It was an exciting day for developer Strange Scaffold. In less than 24 hours, it would launch its next game, Sunshine Shuffle, on PC and Nintendo Switch. The narrative poker game about cute animals (who also happen to be former bank robbers) had been slowly building momentum ever since it was announced on a Day of the Devs stream last November. On the eve of its release, the studio was preparing for a fairly routine launch for its indie hidden gem.
Things didn’t quite go according to plan.
One day before its release, the game’s Nintendo Switch store page was blocked and rejected in North America. It turned out that Nintendo had some serious questions about whether the game encouraged children to gamble. It was an odd concern considering the fact that Sunshine Shuffle doesn’t feature any microtransactions or loot boxes like other games available on the platform (even some of Nintendo’s own games); it’s just a kitchen sink drama where animals discuss their troubled pasts over rounds of Texas Hold ’em.
The concerns weren’t entirely out of left field, though. In the months leading up to its launch, Strange Scaffold studio head Xalavier Nelson Jr. had been running a marketing campaign on his TikTok in which he created a series of playful reels about the game. They featured a specific running joke, which Nelson repeated in multiple videos: Sunshine Shuffle definitely doesn’t teach children how to gamble!
“I have goofed too close to the sun this time!” Nelson Jr. said in a chaotic TikTok video explaining what happened.
Sunshine Shuffle’s bizarre, hilarious launch story is a fitting one. The game itself is all about risks going wrong, both in its poker gameplay and in the lives of its bank-robbing animal cast. In an interview with Digital Trends, Nelson Jr. explained how his own high-stakes gamble went so wrong that it got the game permanently banned in Korea. It’s a disaster launch, but one that might pay off in the end.
Sunshine Shuffle is a hybrid of Animal Crossing and Poker Night at the Inventory, a short-lived series of narrative poker games from Telltale Games. In it, players take the role of a detective who’s joined a poker tournament on a boat with a group of animals called the Morning Shift. Through rounds of Texas Hold ’em, the characters at the table slowly detail that they were part of a heist that went wrong and tell their life stories in the process.
It isn’t the easiest game to sell. It’s essentially a visual novel that unfolds like a mature one-act play, but it looks like a cute children’s game. Nelson Jr. knew it would be a challenging project to embark on from the jump.
“The thing about Sunshine Shuffle, and games in this genre of poker narratives in general, is that they are terrifying hellscapes to work on because they require perfection,” he tells Digital Trends. “I interviewed and talked to the people who worked on these games at Telltale, and they gave us so many helpful hints. But what they didn’t tell us until much, much later was that every person who touched Poker Night at the Inventory was irreparably scarred and either wore that as a badge of pride or as one of the horror stories of their career … If any piece of it messes up at any time, you’re the dumbass who fucked up attaching a visual novel to a basic-ass poker game.”
That complicated development cycle would make it very difficult to promote the game. For a chunk of its development, Strange Scaffold couldn’t really show the game at all due to its hidden complexities. For instance, there was a long stretch of time where the animals at the table couldn’t hold their cards correctly. Issues like that meant that the team would have to get very creative in finding compelling ways to communicate what Sunshine Shuffle was really about. That’s where TikTok came into play.
“I had to find a way to talk about this game that we cared about and do that in a way that didn’t rely on capturing perfect, seamless game footage,” Nelson Jr. says. “So I was going to talk about the story and the themes and what it was achieving, and the tagline I landed on. ‘Hey, it’s a game that doesn’t teach kids how to gamble.’ The obvious concern I had was that people were going to get angry at us for playing a game where you have gambling occurring and it looks like it’s a game for kids. So I thought, what if I take that potential negative energy and make that our entire tagline and make it suspicious and weird and something that people can attach to.”
With each passing post, Nelson Jr. would up the ante on his bit. It started with him making quick asides in videos about how the game definitely doesn’t promote child gambling, but got more ridiculous from there. One video, shot in black-and-white, features Nelson Jr. sadly moping around underneath the following text: “The orphans of the world, with no game to not teach them to gamble.” Then, Sunshine Shuffle’s colorful Nintendo Switch store listing pops into frame with hopeful music — a savior to those poor orphans.
Early on, Nelson Jr.’s pool of followers all seemed to be in on the joke. Viewers played along with him in the comment section of his videos, and he created several reels responding to some of them. One recent Steam review of the game reads: “As a ten year old child, I am forever grateful to this game for teaching me to gamble and inspiring a desire to do more of it for even more real money.” The only people who raised a red flag about the campaign were his family.
“The primary people concerned and confused were my parents,” Nelson Jr. says. “They said, ‘Why do you keep saying that the game doesn’t teach children to gamble’ and I said, ‘Because it’s funny, Mom!’ … . This should have been the canary in the coal mine for me.”
