Nestled in the heart of Sydney Australia, indie developers Nnooo tirelessly work hard on ther new game that will give Pokémon a run for its money.
The game is Spirit Hunters Inc. and in the lead up to its November 22nd release, Creative Director Nic Watt, flanked by wingman and Business Director Bruce Thomson spoke with Aussie-Gamer in-depth about their studio, the gaming industry and for the first time to any publication, Nintendo Wii U.
Nnooo currently have a game in the planning stage for Wii U, as we revealed in an earlier post. With that in mind, we pressed on with some questions about what they – as real life video game developers – thought of the console’s power, working with the unit and what their plans for the new system are.
For good measure, the duo also discuss internet trolls, the media’s doom and gloom campaign and the future of digital entertainment!
Aussie-Gamer – So, you guys were one of the first Australian developers to be confirmed as a Wii U Developer…
Nic: I don’t think we were the first, but I think we were one of the first independent ones anyway. There’s a studio in Melbourne who are doing Mass Effect 3 (Straight Right) and they’ve had it for a while. They probably own a different build to us…
Aussie-Gamer – You’ve got the dev unit – is it all the doom and gloom the media are building it up to be? What’s it like to work with?
Nic: We haven’t jumped into it enough… When I first started working with games, I was on the PlayStation One and Nintendo 64 days, and they were really tough to work with. The transition to PlayStation 2 was probably the worst one from my memory in that you got the dev kit and you got a manual or a set of manuals that were all in Japanese and then… that was basically it. So most developers for those first 3-6 months couldn’t speak Japanese so it took them a long time to just get one triangle drawn on the screen.
If you fast forward to now, we’ve got the Wii U and I got it running in the space of a day and they’ve got lots of demos that aren’t particularly exciting from a gamer point of view but for us they’re really good – there’s one that prints up a whole bunch of dials and things so you can see if the gyroscope is working, and you can see all of those inputs straight away.
So it allows developers to take it and basically do what they want with it.
I don’t know where these doom-sayers are coming from because I think it’s like any new platform: you’re suddenly starting with something new.
Looking at the SDK (Software Development Kit) I think that Nintendo’s taken the same methodology they had on the Wii and they applied it to the Wii U, improved it and made it better. So all this stuff they knew they “did wrong” with the Wii in terms of how they gave the developers the data and how they gave you all the information — they’ve made it better. And they do that every generation.
Everything Nintendo provide us with is really great information on how to make a game or what we need to be able to make really great games.
The difference between the Nintendo DSi and the Nintendo 3DS is that the documentation and stuff they gave us is a lot better.
Bruce: I think when the big developers get these new consoles, they’re not even consoles — they’re basically boards with chips on them and they’re being traded over all the time by Nintendo. It can be a little frustrating because you’re spending all this time going down one route then another version of the console is going down another route so you’ll end up scrapping a lot of your work and restarting again.
But they are on the bleeding edge at that point. They’re giving feedback to Nintendo in order to help them make the console better.
Nic: I’m sure with things like the clickable sticks (on the Wii U GamePad analogue sticks) I’m sure that’s from feedback from Western developers because a lot of them would’ve been wanting to bring their Xbox 360 and their PlayStation 3 games over and being able to click or whatever is in support of those features.
Bruce: People are not really understanding how the process works, I think. I think that maybe they think it’s frustrating, but they need to understand the process of getting to that final version point.
Nic: I find it really weird – a company our size, if we were at the start of the Wii U and they were giving us whatever they give early developers we would probably find it really difficult because we wouldn’t be able to get on with work quick enough — and that’s probably why it’s a good thing that we don’t get them right at the start.
I think as we grow as a company, that would be different.
But everything Nintendo provide us with is really great information on how to make a game or what we need to be able to make really great games.
Aussie-Gamer – Do you have any plans to get started on it?
Nic: Yeah we have a game concept that we’re not announcing yet. We’re going to start, hopefully in the next month or two, prototyping. I want it to be quite a quick turn-around game. I want it to be a co-operative experience that you play together rather than a single player game where you play alone.
Aussie-Gamer – Will it make use of the asymmetrical gameplay feature of the Wii U?
Bruce: Yes – you have to use that. If we’re getting Wii U Dev Kits at the start of the console’s lifecycle, you’ve got to use that – otherwise it’s a wasted opportunity.
Nic: The whole design of the game is multiplayer so I’d like to look at some of the social aspects as well so you could play asynchronously with other players – so maybe you’re doing something and some hours later your friend does something in response.
Aussie-Gamer – Any plans to utilise the Miiverse?
