Developer Interview: Broken Rules on the First Days of the Wii U eShop

Taking flight

While the launch line-up of download-only games on the Wii U eShop features some multi-platform releases or exclusives from studios well-known to Nintendo enthusiasts, Chasing Aurora is potentially in a category of its own. Broken Rules had previously released its highly regarded PC title And Yet It Moves on WiiWare, but may not necessarily be a household name to any but the most committed Nintendo download aficionados. Chasing Aurora is also unique in the launch line-up as it's unashamedly focused on local multiplayer, with much of its content encouraging you to gather around a Wii U and play with others.

That didn't stop us awarding 8/10 in our Chasing Aurora review, as we felt that the smooth controls and stylistic approach succeeded in quelling any misgivings about a perceived lacking single player offering. Nevertheless, it's not the easiest game and concept to sell to a new audience, and so we got in touch with Martin Pichlmair to talk about his team's efforts to get the game ready for day one on Wii U, and the studio's experience on the platform so far.

For Broken Rules, publishing Chasing Aurora as a launch title on Wii U's download platform seemed like ideal timing. As Pichlmair explained to us in our previous interview, the team had shown an early build and agreed to publish on Wii U as far back as mid-2011, and he explained to us that the Wii U launch "perfectly aligned with our schedule", though admitted "that does not mean that we were always confident that we – and the eShop itself – would make it to the console launch." As is becoming a common trend with most of the developers that we've been speaking to, an element of "crunching" was required to get the release over the line in time for the North American release on 18th November.

The core gameplay was ready. Still, we crunched heavily and we feel that we have to update the game post-launch to have it reach its full potential. It's a basic fact of game development that the closer you get to the launch the more small things get into the way. While the core gameplay was ready for months, the user interface and some console-specific functions were not ready until days before the launch.

It was also emphasized to us that, as a small studio, Broken Rules received substantial, timely and invaluable support from Nintendo ahead of release.

Nintendo was very helpful and their QA team crunched harder than we did in the last weeks. Their turnaround time was lightning fast. This also applies to their marketing department. We would not have made it to the launch if they wouldn't have been this supportive. A good example is help we had with a dev kit – we should really forbid baggy pants in the office for they do not get along well with cables – and a loaned replacement unit that arrived two days later. Both Nintendo of Europe as well as Nintendo of America were instrumental in getting our game out at launch.

Unsurprisingly, this challenging late period in development — along with dev kit mishaps — has left the team with a desire to improve the experience that's shipped, Pichlmair telling us that there's "still work to be done, especially on the single player mode." The team isn't comfortable with sharing too many specifics — though we do know that control options and loading times are on the fix list — until the process is complete. That said, we were given an insight into the two-tiered approach that Nintendo is taking for updates.

There are limitations but they are the same limitations that apply to the initial submission of the game. Pure content-updates are very straight-forward. Updates that change the gameplay or add new code to the game need to go through a similar QA pipe as full game submissions. I can't go into much detail, but all in all the update procedure ensures the level of quality that Nintendo stands and offers a clearly defined procedure.

While substantial changes come with that lengthier process, it's encouraging that simply adding content within the existing framework is relatively simple, with Pichlmair sharing his belief that the Wii U eShop's biggest strength is that developers such as Broken Rules can "finally push updates, expansions and DLC to the players."

When we come to the Wii U eShop itself, the words are mostly positive. The studio was given an opportunity to see the store before launch but missed the opportunity to travel to Nintendo of Europe; not surprisingly, considering what we've been told about the development crunch, the team "didn't find the time to do so". When the team did get a first glance at the new store it was reminded of a certain high-profile rival.

In all honesty, my initial reaction was: "Oh, someone visited the iTunes Store before designing the eShop". That's a good thing because apart from the visibility/discovery problem that hundreds of thousands of apps bring, the iTunes Store is the best designed digital downloads storefront out there. What it lacks is the social aspect that Steam brings to the table. With Miiverse covering the social network side and the clear layout of the store – and its prominent indie section – we feel that the eShop has a very good interface. Let's hope that customers agree.

Miiverse is a big topic with Pichlmair, who clearly feels that the integration of the social platform within the various facets of the Wii U operating system, and many games, is integral to the system. "Seeing Miiverse was the moment where the true significance of this launch became apparent for the first time," he explained. "It's that personal connection with the players that really makes a difference. It is magical." Like a number of their contemporaries in the Wii U eShop launch, the Broken Rules team not only enjoys interacting with fans, but also using the service to gain valuable feedback.

We have been on Miiverse every day since we have a Wii U in the office. We've posted developer high scores only to see them being evaporated by committed players. It is amazing how soon players master the game better than its developers. We've received fan art and feature requests. We communicate with players regularly and try to take their criticism serious. And of course we are super-excited when someone praises our game, especially when it comes with a nice drawing.

Positivity aside, Pichlmair admits that the studio is "having a hard time marketing what Chasing Aurora truly is". As mentioned earlier, Chasing Aurora is possibly the only launch release with a greater focus on multiplayer than a single player experience, which is part of the challenge when spreading the word. "We risked a lot by making a multiplayer-focused game and the heart of the game, the flying and the game modes, is received excellently," Pichlmair explains. "Where we're lacking, according to reviews, is in the amount of content and the user interface polish."

Another sticking point, for some, is the initial price of the title, which can be deemed high by consumers unsure of the concept or unfamiliar with Broken Rules as a studio. The pricing that the studio decided on was ultimately influenced by pricing of other titles that the team felt offered a similar level of value, with Incredipede and Little Inferno cited. Describing it as a "tough decision", Pichmair admitted that "we felt that we had put incredibly much time and energy into this title, which also affected our price decision. It just happened naturally and we possibly should have reflected that a bit more."

A glance at the eShop charts shows that Chasing Aurora, although competing, isn't hitting the current heights of contemporaries such as Trine 2: Director's Cut and Nano Assault Neo. That said, the developer clearly feels that its chosen price has harmed prospects, and with a host of Wii U systems set to go online Christmas morning, Pichlmair hopes that the title's upcoming discounted price will boost European sales, saying that the team's "very much looking forward to seeing how Christmas will be on the eShop." The absence of equivalent promotions in North America are still a puzzle.

As for the future, we were told that two features that should be strongly considered for the platform are a web interface and the ability to "gift" games, similar to services offered by Steam on PC and Mac. When asked about the future of Broken Rules on Wii U eShop and the overall prospects of Nintendo's platform, Pichlmair showed a mixture of caution and optimism.

We are interested in working on the eShop again. Still, we'll wait a few more months before we'll decide if and/or when our next game launches to the Wii U eShop or not. The good numbers of Nano Assault and Trine 2 show that launching on a different platform first might be the better road to follow than going directly and exclusively on a console download channel. Yet since the shop is still in its infancy and the majority of Wii U's will only be getting online after Christmas, we're expecting more players to turn to Nintendo's online offerings in the next weeks. The shop itself is great, now it is all about getting Nintendo players to go online and find it. Miiverse will be more important for that than the shop layout itself.

We'd like to thank Martin Pichlmair for his time. We'll be continuing to interview every Wii U eShop launch developer, before having a staff roundtable to talk about the platform, in the coming days.

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