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Winds of Change

Frontier's managing director talks about LostWinds, WiiWare and the desire to chart new territory

Frontier is an independent UK developer founded by Elite co-author David Braben that developed games such as Dog's Life, two Wallace and Gromit titles and the Thrillville franchise published by LucasArts. It is also working on a new IP for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC called The Outsider.

More significantly, the company is hoping that its WiiWare game LostWinds will be a launch title when the service hits North America in May. We caught up with Frontier's managing director David Walsh who was showing the game off at Nintendo's media summit last week to ask him about the origin of the title, his thoughts on WiiWare and the company's desire to chart new territory.

GamesIndustry.bizTell us about the development process of LostWinds. How long have you been working on it?
David Walsh

The game has sort of an interesting genesis.

Within Frontier we have an internal game suggestion forum called "Game of the Week." The original idea was...We used to think about a new game every week, but now it's basically a forum for anyone to put up ideas from the most fully-formed game design document that you've been slaving over for a year to "Hey! Why don't we do a game about monkeys with no arms?" And that gets everybody to debating and discussing.

I liken it to putting a leg of lamb into a piranha-infested river. You put your idea into it, the water boils up, and what comes out is very strong.

And this game actually came from that. The idea was around before the Wii was out. When we first saw the controller - "Ah, right, what can we do with that?" The idea came from brainstorming and also from one of our designers looking out the office window on a windy day. That's how the ball got rolling.

The idea got a lot of enthusiasm. That's another thing about this game - where you can really take the "temperature" of ideas by how much buzz there is about them in the company. [LostWinds] was very strongly appreciated by everybody in the company.

So we've known it was a good idea for a while. And then the opportunity came when...The team had just come off Thrillville: Off the Rails which we did for LucasArts because it had shipped, and at the same time Nintendo invited us to a meeting to explain all about WiiWare.

The opportunity to be a launch title on the service was too good to pass up. It doesn't take a commercial genius to work out that it is a good idea with the number of Wii's that there are in the world.

We had this idea, and it is perfect, really, because the whole game is basically about making innovative use of the Wii controller. Putting the power of the wind in the palm of your hand.

GamesIndustry.bizThe game looks quite polished for the short amount of time that it has been in development. Is that a result of the idea germinating for a while?
David Walsh

As I said, the idea was very popular and so, as these things tend to happen, a core team of enthusiasts were working away. We did have like a two year head start because we've been thinking about the design, flow and polish, and we had concept art...

It has been very interesting how little has been thrown away in development because it has had such a long gestation period. It came almost fully formed. Straight out of the mind and onto the screen.

GamesIndustry.bizThe installed base of the Wii is obviously quite large, but the demographics are different - older and younger, more casual gamers. Are you concerned that the number of Wii owners purchasing games online might not be as significant as on other consoles?
David Walsh

It's very interesting. We have obviously heard some of the estimates from Nintendo about how many Wii's have actually been online and it is actually quite significant. But, yes, you're absolutely right.

But interestingly the people who have advocated this game internally are the Wii owners who know [the system]. Certainly a particular section of the Wii-owning population. They get very angry when I call them "core" gamers, but yeah, they are advocates of the Wii and that particular type of gameplay. So we know it resonates very well with those people.

But you are absolutely right that there is a question as to how the mass market who bought their Wii to play tennis with and stuff like that would even know about it.

A couple of interesting things - I think that Nintendo probably will be doing a lot of education and marketing of what you can do on the Wii. I don't know if you've heard, but in the UK a really big deal has just happened. The BBC has this thing called iPlayer, which they've had for about a month now, which is basically this video on demand download service. It's actually become this very big deal.

Nintendo just signed a deal with the BBC to get that on the Wii. Out of all the three - Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft. So, actually, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Wii will become a sort of living room internet access.

GamesIndustry.bizPerhaps it isn't fair to base assumptions upon current Wii online usage, seeing as how the WiiWare service isn't up and running yet - maybe "if you build it, they will come."
David Walsh

Exactly. You know, we're doing a launch title - what people on day one will hear of, switch on..."What's WiiWare? Looks nice. I think I'll try that one."

GamesIndustry.bizIs the memory limitation of the Wii going to be a problem for WiiWare developers? Of the three consoles, it's notably the only one without a hard drive.
David Walsh

There are memory limits. Just like there are fixed sizes of discs, there is a fixed size of files you can download.

GamesIndustry.bizBut are you concerned that consumers won't be able to download many games before they have to start erasing them or somehow transferring them to SD memory cards in order to download new ones?
David Walsh

I understand the question. I think it is probably not for me to answer if Nintendo hasn't said how that is going to be addressed. I think they do have plans...

GamesIndustry.bizTheoretically, if Sony comes out with a similar controller for the PS3 - or if Microsoft produces one for the Xbox 360 - would you be interested in getting LostWinds on their systems as well? It isn't an exclusive for Nintendo is it?
David Walsh

The deal isn't exclusive. The idea came from years ago when we first saw the Wii control. Nothing has been specifically signed for the Wii. But, clearly, anybody with a pointing device - it would work, no problem at all.

GamesIndustry.bizThe PS3, for example, does have games which use a camera to track motion, and players could use their hands to do something similar...
David Walsh

Well, what we've really tried to do is design a game that speaks to the audience of the machine. Maybe the game on the 360 wouldn't be...It's just a different audience.

GamesIndustry.biz Some companies are supporting both digital downloads and retail releases until they decide that the market for the former is adequate. Tomb Raider, Warhawk and GT5 Prologue are examples. If WiiWare sales are disappointing, would you consider putting LostWinds on a disc instead?
David Walsh

We've considered that. We've clearly always known that it was an opportunity, but we see that download services are only going to become more prevalent in the future. Therefore, as a developer, it will be very interesting for us to try and be part of that early and get experience at it.

Even just doing what we're doing now - standing here promoting our game - is actually new for us. It's very exciting for us. It is interesting to see how well we can do it. Sort of uncharted territory, but I think it is important territory for us to chart in the future.

I think it is more of....[inaudible]...rather than banging out an IP hoping to be approached, hoping to get a publishing deal. No - we're like 160 people. We can make this game ourselves. We can take the risk. It is much more about the opportunity in terms of the distribution mechanism with an eye to the future rather than just trying to get a publishing deal.

GamesIndustry.bizSpeaking of which, how do the terms of WiiWare publishing, or rather, distribution deals differ from the terms offered for Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network?
David Walsh

Yeah, I couldn't really answer that. Mainly because I'm not familiar with what Sony and Microsoft's terms actually are, but...

GamesIndustry.bizBecause you haven't yet done a game for digital distribution on the 360 or PS3?
David Walsh

Yeah. There are no, sort of, religious reasons...I mean, we'd be very happy to do that. It's just that we had an idea and an opportunity to do it with Nintendo...

GamesIndustry.bizIf LostWinds is successful, might you consider Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network? Not necessarily for an attempt to port LostWinds, but for other original titles in the future?
David Walsh

As I mentioned, we're got this fertile idea factory back at Cambridge. We've got loads of what we think are really good ideas. We're really excited about this opportunity to actually start - to see what people think of it, to get it out. Definitely more from us in the future, I would think.

David Walsh is Frontier's managing director. Interview by Mark Androvich.

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