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Interview: Trent Oster - WiiWare from a Developer's Perspective

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

Changes that can support independent developers

After declaring that Beamdog will never develop for Nintendo again, company president Trent Oster was the recipient of both praise and criticism for his honesty. The tone of the original remarks on Twitter riled some, while debates about the merits and flaws of WiiWare and Nintendo’s digital strategy on Wii raged back and forth. We attempted to address lessons to be learned from WiiWare and Beamdog, and it’s a topic that provokes a lot of passion in the Nintendo gaming community.

We approached Oster to discuss not only the issues experienced with the development and release of MDK2, but also to get his views on how Nintendo can improve its services from a developer’s perspective. Even those broadly supportive of WiiWare must surely acknowledge that the service has significantly fallen away in recent months, and we were keen to learn the views of someone inside the industry. Trent Oster shares his opinions on WiiWare, the 3DS eShop and how Nintendo’s download platforms can continue to improve.

Nintendo Life: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself and your background in the industry?

Trent Oster: I started in the game industry as a co-founder of Bioware. I worked as a Programmer in the early days, 3D artist in the middle and Project Director later in my career. I was the Director on Neverwinter Nights, leading it from start to completion. I then served as the Director of Technology at Bioware for a few years and then returned to Project Direction on an unannounced title which was cancelled. Bioware/EA and I parted ways in 2009 after almost 15 years.

NL: Beamdog currently runs its own digital distribution service on PC, what can you tell us about that?

TO: Beamdog is a service that aims to take the hassle out of buying and playing PC games. We do this by removing the installation phase from PC distribution. On Beamdog, you see a game you like, you buy it and once the download is complete, it is ready to play, no installation or other PC hassle. We started with a user experience in mind and looked for technology that could support what we wanted to do. After a great deal of research, we realized our only option was to build our own solution. We've been up and running for a little over a year and we have a loyal following. We do aggressive sales to drive product interest and spotlight interesting titles to drive attention to them. We also send out a very funny newsletter based around our Beamdog characters (Barcoli is awesome). We hope to grow our user base in the near future with our exclusive: Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition.

Given the 140 character limit of Twitter and my cranky 3am mindset, my comment was also a pretty choppy sound bite.

NL: You've come to the attention of Nintendo gamers recently due to comments about WiiWare. How do you feel about the overall reaction and interest?

TO: I was surprised by the reaction to my comments. What I stated has been said a great deal within the industry, I guess I didn't get the memo about not posting it publicly. Given the 140 character limit of Twitter and my cranky 3am mindset, my comment was also a pretty choppy sound bite. The feedback has mostly been agreement and support about how Nintendo can improve. But, I now have a few people who randomly appear on the various social networks and troll me.

NL: Maybe we can break down the issues your team encountered when publishing on WiiWare. Let's start with the minimum sales requirement: what's your understanding of Nintendo's reasoning behind that? You've said that your company is yet to earn any money from sales.

TO: All I can do is speculate around Nintendo's policy. My guess is they wanted to minimize the accounting hassle of tracking royalty payments and sending money internationally by limiting payments to the most successful titles. The sales limit is set quite high for a download service with no real marketing support.

For a small developer, $1000 in a given month might be the difference between making payroll and folding.

NL: What do you think would be a better alternative to Nintendo's current minimum sales requirement?

TO: I'd suggest a royalty point of $1000. If they owe you $1000 they pay, otherwise they wait. For a small developer, $1000 in a given month might be the difference between making payroll and folding. As a company, the $1000 point allows Nintendo to avoid wasting too much money on wire transfers ($25 to send money electronically doesn't make much sense to me, but that is another point) while still keeping the developers fed.

NL: What's your view on the level of marketing activity, from publishers and Nintendo itself, for WiiWare titles?

TO: I think WiiWare didn't get a lot of marketing support on any front. I never saw any advertising for third party WiiWare titles, anywhere. I think the lack of marketing investment in the WiiWare platform was one of the big problems with the service.

NL: In terms of marketing, why do you think Nintendo doesn't allow sales and price promotions? What would you like to see done differently in this area?

TO: My guess is again to keep the hassle of operating a service down. I'd keep it simple and build a sales system where every week or two they run a sale. Make it so developers can ask to be featured in the sale at either 30% or 50% off. Set the system up so anyone who hasn't been on sale yet gets preference. Set a discount grade as well based on the age of the title. After 6 months, the developer can re-set the new price with Nintendo guidance. This avoids the race to the bottom of the various other download stores.