Through the months leading up to Sunshine Shuffle’s launch, it didn’t seem like any platform holder was in danger of falling for that joke. But as the launch day approached, two very big things went wrong at once. The most major problem came when Nintendo performed a final interrogation of the game before its launch. Despite the fact that the game has passed all its previous checks, the publisher began asking serious questions about its gambling mechanics. For instance, the company asked if the game had some sort of cooldown function after a player busts out. The concerns were odd considering what the game actually is, but Nelson Jr. admits that he joked his way into a corner there.
“If I were to call up frantically and attempt to explain our case, they could, with a quick Google search, find the most suspicious fucking material ever to be presented on the internet around a game,” he said.
Digital Trends reached out to Nintendo for comment on why the game was rejected and whether or not it would be allowed on the eShop at all. We did not receive a comment from Nintendo in time for publication. Fortunately, the issue is exclusive to Nintendo Switch North America. It still launched as planned on Steam and is available now. The game is also available in other countries via the eShop — except for one. In an even weirder twist of fate, Sunshine Shuffle was denied a Game Rating and Administration Committee (GRAC) rating in Korea ahead of its launch, effectively banning it from the country permanently.
The situation created a last-minute headache for Strange Scaffold. When I spoke to Nelson Jr. on the morning of Sunshine Shuffle’s launch, he mentioned that he’d been awake for 24 hours at that point. He’d spent the night bouncing between trying to solve the problem, doing interviews with the press, and documenting the bizarre story on TikTok. That last part wasn’t a distraction from a more important task; it was a necessary chapter in the game’s long narrative.
“It’s obviously distressing to learn, the day before launch, that you aren’t going to be able to launch in the market of your primary audience,” Nelson Jr. says. “Like, I didn’t expect to sell copies in Korea! I think Korea’s really cool, but I wasn’t thinking about Korea for this game. So for it to emerge Super Smash Bros.-style and say, ‘Korea enters the fight!’ and reject us from sale … I’ve just been documenting in real time the process of what it looks like to make an unusual, potentially misunderstood game and see it get actively misunderstood in a way that’s hopefully compelling and lighthearted despite my obvious panic.”
While that story might sound like a nightmare for game developers, there’s a thick silver lining to the story. Nelson Jr.’s reel detailing what happened found breakout success on TikTok, picking up over 20,000 views in less than 24 hours at the time of writing. The extra attention would bring some confusion too. The post has had a far enough reach that it’s pulled in some confused viewers who aren’t in on the joke. Some comments praised Nintendo for rejecting the game, voicing their distaste of microtransactions — something Sunshine Shuffle doesn’t have.
Ironically, the Switch rejection would get a lot of eyes on the game, even if that viral success may not outweigh a position on the Switch eShop. Even so, Nelson Jr. is quietly grateful for the absurd opportunity that landed in his lap.
“One of the worst things you can have as a developer is to put years of your life into something and have it quietly sink beneath the waves. In the front of my head, it’s deep, active, animal panic. The back of my head is going, huh, regardless of what happens with this game critically or commercially, the fact that something weird and objectively funny and bad has happened means that we get to have a story. We get to have a story around and about this game that we care about. It can’t sink beneath the waves; it at least got to be a part of our interesting creative lives. That’s a rare opportunity and something I’m very thankful for.”
Sunshine Shuffle is an interesting case study for anyone looking to use social media to promote their own games or creative projects — even if its current release headache isn’t an ideal outcome to strive for. Nelson Jr.’s comedic social media campaign allowed him to shape an evolving metanarrative for the game that was more reactive than a standard gaming ad blitz. Like the members of the Morning Shift crew, he took a gamble that may not have gone entirely according to plan, but sometimes it’s worth taking those risks to get your name out there.
We have unintentionally done a months-long setup to a hilarious, horrific punch line.
Nelson Jr. does have some words of caution for anyone looking to capture that success. He stresses the importance of giving yourself moments that don’t need to be observed by the rest of the world. He also notes that Sunshine Shuffle’s story only worked out the way it did because it was a genuine, organic moment. Strange Scaffold very much played the hands it was dealt, turning a bum hand into a surprise flush. That’s not the kind of play you can create on purpose.
“Do not attempt to manufacture this,” Nelson Jr. says. “It is immediately obvious. The reason this works – quote, unquote works – for us is because all of this is authentic. We’ve already been documenting our process. We have unintentionally done a months-long setup to a hilarious, horrific punchline.”
Sunshine Shuffle is currently available on PC. It is scheduled to launch on Nintendo Switch, but is still not available in North America.