Developer Interview: PhobosLab on XType Plus, Impact and Why the Nintendo Web Framework Matters

The HTML5 revolution begins

While there are aspects of the Wii U that can questioned and put under scrutiny, its role in engaging and encouraging download-only developers should be emphasized as a major positive. The support for the widely used Unity engine — with free licensing and tools — has opened the platform up to a number of developers, and the Nintendo Web Framework is becoming increasingly visible. The latter supports HTML5 and Javascript coding, a tool that allows those accustomed to developing web browser games to have an accessible route into the home console route.

The flow of games using the framework has taken time, but it's clear that 2014 will be a big year for the platform. We've already spoken to developers of games such as Blok Drop U, and since that title's emergence a number of others have been announced, with more on the way. Joining them is XType Plus from Phoboslab, an arcade shooter available as a free browser game (XType) but now making the move to being a paid-for download. Phoboslab is a significant company as it's also behind the Impact engine, which utilises HTML5 and JavaScript, was used for early demonstrations of the Nintendo Web Framework and now has an official plug-in for the console.

We caught up with Dominic Szablewski, the man behind PhobosLab, XType Plus and the Impact engine to gain greater insight on how the Nintendo Web Framework is shaking up browser-based development.


Can you tell us a bit about your background as a developer and where you are based?

I live in Germany, near Frankfurt. I did an apprenticeship for an application development, doing mostly web stuff in a small advertising agency. Later, I studied "Digital Media" at the FH Darmstadt.

My bachelor thesis was about browser game development using HTML5 (as opposed to the then popular Flash). This resulted in my HTML5 game engine called Impact and a demo game called Biolab Disaster. Development and support of Impact has become my main job now, but I'm still doing a lot of game development on the side.

How did the original XType HTML5 game come about?

The original XType started as an experiment of how far I could push the graphics in browsers. I'm not much of an artist, so I rather tried to impress with big explosions, hundreds of objects on the screen and lots of particles. A space Shoot'em'Up was the perfect fit for that.

The idea of having endless boss battles stems from pragmatism as well. I don't have the resources or time to design dozens of enemies and levels, so I went the procedural route: randomly generating big ass bosses. But even though the game grew out of the idea of a graphics benchmark of sorts, I cared a lot about the gameplay and spent weeks on making it fun.

The idea of having these endless boss battles isn't new though. The most prominent example of this "genre" is probably the excellent Warning Forever by the Japanese developer Hikoza T Ohkubo.

Can you outline how you came to form a relationship with Nintendo?

Nintendo built this new development environment called Nintendo Web Framework — it's essentially a WebKit browser for the Wii U. It's specially crafted for games with fast rendering, excellent sound and support for all kinds of different controllers.

Nintendo contacted me about a possible partnership with my game engine. They wanted some feedback, but were also interested in Impact's official support for the Wii U.

I quickly ported a few of my games and went to the GDC Europe with Nintendo to help them demonstrate the NWF. The feedback for XType I got there was awesome, so I continued to develop it further.

The HTML5 standard is still quite young: some things don't work as expected, some browsers implement things differently from others, performance is still not where it could be... But it's all getting there.

What are the advantages of using HTML5 compared to alternatives such as Flash for modern game development?

There are many advantages of HTML5 over Flash. The most important one is that HTML5 is an open standard. There is no one company that "owns" HTML5. This means that HTML5 can be supported on a wide variety of devices.

HTML5 games run on Windows and Mac, they run on Android, iPhone, Wii U and basically any other device that has a browser. Of course you have to tweak some stuff for each platform, but it's really the closest thing we have to a universal development environment.

Imagine if Nintendo wanted to have Flash on the Wii U instead: they would have to pay Adobe huge amounts royalties and wouldn't even have control over the implementation. Adobe would have to do the implementation themselves, making support for Nintendo's own features (input devices, hardware specific functions, ranking servers etc.) extremely difficult and cumbersome.

