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The Future Of The Wii U: Developers Speak

Wondering what developers think of Nintendo's new system? Gamasutra surveys developers from Capy to Rovio to Ubisoft and more to discover whether Nintendo's new system is leading the revolutionary charge or likely to be ignored by talent.

Game Developer, Staff

July 20, 2011

9 Min Read

When Nintendo took the wraps off its next-generation console -- the Wii U -- at E3 last month, it never expected the quick slap it got from investors -- who sent shares plummeting to their lowest levels in years.

"Honestly speaking, the reaction to our presentation and what I heard from people I met and the mood of the convention did not chime at all with what happened in the stock market," Nintendo president Satoru Iwata was quoted as saying. "It's very strange."

Strange indeed, since a handful of developers of different strata in the marketplace recently interviewed by Gamasutra had very different takes on the new console that is expected to hit shelves sometime in 2012.

Common to most of their opinions was the fact that not much is known about the hardware other than its name and the fact that it features HD graphics and a built-in 6.2-inch touchscreen tablet-inspired controller.

Not surprisingly, when Gamasutra chatted with the developers recently, it was Ubisoft who expressed the strongest enthusiasm for the Wii U. This is to be expected, as the publisher/developer intends to have five titles ready for play on the console when the hardware launches. Indeed, Ubisoft was the only publisher to show real Wii U games at E3 (including Nintendo, which only brought tech demos).

Ubisoft was also the first third party game publisher to have titles ready for the original Wii when it was released in 2006, and for the Nintendo 3DS portable earlier this year.

"My first reaction to the Wii U wasn't about horsepower or new features, but had to do with my excitement about its gameplay," says Xavier Poix, managing director of all of Ubisoft's studios in France. "And that's something you need some time to think about, so I'm not entirely surprised about the mixed feelings people expressed about the Wii U.

"They just didn't have the time to really understand what's new about the console and what it's really about -- the fact that, with the new touchscreen controller, you are enabling people to have a different tool to play together... you are offering two different playing experiences to two different players at the same time. That is very exciting."

He confirmed Ubisoft's earlier report that its five Wii U titles in development are the third-person shooter Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Online, Killer Freaks From Outer Space, an unannounced title in the Assassin's Creed franchise, a sports title, plus an addition to Ubisoft's Raving Rabbids series. He wouldn't elaborate further.

Poix suspects that the first Wii U customers will be gamers who are more hardcore than the typical Wii fans "since it is the hardcore gamer who usually wants to experience the newest things," he says, "which is why we aren't hesitating to come up with a first-person shooter game like Killer Freaks that appeals to that sort of player. But the rest of the family and the mobile gamers will follow very quickly after that, once they see what the console can do in the living room, how much it appeals to them, and its price point."

Meanwhile, the excitement is less palpable at Toronto-based indie developer Capybara Games, responsible for titles like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, and other downloadable titles.

"Let's just say the Wii U is 50-50 for me," says Nathan Vella, president and co-founder. "Nintendo has constantly proven that every time we see something weird and different from them, it ends up being something interesting. So part of me is like 'I totally trust what they do. I drink the Kool-Aid.' But, on the other hand, I really don't have a good understanding of what the Wii U is because all we saw at E3 were tech demos. So I haven't really formed an opinion yet. And I won't until I actually see the software."

While he viewed the Ubisoft teasers at E3, Vella says he is personally interested in the first-party titles from Nintendo which, he says, are always the ones that employ the interesting angles or gimmicks, and push the console in the farthest direction.

Then again, he says, "we all kinda know what games we'll be seeing. There'll be a Zelda and there'll be a Mario but, still, I was disappointed not to have seen full games at E3."

Does Vella see a place for Capy on the Wii U platform?

"I'm withholding judgment until I understand the hardware a little better," he says. "It's great to see Nintendo doing an HD console and I love the idea of being able to play your console anywhere around the house without actually being at the console.

