Developer Interview: Frozenbyte on the First Days of the Wii U eShop
Posted by Mike Mason
A not-so frosty reception
Over the last few months, Nintendo has displayed a significant shift in its attitude towards digital distribution and online in general. On 3DS we've seen the addition of downloadable retail games, a more regular stream of demos and downloadable content for first party titles. Wii U looks set to extend this approach further; from the first day we've been able to download demos, purchase a large range of retail games digitally and take advantage of sales promotions. It all points to a big change, and teamed up with other alterations such as the switch from Friend Codes to Nintendo Network IDs and the social network / messageboard fusion Miiverse, it seems to show that Nintendo is, finally, serious about online.
These improvements look set to deliver better results from Nintendo's digital stores, and Wii U's in particular has apparently got off to a good start. The Wii U eShop's launch day line up housed several efforts from independent developers, nestled on the shop's main page comfortably alongside content from big publishers. If the recently updated 'bestsellers' chart in the eShop is anything to go by, some of these small companies are reaping the rewards already, perching high in the sales rankings.
Frozenbyte's Trine 2: Director's Cut is one of the titles that is topping the table at the time of writing. It's also been a mainstay on the icon circle of popular software on the home menu's WaraWara Plaza. When we last spoke to Mikael Haveri, Frozenbyte's sales and marketing manager, before Wii U launch, there were still several uncertainties left up in the air. With the system now released in all territories, we talked to Mikael about the overall process of bringing Trine 2: Director's Cut to the Wii U eShop.
The Finnish developer decided to bring Trine 2: Director's Cut to the Wii U eShop at the end of February 2012. The co-op-focused puzzle-platformer, in which up to three people can work together to control a thief, a wizard and a knight through a beautiful fantasy world filled with monsters and puzzles, was originally released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in December 2011. At the beginning of 2012, Nintendo contacted Atlus, which had published the game on the console platforms, to enquire about the title. Atlus put it in touch with Frozenbyte. “Early in 2012, Nintendo had approached us and we had some time to think out the details,” Mikael recalls. “Around [the] end of February we made the choice to focus on the Wii U and from there on it has been an interesting ride.”
Since Trine 2 had been previously released at the end of 2011, much of the content was already prepared for the Wii U version. However, Frozenbyte decided to spend some time working on additional content: the Goblin Menace expansion was to be released as downloadable content for PC and was also added to the Wii U Director's Cut edition. On top of that, the team implemented touch controls to make the most of the Wii U GamePad, plus an all-new level exclusive to Nintendo's console.
“We started to work on the expansion content for almost a year while also working on the touch controls,” Mikael says. “This development schedule led to us getting the DLC out by early September and releasing a lot of the art team to work on Wii U exclusive stuff. Our intention was always to have it out by launch, but it was by no means complete until the last weeks, so [there was] slight crunching at the end.”
Nintendo was helpful but let Frozenbyte do its own thing. “They took a back seat in the sense that we usually intend to do almost everything ourselves if we can,” Mikael asserts. “We asked for help whenever it was really needed and they were more than happy to oblige.” In the run up to launch, Nintendo assisted with promotion by displaying Trine 2: Director's Cut at both press and public events, including its post-E3 showcases and Eurogamer Expo 2012.
Developers can now charge what they want for their content; previously, Nintendo controlled price points by looking at the features of titles and assigning values accordingly, which incensed several companies. Trine 2: Director's Cut costs a little more than on other consoles, but Mikael says that this is because of the amount of extra content. “The original Trine 2 is out on other platforms for about $15 and the Goblin Menace expansion on Steam for around $7, so this adding up to somewhere around $20 sounded like a right price. Basically we just wanted it to be slightly more expensive due to the fact that we feel it had a lot more content compared to [the versions on] other consoles.”
In Europe, Frozenbyte was able to launch the game with a promotional price point: it's 20% off until the end of the year. “Most of our regular revenues are fuelled by sales,” Mikael shares. “Previous console versions of Trine 2 have sold fairly poorly due to lack of visibility on the digital market places. This all, of course, compared to Steam, where even a small sale can stir up a huge spike in sales.” He continues: “We knew from our history that this is where our strength was so we wanted to start strong even with our first console launch experience.” With Trine 2: Director's Cut currently near the top of the eShop sales charts, it's a move that seems to have paid off. Mikael notes that the game has sold “fairly well according to our calculations”, though with the system only out for a few weeks it's still a little too early to get a full picture.
A patch is already on the way for Trine 2: Director's Cut. The update will include in-game voice chat for online co-operative play, extra languages, additional controller support and adjustments, plus a few visual tweaks. It's a significant upgrade for a game on a Nintendo platform, especially since, until 3DS came along, very few titles got updated at all previously. With this update as yet unreleased, Mikael can't comment fully on limitations of the patching process right now, other than to say that “there are some, but not as much as before”. It is known, however, that developers can update titles for free.
Nintendo showed Frozenbyte screenshots of the Wii U eShop “a few weeks before” launch. “All the rest was hearsay, but the most important thing for us wasn't the visuals but the specs,” Mikael adds. “Being able to control pricing and sales was huge. Also the addition of the Miiverse sounded great and proved to be even better than we thought.” The team booted up the digital store at European launch to take a look – during an office party, of course. “We were positively surprised. Everything seemed to be in order and there were very few fires to put out, mostly ones that we are patching very soon.”
It's also pleased with the general layout of the eShop. “It works well at this point. Us having a very prominent position is great for visibility and we hope to get back on the front page even later on. This might become an issue when more titles are added,” Mikael confesses, “but I'm sure Nintendo will be smart about it.” There are no huge concerns with the eShop's features at this point. “Maybe we would like to add more videos later to keep players interested in our title,” he suggests.
Miiverse has certainly gone down well with Wii U users; the communities are bustling, and Trine 2: Director's Cut's is no different. Frozenbyte has been paying attention and gathered “a lot” of feedback from the service. “The new thing being the ability to draw comments — mostly we have just been drawing back to them, so it's a lot of fun,” smiles Mikael. There are plans to add more Miiverse features “soon-ish” – “mainly things that will make the whole experience nicer” — though there are no concrete details for now.
Frozenbyte's pre-launch optimism appears to have converted well at this point. “Everything is going great so far, but we are really looking forward to being a part of the community in the future to see it grow,” says Mikael. On Wii U's starting position in general, he summarises that it “looks excellent so far”, though admits that “these things are really long terms plans and anything could happen when the competition arrives”. To finish, Mikael delivers a tantalising tease about Frozenbyte's future Wii U output, however: “We are very interested in working on it again. Who knows, but if everything goes well maybe even sooner than many might suspect.”
We'd like to thank Mikael Haveri for his time. Look out for more interviews with Wii U eShop developers over the next week.