Wii U: Developer reaction

Wii U: Developer reaction
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

November 30th 2012 at 3:00PM

We ask studios big and small what the console offers and how you can take advantage

Already out in the US as of November 18th and selling 400,000 units in its first week, Nintendo’s Wii U has also arrived today in the UK to much hype as the first in the next generation of consoles

A number of big name developers and publishers including Ubisoft, EA and Activision have pledged support for the platform with games such as ZombiU, Call of Duty: Blacks Ops 2 and Assassin’s Creed III making up just a few games in the console’s launch line-up.

The Nintendo eShop, combined with a ground-breaking deal with Unity to ship the Unity engine to all licensed developers, is also set to bring in an unprecedented wave on indie developers to a Nintendo platform.

But despite the industry and consumers clamouring for a new era of home game consoles, how developer friendly is Nintendo’s Wii U? And has it learnt from past mistakes of not just Nintendo consoles, but of its rivals as well?

We asked developers such as Ubisoft Montpellier, Straight Right Studios, Heavy Iron, Shin'en and Frozenbyte just what they think of the platform, and how fellow developers can take advantage of the Wii U.

How easy is it to develop for?

Being a new console on the market, and offering an abundant array of unique controllers such as the tablet-style Gamepad, pro controller, Wii motion controller and the balance board, there are some obvious development difficulties as developers get to grips with the console’s capabilities.

But how does the process of game creation compare to the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3? Straight Right CEO Tom Crago, whose studio worked on the Wii U port for Bioware’s blockbuster hit Mass Effect 3, says the console has been very easy to program for, and adds that Unreal Engine 3 has been a useful tool in Wii U development.

“From our perspective it's a great platform,” says Crago. “Very straight forward to code for, the GamePad integrates seamlessly into the development environment and everything more or less does what it says on the tin. We've been using the Unreal Engine for Mass Effect 3, along with one or two other bits of middleware and for the most part they've played nicely together too.“

Guillaume Brunier, producer at ZombiU developer Ubisoft Montpellier, explains that the Wii U isn’t necessarily easier or more difficult to develop for than other platforms, but that it just comes with its own unique challenges for developers to overcome, and offers some advice on how developers can harness the platform’s power in future.

“It´s been a hell of a ride!” says Brunier. “I can't say it's easier or more difficult to develop on Wii U versus other platforms. It's just different. What was difficult was working on work-in-progress hardware, but Nintendo has been very helpful about that. I think the real strength of the Wii U, its large memory, has yet to be exploited.”

Heavy Iron CEO Lyle Hall, whose studio has been working on the Wii U port for Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, says that having overcome some of the early challenges of working with the Wii U’s SDK during a period where it would go through changes and lack certain features, he was impressed with the console and advised studios and what specs they should harness for their own games.

“Developing for a platform before its launch presents the challenge of working around things that are not ready or fully functional along the way,” he says.

“I recommend making very effective use of the multiple cores, graphics processor and large memory as that was critical in our ability to make Epic Mickey 2 look great and run smoothly on the Wii U.”

Lacking power?

Although there are some interesting inclusions to the hardware including a large amount of memory, there has been much debate on the Wii U’s actual capabilities. Nintendo has remained tight-lipped on some of the exact specifications, including the power of the CPU, raising questions as to why the console giant is reticent to reveal this information.

A number of popular game engine firms have also yet to show their hand. While developers will be able to harness the likes of Unity, Havok, Unreal Engine 3, and Gamebryo to power their titles, there are also some notable exclusions in the third-party engine space.

Stonetrip currently has no plans for a Wii U port of its ShiVa engine in the immediate future, instead waiting to see if the platform is a success before rolling out compatibility for the platform. Epic has also kept quiet on whether Unreal Engine 4 will feature Wii U support, having only confirmed support for PC so far.

Epic EU territory manager Mike Gamble says however that the lack of announced compatibility is simply down to the Wii U launch falling within UE3’s timeframe, with development on the console’s titles having begun 18 months ago, before the studio revealed publicly its UE4 plans.

"Wii U is supported by UE3. The reason for that is that the Wii U happened to fall within the UE3 timeframe,” he says. “It was more about that timing than it was a decision based on hardware stats or console power or anything like that. It's because people started building games for Wii U 18 months or even two years ago, and so it had to be UE3."

Despite uncertainty around how powerful the Wii U is, Gamebase USA technical director Gabriel Liberty says the console is powerful enough to take advantage of all of the Gamebryo engine’s features, although he views the Wii U as “a more powerful Wii”, suggesting the leap in power may not be that great. Gamebryo has powered titles such as Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, LEGO Universe and El Shaddai.

“Unlike the Wii, the Wii U is powerful enough to take advantage of all of Gamebryo's features including our advanced lighting techniques,” says Liberty.

“Our Floodgate multi-core technology will take full advantage of the multicore hardware. The hardware is surprisingly similar to a PC, making it easy for us to cross-develop. The only unique technology is to support the Wii U GamePad.”

Crago adds that the Wii U is “more than powerful enough” for the developer’s own plans for it, but accepted Straight Right was not a developer that was going to be making 20 to 30 million dollar titles, despite its work on the Mass Effect 3 port.

“We want a platform that's easy to manage and that fits the pipeline and tool chain that we've built over the years,” he says. “The Wii U ticks all those boxes. Now we just have to hope it finds an audience.”