Nic: Yes. Yes, there’s a lot of ideas and until we dive into exactly what you can and can’t do with Miiverse there’s some ideas that would tie into that sort of experience, like posting updates on how you’re progressing in our game and the particular features of our game will suit some of the particular features of Miiverse but I can’t really say any more!
Bruce: We’re prototyping a couple of things so there’s no set one that we’ve all agreed on yet. We want to look at a few ideas. Nic has one idea that we’d like to take forward but we’re just prototyping a few things just to make sure it’s going to work.
Nic: Two of the games that we want to put out work really well with Vita, 3DS and Wii U and they would obviously be played slightly differently. The game I was describing before would mainly be asynchronous on Vita and 3DS, and the other one on Wii U you could either play asynchronously or you can play it with friends asymmetrically.
Aussie-Gamer – Nintendo are planning to sell all Wii U games online, digitally, via the eShop. Do you think that we will start seeing “AAA quality”, download exclusive games?
Nic: It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens in the next couple of years but obviously if EA sell Mass Effect 3 as a downloadable version and disc titles so you could buy either, that’s going to be $60 in American and probably $90 or whatever they charge us over here in Australia. But that’ll be regardless of which version you buy – the price will be roughly the same.
Now you’ve got this ridiculously unrealistic expectation from consumers that our games should be free
So you’ve got EA’s Mass Effect 3 at that price bracket and then you’ll have some eShop games that are maybe free or $2.99 or whatever, so suddenly you’ve got this big zone. And I think you might see some eShop games start to creep up because they’re offering more and they’re getting closer to those AAA titles — maybe they’re not as good as Mass Effect because they don’t have 500 developers they can throw at it, but they’re getting closer in quality. And you may see some titles coming down because they don’t need to be released on disc, perhaps.
Aussie-Gamer – This might be the case for Nintendo 3DS, I’d imagine – Is there any limitations for smaller developers, apart from the obvious things like budgets? Any limits on file size, for example?
Nic: There’s no limits. Any limit on download also applies to cartridges.
Aussie-Gamer – So, in theory, you guys could develop Resident Evil: Revelations and release that as an eShop title?
Nic: Absolutely. If we wanted to make a game and put as much content in it as Resident Evil has and it was a 2GB download, we’re allowed to.
And that’s what I mean about eShop games. I don’t think people are going to suddenly start charging more just for the sake of it but I think that the line between “this is a disc title” and “this is a download title” — at the moment they’re perceived as ‘one is professional high in quality and one is a little more quirky and cheap and cheerful’ that line I think over the next 5 – 10 years is just going to evaporate.
I think part of the problem that’s popped up recently – and I think that Apple will probably rue the day they did this in some ways – is that because developers can set their own prices on the App Store, all that’s done is seen a race to the bottom in terms of pricing.
And now you’ve got this ridiculously unrealistic expectation from consumers that our games should be free. And then people give games away for free and then sell add-ons and people say “I’ve got the free version of your game and you’re not giving me enough free levels — I have to pay for them!”.
Yeah, well, I’ve got to eat! (all laugh) This is my job, you know? You might be working at Burger King or whatever you’re doing — you’ve got a salary. I need to sell you my games to make money.
Bruce: And you’ve got to remember that it’s not just the big budget games that are attractive and the indie games are the stuff at the other end of the spectrum. For example, we watched two indie films over the weekend and they both were completely different films from the big blockbusters, but they were probably more entertaining than most blockbuster films that we’ve seen recently. And they were slower, more emotional, more thought provoking, great entertainment and I’d say that’s where you would put them, at that end of the spectrum in terms of independent, less money spent — that doesn’t make them any less entertaining.
Nic: And I think that’s where the difference needs to be drawn – we need to stop thinking of things as being triple-A meaning they’re Mass Effect or Halo and they’ve have billions of dollars spent on them, and then “not triple-A” which is something that’s an eShop download or an iPhone game.
In film, you don’t have that — I suppose the only thing that comes close is your “straight to DVD” type films. And they’re generally really bad films (laughs).
But everything else is a film. Some of them are your “blockbusters” like Transformers and the like, but you go into a DVD store and buy a Blu-Ray – that new release movie is the same price whether it’s Transformers or Sean Penn’s latest indie film. And when we rent a movie from Apple TV or whatever, new releases are generally the same price as each other.
Sure, they’re a heck of a lot cheaper than games, but I think once we get rid of packaged games I like to think that the Mass Effect‘s will come down in price. But we can’t at the moment – Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are too reliant on the ‘JB HiFi’s’ of the world – retailers have got big leverage there.
