Interview: Frontier's Braben On LostWinds' Return To WiiWare

Frontier Developments chair and industry vet David Braben talks about his next game, LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias, the follow-up to the 2008 platformer, and how WiiWare "is maturing into a serious platform."
[Frontier Developments chair and industry vet David Braben talks about his next game, LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias, the follow-up to the 2008 platformer, and how WiiWare "is maturing into a serious platform."] One of the biggest titles at the launch of Nintendo's digital WiiWare service was Lost Winds -- a fantastic example of what WiiWare games can provide. With the sequel Lost Winds: Winter of the Melodias just around the corner, we spoke with David Braben, chairman of Frontier and executive producer of LostWinds, to discuss the new abilities the player has, his thoughts on the WiiWare service, and plenty more. How did the concept for the original Lost Winds come about? David Braben: 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-line 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. The idea for LostWinds dates from the time that the Wii was first announced, when it was still "the Revolution." We were brainstorming design ideas that made good use of the Wii controls -- LostWinds is one of many strong ideas we have built up over time, and it gathered a number of very enthusiastic internal advocates. The key ideas came when one of our game designers Steven Burgess was watching the trees and leaves from the window on a windy day. He remembers thinking about how many ways the wind shapes and manipulates different things within the world, and if only there was some way to become the wind in a game. He then applied this train of thought to the Wii controller. The idea of a second character came soon after this. A lot of subtle but very important gameplay appeal comes from the fact that the player controls two characters, and the dynamic between them. Toku is a young boy who is relatively vulnerable and whom you basically just move left or right with the nunchuck, and he stays vulnerable throughout the game (although he does get to use a couple of cool items of "kit" to help his flying along the way), but what he provides is a physical presence in the world. The other player character, Enril the Wind Spirit, is controlled by the Wii-mote and does get much more powerful as the game progresses. There is a nice symbiosis to their relationship because Enril has almost god-like powers in many ways, yet lacks the physical presence in the world that Toku provides. So the two work very well and naturally together as the player wields the power of the wind to protect, guide and do battle on behalf of Toku. Then, of course, it follows naturally that the wind must be at the center of all the gameplay and gameworld. As time went by, we felt more certain that LostWinds would satisfy a pent-up demand from Wii owners for something innovative that delivers deep, involving, Wii-specific gameplay in a beautiful skin. The game gathered a number of very enthusiastic champions internally who worked on the concept, setting art direction, generating gameplay ideas, and inventing the mythos surrounding the gameworld. The germ of the idea for Winter of the Melodias came about right at the end of development of the first game, when Chris Symonds the game’s art director wondered what one of the levels might look like in winter and did a mock up, and that set the creative juices flowing about how to switch between Summer and Winter and the many gameplay possibilities that offered. How large is the development team for Lost Winds: WOTM? Has it grown in comparison to the original game? Did you start development on the sequel as soon as the first was finished? DB: There are currently just over 20 people working on the game, more development effort has gone into Winter of the Melodias than the first game. We didn’t start development on the sequel straight way, the team was needed to work on other commitments Frontier had. It took us longer than we’d have ideally liked to get everyone back together again, but we got there in the end. The big change in the Lost Winds: WOTM is that you can change the weather -- what sort of puzzles can be conquered through the use of seasons? Can you change the season at any time? DB: It’s the season that you change, rather than the weather. Trying to avoid story spoilers, Toku and Enril earn the help of Sonte the Spirit of Seasons, allowing them to use her amazing power to switch between Summer and Winter at will in order to help them on their journey. So the player has to use the different characteristics of each season to help them during gameplay. In the same way the first game worked very coherently, where things felt "right," the differences between Summer and Winter feel "right" too, so in Winter all pools of water are turned to slippery impenetrable ice, it snows outside and drawing a vortex in the air causes a snowball to be created that you can then throw around. If you gust enemies with your wind powers they get wind-chill and freeze, and particularly early on Toku has to be kept warm with fire. In Summer you can go swimming in the pools, taking care not to let Toku run out of oxygen, plants grow, you can create clouds and even use them to move pools of water. Toku can now swim -- do you use the wind to create currents in the water? DB: Yes, in the same way you can create slipstreams in the air for Toku to glide along, if you gust from air into water you can create currents that help him swim. It has to be from air into water though, as Enril is a Wind Spirit and so has no power solely in water. Have you thought of bringing Lost Winds to other platforms? DSiWare or iPhone feel like they could be great for a game in the same style. When we’ve finished Winter of the Melodias the team will sit down and plan / prioritize which of the many directions we can go with LostWinds next. We agree there could be good other opportunities on platforms that offer a gesture based interface of one form or another. There are a lot of WiiWare titles out there, but there isn’t a whole lot of information about sales of the games. Has Lost Winds exceeded your expectations? Does it continue to sell well a year after its release? DB: LostWinds met our expectations, and obviously we wouldn’t be doing a second WiiWare game if we didn’t think we’d be happy with the sales. The great thing about digital distribution is that the game is never out of stock, so you get access to the long "tail" of sales that would otherwise be denied to you via physical retail due to the competition for shelf space. We’re very happy at the numbers LostWinds continues to sell. A lot of WiiWare games seem to be only coming out in one region, while Lost Winds was released in America, Europe and Japan. Has it been popular in all regions? DB: Definitely, we’ve been very pleased at the great reception the game has had everywhere. Have you checked out many other WiiWare games since the system’s launch? What are your thoughts on other developers’ approach to the platform? DB: Yes, we’ve been watching with interest, particularly games like World of Goo, Nyx Quest, Cave Story. We think WiiWare is definitely maturing in to a "serious" platform, and its great to see people effectively proving the concept behind WiiWare as they are able to make a name for themselves and try out new ideas on the service. When can we expect Lost Winds WOTM to hit? DB: I don’t have an exact date for you, but it should be in a couple of months.

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