The Wii U eShop may have endured a relatively dry spell immediately after launch, but in recent times it's played host to a number of highly rated titles, with plenty more on the way. One of these releases is Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, a new title in a franchise that dates back to the '80s. In many respects this title bears little relation to its modest number of predecessor bar its branding, but adds to the growing list of tempting offerings available on the download platform.
With successful origins on Kickstarter, with PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 releases preceeding the Wii U eShop iteration, plenty of praise has been dished out to this title. In our own review we awarded 8/10, concluding that "an admirable effort that provides an innovative, entertaining and highly challenging experience".
Eager as always to learn more from a developer publishing to the Wii U eShop for the first time, we caught up with key members of the Black Forest Games team. We spoke to Managing Director Adrian Goersch, Creative Director Jean-Marc Haessig, Technical Director Johannes Conradie and Producer Vladimir Ignatov, discussing a variety of topics around this game's development, as well as the studio's future plans on Nintendo hardware.
Nintendo Life: First of all, can you tell us a little bit about the history of Black Forest Games?
Adrian Goersch: Black Forest Games was founded in 2012 by key members of Spellbound Entertainment: the studio heads, the creative director, and the art and tech directors. BFG took over all assets and the team from Spellbound, which closed its doors after an investment round failed. Spellbound was founded 20 years ago by Armin Gessert and Jean-Marc Haessig, the latter who now is the creative director at BFG.
NL: How did the team (as Spellbound Entertainment) come to acquire the Giana Sisters IP?
Adrian Goersch: Armin himself created the Giana Sisters back in the 80s and that’s how the IP ended up at Spellbound. Armin died way too early three years ago. Posthumously, he was inducted into the German game developers’ hall of fame.
NL: Can you tell us about the DS title, and how much of its influence can be seen in Twisted Dreams?
Jean-Marc Haessig: The DS title was an external development we monitored by design input and feedback. When the game was approved and released by Nintendo, it was a great day for Giana and that enabled us to think about further development of the IP on other platforms. The gameplay of the DS version was very close to the original Giana from 1985, with some minor additions such as the bubble gum and the soda bottle. With Twisted Dreams, we decided to take a risk and push in a more innovative direction. We kept the idea of a girl with two facets, the dream world and some of the iconic creatures, the gem collecting and the bubble gum, and took off from there to find something that echoes the classic Giana, but has a strong identity of its own.
NL Can you summarise Twisted Dreams for our readers, in terms of its style and main design philosophies?
Jean-Marc Haessig: Giana is a teenage girl trapped in a dream world. She has the ability to subconsciously twist between two opposite dreams because she’s in a stage of her life that is full of changes and contradictions. Based on the legacy of the previous Giana games, we wanted to emphasize the two facets of the girl, cute versus punk, and made them more obvious through her gentle versus enraged behaviour, reflecting how a teenager has to deal with inner conflicts when growing from kid to adult.
In Twisted Dreams, Giana’s dreams try to trap her in her childhood, but she has outgrown them. On one hand, the spooky side of her dreams tries to frighten her into submission with the nightmares of her childhood, but her fears have shifted to amusement, and she lightly twirls over her demons. On the other hand, the formerly alluring dreams set in a cheesy princess world full of candies and plushies now irritate her to the extreme, bringing her angry, punky persona to the forefront.
Once we decided to do an action game rather than a brainy puzzler, we saw in the prototype how satisfying it is to master the twist with fast decisions and quick reactions.
NL: How exactly did you guys come up with the Twisted game mechanic?
Jean-Marc Haessig: In Twisted Dreams, we took over the general idea of the previous titles about a girl in a dream world that transforms into a punk girl. We wanted to emphasize on the transformation by swapping not only the girl and her behaviour, but also the whole dream, including the scenery, the creatures and the music. We started by experimenting with a complete morphing between the two layers of the scenery. This was really promising and was the starting point of the game idea. But it took a lot of time and energy to find out how that will impact the gameplay, as we wanted that to be more than a visual gimmick. The difficulty came from the fact it was very difficult to think on paper about how to shape such a game dynamic, so we started prototyping the principle and played around with switching elements that impact the challenge of the game.
During that phase we had a lot of discussions about where to put the focus of the game. Should action or puzzling be at the forefront? They require different skill sets and pacing. Once we nailed it down to a playable state and decided on faster, twitchier gameplay, it was suddenly much easier to try out ideas and define how the game will be. The metal tunes from Machinae Supremacy did their part to influence us and helped us decide on the final pace of the game.
NL: In terms of difficulty, Giana Sisters: TD is very challenging. Was it always your intention to make a tough game?
Jean-Marc Haessig: Not during the first part of the development. Once we decided to do an action game rather than a brainy puzzler, we saw in the prototype how satisfying it is to master the twist with fast decisions and quick reactions, reminding us how fun and rewarding it was in retro games when you defeated a tough, but fair challenge. It simply felt like the true nature of a platformer, and a good fit for a game stepping into a classic’s shoes. We did tone down the punishing side of things though, providing checkpoints and infinite lives. The tension provided by potentially losing a lot of progress has been relegated to the hardcore modes.
NL: What encouraged you to go through Kickstarter for this game?
Adrian Goersch: We felt that there is a strong fan community for Giana Sisters even after all those years. After Tim Schafer’s success we felt that it was the right time to try Kickstarter ourselves.