I would have preferred a kick back saying the title wasn't ready if the bugs were that bad or a lot faster testing and reporting cycle.

NL: Another big issue outlined for MDK2 was the certification process. Did that process represent QA failings at Beamdog, or are there areas where Nintendo could offer more assistance?

TO: QA was a bad experience on all sides. We did our best with a few hires and a certification guide. My main issue with the certification process was the turn around. We'd get a bug, fix it that day and then wait two weeks. We'd fix that bug that day, along with others we'd found and then wait two weeks again for feedback. We did this for close to nine months. Many developers would have gone out of business during that period. We hung on in the hopes the game would be successful. I would have preferred a kick back saying the title wasn't ready if the bugs were that bad or a lot faster testing and reporting cycle.

NL: The 40MB size limit has been cited as a problem by you and other developers such as Team Meat: why do you think that limit exists? Because of the relatively humble Wii tech, or are there likely to be alternative, business reasons within Nintendo?

TO: Hard to speculate here, but I'd guess both. They have to serve that data world-wide and back when they were drawing up the specs for WiiWare that was probably a lot more expensive than it is today. It also wouldn't take many large games to plug a Wii full, so limiting to smaller titles makes some sense.

NL: Do you think there should be a file size limit at all on Wii U, for example?

TO: I'm on the fence with a limit. I think if there is a limit, it should be forward looking though and should leave headroom for future growth. To support HD resolution, the art files are going to be quite large. Worst case, if someone makes a huge game that fills the entire system, the user can decide to remove it if they want more titles.

I've looked through the 3DS eShop and it looks a hell of a lot better than the WiiWare store. I'd like to see sales and developer features, show us the people who make the games.

NL: Have you had much experience with the 3DS eShop, and if so do you feel that Nintendo are showing improvements in some areas?

TO: I've looked through the 3DS eShop and it looks a hell of a lot better than the WiiWare store. I'd like to see sales and developer features, show us the people who make the games.

NL: If eShop is an indicator, it looks like Wii U may have a more dynamic store-front and a far more relaxed file size limit: if that's the case, will you reconsider your stance on developing for Nintendo?

TO: As an independent developer, we eat what we kill, so our sole experience with Nintendo so far has been no eating. If the Wii U takes off and a number of independent developers do well on the platform we might take another look at it. For now, we're not going to chase the Wii U platform.

NL: From what you've seen of Wii U so far, how do you think it'll compare to the Wii's success?

TO: I haven't seen enough of the Wii U to really comment. Once I've played with it and watched other more mainstream gamers play with it I'll be able to form a reasonable opinion. I think the Wii was an amazing success for Nintendo which will be hard to match.

NL: How do you think Nintendo will change its digital download policies for developers in future?

TO: I'm hoping for the better. I hope the WiiWare experience was a good learning opportunity and they continue on the course of improvement they appear to be on with the 3DS and the Wii U.

We’d like to thank Trent Oster for his time.

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User Comments (34)

BenAV

#1

BenAV said:

Interesting interview.
I was never that impressed with much that WiiWare offered, but the 3DS eShop is definitely off to a much better start.
Already getting a nice little collection of very fun games on my home screen.

Yellowgerbil

#2

Yellowgerbil said:

I normally like to back up nintendo for this sort of thing but this time I can't really say he wrong... The 40mb limit is not good at all and the 3ds is a lot better because the limit is at least 2GB. So at least nintendo is heading in the right direction.

thefabfour64

#3

thefabfour64 said:

"I've looked through the 3DS eShop and it looks a hell of a lot better than the WiiWare store." Yep, pretty much. It makes me feel very optimistic about the Wii U eShop. The rumors about Android integration is even more exciting. Hopefully that rumor turns out to be true.

Chrono_Cross

#4

Chrono_Cross said:

Great interview.

The WiiWare service was a nice little appetizer of what can found on the Wii retail wise. World of Goo, Fluidity, Mega Man 9, Lost Winds and Toki Tori are all great games and are reasons why WiiWare is a great service for Wii owners. Though, Nintendo's absence wasn't critical for its other service (the Virtual Console), that has been neglected for years now and is receiving the same treatment on Nintendo's next generation portable the Nintendo 3DS.

