For the first in our series of features examining the upcoming WiiWare platform and developers' support for the service, we talk to Frontier boss Braben about his studio's game LostWinds, a launch title for the distribution platformâ?¦

WiiWare Week: Portrait of a launch title

When you announced the game at GDC, you talked up the game’s story as well as it’s concept – how have you managed to balance that with WiiWare’s demand for the shorter-session, more casual titles?

We feel there is pent up demand from Wii owners for something innovative that delivers deep, involving, Wii-specific gameplay in a beautiful skin. LostWinds is a platform adventure that offers something fresh and different by taking advantage of the Wii controller – putting ‘the power of the wind in the palm of your hand’.

[img :204]The story of LostWinds is set in the enchanting land of Mistralis, a magical place that was created by elemental spirits, one of whom, Balasar, tried to usurp the others and rule Mistralis and its inhabitants as a god. The spirits created a Spirit Stone to trap Balasar, and Enril the wind spirit bravely duelled with him and forced him into it, at the cost of being trapped with him. Ultimately, Balasar’s centuries of frenzied rage caused the Spirit Stone to shatter into seven shards – he escaped and set about tightening his evil grip on Mistralis, leaving Enril trapped in the shards. One shard of the Stone was found and is carried by Toku, an inquisitive young boy. Together Toku and Enril set off to restore the LostWind powers of Enril, re-awaken her sibling spirits and foil Balasar. The player controls Toku with the Nunchuck, and Enril via the WiiRemote.

This sets up a really interesting co-operative dynamic in the controller system, because Toku is relatively small and vulnerable yet he has physical presence in the world, whereas Enril has no physical presence, just a localised sphere of influence of wind power around the shard of Spirit Stone that Toku is carrying. So the player has to think how to use the two characters cooperatively, they need each other to progress through the world on their adventure. That’s provided us with lots of new mechanics to play with, from ways to get around (using Enril’s powers to waft Toku through the air, of course), ways to combine natural elements of the world such as siphoning water onto soil to grow various buds that Toku and Enril can use, and of course cool new ways to overcome enemies – suspending one of Balasar’s Glorbs in a mid-air vortex and then gusting it into the ground is very satisfying!

The control system is very tactile; it’s a joy to use. The whole experience is very playful and encourages exploration – everything in Mistralis bursts to life when exposed to Enril’s wind power, making for a very rewarding experience for those who experiment with the world.

So while casual, short-session games have been said to be the focus of the service, you think developers will be able to produce longer or more in-depth experiences for the service as well? Frontier is known for making those ‘bigger’ kind of games…

These things have a habit of taking on life beyond the original intentions of their designers, don’t they? We’ll of course be looking to maximise what we can offer people within the framework of the system we’re working on – Frontier has always tried to push the envelope, but it does seem likely that short session games will be common.

In LostWinds there are 22 richly interactive levels and much replayability but more importantly for us with WiiWare, Nintendo seemed to us to want to encourage innovation from developers. With LostWinds we think we’ve been able to deliver something that closely matches their ambition for WiiWare: a high quality, great-looking game focussing on the novel Wii-specific control mechanic and the new gameplay ideas that flow from that. So we think LostWinds already is a big experience in that dimension.

Where did the idea itself for LostWinds come from?

The genesis of the idea is an interesting one. At Frontier we have long encouraged debate and discussion on games design/ideas, and have an internal forum dedicated to sharing ideas and opinions under the name of ‘Game of the Week’. The scope ranges from one-liner game ideas like ‘we should do X’ to fully-fledged design documents being posted. This causes a great deal of debate, criticism and argument, with many improvements, problems being raised and solved – we have likened the process to dangling a leg of lamb into a piranha-filled stream: the water boils for a while, but then whatever is left must be pretty tough.

Over the years we have built up a great store of excellent ideas (and some involving monkeys with detachable limbs). Some of these have been discussed with publishers, and some of which have been incorporated into other games, but LostWinds is the first opportunity we’ve had to take one of these forum ideas and deliver on it ‘fully-formed’.

So the idea, WiiWare and the availibility of the right set of people to work on it all came together. All in all its been a very exciting experience for the company. It’s definitely somthing we want to do more of; distribution channels like WiiWare are a great extra outlet for our creativity.

On that note: as a long-running and established independent developer what advantages does WiiWare provide you when compared to other publishing relationships?

The bottom line is the fact that scale of the game and ease of distribution are such that we are able to fund and bring it to market ourselves. We take the risk and therefore get to keep much more of the money. This guarantees creative control of course, but also brings other challenges.

I think Frontier is pretty mature in the way we conduct ourselves and and we have developed very open, constructive relationships with our publishers, so we don’t suffer from frustrations about lack of control very often at all – and we certainly appreciate the different perspective and focus external eyes can give. We know it’s all too easy to get too close to something as a developer to see problems, so to address this we still use focus tests as we would with a disc-based game, to make sure the game is accessible and fun. It also means some other issues have to be covered by us that would normally be arranged by a pulisher like localisation, ESRB and PEGI ratings… and us being the ones to suddenly ask for the marketing screenshots at zero notice!

Do you think WiiWare offers anything which other consoles’ digital distribution platforms do not?

At the risk of sounding trite the really exciting thing is that it offers us the Wii audience – both the installed worldwide numbers and the profile of gamer. So in that sense WiiWare is a unique opportunity, but there are also features which it is not for us to announce that make us especially attracted to the service.

One criticism levelled at Xbox Live Arcade is that retro titles have overrun new IP. Wii of course keeps retro separate with the Virtual Console channel – do you think that this will help new concepts succeed better via WiiWare?

It’s not just versions of old games on XBLA, it is ‘retro style’ games too, and general mediocrity. But across the industry novel, high-quality titles are at a premium, as they have always been – even at retail. Separating the Virtual Console channel is a very good start, but the issue of mediocre games sludging any service is a big issue.

From what we’ve seen so far we think Nintendo is well aware of this and is set to do a good job with these aspects of WiiWare.

Financially, what kind of impact do you expect or hope sales of your WiiWare game to have on the studio’s business?

We are extremely proud of the game, and we expect it to do well – it is clearly a fantastic opportunity for us and we’re doing our best to grab it with both hands. There are enough Wiis in the world that LostWinds has the potential to make us as much profit/royalty income as a disc-based game. Given that we only work on two or three of those at any one time, that’s a potentially significant positive impact on our business.

We’re fortunate to be financially robust enough and have ongoing contracted projects with publishing partners that LostWinds isn’t a make or break venture for us in monetary terms. I think the really significant impact LostWinds will have is to gain the experience from developing and promoting a game on a download channel like this. The lessons we will learn on the way will be invaluable as digital downloads increase in significance as a distribution medium.

And how do the costs of developing a WiiWare game compare to the games you have made previously (both console titles, and any you might have looked at for Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network)?

With LostWinds we have been able to significantly streamline the development process. One huge advantage was the fact that we could test gameplay of the game, without having to make it beautiful – as we generally would in a publishing relationship. This has enabled us to get the project off the ground far more quickly, than we would otherwise. Costs also come down to what is needed to be made within the game. Lost Winds is a very focussed game, so not only is it ideal for the WiiWare service, but is also therefore cheaper to develop.

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