News Article

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

Posted by Darren Calvert

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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User Comments (37)

rjejr

#2

rjejr said:

The biggest thing this obviously brings is sound. I played thru most of those PlayBoxie free games this morning - the math blocks 1 was good - and its just weird w/o sound. I don't need orchestral scores but sound effects ARE a big part of video games.

_________________________

"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."


I don't know if he is just talking about small indie games or Wii U online in general but I could imagine this bureaucracy holding back Watch_Dogs.

Catch 22 for Nintendo - release a bunch of $2 games - like "minis" on PSN - at the risk of not selling higher priced games, or sell these at a higher price but they won't sell. I bought Kung Fu Rabbit on sale for $2 and that's what its worth. "A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks" cost $2 on PSN which has similar gameplay but a story and voice acting. Most people don't care about that stuff but it's $2, so this shouldn't be more than $1. It's a tricky situation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHiLKmH4c_I

zipmonStaff

#4

zipmon said:

Great interview & gorgeous game! Definitely looking forward to trying it out! =)

XCWarrior

#5

XCWarrior said:

Game sounds great, love SCHMUPS, love online leaderboards, videos are a nice touch.

Just all these "Q1" releases. There are a lot listed like that, yet we get one game a week. Need some at least semi-hard release dates!

Darknyht

#6

Darknyht said:

Look forward to seeing it in the marketplace. While I hate Geometry Wars with a passion, I may give it a look and hoping it is more like Beat Hazard.

TromboneGamer

#7

TromboneGamer said:

I remember playing a browser game kind of like this back in middle school. It was actually quite difficult and I don't think i ever beat it. Definitely gonna give this a shot when it's available.

andjahiam

#8

andjahiam said:

This is Nintendo reaching out to hardcore gamers bur how many Will pay attention.

Kaze_Memaryu

#9

Kaze_Memaryu said:

This insight from HTML5 developers like Szablewski is invaluable. I can't have enough of this knowledge!

FiveDigitLP

#10

FiveDigitLP said:

@rjejr Seeing as he's talking about JavaScript, I imagine he's only referencing the online leaderboards for indie games made using the Nintendo Web Framework. Regardless, everyone's enthusiasm about Nintendo's online infrastructure has been lacking...

PhobosLab

#13

PhobosLab said:

Thanks for the great feedback guys!

@rjejr, @FiveDigitLP Yes, I was only talking about the leaderboard functionality. I imagine the bureaucracy involved for online stuff is typically not a problem for big game studios. For small indie developers that don't have designated people to deal with this, it can be quite tedious though.

Monkeh

#14

Monkeh said:

"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."

Exactly this, which is where the problem lays. Look at Team Meat, both guys love Nintendo, yet Super Meat Boy was never released on a Nintendo console, because Nintendo doesn't want it... -_-
Nintendo just keeps denying indie's access to their consoles, whereas Sony, Microsoft and obviously the PC have been embracing them for years now. Sure, it's now getting slightly better, but that's not going to do any good. They should drastically change their approach to indie games, if they ever want to be close to an 'indie game machine'.

FireHorsePrime

#15

FireHorsePrime said:

This is why I'm faithful to Nintendo. They embrace innovation and new things, new ideas, all while keeping a strong grip on in what's established. They don't have to coddle huge studios to keep their brand relevant, and somewhere in the mix we will find a new Psygnosis, or Rareware ready to take the lead with their hardware. Nice!

T7L3R

#17

T7L3R said:

@FireHorsePrime I'd love to see one of these small indie developers become big because of a game they made for a Nintendo console! Nintendo needs a new Rare. Retro and Monolith are great and if Platinum keeps up the support the Wii U will definitely have some awesome games ahead of it. But if a few of these awesome indie developers see success and start making exclusives for the Wii U as well, it could become the must-have console this gen.

unrandomsam

#18

unrandomsam said:

@Monkeh It wasn't released because they couldn't get it under 50MB (Which for what it is doesn't seem unreasonable if you think say Mario World is 1/2 MB.) or that is what they say - The Mac OS X and Linux ports were absolutely awful at first I dunno if they still are. But it is a really good game.

FiveDigitLP

#19

FiveDigitLP said:

@PhobosLab Thanks for the confirmation. I really thought this interview was cool. I've always thought the idea of developing video games was beyond my reach, but with this framework, it certainly seems a lot more tangible for me as I already know some web languages. It's really cool to see Nintendo trail-blazing in this area.

DarkKirby

#22

DarkKirby said:

I don't really understand in what way the Wii U Browser could be better then just playing on a normal PC Browser. If you had to have a controller you could just map the keys to a rd party controller.

gatorboi352

#23

gatorboi352 said:

"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."

Most telling part of the interview right there.

unrandomsam

#25

unrandomsam said:

So is it the same game basically as the WebGL - Xtype ?

