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A Wii Trial

Julien Merceron talks about Nintendo's main challenge this Christmas

As the time for GDC Lyon and Game Connection draws near is talking to some of the key speakers and top figures from the advisory boards. To kick off the series, that will run between now and the beginning of December, we spent some time with Julien Merceron, chief technology officer at Eidos, who gives us his thoughts on what Nintendo's biggest challenge is, and why PlayStation Home needs to be more than just a 3D interface.

How do you think GDC Lyon is shaping up?

I think it's going to be extremely interesting. I think that France was clearly missing something like GDC, and with the recent changes to E3 we needed to find a way to bring more things into Europe, and I think that the Lyon GDC is a very good attempt.

It's the first year, obviously, but looking at the conference line-up that we have, I think it's going to be very successful.

Do you think there will be more Lyon GDCs in the future?

I think that Europe needs more events like that. We have about two of them in the UK that are successful and we also need some in continental Europe. The thing we have to understand is who is really attending.

Because most European developers are going to GDC in the US, some of them are going to events in the UK, and we have to understand who we are talking to for Lyon GDC - and this is the only way of designing an event that is going to be successful, that's making sure the people that are going to attend are going to be satisfied.

So because we don't really have an understanding of who is going to attend, we're trying to build an event that is going to be great for almost anyone that wants to attend. I think that the one next year will be more tailored, and to answer your question, yes - I think there will be another one.

Are there any sessions you're particularly looking forward to?

Well, yes I think this year is going to be particularly big for Crytek, big for Crysis, I think they obviously have a lot to talk about - we could have featured far more lectures with them at GDC, in fact they would probably have been able to capture all the slots in programming, design and art - but Cervat Yerli's talk will be very insightful.

Then there are some things, especially in programming, that are extremely interesting. The EyeToy, for example, I think we're going to see more of these kinds of devices in the future, and they'll grow in terms of how much they are used - whether it's on the Wii, the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.

Then there are some other famous guys too, from NCsoft, Ninja Theory and Valve among others, so I think we have a pretty good line-up. Usually at a conference, if I can learn two or three things in a day I feel I haven't wasted my time. That's the challenge we have - making sure people learn two or three things every day that will make their stay worthwhile.

How's the Christmas line-up looking for Eidos?

Well on the one hand we have Kane and Lynch, that's launching on three platforms, that promises to be a very successful title - we'll know more at the end of November.

Then we have additional SKUs of Tomb Raider Anniversary that are launching, on top of additional titles that will launch - but these two titles are very exciting for us, and we're looking forward to finding out how well they're going to be received, and what the future for the franchises is.

You've also got a reputation for developing casual games as well?

Yes, we have a specific department that is solely focusing on that. It's pretty interesting and captivating - right now there are a lot of things that everyone should pay attention to. The casual space is one, traditional gaming is obviously another one, and there's the MMO space as well.

This period in our industry is fascinating, because you have so many possibilities, it's not just one way any more, it's multiple ways. When you have an IP, and when you have to understand its future in the industry, whether it's casual, traditional or MMO, it's pretty tough.

I think it's a tough time for the project directors in our industry who have to make very big choices in terms of where next they're taking the IP.

You mention MMOs, next year will be an exciting time for Eidos?

Yes, Age of Conan will be our first MMO, but we won't be stopping there - it's just a first step.

What lessons can you learn from MMOs that have already launched, whether successful or not?

Well, MMOs are a very hard thing. When you talk about hardcore MMORPG games, they bring on so much technology, so much complexity, that from a QA and technology perspective it's just a headache.

Every MMO has been launched painfully - even World of Warcraft, where they had to cut the PvP just before the launch. It's a very, very complex thing, and right now I think we're seeing an approach to MMOs that is pretty radical - either it is an MMO or it's not.

I think that in the future we're going to see a blend between the two extremes, just because most of the developers and publishers can't take as many risks as a Funcom can or as a Blizzard can, and obviously it's financially extremely heavy to launch an MMO.