I just wish Nintendo could handle their own online store and still remain positive about it all. That, and I hope Nintendo has learned a few lessons by now on how to provide a sleek, attractive online store for its consumers (and support it for god's sake).

Splat

#5

Splat said:

Even as a huge Nintendo fan it's hard to really defend WiiWare, there is a heck of alot more bad than good.

Knux

#6

Knux said:

Both WiiWare and DSiWare are awful, even though there are a few gems in both services. Hopefully, the 3DS and Wii U will be different when it comes to digital downloads, but only time will tell,

madgear

#7

madgear said:

I'm surprised any games make the sales target on WiiWare. Lack of advertising is the biggest problem - I barely know much about most titles and this is coming from someone who reads a Nintendo news site.

The only two companies I notice on the Wii Shop at the moment is Sega and Capcom, who are probably just taking advantage of having the thing all to themselves. Even Nintendo themselves don't bother to release anything any more. It's a shambles and I noticed they practically abandoned the service altogether the very week they announced the Wii U a full year and a half before launch. You have to take into account the Wii is currently the most successful console this generation so the download service could have been exceptional instead of the mess it is.

Hyawatta

#8

Hyawatta said:

"If the Wii U takes off and a number of independent developers do well on the platform we might take another look at it."

"I've looked through the 3DS eShop and it looks a hell of a lot better than the WiiWare store."

That's exactly what I needed to hear.

Also, "I'd like to see sales and developer features, show us the people who make the games."

We can see that Nintendo is already starting to do this by allowing Jools Watsham to get his own eShop corner.

AVahne

#9

AVahne said:

Nice interview. He's actually very honest and reasonable, though I still find that bit about his complaints on the certification process a bit iffy.
Maybe Nintendo was worse back then, this just shows how much better they've (finally) become.

Unca_LzStaff

#11

Unca_Lz said:

Well if he told his comments like this and not "The Wii is a toy, etc.", he probably wouldn't have been criticized as much.

RaylaxStaff

#12

Raylax said:

I love you NintendoLife for landing and publishing this interview.

HappyHappy

#13

HappyHappy said:

I really think that Nintendo should really put effort into advertising Wiiware games, it seems that the only reason some good games that don't sell too well is simply because people have not heard about them.

ThomasBW84Admin

#14

ThomasBW84 said:

On the 'Wii is a Toy' comment that's clearly still bugging some, I found Trent's blog where he explains that he did clarify this on Twitter after the event, and he also says some of what came across in this interview - 'So, I recently tweeted “Wii is a Toy”. I clarified my point was around the large sales numbers not really representing the software market on Wii for independent developers.' The blog post entry can be found at the following link - http://www.trentoster.com/?p=261

The eShop is clearly moving in the right direction, but valid complaints about WiiWare are valuable to ensure that the Wii U service is more attractive for developers of all sizes. Without enthusiastic independent developers, it'll have a tough time.

TLink9

#15

TLink9 said:

The first link in the interview is set up as if you were trying to change the article. This is a very good article. The truth hurts, but it is the truth. Wiiware looked so good to start out but it went doooooooooooooooooooooown hill after World of Goo and Lost Winds. Sigh It had potential but nintendo hardly put any effort into it resulting in a complete train wreck.

mamp

#17

mamp said:

I agree with the fact that Nintendo should do discounts, it works really well for the App store. I mean discounts are great advertisement and if 1000 people buy a one dollar game compared to 100 people buying a 10 dollar game, in the end you still make the same amount of money and people are more inclined to buy a cheaper priced game. Also the games are downloadable so you don't lose as much money as you do with physical retail games. I mean angry birds was only 99 cents and it sold millions, so in the end the devs made a lot of money and everyone knows about Angry Birds.

Neram

#18

Neram said:

Great idea to do this interview NintendoLife, it should bring some closure for those still burned about his initial remarks. Heck, I'm cool with the guy now.

kdognumba1

#19

kdognumba1 said:

Personally, from what I've used of the eShop, I'm liking it a lot more then what I've used on any other system. It's really well set up and does a great job of advertising.

accc

#20

accc said:

You should have asked him what he thought about developers like Shinen, Wayforward, and Renegade Kid, all of whom have had and continue to have plenty of success supporting Nintendo's digital platforms. Maybe refer him to Jools Watsham's blog post entitled "Publishing games on the 3DS is hard. I give up!”, where he outlines the steps he takes to maximize his game's chances of succeeding.

