As the 3DS eShop continues to evolve and expand its library, Nintendo is currently preparing to introduce the Wii U eShop — it's assumed that'll be its name — and continue to expand its download gaming options. It's been a rocky road, of course, with the DSi and Wii online stores both being flawed in terms of both the store front and the rules and regulations facing developers behind the scenes.
Despite problems with Nintendo's first steps into download games, some developers have stayed the course, serving as pioneers on the older services and carrying on with the 3DS and Wii U eShop platforms. One of these is Nnooo, the Australian development studio formed in 2006 that has released a variety of apps and games on Nintendo systems so far, including the highly-regarded WiiWare launch title Pop and the excellent escapeVektor: Chapter 1. Nnooo's also been particularly busy on DSiWare, with Pop Plus: Solo picking up on the WiiWare release, and a collection of lifestyle downloads with its series of myLife Collected apps, which included myNotebook and myDiary. Nnooo's DSiWare days aren't exactly finished, either, with Spirit Hunters Inc. Shadow/Light bringing AR gameplay to the older handheld, with two separate downloads following the lead of the Pokémon series.
It's a company well placed, therefore, to provide insight into Nintendo's download platforms. We spoke to Nnooo's founder, Nic Watt — formerly a lead games designer for EA in London — to gain more insight into working on downloads for Nintendo systems. It's interesting to note that despite venturing into smartphone territory with Pop, the developer is continuing to show a great interest in Nintendo and dedicated gaming systems as a whole. Perhaps this is a legacy of Watt's time in the industry before Nnooo, which has given him well over 10 years of developing on Nintendo hardware. "My first experience of developing for a Nintendo system was when I first started in the games industry in 1998. We were working on a modern version of Pong for Atari and began work on an N64 version. Unfortunately it was never released. Since then I have worked on N64, Gamecube, Nintendo DS, Nintendo DSi, Wii, Nintendo 3DS and now Wii U."
Moving onto 3DS and Wii U has been a natural progression for Nnooo, as the lengthy list of DSiWare and WiiWare releases attests. The process of moving from DSi to 3DS development was "pretty smooth", and Watt explained that having previously published on Nintendo systems led to a much easier conversation with Nintendo. "We have a lot of contacts at Nintendo now and we basically spoke to them about what we wanted to do on the machine and asked if we could be approved. With Wii U we were even luckier to be approved prior to the release of the hardware (which is a first for us) and have recently taken delivery of a couple of Wii U beta development kits!" Naturally its early days for the company on Wii U, with projects currently under wraps, but Nic's excitement at working on the system is difficult to ignore.
Our focus in this chat was the 3DS eShop, however, with escapeVektor currently planned for release before the end of the year; it'll also make an appearance on Sony's Vita. As gamers couldn't fail to notice, the first WiiWare entry in this series was named as "Chapter 1", but the service didn't get the planned full compliment of four chapters. The decision to move to Nintendo's handheld and bundle all four chapters in one release was perhaps both an indictment of where the Wii Shop had gone wrong, and a show of support for the improvements evident in the eShop. "We had been developing and releasing titles on WiiWare and DSiWare for close to 4 years so moving on to the eShop was a no brainer," he explained. "We really like the features Nintendo put into their hardware and the fact that every owner is interested in games. The eShop seemed to be a great opportunity and also demonstrated how much Nintendo have learnt about online sales since the launch of the Wii and Nintendo DSi."
Learning lessons is a recurrent theme with Nintendo and its download stores. One such complaint with the company's first online stores was the stringent policy on file size, reportedly restricted to just 40MB on Wii and a punishing 16MB on DSi. As Nnooo demonstrated, high quality games could be produced within those limitations, but Watt suggested to us that Nintendo has loosened the straps on 3DS and Wii U. "As with all developers we are covered by NDAs limiting how much we can talk about the exact ins and outs of the technical aspects of Nintendo's services and hardware. I will say that I very much doubt you will hear anyone complain about not being able to make the game they want to make due to space concerns".
