Developer Interview: Frozenbyte Talks Trine 2, Wii U eShop and Working with Nintendo
Posted by Mike Mason
An ice chat
The excitement for Wii U isn't limited to the second screen, the possibility of five player games or the chance that Nintendo is getting its groove back with third party publishers: there's also the small matter of its approach to digital distribution. WiiWare started well before floundering and DSiWare hosted a few gems among its endless sudoku and puzzle titles, but things seem to be improving since the 3DS eShop launched, with several high quality efforts lurking within an improved shop interface already. Wii U's eShop looks set to continue this rise on first glance at its line-up, adorned with the works of a number of independent developers.
Trine 2: Director's Cut is one of those games, created by Finnish outfit Frozenbyte. It's a fantasy-inspired puzzle platformer for up to three players, with a trio of unique characters that must be used interchangeably to navigate the world. Previously released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC / Mac, the Wii U eShop version of Trine 2 is an expanded edition poised to launch alongside the new system. We chatted with Frozenbyte's sales and marketing manager Mikael Haveri about working with Nintendo, Wii U's feature set and just how Trine 2 has been improved for the director's cut.
Frozenbyte has been around since 2001. Based in Helsinki, Finland, the team grew after the Trine games performed well and currently has around 50 employees, including testers. It wasn't always like this. “For pretty much the first eight years the VP and the CEO didn't actually take any pay and it was more of a garage type of operation,” Mikael shares. “It was like a rollercoaster, but then now that we have had success with the first and second Trine, it's time to try to upgrade a little bit.”
Part of that expansion involves working on Wii U. Trine 2: Director's Cut will be the first Frozenbyte game to be released on a Nintendo console, though the company has DS development kits too. Its upcoming multi-platform mobile game, puzzle-platformer Splot, was originally intended for the handheld, but development changed course. “We were really never sure if we were going to go with the DS,” Mikael explains, and as such there was never really any relationship between Frozenbyte and Nintendo prior to Trine 2: Director's Cut. “We had been in contact with Nintendo but we weren't that close. I think that what happened was that, with the success or the appeal of Trine 2, we started being more in contact, and it kind of grew from there.”
"I think what Nintendo brings in with the Wii U is hopefully a very open, relaxed eShop atmosphere.”
Nintendo first approached Atlus, Trine 2's publisher on other platforms, which put it in direct contact with Frozenbyte. On Wii U, Frozenbyte has the opportunity to self-publish its game. “It's something we always want to do – nothing against publishers, but […] the more control the better for us.” It's an enticing prospect for the developer, which views Wii U as an important future prospect as this console generation begins to draw to a close. “We see that those platforms are good in their own way but they might be coming to that generation change, so we're really looking into the future. And I think what Nintendo brings in with the Wii U is hopefully a very open, relaxed eShop atmosphere.”
It seems that other developers feel the same way, with several high profile indie games making it to the Wii U eShop around release. Haveri highlights Two Tribes' Toki Tori 2 and Shin'en Multimedia's Nano Assault Neo as two games he's particularly looking forward, though happily confesses that he's likely to download most of the launch games on the service. “I'm definitely gonna try to download all of them and get to play all that.” It probably helps that the file size limit, a burden on WiiWare, has been lifted to the point where it's unlikely to be an issue: Trine 2 comes in at around two gigabytes.
Even as a first time partner, Haveri notes that Nintendo has been “very generous” so far. It's taken Trine 2 with it to several expos around the world, including the recent Eurogamer Expo. “This, for a very small company, Nintendo giving us the availability to be there, present — it's unbelievable,” he laughs. Since the game is currently on track for a launch day release, there's also a lot of optimism about its prospects. “If we do make the very launch, then that's in itself a huge visibility possibility. I mean, it's a new store and people will be looking into it, and if there's not too many games then that's a lot of visibility.”
Frozenbyte has been left to its own devices while working on Wii U, though support is available if needed. “Nintendo's really supporting us, but I think for a developer sometimes you really want to search and learn for yourself also,” Mikael says. “During this time right now, when we're getting closer and closer to launch, it's much more communication about the small details, how to do things.”
"We started with the Wii U and then in two days we had it running. We had it running really fast."
There's pride in his voice as he talks about the porting process. “I keep telling people about the first couple of days that we had the consoles, the dev kits, and when we got to really get into the game. I think we didn't start really until sometime early in the year still, but the fact was that we had a lot of things going on. Then when we got over the old things, we started with the Wii U and then in two days we had it running. We had it running really fast. So it was more about knowing your own tech and then having that 'eureka!' moment of making it work on this new hardware.”
