In the third instalment of our week-long investigation into the burgeoning and fast-growing WiiWare game development scene we chose to ask a panel of selected independent developers a broad question: why have a number of studios, many newly formed, rushed to develop WiiWare titles and so loudly proclaimed love for the platform?
The knee-jerk answer is obvious – the Wii itself. The platform’s massive success in the past 12 months and its fast-growing userbase skewed towards more casual players have been well documented – and as eager as publishers have been to quickly make and sign titles to capitalise on the boom at retail, so too are developers when it comes to how that may be reflected in the digital download stakes.
Ask a developer what excites them about the Wii, and they’ll tell you plainly that it’s the Wiimote controller. "I think everyone had ideas when they saw it and we were certainly no exception. It was the realization that developing these ideas was actually within our grasp that led us to moving toward Wiiware as a development platform." These words, by Medaverse CEO Jesse Lowther, will be familiar to many, echoing countless interviews with developers since the official unveiling of the controller at Tokyo Game Show 2005.
When it comes WiiWare, it is what that creative accessibility means for the future of the Wii platform – and what James Brooksby, head of Kuju-owned Doublesix, calls "the potential appeal of a huge untapped audience" – which has helped draw developers in.
At the official unveiling of the WiiWare platform in June last year at the Nintendo Developers Conference in Santa Monica, the format-holder described WiiWare thusly: “WiiWare provides developers with big ideas, rather than big budgets, an easy and very accessible way to create new games and bring them to the marketplace.” Clearly, this strategy has ignited imaginations.
Adds Lowther: "We were quick to leap on WiiWare because it offered us the chance to develop for the Wii with little comparative risk involved."
Of course providing lower-risk and higher-rewards is something Nintendo is currently praised and famed for in the industry across the board – its DS and Wii offer the same promise in the face of rivals the PSP or Xbox 360. But knowingly introducing a lower-class of hardware (at least from a coding and production stance when you compare Wii development with that for 360 and PS3) hasn’t just been about forcing developers to come up with games more oriented towards ‘casual’ or inclusive gameplay – it’s seen Nintendo create a more inclusive environment for developers as well.
Developers across the board have said that Nintendo’s third-party developer relations have changed drastically in recent years, and the various facets of WiiWare that contrast with the likes of Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network – specifically creating a relatively open platform to which developers can upload whatever they want as long as they handle their own QA, ESRB/PEGI ratings and marketing – are another part of that.
"As an independent casual developer in our fifth year, the jump into console development would have previously required a massive infusion of capital and at least some loss of control over our vision," explains Skye J. W. Boyes, head of Canadian outfit XGen. Although a veteran creator of casual titles, including some games many will be familiar with from popular Flash games site Kongregate, the studio’s recent move to WiiWare production marks its first console game development.
And in lowering barriers and diversifying in the control interface stakes, Nintendo has also helped make ‘risky’ ideas less risky, adds Boyes: "WiiWare presents an opportunity for studios to enter the console market with a relatively small development budget, and the ability to justify greater risk with innovative or unproven game designs."
Nic Watt, the creative director of Australian team Nnooo, one of the many new studios that has opened up purely to make WiiWare titles, adds that the team "found getting approved with Nintendo much easier" than working with other format-holders, praising the lack of concept approval which many other developers will tell you off the record frustrates them when dealing with other format holders.
"We found trying to get a downloadable title approved on other platforms prohibitively expensive as we needed to supply artwork and demos to be looked at and if that demo is not signed we could have spent three to six months worth of development money and be nowhere," he says.
"Nintendo’s stance has been about getting studios with good ideas and letting them decide what content to make rather than trying to dictate everything which goes on the channel.
"This allows us to focus on making a great game rather than making pitch after pitch – which costs us small developers a lot of money. Nintendo realises that they cannot be the arbiters of good/bad ideas and instead let us make that decision." he adds.
And there’s also another side-effect of the more welcoming approach, of which Nintendo is no-doubt keenly aware: WiiWare helps grow the ecosystem of developers around its console, keep attention on its own products and provides a stepping-stone for developers to get to ‘full’ Wii game development.
Explains Roel Van Nyen, co-owner and development manager of Gabitasoft, which recently signed a WiiWare production deal with Merscom to produce a number of games for the channel: "I think for a lot smaller studios WiiWare can also be a road to get to the development of bigger Wii games as the budgets are lower and development time less."
However, WiiWare is not a means to an end, adds Ruud van de Moosdyk, VP of development at Dutch studio Engine Software, who told us that he fears some will "see the WiiWare platform as an easy and quick way to make money". But in time sales and reviews will put paid to that approach, he says. "I fear a lot of the will underestimate what needs to be done to develop a worthy WiiWare game and make it a commercial success. Seeing WiiWare as a low-entry service for simple products would be a mistake."
Of course, many think ‘small, simple’ and they think ‘casual’ – but WiiWare isn’t just a platform for short-form or older games unlike, say, Xbox Live Arcade (whose name gives away the style of game available on the service).
"You definitely can produce ‘bigger’ games for the service," says Nnooo’s Watt, explaining that the studio’s first title Pop was deliberately conceived as "a casual, short-session title" so the team could focus as much on building a studio business, working quickly to produce a game that launches early in the life of the WiiWare channel and make sure they didn’t "become one of those companies which is always talking about their game but never finishing it".
He adds: "Each game we make from here on in will offer more sophisticated use of the Wii and the Wii Remote and will have more content."
"I think that you will see ‘bigger’ games quite quickly on WiiWare, definitely in time it will happen," agrees Doublesix’s Brooksby. "The destiny for all digital distribution platforms is to have a varied landscape of titles, casual, hardcore, short, long, and I don’t see why WiiWare should be any different."
Gabitasoft’s Van Nyen says that, instead of purely focusing on casual games, WiiWare developers will soon start to utilise the fact that its a digital distribution platform Nintendo is essentially allowing developers to decide the direction of by experimenting further, taking chances on episodic content – which he adds mass-market consumers will be more receptive to than the industry has so far thought. He says: "One way this will work I think is when we work with small packages of more content. You buy the initial version and you can add more content later for a few additional credits. This way it won’t be too pricy for the consumer at once."
And that, in fact seems to be the real answer to our first question – WiiWare has quickly garnered so much support not simply because ‘it’s by Nintendo’, but because it truly does ignite creativity, and allows for more ways to take a chance on capitalising on that creativity.
As Chris Swan, director of Blitz Games’ digital download label Arcade says: "It’s my guess that WiiWare will have the most varied mix of titles when compared to XBLA or PSN, and that includes extremes of gameplay lengths as well as quality and numbers of features. So I’d therefore say it’s inevitable that some games will end up having a great amount of depth and playing time. And with Nintendo’s userbase I’m sure there’ll be someone out there who would welcome the experience if it’s well made."
That point about the contrast with XBLA and PSN leads us to our next question: while there’s arguably a clear content contrast, how does WiiWare stack up financially when compared to Microsoft and Sony’s offerings, which have famously touted themselves as fiduciary lifelines for independent studios? For the answer to that. you’ll have to tune in later this week.