Uniquely challenging

Despite ushering in a unique controller in the form of the GamePad, designed to bring a dual-screen experience to gameplay alongside the central TV screen, while also potentially operating on its own when the TV is in use, the developers we spoke to were excited by the possibilities it offers.

Straight Right’s Crago says that developing around the GamePad was an extremely straightforward process, and doubts any developers will have significant problems with developing for the hardware.

“The GamePad has been extremely straightforward,” states Crago. “I doubt there'd be a single developer who has had serious issues there in terms of integration. And of course as more developers move onto the Wii U we're going see cool new ideas and innovations. And there will be mistakes too, stuff we learn, things we should have done better.

“It's similar to the evolution of the DS in some ways in that intuitively you feel as though there are gameplay mechanics that should work really well given that new interface, and generally you're right but sometimes that first wave of ideas needs tweaking and refining. A couple of years from now we'll be seeing the GamePad used in different ways I'm sure, and that's a fun thing to contemplate.”

Heavy Iron’s Hall meanwhile claims the variety of controllers provides a win-win situation for players, as it gives developers the tools to work on all different kinds of gameplay styles and genres.

He adds that the studio was able to implement extra gameplay functionality through the GamePad’s touch-screen that could not otherwise be mapped through physical buttons.

“The Wii U GamePad provides the most unique opportunity to differentiate the gameplay experience on the console,” he explains.

“Having the Wii U GamePad accessible for every game allows us to utilise the touchscreen to add gameplay functionality that we could not otherwise map to a physical button.

"This gave us flexibility in how we could have the player execute some of Mickey's moves. Moreover, the second screen gave us the idea and ability to implement a real-time updating map to assist players in navigating the huge Epic Mickey world.”

Indie accessibility

While larger development teams are seemingly experiencing a relatively easy time making content the Wii U beyond launch development challenges of new hardware, what about indie developers?

Nintendo recently signed a landmark deal with Unity to ship the Unity engine to all of the console giant’s in-house, external and third-party licensee developers. (See our Unity Focus on the matter) With the development platform well known for its long-established goal of democratising game development, this partnership has the potential to bring a wave of indie titles to the platform.

Nintendo has previously struggled to bring its consoles successfully to the online world, with developers not particularly enamoured by the WiiShop and WiiWare, and the lack of opportunity it offers developers sales wise.

The console giant’s Wii U eShop however, alongside the Unity deal, has been designed to change that perception, and early signs are that smaller developers are happy with the accessibility it offers them.

“We have gone from zero to our first Wii U eShop game in around seven months,” says Shin'en’s Manfred Linzner.

“Our game 'Nano Assault Neo' is a graphical and gameplay showcase title for the Wii U and gives a good idea what is possible on the hardware. It offers for instance TV to GamePad Play, online rankings, live camera streaming and a two player mode.

“All this stuff was only possible because the development hardware and software was very accessible from the start. All of this was only done with a five person team.”

Frozenbyte VP Joel Kinnunen, whose studio has released Trine 2 on the Wii U, says that for the time being at least, the eShop has been very accessible for his team, and also expresses his relief that Nintendo hasn’t demanded their title be exclusive to the platform, perhaps a sign of Nintendo opening up more to the new state of the industry.

“Nintendo has been great to work with, so right now the eShop feels very accessible,” says Kinnunen. “Nintendo allows us to self-publish, which is a big thing and very important.

"We've also been relieved that Nintendo isn't that concerned about the ‘competitors’, they haven't given us any demands when it comes to other platforms, and that's the kind of attitude the industry could use a lot more of.”

While the eShop requires a standard certification process, as seen on the likes of Steam, iOS, PSN and XBLA, Kinnunen adds that the financial burden on developers is “basically non-existent”, bringing it more in line with Apple’s business model, and away from the well-documented and highly criticised traditional console model of high update costs.

“There's still a certification process in most cases but it's much faster than on the other consoles, and the financial burden is basically non-existent,” he says.

“At the moment it seems like it's combining the best of both worlds - the fast and free nature of PC updates, and the "it works like you expect and won't break your system" certification requirement of console updates. We could probably work with no certification at all, but it's easy to understand the need for it in the larger scale, and in that sense the eShop is a great combination.”

Linzner also says that Shin’en was able to update Nano Assault Neo for free, and said it can their certification process for submitting patches was also a quick and easy process.

“We don't know of any restrictions,” he states. “We already submitted a patch for our first game free of any charge. We love to be able to improve the quality of our games on eShop without getting charged and think this benefits the player, the developer and Nintendo.

"Submitting patches for eShop games is also very simple. Including all paperwork it takes around ten minutes to get from a new build to the final patch master.”

As for the future if the eShop, Kinnunen accepts that it is likely to get more difficult for developers to get noticed on the eShop as more games are released on the store, and in contrast to Linzner says that some procedures on the Wii U eShop are currently too complicated.

It also remains to be seen what the quality benchmark the eShop will look like in the long term, but things are looking positive for a developer’s chances on the store – and Nintendo will no doubt continue to update and transform the service as it receives feedback from studios and users.

“As a first-time developer for Nintendo platforms, the experience has been very smooth overall,” explains Kinnunen.

“There are certain processes that are a bit too complex to our liking but nothing that posed any true problems, and the whole development has been a lot more positive than the aggravating process we've gone through on XBLA and PSN.

"In a way, the eShop has restored our faith in the potential of console downloadable games. We'll see how it goes in the next year.”