CaPPa

#21

CaPPa said:

@kdognumba1
I prefer the eShop to XBLA and PSN too. The best addition of all is the ability to just pay what you need, which I really like as it always used to bug me having a couple of hundred XBLA/Wii points left sitting in my account that I couldn't really do anything with.

This interview is pretty good damage control for Trent Oster and puts his issues across much better. That he doesn't actually rule out developing for Nintendo again if the Wii U is successful for smaller devs is a much more sensible view than the previous 'never will again' statement.

mike_fantastic

#22

mike_fantastic said:

Wiiware could have been so much more. It is interesting to see why it wasn't from a developer's perspective. For years we have heard of how Nintendo treats its developers. I say good for him for giving us a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain.

Flips over to La-Mulana's cancellation article...well, dammit.

k8sMum

#23

k8sMum said:

@Koto 'Maybe Nintendo was worse back then, this just shows how much better they've (finally) become.'

what shows how much better they've become? excellent interview but i didn't see anything showing what you mention.

citizenerased

#24

citizenerased said:

Great interview, don't really see how anyone can disagree with the man. I've downloaded a dozen or so games on WiiWare, but have 5 times the number of retail titles. That says a lot: WiiWare is clunky and Nintendo old-fashioned. Recent comments have made it seem like they're moving forward, let's hope it's leaps instead of Nintendo's usual babysteps. Sometimes it's okay to assimilate Western ideas, Nintendo (see: Steam).

Hetsumani

#25

Hetsumani said:

Beamdog, i will remember that name... and not buy anything they sell, on any platform.

Slapshot

#27

Slapshot said:

Great interview. I'm glad to see that you guys have found an understanding with his frustrations. It's always hard to see behind the curtains as a fan, or gamer, but for Beamdog, their game's selling is how they feed their families, and allows their company to move forward onto following projects.

Uncle_Optimus

#28

Uncle_Optimus said:

@Hetsumani: why? As opposed to making a 3am statement dismissing the Wii platform (itself somewhat taken out of context), this time he sits down and explains quite succinctly what his issues were. He is even asked what Nintendo's motivations were with some of their policies and his responses are honest and civil.
But perhaps you just meant that you find the guy a jerk (maybe he cut in front of you at the Froyo, I dunno) and thus the company he captains is undeserving of your support. In which case, if you are a fan of good RPGs, it is unfortunate because those are some gooood games his company looks intent on putting out there.

hydeks

#29

hydeks said:

I agree with him in ways but the way he just went to twitter and blasted like that, you STILL don't have my respect, bud.

vherub

#31

vherub said:

I think that was a good interview. The real problem here is that wiiware had promise in the beginning, and has had a number of strong games, but never really built on that, never tapped into the giant user base, has alienated a number of developers and has left Nintendo in a very, very deep disadvantage to it's competitors in the download space- be it apple, android, or psn/xbox live/steam.
Nintendo has not shown (to me) that they have learned from the majority of the mistakes they made with wiiware, and there are some huge question marks going forward that the other platforms have already resolved.

Sean_Aaron

#32

Sean_Aaron said:

I got some good titles off WiiWare, but the offering as a whole was weak: terribly slow to use and clearly something tacked on which the system wasn't really designed to support properly from the beginning.

Nintendo got burned; they have no excuse for not getting it right this time. I'd argue that if their online shop isn't right this time it will doom them as a hardware company.

LeasTwanteD

#33

LeasTwanteD said:

Good interview. Nice to see he's at least trying to understand Nintendo. Not that it makes a difference for them in the end but i hate people who say the decisions of others must be stupid. Without even thinking about why they were made.

PS: No installation for PC games means once it’s down from the servers you cannot play it any longer, right? As much as i hope it doesn't come to this i'd like to be completely sure i can access my game anytime i want to. So i don't really like that idea.

ToxieDogg

#34

ToxieDogg said:

I must be really unusual in that I've downloaded quite a lot of WiiWare games and really enoyed the hell out of them...the Bit.Trip games, Blaster Master Overdrive, Hydroventure (Fluidity), Lit, FAST Racing League and Konami's 'Rebirth' games amongst others...but I do agree that it's been very poorly marketed and advertised, and Nintendo's DD service as a whole needs better structuring with regular 'Sale' offer games and the likes. Good interview. I'll be interested to see how the Wii-U DD service is.

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