It has nothing on Jamestown or Ether Vaper Remaster.

@DarkKirby You can certainly use a controller in Chrome. (With Chrome Store Apps I have tested it before).

JustinH

#26

JustinH said:

@PhobosLab This looks great. You've definitely got my buy. Do you have a vague idea about a release date, and are you planning any other Wii U projects?

andregurov

#27

andregurov said:

Name-dropping Warning Forever is the quickest way to guarantee I buy this game. One of my favorite XBLIG titles (Infinity Danger) is similar with procedurally-generated endless boss levels (and equally owes a deep debt to Warning Forever). I do hope the price point for XType Plus is similar to those games on XBLIG/PSN Minis. I also hope that Nintendo advertises games in much better manner, though. Great - and informative - interview!

PhobosLab

#28

PhobosLab said:

@unrandomsam maybe Nintendo had some restrictions on file size back then, but XType Plus clocks in at about 70MB (most of which is for the NWF) and it doesn't seem to matter.

@DarkKirby for me, playing console games on a couch "feels" entirely different to playing on a PC. Of course some games play better on PC (ego shooters for instance), but XType Plus is not one of them :)

@JustinH: I'm still waiting for the ESRB rating for the US release. I don't have a fixed date yet, but it should only be a matter of weeks, not month.

Action51

#29

Action51 said:

@gatorboi352 WOW!

REALLY?

REALLY?

There is so much positivity and promise being spoken about in this interview, and you go directly to nitpick on the one thing that can be extrapolated into a negative.

First, you forgot to add the next line of that one quote:

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

-Dominic Szablewski

You also missed this:

"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."

-Dominic Szablewski

or this:

"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."

-Dominic Szablewski

You have utterly confirmed my suspicion that you are little more then a pure hater with some twisted anti Nintendo agenda. You are a fraud.

Action51

#31

Action51 said:

@AJ_Lethal lol, very funny!

I guess I just get annoyed at people who go so far out of their way to spread negativity and discord. The article here is a very positive and interesting read, but the usual suspects go right for some angle of attack.

I'm encouraged by what I read here. As a fan of many classic gaming genres, we're seeing a re-invention and re-introduction of many old styles in new ways.

I love that Nintendo, for whatever reason, is making it easier for small time developers to take a crack at development on their platforms. I don't think anything is "perfect" but I shake my head at those who immediately skip everything positive in order to make a huge deal out of anything even remotely negative.

No one in the article said that on-line leaderboard implementation is impossible or not going to happen, the developer simply commented that it's not ideal at this point in time. Interesting...but far from "the most telling thing" in the interview.

Sampras

#32

Sampras said:

Indies play to the strength of Nintendo and especially Wii U.

Indies typically rely more on originality, rather than huge budget flash.
Indies typically can afford to focus on the game experience (partially due to less pressure to make payroll and make a "safe" game).

Like the indies, Nintendo focuses on originality and innovation rather than pure horsepower.
And like the indies, Nintendo focus on the game experience (all they do is make games and they don't have to worry about side all the other things their competitors have going on).

TheRealThanos

#33

TheRealThanos said:

@rjejr Well, that clip you posted wasn't exactly an added value to convince me that "A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks" is a better choice or worth more. That is all largely based on opinion of course, but where you like that game more, or think it deserves more, I think that the graphics aren't all that much better and actually look very cheesy, and the "voice acting" is completely horrible. They must have hired the worst comedian (or maybe it is the developer himself) to do it, because it is just not funny. And in that case, a lack of voices is actually a plus, and to me the explosions and the sounds of the weapons in XType are far more meaty, so they pack a punch and makes you actually "feel" that you've hit something. The other game is just 2D sprites inspired, and while the developer of XType himself has admitted that he isn't a good artist, I think that the whole style of it offers something different that just oozes atmosphere. Then again, that's just my opinion...
@DarkKirby The article also mentions "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." Seems like a BIG plus in comparison to a normal browser, so html5 in collaboration with Nintendo Web Framework might very well be a golden combination...
@Action51 ka-chinnngggg!!! and I +1 that... ;)
@PhobosLab Looks like a fun game. Somewhat old skool but with stylized graphics, will definitely try it out.

JosieC84

#36

JosieC84 said:

This actually reminds me of a good ol' old NES game with such hardcore difficulty. I bet most Sony and Microsoft fanboys wouldn't even get pass 5 seconds without dying.

Champollion

#37

Champollion said:

Great interview, thanks ! And special thanks to the developper for responding the reader's comments. As an amateur developper I'm definitely taking the "change some stuff around an existing game" approach, but when / if I get to something that's worth the effort I'll definitely have a look at this Impact engine. (Now working with Python/pygame, which is the one language I was familiar with, and the one in which the game I started from was written.)

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