Talking Point: The Nintendo Web Framework and the Return of 'Old-School' Indies

The Wii U eShop could have quite a mix of games

Considering the fact that Nintendo Life began in part — through the pre-merger WiiWare World — as a resource dedicated almost exclusively to covering download games, we've seen hundreds come and go in the continually evolving online stores. WiiWare was a big deal when it launched, as for the first time it was a route onto Nintendo hardware for smaller companies without the resources to contemplate the distribution costs of physical retail. It's easy to forget that in those early days the power was still with platform holders, with diminutive studios getting used to the idea that they'd be able to share a platform with major publishers.

WiiWare, perhaps as a consequence of the Wii hardware and Nintendo arguably being slow to react to rapidly shifting sands, would eventually struggle to match up to home console rival platforms; Microsoft and Sony arguably offered more accessible terms for developers signing up, while WiiWare also had a pesky file-size limit. What Nintendo does well, however, is recover and remedy some mistakes, and it's rapidly evolved its practices. The 3DS eShop represented a step up in accessibility and interface quality over the DSi Shop, while the Wii U eShop seems to be taking further steps. It's not just about the requirements for developers to publish being eased off, but the supporting tools and features that Nintendo's implemented to encourage inexpensive, quick porting of download games.

Much attention naturally falls upon the Unity offering, which allows developers to use the popular development engine for free on the Wii U — it's even possible, for companies short on funds, to obtain loaned development kits. UK publisher Ripstone just recently said to us, as part of an interview including Zoink!, that "from a pure commercial angle it makes a lot of sense for a small outlay to put the game (Stick It To The Man) onto Wii U". Not all developers bringing content to the Wii U eShop use Unity, of course, with custom engines also coming into play.

Then we have the Nintendo Web Framework, which Nintendo increasingly publicised throughout 2013; it enables those most familiar with web development — such as HTML5 and JavaScript — to utilise tools for a simple porting process. Seeing end results has taken time, as interested developers have been required to gain approval, complete relevant paperwork, get hold of development units and get into the actual development process; the games are close, however. We've spoken to RCMADIAX, the studio bringing Blok Drop U to the system soon, while just this week we've chatted to Phoboslab regarding XType Plus and its own 'Impact' engine. The latter example is particularly intriguing, as the Impact engine aims to make development in codes such as HTML5 even easier and offers a Wii U plugin. The man behind the company, Dominic Szablewski, told us the following:

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).

Impact is just one example, of course, and there are multiple options for keen developers. The key is that the Nintendo Web Framework, in its way, further lowers the barrier for those interested in releasing a game on the Wii U. We're not talking iOS and Android levels of accessibility — the process will take longer and may require a devkit purchase if loan units aren't available — but it still opens the door wider. What it may bring, as the Framework-based projects revealed to date show, is a return to simpler times of download-only games.

One reason that the 'Indie' scene is so revered at present is that its standards have continued to exponentially increase. There are multiple factors, such as the tools available to small companies, various skilled staff that have left major companies to pursue their own agendas, and the download-only business has grown. There are times when download games have as much content and visual fidelity as titles that could have sold at retail in years gone by, and the ambition of these projects has increased. We're generalising, yes, but it's clear when you look at games such as Tengami (three years in the making) and Teslagrad (well over two years now) that there's now an emphasis on polish and overall quality with these games. The download-only scene, even when the games are from companies with less than ten staff members, is becoming big business and standards continue to increase.

That's all terrific, and the creativity that smaller studios are promoting will hopefully continue, even in a small way, to pressurise the main players in the retail scene. Yet this continual improvement in technology and the expanding scope of download games has made this Indie sector rather slick; that's not a complaint, obviously, but an acknowledgement we've arguably never had it better. But if so many download games are increasing in complexity and challenging their high-street brethren, that leaves a gap for more raw, rough and ready experiences. The Nintendo Web Framework may bring us that.

A common thread in the Framework games shown off to date is that, compared to some of their upcoming Wii U eShop contemporaries, they're relatively basic experiences. They typically focus on one style and theme, and iterate in what will likely be fairly bite-sized experiences. Visuals and mechanics look and feel — in the case of one we've played — simple, and there's a roughness that detracts from their role as upcoming releases, but reminds us that they're coming from a different place, too. We don't anticipate many of these games taking a year to develop, even, and some may be produced in a matter of months or even weeks; that's what we mean by "old-school Indies".

Quickfire development focused on a core concept may take wistful older gamers back to simpler times in console generations long past. The era of Atari, Commodore, ZX Spectrum (if you were in the UK) and even the NES brought games put together by just a few people — or even an individual — in a matter of weeks. Simple games with little complexity. In the modern era, of course, these rapidly developed games have gone to another level on smart devices; not necessarily a positive in all cases, as games developed in hours with little original work can make a lot of money, but that's a can of worms for another day.

Unlike with smart devices, the Wii U and Web Framework allow for these small, guerilla-style developments — we use the term as a positive — to find a home on a console with a multi-faceted controller to allow physical inputs and touch screen controls; those with major ambition can consider motion control, but then we're perhaps moving closer to the ambitious, polished products becoming the norm on the eShop. Some could point to the Ouya as a platform that tried this, but it suffered from the excessively low bar of entry that crams iOS and Android full as well as very limited impact on the market; with Nintendo there are still enough hoops that a degree of commitment is required, albeit it's no guarantee that some disappointing and poor games won't come through.

This emerging trend on the Wii U seems natural, however, as download-only developers continue to improve their abilities, grow small teams and work on projects for a year or more. What the web development arena offers, with the Wii U Framework, is a route in for those at the stage below that in their budding game creation careers — those on their own or working with one or two others, producing projects at home in spare time or generally keeping to as small a scale as possible. This community isn't new, with PC being such a rich area for these kind of projects, but the Wii U adds an extra dynamic and option. These games, in turn, could give the Wii U an extra dynamic as a hardware platform, diversifying the eShop.

We suspect this applies for many reading this, but we don't just like retail games, or even just download-only projects, as increasingly slick and impressive as they're becoming, but we simply like games. It's no surprise to us that an article highlighting a website to play free HTML5 games on the Wii U browser — regardless of choppy performance — attracted a fair bit of attention. Sometimes the simplest, least expensive, most primitive games can occupy us for hours at a time. Falling block puzzlers, endless arcade shoot-em-ups and basic Peggle-style games and more on the Wii U? Bring it on.