Nintendo's Indie Champion Leaves After Nine Years

Dan Adelman, who ran the indie program at Nintendo of America for almost nine years, left the company last week, Kotaku has learned. Last Friday was Adelman's final day at Nintendo.

Adelman, an outspoken personality known well in the indie community, spent nine years handling outreach and support for independent developers on Nintendo platforms. His name has become synonymous with Nintendo indies, and over the years he's helped get games like World of Goo and Cave Story onto Nintendo platforms.

But not all has been rosy in Nintendo's indie department. A few months ago, Gamasutra reported that Nintendo had banned Adelman from using Twitter last September as a result of a comment he made voicing frustration about 3DS region-locking. And since then, he hasn't done many interviews or made many public appearances for the company.

In an e-mail interview on Sunday, Adelman confirmed that he was leaving Nintendo to go independent, and said his former employer has been supportive of the move. Still, Adelman acknowledged that he was frustrated with the company's tendency to clamp him down when he said something that didn't mesh with the corporate message.

"I think people were kind of on pins and needles about anything untoward I might say," Adelman told me. "And every once in a while, I'd give an answer that people didn't like, and some people would freak out, so they tried to scale things back. First they had me do interviews with someone from PR or marketing. Later they just decided that I shouldn't be in the press at all anymore."

Last year, after Nintendo rejected a 3DS port of the game Binding of Isaac because it violated their guidelines on religious content, Adelman said in an interview that his company needed to be "a bit more flexible" about restrictions and policies like that. A week later, he sympathized with a fan on Twitter complaining about region-locking on Nintendo's platforms.

Shortly afterwards, Nintendo told Adelman he wasn't allowed to use Twitter anymore.

"I had been strongly encouraged to stay off of Twitter—or at least say only things that were clearly safe—so after the region-locking comment they just said I needed to stop completely," Adelman said. "When people started complaining that I wasn't active on Twitter anymore, it was suggested that a PR person could just post in my name. I thought that was about the worst idea I'd ever heard, so I left it as is and let the silence speak for itself."

Adelman emphasized that even though he is leaving Nintendo, the company will still court and work with independent developers. "There is a large group of people working on helping developers through the process and they're going to continue doing that," Adelman said.

You can read the full interview here:

Schreier: For starters, why did you leave? Are you leaving the company on good terms?

Adelman: I guess the short answer is that I'm going indie! As the indie games business matures, a real need for business expertise has started to develop. I've been working with the indie community for almost 9 years now, and one consistent theme I've noticed is this tension between developers following their passion to make the game they want to make and needing to be able to make a living doing it. Unfortunately, though, there are a lot of business types who at best just don't get what indies are trying to do, or at worst are pretty much unethical.

So even though a lot of indie development studios may really want to have someone helping them out with marketing, business development, strategy and all that, there's really no one to turn to. I've given a lot of business advice to different developers over the years which I think has been helpful, but I think to do it right and really help the indie scene grow to its real potential, it needs to be a full time thing. So what I'm planning on doing is working directly with several indie game studios as their business guy – whatever that really means. In the same way that a core dev studio needs a programmer, designer, artist, and sound person, I think there's also a need for a business person. It's definitely a different kind of role than the other ones, but it can be really critical, since one smart business decision can cut your costs in half or double your sales – and vice versa.

Nintendo has been really supportive of this move. I think everyone there has known for a while that my passion has always really been about helping the indie community develop and thrive, so even though everyone was really surprised when I gave my 2-week notice, they all understood and wished me the best. I couldn't have asked for a better sendoff.

Schreier: You were the face of Nintendo's indie program for quite some time, but in recent months, it feels like we haven't seen you in the headlines very much. Did your roles and responsibilities change, or have you still been doing indie outreach and development?

Adelman: Even though I ran the digital distribution business for almost 9 years, it actually wasn't until late 2012 that I started talking directly to the press. I think the main reason for this is that Nintendo is very careful about its image—as it should be—and I have a really bad habit of saying what's on my mind! I've never had the patience for company politics, so if there was a decision I disagreed with, I said so in pretty blunt terms.

So for years I was pretty well known within the developer community, but not publicly. I had a Twitter account, but the only people who followed me were game developers, so we were able to joke around pretty freely without having to worry too much about whether it would make the game industry news. If you dig deep enough into my Twitter past, I'm sure you can find a dozen things that would have gotten me fired once people inside Nintendo started seeing me as a spokesperson for the company!

I remember when I did my first press interview, some people were really nervous about it. Could I toe the company line? What if it was for something that my personal view sharply differed from the company view? That kind of thing. I think people were kind of on pins and needles about anything untoward I might say. And every once in a while, I'd give an answer that people didn't like, and some people would freak out, so they tried to scale things back. First they had me do interviews with someone from PR or marketing. Later they just decided that I shouldn't be in the press at all anymore. Throughout that entire time I still was doing the same kind of work as before: working with indie game developers to help them figure out whether releasing on the eShop would be a good opportunity for them, and if so, how to go about it, but kind of like it was for the first 7 years or so, it was more behind the scenes again.