Another advantage of HTML5, also stemming from the fact that it's an open standard, is that there are several implementations of it out there. Apple, Google, Mozilla, Nintendo - all have their own "version" of HTML5. Of course they share a lot of code but some parts are unique to them. This ensures competition. They all compete for the best and the fastest implementation.

Again, compare this to Flash, where performance and features have stagnated for 10 Years, because there was no competitor.

Of course HTML5 also has some drawbacks. The HTML5 standard is still quite young: some things don't work as expected, some browsers implement things differently from others, performance is still not where it could be... But it's all getting there. It gets better each day.

Which classic bullet-hell games inspired you the most during the development of XType Plus?

I guess I already answered that in part: Warning Forever by Hikoza T Ohkubo. Graphics wise I was inspired a lot by Geometry Wars — the whole "glow". I also grew up playing a lot of Japanese Arcade Shooters like DoDonPachi after I discovered the MAME Emulator project. I just loved games that looked almost impossibly hard to play.

What new features are present in XType Plus that you are bringing to Wii U?

XType Plus has an entirely new game mode - the Plus Mode. It's a bit more action oriented; you have to keep moving all time. It features some different enemy weapons, EMP bombs and time based gameplay - you play against the clock instead of having 3 lives.

Another big feature is the online leaderboard and the replay system. Each time you upload your highscore a recording of how you played is uploaded with it. Other players can browse through the highscores and watch these recordings. This is a great way to learn some new strategies or just to watch some Japanese dude totally owning the game.

I also spent a lot of time tweaking the gameplay for XType Plus. I balanced the scoring, implemented a bonus system for bigger kills, tweaked the health of the enemies, number of bullets. Basically the whole difficulty ramp.

On top of that, there's a whole lot of polish. A new menu system, more music, more sound effects and revamped graphics.

So is this primarily an endless arcade-style shooter that ramps up in difficulty, or will there be a campaign with fixed objectives and stages?

XType Plus is still an arcade-style shooter. It get's more difficult with each stage and each new boss, but there's no "story mode". Everything is procedurally generated - it's endless.

Online features are often sorely lacking in Wii U eShop games. Was this a challenge for you to implement within Nintendo's framework?

I'm not sure how much detail I'm allowed to share here... In theory, an online leaderboard is quite simple to implement. The replay recordings are a bit more complicated, but there's no magic involved either.

However, Nintendo's API that you have to use to insert and retrieve scores from this leaderboard isn't... very good. It's cumbersome, even with the JavaScript API which "should" be easier to use. On top of that, there's a lot of bureaucracy involved to request the access keys to a ranking server.

It shows a bit that Nintendo is not a "software company". They make great games, but they're not very developer friendly. In contrast, Microsoft for instance has over 40 years of experience providing development environments and APIs to hundreds of thousands of developers. They know how to do this.

Nintendo is slowly opening up though. They're getting better at it.

NWF (Nintendo Web Framework) is probably the easiest way to develop games for the Wii U right now.

What are your release plans for XType Plus, in terms of its pricing structure and potential updates and DLC in future?

I don't know yet what exactly the price will be, but it will be below $5 for sure.

I would love to keep working on the game and provide some more features and game modes through DLC, but this mostly depends on the feedback I get for the game. We will see.

Can you tell us more about the Nintendo Web Framework in layman's terms? What benefits does this offer to developers who wish to port their code so it can run on the Wii U?

NWF is probably the easiest way to develop games for the Wii U right now. The biggest advantage is that you can start making and testing a game for your Desktop Browser. If you feel you're getting somewhere, you can apply as a Nintendo Developer, get your dev kit and run your game on the Wii U.

The language used to make these games, JavaScript, is a lot easier to learn than languages like C/C++ that are typically used for console games. You don't have to care much about hardware internals or memory management. All the necessary functions to draw 2D images on the screen, get controller input and play sounds are there and are easy to use.

People may not realise that the first XType is available to play on the Wii U web browser, but performance can be rather choppy. Does that perhaps exemplify the potential importance of the Web Framework, allowing HTML5 games that may not be their best in a browser to fulfil their potential and sell copies?