NL: This originally came out on PC and has made its way to the Xbox 360 and PS3, so what drove the decision to also release on the Wii U eShop?
We are planning to bring every game we develop to the Wii U as well, and we are planning for simultaneous releases. So no delay for Nintendo fans. 3DS is something we would like to do for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams one day.
Adrian Goersch: Everyone here wanted to see Giana on the Nintendo console. With Giana Sisters being a homage to Super Mario Brothers (or as some would say: a clone), when it was released years ago on the Nintendo DS, it felt like bringing Giana home. In a way, this is the greatest honour we could have received. And of course we believe that Nintendo fans are the perfect match for platformer games.
NL: Can you tell us about your experience with Nintendo so far, in terms of initial developer approval, progressing with the project and approaching release?
Vladimir Ignatov: We’ve been approached by Nintendo in the first place, followed by a visit where they’ve presented us the console vision, positioning and their eShop design. Everyone was interested and the eShop intentions were a combination of the best practices seen in other digital shops. There’s a lot of control from the developer’s side in terms of pricing, sales and bundling, as well as transparency and accessibility for the users. There were some inspiring examples in front of us, like Frozenbyte’s Trine 2 Wii U, so we decided to give it a shot.
Getting the ball rolling for bringing Giana to the Wii U was easy. The paperwork was simple and straightforward, so we quickly got official Wii U developer status. We already got rigged with the development kits and received good developer support. It’s fair to say that we already had some experience with Nintendo consoles - see our Giana Sisters DS game.
From the development side, it wasn’t more effort to get Giana running on the Wii U than it was to port her to the X360. The TCR side was a bit simpler, but the low level engine side was harder. The Wii U has some PC-like dx10/dx11-like systems like geometry shaders, however, when we started working on the port, we already had our game released on the X360, and going from a console release to Wii U is easier since the consoles have very similar performance characteristics. Another helpful factor is the amount of overlap when it comes to controller support, interfaces, user management and suchlike (even though every single engine system needs to be rewritten to support it).
Approaching the release and setting up the eShop was again not that hard, the only stretch is that you have to deal with Nintendo of America and Nintendo of Europe as almost separate entities, requiring two separate builds (incl. different language packs and slightly different eManuals ). All marketing materials, banners, sell texts also follow simple yet slightly different guidelines for NOE and NOA guidelines. Finally, you have to wait for your builds to be checked and blessed by both NOE’s and NOA’s lotcheck divisions (the Nintendo QA division that makes sure the build is in compliance with Nintendo’s guidelines).
Luckily it took us only one resubmission to be compliant with Nintendo specs and be ready for release. Once the builds were approved, it was just a matter of a few weeks to be out live.
NL: In terms of the hardware itself, can you share the team's experiences bringing the game to the system; was development easy, difficult?
Johannes Conradie: The effort we spent porting to the WiiU was comparable to migrating to some other major platforms, even though we had much more experience with those. All in all, the experience was very similar to doing an Xbox 360 port early on in the console’s life cycle.
Our “time to triangle”, which is the time it takes to get good performance with the final rendering techniques, was around 1 month for 2 programmers. This included doing the porting work needed for every other major system such as sound, input, etc. Doing all of the lotcheck requirements took about an additional 1-2 months for 2 developers (1 programmer and 1 tester on average).
NL: Are there any aspects of the Wii U that you've used for special features, or any features that you feel enhance the gameplay?
Jean-Marc Haessig: GSTD was initially developed for PC, but we decided to streamline the controls for a gamepad, the ideal input device for platformers. That allowed us to completely preserve the experience on consoles. When it came to the Wii U version, we had discussions about how to take advantage of the Wii U features, but as Giana was originally designed with a traditional gamepad in mind, anything we could have added would have been tacked on and gimmicky. We think that using the special features of the Wii U requires and deserves a game that is tailored to it from scratch, and that would be a completely different project.
NL: What are your overall thoughts on the system and its concept so far?
Johannes Conradie: On the tech side, having DX11 level features is pretty useful, which makes large parts of the system compatible with our other platforms. Overall the hardware itself is slightly faster than the other current-gen consoles. One very nice advantage the console has is the additional usable memory you have. Having that extra memory made development much easier compared to other current-gen platforms.
NL: Can you share your views on the Wii U eShop, in terms of its strengths and weaknesses?
Vladimir Ignatov: It is obviously less crowded right now than other digital stores, and in terms of visibility for the game, while the good original intentions for Nintendo eShop are clear, its storefront and interfaces could be better and more streamlined, like making the storefront more convenient for the users, having less steps to purchase a game, and improving the response times. It would be nice to see more marketing mechanisms to promote games in addition to the Miiverse posts. That being said, we are aware that the storefront is constantly being improved on by Nintendo.
It is known that Wii U sales are slow. We’re looking forward to Nintendo catching up with some platform-selling games coming out in 2014 with Super Smash Bros. U and hopefully a Metroid U at some point.
NL: Do you have any future plans for the Wii U, or even the 3DS?
Adrian Goersch: We are planning to bring every game we develop to the Wii U as well, and we are planning for simultaneous releases. So no delay for Nintendo fans. 3DS is something we would like to do for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams one day.
We'd like to thank the Black Forest Games team for their time.