Schreier: Did Nintendo really ask you not to tweet or speak publicly after what you said about region-locking? Can you talk a bit about what happened there? How did you feel about it?

Adelman: I don't think region locking itself was that sensitive an issue. It was more the straw that broke the camel's back. My first strike was when I hinted that we were finally changing our ridiculously outdated policy of requiring developers to work at an office outside of their homes. The second one was a Binding of Isaac question that they didn't like my answer to. The funny thing was that I was trying really hard to be as diplomatic about it as possible, since everyone knew I thought it was a really bad decision, but I guess it wasn't enough. I think there may have been a few other things. I had been strongly encouraged to stay off of Twitter – or at least say only things that were clearly safe – so after the region locking comment they just said I needed to stop completely. When people started complaining that I wasn't active on Twitter anymore, it was suggested that a PR person could just post in my name. I thought that was about the worst idea I'd ever heard, so I left it as is and let the silence speak for itself.

How do I feel about it? I have to admit it was really frustrating. So many developers felt comfortable reaching out to me on Twitter, and now that was being taken away. We were back to presenting ourselves as a behemoth, faceless company, which I saw as a major step backward.

Schreier: It's no secret that some of Nintendo's policies feel straight outta 1990, from the whole Binding of Isaac religion thing to the lack of cross-buy for 3DS/Wii U. You've criticized some of this stuff in the past — did you try to fight internally to change any of those policies? Why/why not? What happened?

Adelman: I saw my role as essentially having two parts. On the one hand, I was working for Nintendo inside the indie development community. On the other, I was working for the indie community inside Nintendo. So yeah, I absolutely did try to fight internally to change whatever I could. There were a ton of policies that have been updated and improved. I already mentioned about that office requirement. 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. 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.

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. 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.

There are a bunch of other business terms that were made much more favorable to developers. I think a lot of those are covered under NDA, so I can't go into detail about them, but suffice it to say, it made Nintendo much more comparable, and in many cases, even more indie-friendly than other platforms.

That said, there are still important things to fix. People ask me all the time about an account system. I think that would be great. I'd love to see the team that manages the layout of the eShop give more of that real estate to indies. Even now that I'm outside of Nintendo, I'll continue to offer constructive feedback.

Schreier: On the flip side, it does seem like Nintendo has successfully courted some big indies, like Shovel Knight, which has come out of nowhere to become one of the year's best games. How much of that was your doing?

Adelman: Hey, I'd love to take credit for every successful indie game on our system, but that would be really unfair to the developers. Yacht Club Games were the ones putting in 100-hour work weeks for months on Shovel Knight. For me to jump in and give myself credit for their success would be totally disingenuous. I gave some small suggestions here and there about their release timing, I helped them out by plugging them into a few marketing initiatives we were doing like Treehouse Live and our booth at PAX, but they are the rock stars. I was maybe the roadie. That's kind of how I see what I did for all of the great indie games that have launched over the years on Nintendo platforms.

I'm really glad that I was able to leave on a high note. In the last couple months, we've launched Shovel Knight on both Wii U and 3DS, 1001 Spikes also on both Wii U and 3DS, and Guacamelee STCE – all with Metacritics in the 80s and 90s. And there's a ton of great stuff coming!

Schreier: What's next for Nintendo's indie program? Will there still be an official indie program now that you're gone? Is someone new taking your place?

Adelman: I know there are going to be a bunch of forum comments and editorials saying, "OMG Nintendo is doomed!" but the truth is that Nintendo's indie program is in good hands. It was never really just me. There is a large group of people working on helping developers through the process and they're going to continue doing that. My understanding is that they are planning on back-filling my role. Before leaving, I put together a list of people I thought would be good candidates for the job and would be happy to provide any input they want. Having the right person in that role will be critical for the long-term health of the business, and I'm sure they're going to get someone great.

Schreier: What's next for you? Sounds like you've got something big in the works, huh? Tell me more!

Adelman: I've started having some conversations with a few developers, and it sounds like there's a lot of interest on both sides which is really fantastic. I think it's going to evolve a lot over time. I've got an idea in my mind how it should all work out, but every developer is going to have different needs. Some really just want to figure out how to get more press. Others are trying to decide whether to go Early Access on Steam or do a Kickstarter or raise money some other way. And then there are some who don't have an immediate problem they're trying to deal with but they just think it would be good to have a business guy on the team weighing in on all of the little decisions that ultimately shape the game and the positioning. One of the biggest unknowns for me right now is how much time per developer it's going to take for me to make a real impact, so I'm going to start off slow and make sure I don't bite off more than I can chew. I'm also going to be blogging about the business insights I'm gleaming from all of the projects I'm working on so that everyone can apply the same learnings. I guess my ultimate goal is to make myself obsolete!

I'm really excited. I've been hanging out with indie developers for so long and their entrepreneurial spirit is so infectious that I just felt I had to do it. I have to admit, going off on my own after having spent my entire career at large companies is a little scary and exhilarating. I vacillate between feeling like it's such a slam dunk that I'll wonder why I didn't do it years ago and feeling like I've just made the biggest mistake of my career. Time will tell, I suppose. Either way, it's exciting to be flying without a net!