A Third-Party "Secret Developer" Gives an Inside Story of Working on Wii U
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"We would be lucky to make back all the money that we had invested"
One regular topic that can worry or frustrate Wii U owners is the issue of third-party support, particularly with retail content. While the Wii struggled to maintain third-party parity with its rivals — albeit with some excellent exclusives over its years — there was some hope that the Wii U would come closer to delivering a sizeable number of major third-party retail multi-platform games. That hope is gradually deteriorating as, at present, more and more projects skip the system.
There are various factors behind this, with the commercial struggles of the hardware being one, but it's intriguing to read from developers themselves why this may be the case. Digital Foundry — over at Eurogamer — has published the latest article in its "Secret Developers" series, this time with the focus on early-day development on the Wii U.
In attendance at an early reveal meeting at a major studio, the writer highlights how the unveiling of the GamePad was pleasing, but that Nintendo's desire that the system "wouldn't make much noise, so 'mum wouldn't mind having it in the living room'" was an early cause of concern.
Then the new controller was shown as a dummy prototype, complete with a glossy video showing how it could be used in games as a series of mock-ups, which looked exciting. By this point we were all considering how we could use the controller in our games. But then they revealed the internal details of the console and I realised the reason for my earlier alarm bells. If Nintendo wanted the hardware to have a small footprint and be quiet, they needed minimal fan noise, meaning that cooling was limited, which in turn meant that the CPU would have to produce a minimal amount of heat, which meant that the clock speed would have to be kept low. While I can't confirm specific details, the collective thoughts of the internet are presented for reference on Wikipedia.
The developer's early experiences on a technical level generally appear to have been frustrating, with lengthy processing times that would slow coding work. For example — "As a team, we lost days of time to the compile/link/debug overheads and this negatively impacted the amount of features that we could put into our game before the release date."
Perhaps the next segment is one of the most important in explaining why this developer and their major company had such a hard time early on, with documentation not up to scratch and lengthy communication time with Nintendo, while also outlining much of what's been said before about the CPU and GPU capabilities of the hardware.
Now that the game was up and running on the console we could start developing features that would use the new controllers and make our game stand out on the platform. But soon after starting this we ran into some issues that the (minimal) documentation didn't cover, so we asked questions of our local Nintendo support team. They didn't know the answers so they said they would check with the developers in Japan and we waited for a reply. And we waited. And we waited.
After about a week of chasing we heard back from the support team that they had received an answer from Japan, which they emailed to us. The reply was in the form of a few sentences of very broken English that didn't really answer the question that we had asked in the first place. So we went back to them asking for clarification, which took another week or so to come back. After the second delay we asked why it was taking to long for replies to come back from Japan, were they very busy? The local support team said no, it's just that any questions had to be sent off for translation into Japanese, then sent to the developers, who replied and then the replies were translated back to English and sent back to us. With timezone differences and the delay in translating, this usually took a week!
...As far as the CPU optimisations went, yes we did have to cut back on some features due to the CPU not being powerful enough. As we originally feared, trying to support a detailed game running in HD put a lot of strain on the CPUs and we couldn't do as much as we would have liked. Cutting back on some of the features was an easy thing to do, but impacted the game as a whole. Code optimised for the PowerPC processors found in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 wasn't always a good fit for the Wii U CPU, so while the chip has some interesting features that let the CPU punch above its weight, we couldn't fully take advantage of them. However, some code could see substantial improvements that did mitigate the lower clocks - anything up to a 4x boost owing to the removal of Load-Hit-Stores, and higher IPC (instructions per cycle) via the inclusion of out-of-order execution.
On the GPU side, the story was reversed. The GPU proved very capable and we ended up adding additional "polish" features as the GPU had capacity to do it. There was even some discussion on trying to utilise the GPU via compute shaders (GPGPU) to offload work from the CPU - exactly the approach I expect to see gain traction on the next-gen consoles - but with very limited development time and no examples or guidance from Nintendo, we didn't feel that we could risk attempting this work. If we had a larger development team or a longer timeframe, maybe we would have attempted it, but in hindsight we would have been limited as to what we could have done before we maxed out the GPU again. The GPU is better than on PS3 or Xbox 360, but leagues away from the graphics hardware in the PS4 or Xbox One.
It seems that the approach to launch was challenging across the board. In terms of operating system and online capabilities Nintendo was "late - very late - with its network systems". The secret developer suggests that in this area, Nintendo was "trying to play catch-up with the rival systems, but without the years of experience to back it up." After much effort with the development, meanwhile, it's said that sales figures of the project in question were "less than impressive", and that "we would be lucky to make back all the money that we had invested in making the game in the first place". This naturally makes future projects from the company unlikely, barring a change in circumstances. The conclusion, unfortunately, isn't particularly positive.
There are some fleeting parallels between Wii U and the next-gen consoles - the combination of a low-power CPU with a much more powerful graphics chip - but the notion of next-gen titles being easily portable to the Wii U just doesn't work. The gulf in power is just too high, while the GPGPU that we'll see on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 isn't compatible with the older shader model four hardware found in the Wii U.
Doubtless, the first-party developers at Nintendo will make the hardware sing - they always do - but the situation looks grim for those of us in third-party development, with the opportunity to progress on the hardware held back by both the quality of the tools and the lack of financial reward for tailoring our code to the strengths of the hardware. So where does that leave the Wii U?
Personally I'm not sure on what will happen, but if the current trends continue, the Wii U will probably continue to sell in small quantities until a "must have" title is released, probably from a first-party studio, at which point the sales will sky rocket for a while - but even so, matching the momentum of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One seems highly unlikely. Other variables such as the recent news regarding China lifting the ban on games consoles may influence Nintendo's future direction. This huge untapped market may provide a lifeline in terms of sales, but with the low wages of the general population these sales might well come from the original Wii, rather than the more expensive Wii U.
Of course, this is the experience of an individual in one third-party company, but it reflects much of what's been said about retail development for Wii U. The secret developer does acknowledge that you can't discount Nintendo, but the issue of major third-party content is certainly an area of concern for the console.
We recommend reading the full article for more details, but let us know what you think of the topics raised in the comments below.