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Wii U and Indies: Will it Work This Time?

You can almost count WiiWare's successful titles on one hand. Will Nintendo's expanded online focus for its next console boost the fortunes of indie developers this time around? Gamasutra speaks to several developers to find out their take.

July 9, 2012

10 Min Read

Author: by Mike Rose

As part of Nintendo's E3 presentation, the publisher was keen to show off all the huge names it has lined up for the upcoming Wii U.

With games like Batman: Arkham City, Scribblenauts Unlimited and Mass Effect 3, not to mention first-party offerings Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros. U, the video game giant is hoping to ensnare both hardcore and more casual gamers.

Buried underneath all the explosive announcements and big-name brands, however, there are around a dozen indie developers who are working away at announced titles for the Wii U's online store.

From well-known indies like Frozenbyte to the lesser-known Pwnee Studios, there is a definite indie showing for the Wii U that is yet to be properly explored, raising the question -- is Nintendo once again putting its online game offerings down the bottom of the to-do list?

"If we didn't have faith that Nintendo is going to fix their digital games store, we wouldn't be releasing Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien on the Wii U," says Alex Neuse, of Gaijin Games.

The Bit.Trip studio already had a longstanding relationship with Nintendo thanks to its WiiWare rhythm series, making the transition to Wii U rather smooth. "We were able to approach our totally awesome inside man and trick him into getting us on the list for devkits relatively early," says Neuse. "Of course, we had to re-apply for Wii U development status, since the Wii developer status doesn't automatically carry over; so there was some paperwork involved.

"But basically, we told them very early on that we thought we could hit the launch window with Runner2 for whatever their downloadable service is going to be, and they seemed to like that idea. We'll see if we can actually pull it off."

Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien

It's tricky for Neuse to compare developing for the Wii U with his work on the original Wii, as Gaijin has made so many changes internally since its Wii development first started out.

He notes, "Since Runner2 is going to be multi-platform, we're not relying on any Nintendo-specific tech, which all of the previous games in the Bit.Trip series had done. Because we're using tech developed internally, the project has been much easier. Using tech that you didn't have a part in developing is always a challenge on a certain level, and we've tried to avoid doing that with Runner2 as much as possible."

"So, other than the Wii U being bigger, better, faster, stronger, it's hard for us to speak specifically to what Nintendo has done to make the job easier."

Fortunately, Felix Bohatsch of Broken Rules, who is currently working on Chasing Aurora for Wii U, and previously released platformer And Yet It Moves for the Wii, has a little more insight into the differences, saying that work on the Wii U is easier than on the Wii.

"It is challenging, but also very exciting, to work with new hardware," he says. "We've been in close contact with Nintendo since the release of And Yet It Moves on WiiWare. When we presented early prototypes of Chasing Aurora to publishers and first parties, we always included Nintendo as well.

"They liked what they saw and we liked the opportunity to release Chasing Aurora during the launch period of a new console. It was great working with them last time, so we are looking forward to another partnership."

Nintendo is learning from its past mistakes with online distribution, claims Bohatsch, and this can be seen with its handling of the Nintendo 3DS eShop.

"The 3DS eShop is already so much better in comparison," says Bohatsch. "I'm sure the shop on the Wii U will be a big improvement as well. Nintendo's overall strategy is way more focused on connectivity. This should help overcome the biggest problem of the Wii shop, which is that many Wii consoles are not even connected to the internet."

It's next-to-impossible to analyze just how well 3DS eShop developers are doing as of now, thanks to Nintendo's usual tight-lippedness about sales figures, and insistence that developers do not divulge figures themselves.

However, numerous 3DS developers have already applauded the success of the platform, including Mutant Mudds developer Renegade Kid and Marvel Pinball 3D's Zen Studios -- the latter of which called the eShop "a little gold mine."

Whatever the case, the platform certainly comes across as a huge step forward from the WiiWare store, which suffered from sales thresholds for developers and poor overall sales.

As a result, some studios have clearly been put off developing for the Wii U's digital service, including MDK2 re-release developer Beamdog, which suffered from the Wii's requirement that a game achieve 6,000 sales before Nintendo would pay -- at all -- and its drawn-out certification process.

La-Mulana's former publisher Nicalis also cancelled the WiiWare version of the classic game earlier this year, citing WiiWare and Nintendo's allegedly poor submissions process -- all issues that developers will be hoping Nintendo fixes for its next digital store.

Back on the Wii U eShop front, Bohatsch was "a bit surprised" that the Wii U's own eShop wasn't mentioned at all during E3, although having seen the social connectivity and online game services that the Wii U will provide, he is confident that Nintendo is heading in the right direction.

"I really like the asynchronous connectivity of the Miiverse. Especially the messaging system that can be built into the games -- it reminds me a lot of Demon's Souls," he muses.