"But, at the same time, I'm kind of confused about a tablet-type display without multitouch. I think we've all been taught by the iPad and the iPhone and Android that multitouch is normal for anything you touch now. So why not for the Wii U?"

Should the opportunity arise, however, Vella knows just how he would target the Wii U -- with games made specifically for the platform that use all of its key features. Ports, he says, will get no one excited about the console.

Looking ahead, Vella doesn't see his company doing anything for the Wii U for at least two years, "given the fact that Nintendo isn't really that keen on and doesn't overly support small studios like ours, especially when it comes to new platforms.

"Usually there are a couple of small indies who get early access and then, beyond that, everybody else has to wait in line before the big guys get their dev kits.

"So I don't think there's going to be a ton of opportunities for us small guys to develop on it. It would be totally amazing to make something for launch, but there are just so many kits available and the chance of us getting one before a Bethesda or a Retro just isn't going to happen. I'm just being realistic."

Vella reports that his "wait-and-see attitude" was shared by many of the developers he talked to at E3.

"They were all over the board about it, I recall," he says. "Some were super-excited, others really weren't too sure of what to make of it. In general, the prevailing feeling, I think, was 'It's really interesting and we'll leave it at that.'"

Gamasutra tried unsuccessfully to reach out to a few prominent iPhone developers -- including Finland-based Rovio Mobile (Angry Birds) and Pocket Gems in San Francisco (Tap Pet Hotel) -- but they were uninterested in commenting, which implies that the Wii U's touch functionality and Nintendo's increased focus on downloadable games still doesn't put the new system on their radar.

On the other hand, Jeremiah Slaczka, CEO and creative director at Bellevue, WA-based developer 5th Cell (Scribblenauts), was clearly enthusiastic, describing the Wii U as "a painter's palate. The more options the developer has -- the touchscreen, the motion controls, the camera, everything but the kitchen sink -- the more likely the designer can come up with creative new ideas to improve the gaming experience. That's why I really liked what I saw."

Slaczka reports that his studio is "definitely considering" working on the new console, especially since it has had early access to the hardware, but he "wasn't 100 percent sure. We're a smaller company so we can't just bet that big on everything. But we'll see. We're interested in it, for sure."

5th Cell has had a history of pursuing innovative products with polish for Nintendo platforms, and was one of the few developers who made successes of new IPs on the DS with both Scribblenauts -- the best-selling third-party IP on the DS for two years in a row -- and Drawn To Life.

Should his studio choose to target the Wii U, Slaczka reveals that its strategy would be to focus on the platform's strengths, which is what he would do regardless what platform he is building for.

"For example, on the iPhone, doing a more casual, one-touch game, like Angry Birds, makes a lot of sense," he explains. "What you wouldn't want to do is port a hardcore shooter to the iPhone and then expect the same sort of amazing sales that Angry Birds got."

That was 5th Cell's strategy for its DS success Drawn To Life -- determining the platform's strengths, understanding the gamers who are on it, analyzing its best features, and then playing to those strengths.

"With the Wii U, you need to focus on its power and its unique controller," says Slaczka. "What you don't want to do is take an existing PS3 or Xbox IP and just port it over."

It will be another year or so before it becomes clear what are the Wii U's demographics, adds Slaczka. "There's no telling at this point whether there will be more hardcore or casual gamers on the platform," he says. "When you decide what to build, you need to be absolutely certain not to ostracize the wrong crowd."

Slaczka believes Nintendo made a huge mistake by addressing the Wii U's controller at E3 but not its other specs right off the bat, which confused attendees and caused some not to share his own enthusiasm for the platform.

"That was the biggest issue for developers," he says. "They wanted to know how strong the console would be, how it compares to other existing consoles, and so on. There were so many conflicting reports which resulted in developers not appreciating the Wii U as much as they might have if they knew more."

As for Slaczka himself, he would have liked to have learned more about Nintendo's online plan: "If it won't be as robust as Xbox Live or even Steam, that's going to hurt the new platform. So I need to know more and, at this time, Nintendo just isn't saying more."

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