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Interview: Nocturnal on Flowerworks HD's Blossoming Development for Wii U

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

"The eShop is much improved over the Wii Shop"

In February it emerged that Flowerworks HD: Follie's Adventure was coming to the Wii U eShop, an updated version of the thoroughly enjoyable Flowerworks on WiiWare. Developer Nocturnal Entertainment, which had been relatively quiet after the WiiWare release, joined the ever-growing list of small developers making the move onto Nintendo's latest home console.

As Nocturnal has valuable experience of both WiiWare and the now the Wii U eShop, we caught up with the studio's Michael Shamgar to learn more about the studio, its upcoming re-release and his experiences with Nintendo's latest platform.


First of all, can you tell us a little about yourself and Nocturnal Entertainment's development history to date?

I have been writing games for close on 30 years now, after having started at the age of 10. Gaming pretty much grabbed me straight away - and I can remember my first games being Pong, Space Invaders, Super Mario/Metroid (NES) and Yacht Race on the Microbee. Back then there were a lot of magazines that had the code for the game in the magazine that you typed in; this led to playing games via programming them first. It just grew from there really. Along with a friend, we started a software gaming company while in high school (around 1988) and released/sold around 10 titles for the Microbee.

The first commercial project I was involved with was the never completed/released "Wizardry 8: Stones of Arnhem", which was an adventure in itself. That was a very long time ago now! Nocturnal was founded in 2002, based around the idea of "Distributed game development" - a bit like a mix between an open source project and a commercial entity. It was very Web-2.0, just 5-10 years too early!

Up to that point I had worked at 4 different game studios, and with Nocturnal I wanted to roll the best features from each studio together. Since then Nocturnal has been on and off, and we have released a GBA retail title (Ultimate Arcade Games), an all-in-one development studio for the GBA ("Catapult"), Flowerworks (Wii/PC/Wii U) and done lots of contract work.

The file size limits [of WiiWare] were annoying, and some of the fidelity of Flowerworks was lost when the assets were compressed.

After some work on Game Boy Advance, Flowerworks arrived on WiiWare as well as PC. Can you outline the decision-making process that prompted you to explore the Wii at that time?

WiiWare was always the primary target platform for us. Our engine supports multiple platforms, so having it running on PC was just a stepping stone to the WiiWare release. Steam rejected the game ("wrong demographic"!) and it was hard to find a decent PC portal to launch it on. So we ended up publishing it ourselves, but it never did much on PC and we eventually pulled it when the WiiWare release went up.

As for why Wii/WiiWare? Apart from being huge Nintendo fans, we saw a real market opportunity there. I was really hopeful it would have generated enough revenue to keep the studio going, and kickstart future projects on the platform.

It's common knowledge that the Wii Shop platform wasn't, by modern standards, particularly supportive — file size limitations, sales threshold and so on. Looking back, how would you rate or consider the WiiWare service as a platform for you as a self publisher?

Technically, I didn't have any real issues with WiiWare. The file size limits were annoying, and some of the fidelity of Flowerworks was lost when the assets were compressed - but overall I thought it was a pretty good release, and a really pretty WiiWare title. Just through Metacritic alone, we ended up with a User Score of 8.9 and a review score of 73... and that's with some of our better reviews not included.

But from a business perspective, there were definitely issues. We needed a commercial lease, and this pushed our costs up greatly. The thresholds added confusion, and uncertainty as to when revenue would arrive. But the biggest issue was the WiiWare Shop - it was slow and unwieldy, and was hard to find content. As a result, I believe "hardcore" Wii/Nintendo gamers ended up being the primary users which skewed the sales towards games that appealed to these users ... and the bulk of the 100 million Wii owners never used it.

The other issue that really stung us was the inability to change the price or have sales. We ended up having to put our users in an unfair situation where Flowerworks on WiiWare cost double in the US than what it did in Europe. It was really hard to explain this to consumers.

But to Nintendo's credit, they have fixed all of this with the Wii U. There isn't much more they could improve, and its a great platform for indies now.

At what stage did you decide to bring Flowerworks HD: Follie's Adventure to Wii U?

When our commercial lease expired (after Flowerworks for WiiWare), we no longer had Nintendo developer status. When the Wii U was announced, I began following it (both from a gaming and business perspective), but there was no way we were going to get into another commercial lease.

