You'd better believe there's money to be made on Nintendo's upcoming WiiWare. An already-massive installed base, cheap development costs and no retail middle-man? It's going to be like some kind of gaming goldrush (sans the toothless grins, fightin' words and corseted lady-folk of questionable morals). Want to know, then, how to get a piece of the action and get a game on the service?
Nic Watt (pictured above) knows. And he knows that if you're an aspiring developer with a big idea but a small bank balance, WiiWare might be just what you're looking for. Watt's Creative Director at startup Aussie dev Nnooo! Games, who are the team behind the recently-announced Pop for WiiWare. Being the first Wetern game announced for the service, and also being located in Sydney, I caught up with Nic and found out how he and his small team have turned a simple game idea from a lazy daydream into a real, honest-to-God WiiWare title.Turns out the whole thing involved a bit of planning, a bit of know-how and, as is often the case, a bit of luck. Moving to Australia from the UK in 2006 to establish his own studio, but without a platform to develop on, Watt decided to get in touch with an old friend at Nintendo of America. See what was shaking. They got talking, and Watt got to asking about how the Wii was going with regards to an XBLA-ish downloadable games service.
He was told yes, actually, something like that was coming. So the two stayed in contact, and Nnooo ended up pitching a bunch of game ideas to Nintendo. Some "very complex", others very, very simple. None were functional demos, mind - they were just very rough, very general ideas. But Nintendo liked what they heard. So on the strength of naught but a bunch of game ideas, Nnooo signed some NDAs, were told about WiiWare and promptly sent a dev kit to get to work on.
Now they just needed a game. Of the 10-15 ideas which they pitched to Nintendo, they settled on Pop, a game Watt describes as drawing from influences like Every Extend Extra, Tetris, Lumines, Geometry Wars and even Elektroplankton. "We are aiming for an experience which is simple to understand but gets under your skin and keeps you entranced for long periods of time", he says of the game's core ideas. After mocking up a PC version using mouse controls, which helped the team "get a feel for whether it would be fun or not", work began on Pop in April of this year, just before WiiWare's official announcement.
So why WiiWare? Easy answer: it's low-risk, high-return development. It works for people like Watt, who has a small team and a small budget. "The great thing about WiiWare and services like it is we can offer titles at a lower cost than their disc based counterparts" Watt says. "This means that an apparently simple title like Pop can be sold for a significantly less than the US$40+ one would pay for a disc based game."
OK, but why WiiWare specifically? Why not XBLA or PSN? The PlayStation Network especially has shown it's willing to take a risk on small games with big ideas. But Watt was sold on Nintendo's particular approach to the service. When it comes to WiiWare titles, it's ideas Nintendo are focusing on, not names, team sizes or budgets.
After all, Watt and Nnooo were sent a dev kit on the back of nothing more than a handful of game ideas. Not reputation (though the devs have been drawn from Nintendo, Visual Science, Sierra, SCi, EA and Team Bondi), not a large up-front investment and certainly not an expensive, risky and time-consuming demo. "Nintendo understand not only that small companies like ours cannot afford to create loads of demos in the hope of getting a game signed but also that the Wii is quite unique and you really need to get access to the hardware to be able to make a decent game, demo or prototype."
Which doesn't sound like the Nintendo we know. But then, Watt says at least some Western WiiWare titles are being groomed and overseen by Nintendo of America. So rather than simply acting as the traditional localiser and distributor for Japanese titles, NoA will be handling the acquisition and publishing of Western WiiWare titles themselves. Giving a non-Japanese division that kind of clout is an uncharacteristic step for Nintendo, and a welcome one for a company still struggling with its Japano-centric business strategies.
Other aspects of the service I asked about were either covered by Watt's NDA or are still undecided. They're still mulling over whether to include the ability to feature demos of titles, for example, while he couldn't tell me a Western release date or pricing structure for the games either (though you can expect the games to be cheap).
As we finish up I let Watt get one final plug in for the game by asking what exactly it's going be like. Mostly because their initial description came off sounding a little sparse, and led to a little bit of tongue-flapping.
"Like Every Extend Extra, Geometry Wars, Tetris and Lumines Pop has waves of gameplay which get progressively more challenging and fast paced", he says. "It also has deep mechanics in its scoring which allow experienced players to not only score high but also jump past easy levels quickly so they can get to the harder ones".
That make things any clearer? Pop should be out at, or very close to, the launch of WiiWare in the West. Which will be sometime next year.