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Why Shovel Knight is getting an amiibo and Kerbal Space is coming to Wii U

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Microsoft and Sony have dominated the current console generation so far, with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 leading Nintendo's Wii U in terms of both mindshare and market share. Third-party developers and publishers have essentially abandoned the Wii U, choosing to focus instead on the larger potential audiences on computers and the two more powerful consoles.

Nintendo hasn't lost independent developers, though, and titles like Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight have found success on Wii U. According to Damon Baker, senior marketing manager for publisher and developer relations at Nintendo of America, the company is doing everything it its power to continue courting indies.

During a pre-PAX event at Seattle's EMP Museum tonight, Nintendo presented a slate of announcements and demonstrations for indie games. The biggest news to come out of the show was that Yacht Club is collaborating with Nintendo on a Shovel Knight amiibo, which will be the first officially licensed amiibo for a third-party game. Yacht Club will produce and sell the figure on its own, but it will share the same look as the other toys in Nintendo's ever-growing collection of amiibo. Nintendo will promote the Shovel Knight figure "in line at retail" along with the other figures," said Baker.

The Shovel Knight amiibo is "a promise of what's to come," according to Baker. It will unlock exclusive features in the Wii U and 3DS versions of the game, including a co-op mode on Wii U — making it the only version of Shovel Knight with two-player co-op — and an exclusive challenge mode on both platforms. Baker also said, "There will be more Yacht Club and Shovel Knight content coming to Nintendo platforms in the future," and the amiibo will be compatible with all future Yacht Club titles on Nintendo systems.

Fast Racing Neo screenshot 1920

Nintendo also presented the first multiplayer demo of Fast Racing Neo, a Wii U-exclusive futuristic racing game from Shin'en that resembles the F-Zero series. Fast Racing Neo will offer four-player local split-screen racing and eight-player competition online. Next, Nintendo showed the first demo of the Wii U version of Hive Jump, a Kickstarter-funded action platformer from Graphite Lab. A console exclusive for Wii U, Hive Jump looks like Super Metroid and plays like XCOM and Spelunky. It offers procedurally generated levels and up to four-player co-op.

Finally, Nintendo announced that it continuing its relationship with the EMP Museum to refresh the museum's Indie Game Revolution exhibition. Brainseed Factory's Typoman, Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl's The Binding of Isaac, and Simogo's Year Walk will be featured in the exhibit.

Nintendo's indie efforts

Baker's predecessor, Dan Adelman, spent years at Nintendo advocating for indie developers before he left about a year ago. Adelman oversaw the planning and launch of the company's four digital distribution services: WiiWare on the Wii, DSiWare on Nintendo DSi and the eShop on both Wii U and Nintendo 3DS. Baker picked up right from where Adelman left off, working with his licensing team to put together — with Nintendo's blessing — a series of outside-the-box initiatives to attract indies to the company's platforms.

Starting around IndieCade last October, Nintendo has been promoting indie developers under the "Nindies" label, a fun and catchy moniker that leads the company's messaging around indies. In late May, Nintendo partnered with Humble Bundle for the Humble Nindie Bundle, offering 11 titles from the Wii U eShop and 3DS eShop. It marked the first time Humble Bundle had sold console games, and the first time Nintendo titles had been available in a Humble Bundle.

A few weeks later, Nintendo launched Nindies@Home during E3. That program offered free downloadable demos of nine upcoming indie games through the Wii U eShop, along with discounts upon the games' eventual releases for people who tried the demos. In an interview with Polygon during E3, Baker referred to Nindies@Home as a guerrilla tactic of sorts. It was an example of Nintendo trying something new, something to which the company may not have been open before.

"Fortunately, the company has been really receptive of it," Baker told Polygon earlier this week. "They've embraced the opportunities that we've presented to them, and they see the justification."

Baker pointed out that Nintendo has been supporting indie developers for a long time, even though the company doesn't always get the headlines for it.

"I think the other platforms have come out there, and they've done a really good job of amplifying their independent support message, and they've gained a lot of traction and a lot of visibility for that," said Baker, responding to a question about Sony's and Microsoft's indie programs.

"I think we've stuck to our strategy for some time," he said. "We were the first console to promote self-publishing and to allow it on our platforms. And that was going back to the WiiWare and the DSiWare days."

We asked Baker if Nintendo is experimenting with Nindies programs because, in a way, it needs to. Nintendo is behind Sony and Microsoft in hardware sales, and indies — like larger developers and publishers — are liable to go where the bigger audiences, and higher potential sales, are.

Baker responded by pointing to a difference in strategy on Nintendo's part when it comes to attracting indies.

"I think that you might find that other companies are willing to dish out a lot of money in order to get exclusivity or to get windows of opportunity," said Baker, referring to Microsoft and Sony. "We're not the type of company that really hands out a lot of cash, so we have to be creative in how we give visibility to all of this great content."

Instead of wooing indies with money, Nintendo's tactic is to focus on the unique capabilities of its hardware — even if the systems are less powerful than the competition — as well as the marketing power of the eShop. Baker described features like the Wii U's GamePad and the 3DS's dual-screen setup as elements that allow developers "to take more risks, to try out different things."

Kerbal Space Program screenshot 1920

For example, Mexican indie studio Squad is bringing Kerbal Space Program to Wii U, and Nintendo is "positioning it as the definitive version of the game," said Baker. Kerbal on Wii U will allow players to examine and create spacecraft on the GamePad, and it will be the only version of the game with exclusive features.

Baker also said Nintendo is willing to put its eShop, if not its wallet directly, behind indie games. Pointing to the "very loyal fanbase" that regularly visits the eShop on both Wii U and 3DS, Baker said Nintendo has seen "really good traction" by promoting indie games right next to major Nintendo first-party offerings such as Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart and Splatoon.

At the same time, Baker didn't dismiss our points about the market.

"I do think that we're realistic about the environment as well," said Baker. "And we don't hold it against anybody if they decide that they want to go multiplatform; we know that it's a business decision." So even for multiplatform games, Nintendo will encourage developers to build some kind of exclusive functionality. Off-TV play on the GamePad alone is "a huge selling point" for Wii U games, Baker noted.

"So I think there are a lot of advantages, and our development partners are embracing it, they understand it; I think they appreciate the perspective, and we're still willing to do anything and everything we can to promote this content," said Baker.