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

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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