The Wii U version of Trine 2 is set to include a bunch of additional content that isn't planned for the current consoles, such as the Goblin Menace expansion, previously only released on Steam. “Basically that does require... well, not huge amounts more graphics processing power, but still considerably. If we would publish that on the other consoles, then I believe that there would be some small downscaling of what it is right now.” As well as technical reasons, Frozenbyte is pouring this content into Wii U because it's keen to make a splash on Wii U out of the gate. “We really are focused on the Wii U, and we really want to create new content for this really big release that we're happy to be a part of.”
A brand new multiplayer mode, Magic Mayhem, has also been planned, but Haveri reveals that it's “on the backburner right now” and more likely to be “some sort of an update at some point”. It's a mini-game style mode – “hopefully even something akin to what Nintendo Land is doing” – and won't make it to launch because the team hasn't decided exactly what it will involve yet. “We've been reworking the whole idea a couple of times. It is a bit different than we first thought it would be. The idea is to make something that really takes the touch interface and takes full focus on that and different kinds of play that you can do. In that sense, whenever this does happen, it probably will be – unless it translates really well to the PC controls – then most likely it's gonna be exclusive [to Wii U].”
That's not to forget the existing multiplayer options, which make their way over to Wii U as well. Three people will be able to play together locally, online or a combination of the two; for example, two players can play on one console while another can connect to the same game via the internet. It's designed to be easy drop-in, drop-out multiplayer and several controller types — “Nunchuk and Remote, or the Pro Controller, or the Classic Controller” – can be used. Fans of other consoles may also be pleased to hear that Wii U could have some sort of achievements system afterall, possibly known as “accomplishments” as has been rumoured in the past, though what form it takes is unknown. “I'm almost 100% sure that there will be some type of system.”
Some Miiverse support is planned, though how much is uncertain right now. “I think we'll have some support in the beginning, but I think that it's something that you can also add onto,” Mikael reveals. “When I was at Nintendo a couple of weeks ago I was asking more about it, because it's opening up the possibilities of what you can do in terms of interaction with other players and so on. It's definitely something we'll keep our eye on and see how that develops.”
This is the second mention of content upgrades: so how easy is it to patch software on Wii U? "Hopefully really easy. Most likely a lot better than what we've been working on in the past," Mikael replies. “We don't know actual details, so it's really hard to say anything. But every time I express my concern to Nintendo, they are all like 'oh, you shouldn't worry too much'. The things I've been hearing sound very good. And just the fact that they are reaching out to the indie community means that they are taking this into consideration.” Mikael considers Steam's set up to be the gold standard that Nintendo should be aiming for, but understands that this may not be manageable within a console environment. “I really hope that it's gonna be like, let's say that we do two Steam updates a month regularly. Then maybe we can get those same updates that we do on Steam and maybe do something like once a month for the Wii U version.”
"Nintendo is making an effort to really reach out to companies like ourselves [...] and giving us a good environment to work in."
Frozenbyte hasn't seen the Wii U eShop itself yet, but it has been told some information about it that excites Mikael, as somebody who interacts with the media, cuts trailers, deals with promotion and handles social media. “If I make a new video or something, then I believe that I have the possibility to also put it there. So it's not just on YouTube, or on my blog or somewhere. I think that I can actually also put it onto the eShop. For me I think that's something that could be really great, and I believe that's something that's a possibility for the launch, or somewhere down the line at least.” As far as Haveri is concerned, the eShop seems to be going in the “right direction”. “I think Nintendo is making an effort to really reach out to companies like ourselves and very similar communities that are clearly growing and giving us a good environment to work in. That's something that we've really been noticing from Nintendo.”
Haveri is envious of future North American Wii U owners, however, as they're currently the only ones who will have access to TVii, Nintendo's social media-laden attempt to conquer the home entertainment space. With complex licensing at play, no solution has yet been mentioned for other territories. “I do watch way too much TV,” he admits. “Right now whenever I'm watching something, like live TV, I'm usually on Twitter at the same time, just seeing what people are talking about.” Finland doesn't have the likes of Netflix yet, which surely doesn't help the prospects of TVii there, but Haveri hopes that the service will appear in some form down the line, highlighting it as an important part of Nintendo's overall strategy with its new console. “I think that what [Nintendo is] realising with the Wii U entertainment integration is that that's something that is a daily thing, and for the whole family, so you can actually keep the console on more and more, just adding more value to how integral a part of the entertainment it can be.”
Working with Nintendo has been “very freeform” and positive so far, though Mikael acknowledges that Frozenbyte is only just entering the submission process. The developer very much wants to build up a strong “mutual relationship” with Nintendo. “With Nintendo it's looking [like a] really shiny and happy relationship,” he laughs. “But then again, [we] always have to be wary because that's always been the way. Usually towards the launch, really close to the launch, that's where things maybe start to break up with it all. It's looking really good so far, very positive, and I'm pretty sure that it will remain in that same direction.”
Our huge thanks to Mikael for taking the time to speak to us. You can read more about our initial impressions of Frozenbyte's first Nintendo game in our Trine 2: Director's Cut preview.