"These kinds of social interaction turn games into living spaces, where other human beings can leave their marks and help each other out. I think Nintendo is on the right track, so let's see how their games will use that."

Toki Tori 2

Collin van Ginkel of Two Tribes is looking to bring Toki Tori 2 to the Wii U's download service. As with Gaijin and Broken Rules, Two Tribes already worked on games for Nintendo's Wii download service, and so had a foot in the digital door.

However, van Ginkel adds that expressing early interest in developing for the console helped the company to secure a dev kit and potential release for the Wii U launch window.

"As a general rule, I think it helps to keep Nintendo in the loop on what your plans are, even if they can't help you out straight away," he adds.

As for development on the Wii U, the Two Tribes dev notes that Nintendo has really upped its game, allowing for huge triple-A titles to be properly ported over -- unlike some of the downgraded ports seen on its predecessor.

"The old Wii used a type of graphics hardware that basically became extinct a couple of years after the GameCube was released, so you had to make quite a few changes to get your PC/Xbox/PS3 engine to run on the Wii," he notes.

"For Wii U this is no longer the case, which is why you see Unreal Engine 3 games such as Mass Effect 3 being announced. This should make it much easier for most people to develop their graphical engines for Wii U."

Like his fellow Wii U indies, van Ginkel has watched the way in which Nintendo has advanced its online services in recent times, and was extremely happy to get cracking with it.

"One of the reasons why we're so excited about Wii U is because of the recent changes at Nintendo regarding their online strategy," he explains. "Recent developments such as the 3DS eShop and the announcement of full priced titles getting day-one downloads give us confidence Nintendo won't stick to their WiiWare policies."

On the topic of Nintendo's Miiverse, van Ginkel finds it notable that Nintendo is presenting these social aspects as one of the main drawing points of the Wii U -- a far cry from Nintendo's past forays into the world of online social gaming.

However, he is wary of Nintendo's past, yet is hopeful that this leopard can change its spots. "I do hope they'll keep working on it after launch, since that was one of the gripes we had with WiiWare, the lack of updates to fix the issues it had," he adds.

Trine developer Frozenbyte hadn't worked with Nintendo before the Wii U. However, when the publisher contacted Frozenbyte about the possibility of a title for Wii U, Frozenbyte's Joel Kinnunen says the studio was very interested.

"We were a little cautious at first before spending time with the dev kits," admits Kinnunen, "but when we got them and got the game running, that gave us confidence to go forward properly. Nintendo has supported us very well throughout."

For the Wii U version of Trine 2 -- a game which is already available for PC, Mac, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 -- Frozenbyte wanted to do something special with the game. "As always in game development, there's a million things you'd like to change in any released game," he tells us.

"Trine 2 was quite good but we still had a lot of things that sort of just lurked in the back of our minds, and we had been thinking about some new multiplayer modes as well. So we had the desire to make the game better and with Wii U we also had the perfect platform to do so."

He adds, "That's how Trine 2: Director's Cut was born. We were also working on the expansion campaign, so that is a great addition for Wii U, too."

Although Frozenbyte's experience with Nintendo is limited, the company is going into the upcoming launch with certain high expectations. "We are confident that the Wii U online store will be a very different experience [to the online store of the Wii]," says Kinnunen.

"We're going in with the expectation that Nintendo will be able to match or even surpass the other platforms this time around. Miiverse seems very intriguing and some of the features are a very good fit for Trine 2: Director's Cut. Our goal is to provide one of the best online multiplayer experiences for Wii U users."

Trine 2

Pwnee Studios is another team that has limited to no experience working with Nintendo prior to its Wii U development. The studio originally approached Nintendo about bringing its game Cloudberry Kingdom to the Wii, and Nintendo suggested that the studio should instead bring the game to the Wii U.

"We initially got excited when we saw that Nintendo was serious about revamping their digital marketplace," says Pwnee president Jordan Fisher. "Nintendo is also the father of the platformer genre, so we really wanted to pay respect to that and bring Cloudberry back to its roots.

"In terms of the new peripherals, we didn't seek out Nintendo with ideas in mind. We planned on doing a pretty vanilla port. It wasn't until E3 that we got inspired by the new hardware, and are now pushing to innovate with it."

Pwnee has found Nintendo to be very supportive every step of the way, says Fisher. "Ultimately though, how friendly the Wii U is to indies depends on how well the new digital marketplace performs. Talking to Nintendo we're excited about the changes they're bringing, but only time will tell how deeply Nintendo fans embrace the new marketplace."

In terms of online functionality and social connectivity, Nintendo is taking notes from the likes of Steam and other downloadable marketplaces, and making the obvious necessary changes to ensure the Wii U can hold its own online, Fisher believes.

He adds, "The Miiverse is ambitious beyond that, though, and must successfully pivot around a more casual audience. I don't think anyone is in a position to comment on how successful that will be, but I'm confident that at least core gamers will get what they want."

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