The second major issue that has been cited in some quarters is the problem of Nintendo's approval processes, a high set of standards with the potential to cause substantial delays and long testing periods. Far from stating that this has been slackened in any way, Watt explained why the onus is on developers to learn from mistakes and establish reliable processes, highlighting improvements that Nnooo has made and why these tests are important for gamers.
Our experience of the approval process has changed over the years we have been doing it. The first time we did it with Pop for WiiWare we were not as prepared as we should have been for all of the tests and checks required. We learnt quickly from this and have built up our own testing methodology as well as building our games on the lessons of previous ones. I think most people's complaints with the approval process arise more out of the fact that they (like we did originally) don't realise what it is there for or that they don't take it seriously enough.
The way we look at it, and encourage our developers to look at it, is that any and all of the approval tests Nintendo have are there to make the experience of using a Nintendo system enjoyable. By taking into account these tests we prevent the user, for example, from experiencing long periods of black screens with no loading text or animations which would otherwise make the game look like it has crashed.
Perhaps improvements in these processes, on both sides of the fence, can also be attributed to a positive relationship with Nintendo. Watt made clear that in the past few years he's been able to form strong contacts within Nintendo, specifically those involved in "marketing, eShop and development groups" that provide advice and assistance when the time to release a game arrives. That support is currently evident in the eShop video — in North America — currently on the store promoting Spirit Hunters, as well as behind-the-scenes confidence that any enquiries or concerns are typically addressed by Nintendo within 24 hours. When you combine this with "an amazing SDK (Software Development Kit) and other tools and middleware with which to develop our games", it perhaps becomes clearer why Nnooo is renewing its interest in Nintendo's download platforms on 3DS and Wii U.
With escapeVektor set to be the developer's first download designed for eShop specifically, finally leaving DSiWare behind, Nnooo will now naturally shift its attention to the health of the service in general. Watt's summary of the quality of content so far was exceptionally positive. "I think the first year of the service has been amazing! For such a young device the number of really great games has been a much higher percentage than the low quality ones. I think Nintendo have really managed to attract some talented and passionate developers as attested by the quality of the software."
While the content is strong and issues of a pesky download limit are non-existent, that doesn't mean that improvements can't be made. Despite being "really pleased" with the way the eShop has developed, more functionality and ease of use is desired. "In addition to the great curated store front, it would be nice to be able to explore the store. I would also like to be able to browse, buy and gift content outside of the eShop and have it downloaded to my Nintendo 3DS (or the 3DS of the person I have gifted to) via Spotpass." As he clarified, this access on a web-based platform would not only benefit gamers, but provide extra opportunities for publishers. "This would help users and would allow developers like ourselves to be able to provide direct URLs to our software for marketing purposes."
What's clear from these discussions is that Nic Watt and his team are still very much active and enthusiastic about delivering games on Nintendo's download platforms. The excitement of receiving Wii U development kits highlights that, as well as a willingness to continue the escapeVektor brand on 3DS, even with the concession of also releasing it on the Sony's powerful Vita handheld. Nintendo's 3DS has its own strengths and unique selling points, of course, and as we've seen there's been a great deal of effort and forging of key contacts with Nintendo, all as part of a mutually beneficial arrangement. As for the process of escapeVektor finally arriving on 3DS, Watt provided some explanation of the biggest challenges that his team faces, and the underlying policy and prioritisation of providing a quality experience.
The hardest part for us with escapeVektor has probably been optimising the graphics and making use of the leaderboards. We want to make sure the game runs at a constant 30 frames per second and uses full screen anti aliasing so that it is smooth and eye-catching. It has taken us a long time to optimise for this but we feel it is worth it.
The leaderboards are also hard as we want to make sure that the user can still see/use them offline, so we are saving them to Extra Data. We also want to be able to display them before and after each level. There are a lot of technical aspects to take into consideration with a feature like this but again we don't like putting a feature in unless it is going to be done in a way which is useful and fun for the player.
The positives for gamers are that Nnooo has a solid track record on Wii and DSi that it can bring to Nintendo's latest systems. With such a positive outlook, enthusiasm for the hardware and a solid relationship with Nintendo, Nnooo may be a developer to watch on 3DS later this year, and on Wii U in years to come.
We'd like to thank Nic Watt for his time.