That last part about "international" is important. ComiXology’s sampling service, comiXology Unlimited, is currently limited to US customers only, although some comics, including comiXology Originals, are available worldwide through Kindle Unlimited. Madefire, the other main provider of digital comics, is available internationally but currently only offers single issues and no "all you can read" subscription plan. Madefire has diversified to a bunch of platforms and formats over the years, but is not yet on Switch. So perhaps there is a niche in the digital comics market (which has not expanded much since 2014, according to ICv2 estimates) that this new service could fill?
Small device, growing footprint. InkyPen is hoping to piggyback on the growing popularity of Switch, which debuted in March 2017 and had cumulative worldwide sales of nearly 17.8 million by April, 2018, according to Statistica. It added nearly 8 million of that total in the first four months of the year, indicating an accelerating demand for the handheld game platform that also connects to external monitors.
Eighteen to twenty million Switch users isn’t a huge base to build on compared to the billions who carry smartphones or use tablets, but Switch customers are gamers, and getting additional game-related content on the same platform they use to play might have some appeal.
The challenge is that the Switch device, which is meant for portable gaming, offers a 6.2-inch screen at 1280x720 resolution. That’s not a huge amount of space to present comic pages, especially without some kind of panel-by-panel or pan-and-scan reading application. Screenshots provided by InkyPen show portions of a page represented horizontally in the Switch display, with navigation using the controllers on either side. Even when projected onto a larger monitor, that doesn’t look like an ideal reading experience.
Modest content offerings at launch. InkyPen’s announcement touts "a large catalogue of graphic novels and comics... from all over the world, including U.S. comic books, manga and European comics." Named content partners include IDW, Valiant, Dynamite, Titan, Humanoids and Andrew McMeel, with "new publishers coming soon." Asked how many titles that means initially, CEO Ronan Huggard said it was hard to say since it’s growing fast. "You couldn’t read them all, any more than you could watch all of Netflix," he said. "We also believe in quality so we’re are not just taking everything we can. I don’t think anyone wants this to be a numbers game."
Naturally the biggest publishers (Marvel, DC and Image, which together account for more than 80% of the North American comics market) are the most conspicuous by their absence. "We have approached them all in some capacity," said Huggard. "We already have deals with some of the larger publishers and some are in negotiations so I wouldn’t want to comment on those. The hope is to have them all eventually and some of those you mentioned already seem keen. I would expect us to have one or more of them either by launch or soon after. Marvel and DC are obviously special cases, and in our experience you can correlate the size if a company with how long it takes to get them onboard. We’ve been blown away by how positive publishers have been so far though so you never know!"
The play’s the thing. Considering the fact that Switch is primarily a gaming platform, it is possible that the biggest names missing from the launch list are not the "usual suspects," but rather Dark Horse and VIZ Media, two of the largest publishers of videogame-related comics (along with Titan, an announced partner at launch).
Dark Horse not only publishes a range of game-oriented titles ranging from Blizzard’s Overwatch and World of Warcraft to Angry Birds, but are also selling huge quantities of game-oriented art books and are making the most overt moves of any comic publisher to appeal to gamers at events like PAX. VIZ publishes licensed comics tied to gaming titles popular on Switch such as Dragon Ball and Pokémon. If you are aiming for gamers who are also comic fans, this seems like a good place to start.
Despite the potential in this area, Huggard says that specific appeal to gamers isn’t really the main strategy. "It’s good that gamers can explore comics based on worlds they know and love that are great in their own right," he said. "But that said we are focused on providing the best content regardless of where it comes from."
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.