Developer Interview: Gaijin Games Gets Drunk with Wii U Power

WiiWare champs set their sights on the future and rhythm aliens

While plenty of developers have stepped up to take a swing at WiiWare, only a pinch have started from scratch and built good names strictly based on their output for the service. Perhaps the biggest success story in this realm is Gaijin Games: as a brand-new studio, the three-strong team grew steadily as it went to bat and hit it out of the park six times over with the retro-infused BIT.TRIP series, which started off as WiiWare exclusives and have since touched PC, Mac, iOS and 3DS, with a new off-shoot, RUNNER2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, coming to virtually all HD platforms in early 2013 from a team four times larger than when Gaijin opened its doors.

Gaijin owes a lot to WiiWare, which helped make the decision to bring its next title to Wii U’s eShop a no-brainer. Having gone behind-the-scenes with Nintendo at E3 2010, in a big chamber of a room with a door like a vault, Gaijin was onboard “the moment it was announced,” said co-founder Alex Neuse. “We were way more stoked than we thought (we’d be).” So excited, in fact, that when pre-orders began Neuse drove around town like a man on a mission but found himself unable to find a shop willing to take his cash early, so he says he’ll be camping out along with everyone else in Santa Cruz this Sunday.

With great power comes great possibility

What excites most isn’t the new controller and dizzying potential it may bring — although certainly it brings some degree of tingling — but instead the more expected leaps: in power, an area where Wii sorely fell behind its HD competitors, and in storage. The future feels crisp, but more importantly spacious.

“(Seeing Wii U in HD) was the first moment where (Nintendo’s console) felt like a contender,” said co-founder Mike Roush, “where in the past we always felt like (Wii) was sort of a — obviously, it’s a great platform — but it felt like it was a different category than Xbox and PlayStation 3, to me. Not that that’s bad, but it’s different.”

"Having bigger games is huge for us. If they (Nintendo) had the same restrictions as (WiiWare) on Wii U, we probably wouldn’t be doing (RUNNER2). That was probably the biggest factor for us."

Nintendo knows it, too. Walking around the Big N’s booth at PAX Prime this year, Roush pointed out that the TVs had gotten much bigger than they ever were this past generation. The difference was stark; according to Neuse, Nintendo’s content looked fantastic, “not fuzzy and weird” like before. Wii U is no longer a graphical slouch; while the possibilities are far from endless — the hardware is expected to be leapfrogged by Microsoft’s and Sony’s next boxes — for now, competitive possibilities are at the very least present.

Making way for these possibilities is Nintendo, itself getting out of the way, allowing a far more relaxed size cap for software than WiiWare’s oppressive 40 MB limit, a boundary infamous and derided among developers, forcing compromise or undue struggle with their designs and provoking some developers to ditch the platform altogether. With each of Gaijin’s BIT.TRIP titles filled to the brim with space-hogging audio, it’s no small miracle that even one of them made it out the door in the state they did, let alone the six-arc beast the team ultimately realized; it required nothing short of design ingenuity and tough compromises, especially in the art department. With Wii U, it’s all hakuna matata.

“Having bigger games is huge for us,” Neuse said. “If they had the same restrictions as (WiiWare) on Wii U, we probably wouldn’t be doing (RUNNER2). That was probably the biggest factor for us.”

“Right off the bat for our studio, Wii’s download size was always very constrictive because we did so much stuff with music,” Roush said. ”That was the main thing I was looking at, personally.”

What the new size limit is, or whether one still exists, was not something Gaijin was willing to confirm, but it’s an area where the team expresses no concern. “Whereas it was something we were constantly worrying about before…” Neuse began, with Roush concluding “...we will not worry about it ever again. It’s one thing in my life I’m not worried about.”

“Me too!” Neuse said. “That’s good. We should have these conversations more often.”

Pushing buttons

Power is all well and good, but what Nintendo itself touts is the new GamePad, an evolution of the dual screen concept that the GameCube flirted with to little commercial success and one the DS line of portables has so successfully leveraged. But just as the Wii’s motion controls went neglected or oddly used in third-party games, the concept of the GamePad seems to excite Gaijin more than the realities of development.

“My thing with Nintendo products is that I don’t like that they come out with a cool control scheme or a cool gimmick — I say ‘gimmick’ loosely and not in a bad way — but a lot of larger game companies, to maximize their profits, they have to make a game for all consoles, so the Wii gimmick always ends up being an afterthought,” Roush said. “Say I want to play a new AAA game — the GamePad isn’t going to be utilized the way I want it to (as a player).”

