Lightning Fish looks to trump Wii Fit

Lightning Fish looks to trump Wii Fit
Michael French

By Michael French

April 22nd 2009 at 3:35PM

Ambitious new UK studio looks to beat Nintendo at its own game with new peripheral-based lifestyle games

At GDC last month, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata told attendees to his keynote that third-parties can compete with his development teams on Wii and DS, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary.

And now a new UK studio isn’t just looking to prove him right – but event beat Nintendo’s money-spinning Wii Fit title while it’s at it.

In just under a year on the shelf, Wii Fit has generated over £120m at UK retail, with 17m Balance Boards sold – and now Lightning Fish wants a slice of the action.

Founded last year by experienced industry veterans Simon Prytherch, former Bitmap Brother Mike Montgomery and David Hunt, the team already has a Wii fitness title signed and due for release later in the summer, NewU:Inside Out. The team also has MAME creator Nicola Salmoria on board as senior programmer.

“What we want to do is aim at a wider family audience rather than the hardcore gamer,” CEO Prytherch explained to Develop at GDC.

“There’s not a lot of kudos in the games industry doing that kind of thing – but it enabled us to start the company and we’re keen to keep focusing on that kind of area in future.”

NewU is aimed at 30-plus women, and when Wii global shipment levels have already tipped 50m, it’s a proposition not to be sniffed at.

The firm is now pitching new lifestyle games and fitness concepts to publishers and format-holders.  “It’s an area that doesn’t have huge budgets, but is a hot genre – we’re not just pitching fitness products, but also family oriented sports and entertainment titles,” said Prytherch.

Lightning Fish is also registered as a PS3 and 360 developers, and Prytherch points out that the two formats have their own motion-based peripherals – cameras. “[The format holders’] eyes have lit up at the concepts we are showing to them. Because the kind of things we are doing on Wii don’t look like a ‘normal’ Wii title,” he explained.

NewU features video rather than the low-end graphics usually seen on the format – helped in part due to the fact that Lightning Fish now owns a video studio, acquired after a neighbouring kids’ TV production house went bust.

“The good thing about doing a video-based game is it is very quick to put together, but does have its own headaches,” Prytherch added. Lightning Fish has had to devise a new approach to traditional green screen recording, including introducing ways of shooting from multiple angles to ensure plenty of content for the Wii.

The studio is looking at other ways of better owning the production process and controlling its destiny, too – it was the studio that signed up You Are What You Eat as nutrition expert and got gym franchise Fitness First on board to supply exercise advice. A follow-up celebrity version after is a no-brainer.

The game is packed with other smart hooks too – it links with a website where you can view recipes and download shopping lists for ingredients to complement the in-game exercises.

“The ultimate aim is to offer the definitive fitness and lifestyle product, and something that doesn’t fall into the trap of looking like ‘an average Wii product.’ Because people do write some of the titles off now as being too kiddy or low-end,” explained Prytherch.

 “We did a lot of focus testing on Wii Fit. The two things that came back from our core market was that they thought Nintendo’s game was too childish and gamey due to the style and interface, and the other was that Wii Fit doesn’t let them target certain fitness results.

“I don’t like the word ‘casual’ as these products are bigger than what you think of as ‘casual’, which is web games. But what’s happened is that we all have families now, and playing games with them and a desire to play the games we make with them has inspired a move towards this kind of product,” he added.

And in the face of a climate where many developers are pointing to digital distribution as key to their future, Prytherch is looking the other way, and points out that retail is still key to the success of mass-market products. Publishing partner Black Bean also works with peripheral firm Blaze, which means Lightning Fish could find itself being the next Red Octane or Harmonix, devising peripheral-based games that rake it in
at retail.

“Retail are much more open to those kind of ideas, given the success of Guitar Hero and Wii Fit – so we’re looking at ideas that come with peripherals that fit into boxes like the Mario Kart Wii package. Something good-sized for retailers but economic for the consumer too,” he explained.

“I’ve always thought that plastic controllers like those on the 360 and PS3 are too intimidating to most people – I think there’s lots more we can do with user interfaces beyond what has already been done in order to keep players entertained.”