The WiiWare Frontier

David Braben on the success of LostWinds, and what makes the Wii such a compelling platform to develop for

Earlier this week Nintendo's European marketing chief, Laurent Fischer, revealed that UK-developed LostWinds was the most popular title on the company's WiiWare online service.

To find out a bit more about the game, we spoke to Frontier Developments boss David Braben, who explained where the idea for the game came from, and offered his thoughts on small development teams and why the Wii controllers are so successful.

Q: First of all congratulations - LostWinds has been going great guns, you must be very pleased?

David Braben: Thank you, you're very kind - yes I am very pleased. It was a breath of fresh air really - as a development it was quite short, but it went very smoothly, because we'd been able to carry forward the processes we've always wanted to do. But small team, short development - it's a great buzz to be a part of.

Q: Titles like LostWinds and LittleBigPlanet prove that small teams can make a big impact with new ideas - there's a place for the big GTA IV-style games, but there's room for these as well?

David Braben: Absolutely, and that's why we make both types of games. And also, this 'Game of the Week' process that it came out of is very invigorating for everyone here, because we all get to rant about games that are out there, and games that should be made. It's very positive - and as we can see now, a fundamentally constructive process, because ideas that survive are pretty tough. Fans of games are so vociferous about them, because they care about them so much - it's a really good thing.

Q: The origins of LostWinds - was that something you had the idea for and were waiting for the right platform, or something that presented itself once you'd seen the Wii? Or did Nintendo approach you to develop a title?

David Braben: A mix of all of those things, actually. The Game of the Week process has been running for years and years now, but the idea was based off the Wii, really - or the Revolution as it was back then. We got prototype controls, and everybody here got really excited. The idea of doing a game involving the wind went through the process, and we thought bits were rubbish, and some people suggested other things, and in the end it came out to be a very solid idea - and there a number of ideas like that, which we thought we would do one day.

Then the opportunity came along because Nintendo approached us and asked us if we'd like to be involved, and we were even able to take the LostWinds design documents along - because we thought it was probably what we'd do, and we thought we could do it quite quickly.

So we talked to them about it, and from that came LostWinds - and that was actually at the end of last year.

Q: Were they pretty good at supporting you through that process?

David Braben: Yes, and I believe we're the most successful WiiWare title in Europe and the US - so fingers crossed, it's looking pretty good, and it's still selling.

Q: And Laurent Fischer told this week that a big TV campaign was on its way for Europe - that should help?

David Braben: I think that's one of the issues actually with a lot of these online services, but particularly WiiWare - a lot of the customers aren't really aware that it's out there, the casual gamers dare I say it, so I think it'll be a fantastic thing, and that it will bolster our sales.

Q: Do you think for the Wii's mainstream audience that the online side of things is perhaps a small step too far?

David Braben: I'm not so certain about that - I think it's too easy to underestimate people. I think they just see it as a games machine, they can't be bothered to read instructions. Some people don't even realise it's got wireless LAN built in, because it's not got an aerial sticking out at the back or anything - so the presumption is that it was like the PlayStation 2 or whatever they had before.

Because I think that a big slab of Wii owners are gamers - they just don't necessarily look at internet sites every day, but they do think the Wii is a really cool thing to get for their kids.

Q: What were your feelings about the Wii when you first saw it?

David Braben: We've always been very excited about the controls, and it's great because our first Wii title - Thrillville: Off the Rails - we had a fantastic chance to experiment with a very wide range of controls.

But it's interesting - the more esoteric the controls in the Thrillville game, those were the ones that people found harder to get to grips with. We tested a whole range on focus groups, and learned such a lot through that process about what worked well, what people didn't understand, what they could immediately get to grips with - that was a fantastic learning experience.

Because you've got relatively few complex buttons on the controller, and yet the controller is very complex - that's a strange sort of combination. I think we're seeing some other user-interface revelations recently, such as the iPhone.

Q: It seems Microsoft and Sony are both keen to follow suit - they'd be crazy not to, wouldn't they?

David Braben: Well, who knows? There's "follow suit" and there "learn from the experience", and I think it's the latter that's more likely. I know there are a lot of rumours going around, but the point is that it's sort of like the revelation when a new game comes out that sort of breaks the mould - we've been experimenting with new types of games an awful lot, but actually the controllers have remained fairly static since the PlayStation One.

Ok, we've got analogue sticks instead of digital pads, but that's actually a very small move on the scale of things...and actually the analogue controller came along with the PSOne anyway - so the only real change is that they've gone wireless, and even that was a third party add-on to start with.

I think that's the wake-up call - there's a lot we can do here, and it's fun to do it. It's coming up with things that are natural, and I think what's happened is that we've seen a lot of games on the Wii that are essentially just glorified point-and-click things that have migrated from the PC, and in parallel we've also seen interesting new innovations.

What's interesting with the Wii is that we're seeing new types of games, and I'd like to cosider LostWinds among those - we're not the only ones, but that's what's exciting.

Q: Do you have any more WiiWare titles on the slate?

David Braben: I think we'd be mad not to, but I'm afraid we're not talking about those just yet.

David Braben is the head of Frontier Developments. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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