Developer Interview: Neko Entertainment on the First Days of the Wii U eShop
Posted by Mike Mason
The cat meows
Neko Entertainment has been ever-present on Nintendo consoles since it was formed in 1999. Based near Paris, France, the developer has created both retail and digital download games for most major systems of the last decade, from Nintendo 64 right through to Wii U. In something of a coup for the outfit, Neko secured a place in Wii U eShop's European launch line-up with its most recent title, Puddle.
Puddle is a 2D physics-based puzzle-platformer which challenges players to tilt blobs of liquid through a variety of stages without evaporating, exploding or otherwise expiring. As the environments evolve in theme, the type of fluid changes to match, each one coming with its own properties, benefits and difficulties. A flammable gel, for instance, cannot be moved too quickly lest it combusts; plain old water has to be poured over fire at pace so it doesn't turn to steam. Starting in a laboratory, you soon find yourself hurtling through gardens, the human body and rockets – the swift changes of pace never let you get too comfortable and tell a vague story of sorts that you might not necessarily expect from such a game.
There's been plenty of time to refine Puddle for Wii U. It was released for PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade earlier this year, and Neko decided that it wanted to bring the game to Wii U at the beginning of 2012. “The promise was to release Puddle Wii U during the Wii U launch window,” explains Sébastien Chipot-Delys, Neko Entertainment's QA Manager. As it turned out, the team managed to exceed that goal in Europe, arriving on the system on day one with minimal pressure.
Puddle has been developed on several platforms, and has always been polished. We always wanted to release Puddle on Wii U as we did not [have] the opportunity to release it on a Nintendo platform. Moreover the Wii U GamePad was exactly the controller required to play Puddle with full immersion. So we never worked under pressure due [to] time, as we worked on this version for a while now.
It seems to have paid off so far: comments on Miiverse have been largely favourable. Neko seems keen to use opinions and information gathered through the system to help improve its titles and interact directly with its userbase. “For the moment we [have] got more than 450 players who posted comments and they are 95% – maybe more – nice / positive,” Sébastien declares. “We can directly talk with every player. [...] To realise that maybe 95% of their feedback [is] nice is just priceless!” He's been checking the community “several times” each day, looking out for comments, questions and answering queries. “It is a really unique feature for a console. We will definitely use it in the future – it can be really helpful to improve the games!”
“Nintendo made a lot of effort to help us promote Puddle and to be ready for the launch,” says Sébastien. “They even asked us to come to the Spanish event some days before the Wii U launch to promote Puddle.” This is something that has been seen within Nintendo's interaction with other independent developers in recent months; it has used the considerable muscle of Wii U press events to direct some limelight onto some smaller eShop titles, which have been shown off side-by-side with both first and third party retail titles. “They always answered quickly to our emails / requests, so I can say we really worked hand in hand.”
Sébastien highlights a couple of other ways that Nintendo has assisted when it comes to promoting Puddle. “Nintendo asked us if we could make a developer interview on our side, and it could be added to the Puddle main page.” Crucially, Neko was also able to release Puddle at a promotional price to take advantage of its early placing on the platform – and organising it couldn't have been much easier. “We wanted to celebrate with players the launch of Wii U. Nintendo was really close to us and always wanted to help us release our game with the best conditions. We only ask[ed] them if it was possible to make this special offer, and they agreed.”
It's a much more malleable Nintendo than the one that used to dictate price points to developers on its previous download services; a troublesome issue that annoyed some WiiWare developers. Pricing is now in the hands of developers, and it seems that control over this is quite fluid. Prices can be altered, opening up opportunities for sales. “The new Nintendo eShop business scheme allows us this great possibility to change the price and thus offers to the studios / publishers a kind of promotions option,” Sébastien shares. Neko considered Puddle's regular price point carefully before ultimately deciding to charge the same amount as on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. It wanted to treat launch users, however, resulting in the discounted price for a limited time.
