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How Nintendo is making Wii U indie-friendly

What did it learn from the mistakes of WiiWare, and how can the new eShop win back small studios?

Sometimes, Nintendo nails it on the first try. The Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, and Wii were stunningly successful initial forays into consoles, portable consoles, and motion controls for the company. Other times, Nintendo winds up with something like WiiWare, the downloadable storefront that was more Virtual Boy than Game Boy.

Since WiiWare's launch in mid-2008, developers have groused about ineffective promotion, tiny size limits, restrictive pricing policies, minimum sales thresholds and a vanishing customer base. Even indie developers who found a measure of success on the platform were well aware of its numerous shortcomings.

Bit.Trip developer Gaijin Games built its name on the originally WiiWare-exclusive retro-aesthetic franchise, but co-founders Alex Neuse and Mike Roush didn't put a rosy face on it when speaking to GamesIndustry International.

"It was just miserable. I don't blame indies for not jumping on WiiWare."

Gaijin Games' Mike Roush

"We don't know for sure, but it felt like it wasn't taken seriously by Nintendo, the desire for gamers to buy stuff digitally," Neuse said.

Roush echoed the sentiment, saying Nintendo's online strategy was "an afterthought," or at least felt like one. For example, he noted that WiiWare developers were allowed nothing but a compressed 144x90 pixel image to sell efforts in the inherently visual medium of video games.

"How are you supposed to display your wares with an image of that pixel dimension and really sell it," Roush asked. "It was just miserable. I don't blame indies for not jumping on WiiWare."

One developer that did jump on WiiWare was Broken Rules, the studio behind And Yet It Moves. However, Broken Rules developer Martin Pichlmair said the situation on WiiWare was so bad that even though the studio made a Japanese version of its Indiecade Games Festival finalist, it didn't bother releasing it on the Japanese WiiWare store because there was no chance it would meet the minimum sales threshold needed to see a dime in revenues from Nintendo.

WiiWare sales thresholds kept And Yet It Moves from being launched in Japan.

Nintendo clearly had room for improvement with its second attempt at an online console storefront, and it will have to undo some ill will generated from its first outing.

"WiiWare may have turned a lot of indies off," Neuse added, "and it's going to be hard to win them back."

Steel Penny Games founder Jason Hughes illustrates that point well. The former Naughty Dog developer was in the first wave of indies committing support to WiiWare, but soon soured on the platform. Its most recent game is the browser-based title Trivia Adventure, playable through Facebook and Swagbucks.

"Our experience with WiiWare showed how little actual desire Nintendo had in supporting a positive and frictionless player experience."

Steel Penny's Jason Hughes

"Our experience with WiiWare showed how little actual desire Nintendo had in supporting a positive and frictionless player experience, as well as in promoting rehashed games on par or above original content on WiiWare that were ostensibly the crown jewel of Nintendo's networking strategy," Hughes said. "Maybe that has changed, but based on the lackluster hardware specs and Nintendo's traditionally poor online offering, I had not picked them as specifically viable in the next generation of consoles. I would work on their hardware again if it seemed to be a clear winner, but for the time being, we are going to platforms where users are, and looking to make games that are less gimmicky and have the possibility to transcend platforms."

While Steel Penny appears to be sitting this one out, Gaijin Games and Broken Rules decided to give Wii U development a shot with Runner 2 and Chasing Aurora, respectively. Early impressions of their time with the system have been positive. Chasing Aurora was a Wii U eShop launch title, and Pichlmair said the experience working on a downloadable game for Nintendo's console has improved considerably.

"Literally everything was easier this time around."

Broken Rules' Martin Pichlmair

"Literally everything was easier this time around," Pichlmair said. Size restrictions are a non-issue for normal indie developers, he said, and while he wouldn't comment on sales thresholds specifically, Pichlmair did say, "It got better in several ways, how the financial side of things works."

Gaijin Games was similarly impressed with wide-ranging improvements. Roush and Neuse said the system was considerably easier to develop for, with Wii U eShop usability improving dramatically over WiiWare.

"What's more friendly right out of the starting gate is the Wii U is developed for people to have an eShop to spend their money in and buy games easily," Roush said. "I don't make games so people can not find them and have a hard time purchasing them. I make them so people can play them and have fun. If they can't buy them, they can't have fun."

Gaijin is bringing Runner 2 to Wii U, as well as every other platform it can.

Neuse suggested Nintendo has been taking cues from the way Valve runs Steam, with more developer-friendly options. For example, Roush said it's now possible for developers to update their games after launch. On WiiWare, developers could only upload the game once, with no process for updates. Nintendo has another indie-friendly quirk in its lack of concept approval for games. While Roush said that can produce a certain amount of shovelware, he expects it to also allow for impressive, innovative content on the Wii U eShop.

Pichlmair suspects the change in Nintendo mindset from WiiWare to a world that holds up Steam and the App Store as model online marketplaces has been tough for the company internally.

"They established a lot of institutions internally to ensure that everything that appears on a Nintendo platform has a certain level of quality," Pichlmair explained. "And if you look at the iTunes store, the quality that pops up there that just happens differently. On the iTunes store, 99.9 percent of everything is trash. And still you find high quality titles there. So I think the main challenge for Nintendo is the culture of these online stores is different from what they're used to, and they need to rethink it, maybe."

"[D]evelopers have so many options right now, and almost all of them are easier than developing for the first parties."

Alex Neuse

Pichlmair said Nintendo won't replicate the success of something like Apple with developers because the first-party console model requires studios to purchase pricey dev kits, while every iPhone or PC is effectively a dev kit for those platforms. On the other hand, the gatekeeping effect of dev kits could keep the platform from drowning in shovelware.

"[Apple's approach] works for the customer, and it works for Apple," Pichlmair said. "But for the majority of studios, it's the wrong approach because it's so hard to get noticed on the App Store. I very much like what Nintendo's trying to do and hope they succeed, but it's so early."

Just as developers compete with each other for awareness in those online stores, so too do the stores compete for developer support. Gaijin Games may be coming back on the Wii U with Bit.Trip Runner 2, but Neuse said the reason is primarily that the studio wants to put the game on as many platforms as possible.

Being a launch title has boosted Chasing Aurora's profile, but visibility may be a concern for future Wii U downloadable games.

"One of the things that first party companies, and not just Nintendo, need to start realizing is that developers have so many options right now, and almost all of them are easier than developing for the first parties," Neuse said. "And they sell just as well, if not better. So the first parties need to start making things way more flexible, user-friendly, and developer-friendly if they want unique, new games to be made for their platform."

Even the promotion issue could be improving. While Pichlmair acknowledged that Chasing Aurora will benefit from the relatively small number of competing games that accompany any console launch, he has seen examples that Nintendo is trying new ways of connecting with its customers and increasing awareness. He specifically pointed to the Nintendo Direct series of streaming announcements as one example of the company's latest efforts.

"They are trying to reach a new kind of audience," Pichlmair said. "I can't tell yet if they're successful. But what I can see is they are trying to transform the whole company into an online-focused company, and that can only lead to a bigger audience for downloaded titles. But we're just at the beginning right now."

Neuse agreed that the efforts to date have just been the start of something that Nintendo needs to follow through on if it wants the Wii U to succeed.

"If Nintendo decides to forget about the eShop and they stop talking about it in the press and stop promoting it, it's going to die," Neuse said. "Because everyone who ever tried to buy a WiiWare game already thinks it's dead before it's even lived."