Aussie-Gamer – One thing that frustrates me personally is that probably 10 years ago, there was a huge discussion in the industry about video games being seen as art by not just the gamers but also the wider public and now it’s that video games are seen as cash cows by rich people who want to get richer.
Nic: I think for video games to be seen as art, we’ve got to move out of boy’s bedrooms and I think the only way that’s going to happen is when governments of the world allow us to take that creative risks – coming back to the funding again. Because if you look at film, the only way half of these independent, quirky, unusual films get made is because either someone’s just got the time and the passion to go out and to make something, but more likely it’s because they get grants.
One of the indie films we watched on the weekend had in the end credits ‘funded by Film Italy, Film Ireland’ and some other states in America. And that’s the only way films like that can get made. But we need that creativity — as humanity, what’s our life going to be like if everything on TV is of the same quality as the Transformers movie? We’ll all start to become complete morons if all our television is of that low-brow nature.
Aussie-Gamer – Back onto Wii U, what can you tell us about the machines’ power? Everyone seems to be saying it’s either underpowered, or on-par with Xbox 360, or twice as powerful as PlayStation 3… What can you tell us?
Nic: I’m not intimately knowledgeable about the hardware specs of all these platforms and they’re all quite assertoric and different anyway. But it seems very capable – I mean, it’s capable of outputting 1080p and everything that we’ve looked at seems really good.
I think that we’re getting to that point where we have to ask, does it really matter? How many people of the world have 1080p TV’s? Probably a lot of people are moving there or are there, so that’s going to be the benchmark for resolution for quite a while.
So as long as your game – whatever you’re making, whether it’s Mario or Call of Duty – looks really amazing and runs smoothly at 1080p, does it really matter how powerful the hardware it’s running on really is?
Granted, you’ll be able to make more flowing cloth or particles and stuff like that, but one of the best games for Xbox graphically, for me, is Dead Space. I remember being blown away by the first game in that series because the attention to detail they put into that game, the way they designed the levels and the spaces in that game that are very confined which meant that they weren’t drawing this whole, huge world – they were just drawing this one corridor at a time – they could use so much detail and have all these cool effects going off that really made that game so beautiful.
That’s because they played to the power of the machine. They knew what they wanted to do, and they designed the game around it. And that’s why it looks so amazing. So if you have talented developers doing that, it doesn’t matter how powerful your machine is.
I think the Wii U looks great and if you look at how awesome Mario and Pikmin look on the machine and to think that it’s only just started — and at the very beginning of any console’s lifespan, no one really knows how to get the best out of it. So I’m sure people in a couple of years will be doing some amazing tricks that we have not seen before.
Aussie-Gamer – We find that’s the sentiment of real developers. The media, on the other hand…
Nic: My personal opinion on the media is that they’re just looking for a story and when it comes to Nintendo, they’re not making consoles that most people who write in the gaming media want to play with anymore because Nintendo’s heartland is the family and was us when we were teenagers. That’s who buy their consoles.
Whereas most journalists now are in that demographic that Sony and Microsoft are appealing to. They’re just out of Uni, they’re writing for their first blog or maybe they’ve gotten their job at one of the bigger websites and they’re totally into shooting things in the face or driving really fast and going out and partying and drinking and meeting girls.
So, Mario is not really going to fit into your lifestyle if you’re into drinking, driving, and all that. So, how can you objectively write great stories if it’s not something that is all that relevant to your life?
The sense of entitlement is something that’s very big in this industry
And so what we’re finding as a Nintendo developer is that the best thing to do is try to find the right Nintendo-focused press because that’s where the users are anyway and the likes of some of your bigger websites that are more general focused do lip service to Nintendo and are more focused on the core, “I’m going to shoot you in the face till I go to sleep” demographic.
And that’s fine! Maybe one day we will want to make a Call of Duty type game and we will maybe need to appeal to that demographic, but it would be nice if people weren’t so “doom and gloom” about Nintendo all the time.
But what I find interesting about all this is that when the Nintendo 3DS launched and it went through its bad phase and wasn’t doing particularly well and Nintendo decided to reduce the price, every single day for months there was just loads and loads of press about how Nintendo were dead.
The PlayStation Vita is doing by far worse than the Nintendo 3DS ever did and they haven’t had even remotely the same amount of negative press.
So that’s what I can’t understand – how can you say you’re an impartial journalist and you report things fairly when all you did six months ago was slag off Nintendo and report on how bad their platform was doing and now there’s a platform out there that’s doing worse – which is a shame, because it’s an awesome platform – and there’s just no stories being run about it! There’s no one constantly demanding for price cuts, and constantly for ‘this, that and the other’ that was happening before.