We wanted to make a nice offer to the Wii U players, but without frustrating players from other platforms. We fixed the price for the first versions released on Xbox 360 / PS3 to €10 (a little less to be exact), so we just decided to keep the same price for the Wii U.
Downloadable updates are another area that have seen an increase in flexibility with the Wii U eShop. WiiWare games were rarely updated, while Xbox 360's patch process has been criticised by several developers due to the costs involved in submitting new versions. To discover that the process is free on Wii U must have been a relief to many smaller companies. “Patching is free, and we are not aware of limitations on the number of patches,” Sébastien says. He cannot comment on how long the procedure takes as yet, since Neko is currently in the middle of an on-going submission process for Puddle's first patch. There doesn't seem to be much trouble involved, however, and Nintendo of Europe displayed leniency to help Puddle reach the eShop on the first day of trading.
Preparing a patch is a simple process, but then it has to be approved by the Nintendo LotCheck team like a regular game submission, so it can take some time before the patch is released. So far, there are no major limitations regarding patch content (except obvious ones, like adding content that would violate the age ratings). For developers and players as well, patching is really an excellent feature. For example, NoE allowed us to release Puddle on day one, despite a few minor bugs left. In return, they requested to fix them with a patch. Also, in the future, we plan to provide new options in the game with another patch.
Neko had a vague idea of what to expect from the eShop thanks to past work with Nintendo's digital platforms; it worked on WiiWare and DSiWare a fair amount, including titles in the Cocoto series and its photo-based Faceez games. It was told about Miiverse features in “explicit” detail before launch. “[Nintendo] gave us the global oversight of what we could do [with Miiverse] as a developer,” Sébastien shares. Developers can use a special Mii that's marked with a green tick so as to be recognisable, for instance. “When I check what the eShop is, and what it looks like, I can say it was what I expected from what Nintendo explained [to] me.”
Sébastien is enthusiastic about several elements of both the Wii U user interface and the eShop. Miiverse is brought up several times during our interview, and it's obviously something that he's very happy about as a hotbed of user interaction – plus, he notes, “there are a lot of nice drawers” sketching out all manner of pretty pictures on the service. “I guess it is the most accessible community we have seen so far!” He also believes that the community aspect will be a key factor when it comes to sales and exposure for the system's downloadable games. “I think more players will connect their Wii U to the internet thanks to the great Miiverse service and will be more accustomed to buy digital content.”
As for the eShop itself, everything seems to be in order as far as Neko is concerned right now. With plenty of images and easily understandable categories, it's a simple-to-navigate shop front. With the promotion price in effect, Puddle is currently enjoying a prime spot on the front page, which has surely been useful for soaking up those launch sales. ”We really enjoyed the fact that our game was on the main page of the eShop. […] We are really happy about that!” Sébastien enthuses.
“Everything important is displayed on the main page,” Sébastien continues. “The only thing we did not [find] easily was the 'recommendations' you can make on the game you like the most.” Matching the thoughts of many Wii U owners since launch, he identifies loading times when switching between applications as a key area for enhancement in the future. “The thing that could be improved [is] the loading when switching [from] some areas to others, like accessing the Miiverse from the [WaraWara] Plaza for example.” He's optimistic it's something that will be tackled at some point, though: “We are sure Nintendo will work on it soon!”
Neko's first experience of developing for the Wii U eShop has been, overall, positive. It's been supported whenever necessary along the way, the prospects for sales and further upgrades are good, and it's happy about the chance to speak to users in a more direct fashion than before without ever leaving the console space via Miiverse. To conclude, Sébastien suggests that Wii U is poised to become part of Neko's on-going plans and reveals that Neko already has a new downloadable game in development for the system. “Developing content for the Wii U is really a strategy for us: we've another title in the pipe for the Wii U eShop!”
We'd like to thank Sébastien Chipot-Delys for his time. Stay tuned for more interviews with Wii U eShop developers in the coming days.