the option at this point."
It's all the more likely since people at Nintendo's headquarters in Japan were very happy with the results of the Nintendo of America bundle.
"There's been a lot of great feedback internally," Baker said. "Especially over the fact that it hasn't cannibalized any sales, and that it was all for good causes. I think it's been a really good exercise and a really good proof point that we can lean on, that this indie content is driving sales and exposure. So I think there's a lot of interest in what's happening there."
After the Humble Bundle wrapped up, Nintendo announced a third marketing push for indie games on its platform, Nindies at Home, which allowed people who weren't at E3 to download and try a number of indie games for free on their consoles.
Baker called it a guerrilla tactic and said it blindsided everybody with something "really cool." The playable vertical slices of in-development indie games were designed to show off some of the uniqueness of the Wii U, he said.
Ultimately, the three months or so of changes in policy around indie game approval, promotion of indie games in bundles and the Nindies at Home program all seem to prove what Baker told me in the interview: Indie development is "extremely significant" to both Nintendo and the value of the Wii U.
"And this isn't just bias of my babies," Baker said. "It's I mean it's — Nintendo does great work with the first-party IP, and those key triple-A releases come out. But they're also — there are also big gaps for those releases. And it's really important for the momentum of our platforms that fans and consumers continue to have new experiences, new content that they can try out in between all of these other releases. And so, what my department does is we're always looking at how we can leverage the popularity of those first-party releases in order to drive exposure or awareness for the third-party [games]."
A good example, he said, is how they've surrounded Splatoon with indie games in the eShop to help promote those titles.
"Those fans are going to be getting exposure to things they didn't even know existed," he said. "And so we really try and leverage that exposure and make sure that everything is getting as much merchandising as possible, and that we've got that conversation going so that we've got great experiences that maybe Nintendo doesn't focus on.
"Nintendo doesn't have anything that's like Don't Starve out there, and it's a really unique experience so I think it's awesome that we have the opportunities to promote that stuff."