You have companies that can do that, and are taking some big risks, but I think that on our hands we have something that is pretty interesting because we have a very progressive approach to MMOs - you'll see more and more MMOs coming out of Eidos, but from that perspective it's going to be far less risky but just as ambitious.

Have the rumours of an SCi takeover affected company morale at all?

Well there are two things to say on that. Firstly, SCi had previously acquired Eidos, and most of our studios that were Eidos in the past have been through that already. A studio like IO has been acquired by Eidos, and then reacquired by SCi, etc.

Most of the people in the studios are kind of used to it from a certain perspective, and so it hasn't distracted them too much from focusing on their game and pursuing their dreams.

That said, there will still be a lot of people thinking about it, and right now the company is clearly not in the situation where it wants to get bought. I think the company has a very bright future ahead of it and I don't think it would be optimal to sell it right now.

What's your impression of the next-gen market as we head into 2008?

I think that this Christmas is going to be very interesting. It probably won't help Sony dramatically, but it should be a good Christmas for Microsoft. And I think it will be a revelation for Nintendo.

Either third party developers and publishers will make money on the Wii platform, or they won't - and if most of them don't I think we'll see a big drop in support for the Wii next year, which could have some consequences for Nintendo, and very positive ones for Microsoft and Sony.

From a certain perspective I would tend to think that the publisher performance on the Wii is going to be deterministic for the future of Microsoft and Sony. If they can make a lot of money on the Wii, then things will continue as they are now and the Wii will continue to be successful.

If they don't make enough money then it means more games and a stronger market share for Microsoft and Sony, and the Wii dropping a bit.

So I think that the success of the Wii from the different publishers is going to be the determining point this Christmas.

That's an interesting view that we've not necessarily heard anywhere else.

It's true - if you can't make money at Christmas on the best platform out there, then you have no chance all year long.

Nintendo do have a very strong first-party history though.

Yes, and so far what you can see with the figures is that it's not too profitable for anybody but Nintendo. So the Christmas period will be key for Tomb Raider on the Wii, it's going to be key for us to review and understand that, and I think there are many other games for the Wii - whether Nintendo can manufacture and distribute as many discs as the publishers want to the market, whether they really sell compared to the Nintendo titles, that will be very important for everyone.

Sometimes it's better to address a small market, and if you get 90 per cent of it will you be a happy man, but less so if you target a really huge market and can only take 0.5 per cent.

So that's the reason why I think it's going to be really important for Nintendo this Christmas.

Do you think the hardware shortages will hurt Nintendo at all?

No, not really. It hasn't hurt Nintendo in the past, and they certainly had a hardware shortage at the launch. So I don't think it will be a problem.

We saw Sony and Microsoft make price cuts to their consoles, maybe Nintendo should raise the price of the Wii?

[laughs] That's a good idea, we should propose that to them.

What do you think about PlayStation Home?

Well, I think that if I look at it as a gamer, if Home is just a way to have a 3D interface to watch movies, demos, trailers, listening to music or look at pictures, then I'm not really interested - because I can already do all that with the menu bar, and far easier.

So it needs to add a lot more to that. If they succeed in building a community, and I can find my friends, and I'm not stuck in an instance of the world with people that I don't know or I don't have anything to do with, then potentially it can be interesting.

If I look at it from a developer perspective I'm pretty excited by all the technology that is going into that - it's pretty amazing what they've been pulling off.

Although there is a slight problem with how you could integrate, for example, Lara Croft into this world - the type of shaders and the resolution of the graphics you can use, and also the animations and the way that characters walk in Home are far below the level of interactivity we have with a character like Lara Croft.

So the question of whether we want to see our characters in Home is a tough call because right now we can't bring them alive to the level that they are in our games, so that would be a problem.

Then from the publisher perspective is that it could take time away from the players instead of playing games, so where is the benefit for the publisher?

There are pros and cons, but for the gamer it really has to bring something more than just a 3D interface to the content you have on your PlayStation 3, or to the shopping content.

Julien Merceron is the chief technology officer at Eidos. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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