Yes, I think that's a good point. The NWF can provide a lot of features that a typical Web Browser can't. For instance, proper support for all kinds of controllers and other features unique to the Wii U.

You don't have to care that much about download size either. eShop games are only downloaded once, but a game played in the browser has to be downloaded each time again. This allows you to pack more stuff in your game.

Another important point is that NWF makes it easy to sell your game. The eShop provides a lot of exposure and buying a game there is painless for the customer.

Do you feel Nintendo have made the most effort to reach out to HTML5 developers? What moves would you say Microsoft and Sony are making in this regard, if any?

If Sony or Microsoft have any ongoing efforts to support HTML5 games in some manner they're very good at hiding it.

I'm actually somewhat dumbfounded that they're not opening up more to indie developers. The indie gaming scene is huge and continuing to grow even more, yet it's still quite hard to get onto these platforms. Microsoft even made it much more difficult to start development for the Xbox One than it was with the XBox 360. I have no idea why they're doing this.

Compare this to the Android or iPhone AppStore. They make it trivial to sell a game to potentially millions of people - granted, there's a lot of low quality stuff on there, but overall it's a good thing the entry hurdle is so low.

Nintendo is only beginning to open up to indie developers and the NWF is an excellent step in the right direction. I have high hopes that it will take off big time.

You created the Impact HTML5 Canvas and JavaScript game engine which other developers can use to create games. Can you tell us a bit about its benefits?

Impact provides a lot of functionality that is typically needed in 2D "action" games: drawing backgrounds maps, handling in game objects, providing physics and collision detection and response, loading of assets (graphics, sounds, music) - stuff like that. Getting a Jump'n'Run or a Top Down RPG started with Impact is a matter of one or two hours.

You also get a level editor, called Weltmeister, that is tightly integrated with the engine. This helps you lay out the game levels and set up the logic for the game (e.g. "find key, open door" mechanics).

We understand that the Impact engine will soon offer a Wii U plug-in. Is this something you worked on with Nintendo to develop?

Yes, the plugin is actually released now — It seamlessly integrates the GamePad screen and controller input support with Impact.

I worked with Nintendo to discuss what is needed and how to best provide it. It went through a few rounds of feedback for the first release and will be continuously improved with the coming versions.

I would love to see the Wii U grow into an "indie games machine". All the ground work is done and I believe it will happen.

What would you say to anyone who has a bit of experience in coding who wants to get into game development?

Do it! Game development is, in my opinion, the most fun way to become a good coder. It's extremely rewarding to see anything you wrote come to life on the screen.

The advice I give to anyone who's new at this is to start simple. Very simple. Build something like pong first but add a unique twist. Or take an existing game, change some stuff around and see what happens.

A big mistake I see all the time is new developers wanting to make something like "World of Warcraft, only better with bigger worlds". This doesn't work. Hundreds of people worked on World of Warcraft and it still took years to build.

Just start small.

You must be in contact with lots of developers who use the Impact engine. Given the ease of porting their games to Wii U does there seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for this?

Definitely! There's a whole community out there that has build web games for a few years. For them, and for me as well, getting on your game on real game console and playing it while sitting on your couch is just so cool! It's the dream a lot of us had since we were 6 years old and played on the NES.

Do you feel that the Wii U eShop, with its Nintendo Web Framework and Unity support included, could become a vital outlet for small, download-only developers in the coming years?

I certainly hope so!

I would love to see the Wii U grow into an "indie games machine". All the ground work is done and I believe it will happen. Nintendo still has a lot of community work ahead of them. They have to open up a lot more and engage more with indie developers, but they're definitely on the right track.

Finally, what would you like to say about our readers to pique their interest for the upcoming arrival of XType Plus?

If you like games where you get better at with every minute you play them, XType Plus is for you. It's an uncompromising game, focusing on very simple game mechanics, but it still provides a lot to learn and master.

Also, it's fun kicking your friends ass with a score that's only a tiny bit higher than theirs!


We'd like to thank Dominic Szablewski for his time.

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