So, we’re getting a little bit over that side of stuff.
Bruce: Yeah, we tend not to read a lot of it anymore because it’s one story one day then the opposite the next. So we read a lot less about these things than we used to.
Aussie-Gamer – I like to think that maybe the bigger media guys are just desensitised to it all… They publish stuff because they feel they need to put something up, no matter what it is.
Nic: Well there must be over saturation happening. There’s so many games and stuff coming out every day, you could just have a website focusing just on Xbox or PlayStation.
I think the sense of entitlement is something that’s very big in this industry, too. You might’ve seen recently the Bayonetta 2 announcement. I’ve never actually played the original apart from the demo, but how well reviewed was that game? But the fact that there’s a sequel at all because no one wanted to make a sequel, and the amount of vitriol and backlash because it’s not on Xbox or PlayStation!
Aussie-Gamer – That surprised me, actually. I thought back to NiGHTS on Sega Saturn. It was a similar situation — everyone wanted a sequel for so long, and when they got one, it went onto Wii. No one seemed to care that it wasn’t on PlayStation or Xbox…
Nic: I recently attended a talk by the guys at Blizzard at GDC and one of their points was that a lot of forum users don’t actually listen to what they’re saying. They can go onto their forums and see the people who say “I’m never playing this game ever again. You’ve made all these changes, it’s crap. You’re dead to me” and then they can see that person still keeps playing!
So all these people who come out and say “I’m not buying your product” or whatever, they’re very outward like that but they’re not actually changing their buying habits. They’re just using the power of the internet to complain.
Aussie-Gamer – When you think about it, the current console generation is really the first time that the internet has been a major player in everyone’s lives. Everyone who’s playing these games are connected to the internet — it’s so easy to get in touch with developers, and people are just using that to complain more than anything.
Bruce: It’s taken a long time for us, but we handle those types of things too. We try to work out the best response procedure. The way I try to do it now is either don’t comment and don’t bother replying because you just get into a flame war and it’s not worth it, or just try to talk to them as a person.
Nic: Obviously, we spend a lot of time making our games and we think they’re great and we love them and we’re picking a point in their development cycle to put them out there because we could just keep working on them forever, so there might be a few features that we might decide not to put into a game because logistically it’s just going to take too long, but you’ll get people who’ll come on and comment about it and I’ve seen some forums with some developers who will just argue with their potential consumers in a public forum that all of their other potential consumers can see, and just get into a ridiculous argument when everyone on the forum knows that the guy who started it all was an idiot.
So all you’re doing is making yourself look like an idiot and putting people off buying your game. So we try — and I’m not saying we’re perfect at it — but we try to just say “look, the reason we did this is because it made sense at the time” and so on, and if they keep commenting we just don’t bother replying.
But if you put your point of view forward and make it clear enough — for example, escapeVektor has been pirated more on WiiWare than it has sold, and I went onto one of the forums out there where they were all discussing it and sharing the links and I said “Look guys, it’s really great that you love the game. I just wanted to come on here and say we’re a small company of 5, I need to be able to go home and eat burgers occasionally too, so it’d be nice that if you do like the game that some of you actually consider paying for it. That would be awesome.”
Of course, a couple of people came back and were just being arsey saying “prove who you are” and what-not. So I did in a really polite way, and what I found is that you would have people come back on the forums defending me and kind of attacking the guys who were being idiots saying “you know what, maybe we should be doing this”. So it’s just about putting your point of view out there clearly, being polite and friendly.
Bruce: Giving them something personal to identify with, I think, makes it a lot harder for them to just turn around and trash us.
Nic: I think that because we’re so small and because myself and Bruce are involved in a lot of facets of the company we do try to keep that personal side to it. And not that I’d want to anyway, but if we became some 5,000 person company that would be pretty difficult.
But I think Blizzard does it really well. I play World of Warcraft a lot and I go onto their forums and the fact that their developers are so into interfacing with the fan base constantly — that’s one of the best forms of customer service.
Like the Lead Designer gets on there and replies to comments — not everything, but every now and then he will. And just seeing how well written his response is. He must sit there fuming half the time because he’s dealing with teenagers writing rubbish (all laugh).
But he manages to defuse the argument every time by being very sensible and that’s a really nice way to interface with your customers.
Nnooo’s next title, Spirit Hunters Inc. will release on Nintendo DSiWare and Nintendo 3DS eShop on November 22. Next week, we chat to the guys one last time about that game, revealing some cool aspects of the game fans wont want to miss!
Check out the other parts of this interview series below!