“Nintendo is going to use the GamePad better than anyone else,” Neuse said, “and it’s kind of a bummer because first-parties always want exclusivity. ‘Why don’t you make it for our GamePad, which is so amazing, and we will offer you no incentives other than you’re using a GamePad that’s amazing?’ And then we, as business people, look at it and go, ‘Well, if we were to make a game specifically catering to that GamePad, we are cutting our market potential by 7/8 because there are seven more platforms that we can’t release on if it relies on that GamePad.”

Starting out exclusively on WiiWare, not known to be a widely high-grossing service in and of itself, Gaijin eventually began rolling out the BIT.TRIP series on other platforms to help grow the company’s reach — and riches. “Releasing on one platform where you could just release on eight or nine, there’s just no contest,” Neuse said. “We made the BIT.TRIP games (around the Wii Remote) because we were making Wii games, but we would have sold many, many, many more units if we had never been exclusive to one platform,” he said. “I’m not saying exclusive to Nintendo is the problem, but exclusive to one platform only. You’re seeing us porting our games to different platforms now, but if we had started there our company would be in a much different place.”

“The architecture is a lot better, it’s easier to put games on PC, Xbox and Wii U than (in past generations), and that’s huge.”

The economic realities of developers likely matter very little to the average player, and Wii owners who sought to elevate their console above a mere Wii Sports machine knew this breakdown all too well: a promising popular franchise announcement would lead to an odd spin-off that nobody really asked for, so the game under-performs and the developer turns its back on the console, writing it off as a failed test, or the ol’ chestnut that only Nintendo can sell games on their hardware. Roush and Neuse think that maybe things can change for Nintendo thanks to the extra power and a more level playing field.

“Just from where Wii was in terms of horsepower, AAA companies would do some weird bastardized port and call it a day. Now that Wii U is a contender, there will be more of a market there and they might say “let’s spend some time (on Wii U features),” Roush believes. “The architecture is a lot better, it’s easier to put games on PC, Xbox and Wii U than (in past generations), and that’s huge.”

“The Wii outsold the other platforms, and the big companies made a decision to not really support the Wii because it didn’t have the power,” Neuse said. “Now that it does, will we start to see AAA studios leading with the Wii U?”

All for U

Even though they would later appear on other platforms, BIT.TRIP was designed around the Wii Remote and playing with one offers arguably the best experience over touch screens or a mouse. Had they the resources, Roush would be jazzed to dig into the GamePad as the studio could with the Remote. “I wish we could just make a game for Wii U with GamePad totally integrated, where we could just sit there and get super creative, but it comes down to (the fact that) we just have to feed mouths,” Roush said.

For RUNNER2, Gaijin plans to work in GamePad support but perhaps not to the crazy degree of some of the concepts specifically tailored for Nintendo kicked around the office, like a Game & Watch-style series of minigames. The team settled on using the second screen to more tightly integrate bonus challenges, where grabbing a Famicom cartridge kicks the gameplay over to the GamePad for what Neuse calls a “retro-fun-looking” good time.

“We really wanted to push the Famicom styling of it and keep the Nintendo-ness,” Roush said, adding that these bonus stages were “made for Nintendo”, but will be available on other platforms as well.

“But it’s not going to be as cute,” Neuse added. “If Nintendo allows DLC on the Wii U, which we assume they’re going to, maybe we bring (those other ideas) out down the line.”

Bright horizons

At the time of our interview Nintendo had seemingly communicated little to its developers as to what to expect from the Wii U eShop, and Gaijin found itself as in the dark as the general public, though some screens and details are now emerging. Roush indicated when we spoke that he doubted they'd know anything for sure about the platform until they get their consoles along with everyone else this weekend, although the team suspected that Ninty was hard at work on making the eShop far easier to use than the Wii Shop could have ever dreamed.

The Day 1 catalogue shows promise to Gaijin, with Toki Tori 2 and Chasing Aurora particularly catching the team's eye, not only for the strength of its titles but for the signs that Nintendo is working hard to court smaller studios. “It seems like it’s opening stronger,” Roush said, noting that Nintendo is showing strength in supporting indies, in their experience by doing “as much as they absolutely, positively can for us. Everyone that works at Nintendo are usually the nicest people, they’re champs.”

Neuse also had a few humble requests for the eShop, in case anyone important is listening.

“Demos,” he said. “I don’t want to have to make a demo, but I want to download them! I want it to be user-friendly and save credit card info. I don’t ever want to have to enter my county ever again.

“I just want it to be easy to use, for chrissake.”

We'd like to thank Alex Neuse and Mike Roush for their time.