Then around a year ago, I found out that Nintendo had changed their policies regarding developers. Nocturnal regained developer status, and then we started talking to Nintendo about what games they would like to see on the eShop.

Flowerworks was an obvious "first" title in the end: it would require minimal changes, we already had all the HD assets, and we could leverage off the unique strengths of the Wii U. Most of the work that has gone into it was updating our engine to support the Wii U, which it does now.

It would also be a great "litmus test" of the Wii U market and eShop. And its also our "Kickstarter" - we'll use this to kickstart future Wii U projects, assuming it does well enough.

Can you outline the gameplay style of this release, and in what ways it'll differ from the WiiWare title?

The European WiiWare version of Flowerworks already had extra content, difficulties and two-player co-op; it will be the first time the US will see these features.

It's a port, so the content of the game is identical to the WiiWare release. That said, the European WiiWare version of Flowerworks already had extra content, difficulties and two-player co-op; it will be the first time the US will see these features.

Apart from controls, the main difference of this release is the quality of both the visuals and audio.

"Flowerworks HD" runs at native 1080p, 60fps on the Wii U.

All textures, sound effects and music are now the original assets, at full quality. And there have been other graphical improvements too, like the in-game grass. So it looks and sounds great, especially on a big TV.

Will this title still utilise the Wii Remote as the primary control, or will it use the GamePad? In either case, can you also explain the control schemes on offer?

Player 1 uses the GamePad. The game can be played either on the TV, GamePad alone (off-TV), or on both (mirrored).

A lot of work was done supporting new control schemes for the Wii U. On the GamePad, you use the shoulder buttons to target and feed the flowers. And you use the touch screen OR the analog sticks to move around. Its also been designed to support both left and right handed players.

We also have a control feature I have never seen done before - and it came about by accident! Both the left & right analog sticks can be used to move the character. But rather than make them independent, they can be used together. So if you press them both in the same direction at the same time, you move twice as fast (i.e. it's adding the movement vectors). It sounds strange, but it actually feels pretty good and gives you even more control.

Player 2 has the choice of either a Wii Remote or a Wii U Pro controller. The Wii Remote works just like it did in the WiiWare version - you just point at the screen to move around. The Pro controller works just like the GamePad does but without the touch screen.

There are a lot more possible control options we could implement. I'll be looking out for feedback once its released, and if there is enough demand we will patch/upgrade the game in the future.

Are there plans to add more content in future?

There is every chance we could add more content in the future.

Flowerworks is a long game though - it still takes me around 15-20hrs to totally finish it (and I have been playing it solidly for 5 years!). So I think it's more likely we could add extra features to the game in the future (Miiverse, online leaderboards, improved graphics) and leave the new content for another game.

Can you explain the process in which you liaised with Nintendo to receive loaned development Wii U kits?

Once we regained developer status, there was a bit of dialogue between us and Nintendo. I had heard about other developers being loaned kits, so I just asked Nintendo about it. And they were nice enough to loan us kits to get Flowerworks done and get us started on the Wii U. It probably helped that we had a released WiiWare title though.

It was very nice of them really, and we are all extremely grateful for it.

How would you summarise your working relationship with Nintendo for this project?

It's very hands-off. Nintendo keep emphasising that this is our game, and we should design it as we see fit. I let them know how development progresses, and contact support to resolve any technical issues.

Of course with this being a port of a title they are already familiar with, I think it's very low-risk for them. But they certainly give the impression of being open to having most types of games released on the Wii U eShop.

I should also mention that the hardware is extremely fast: we had Flowerworks running at full HD, 60fps with literally no time spent optimising any of the game or engine code. Zero.

Can you tell us more about the development process, on a technical level, for bringing this title to Wii U? Have the development tools and equipment been easy to use?

In general its been very smooth and reasonably simple. Most of the work for us has been creating our new Wii U engine "platform", which is based on the Wii version we already had. Personally, I have found the tools, documentation and processes greatly improved from developing for WiiWare. Testing is much easier, and much faster.

The change in the graphics pipelines (primarily supporting vertex shaders) required the most new code. It didn't fit in too well with the existing Flowerworks engine, as most of the game uses procedural geometry (all created in the game layer, not the engine layer). And vertex shaders are optimised for passing static vertices to the GPU. But we got there in the end, and I'm pretty happy with the results.

I should also mention that the hardware is extremely fast: we had Flowerworks running at full HD, 60fps with literally no time spent optimising any of the game or engine code. Zero.

If we do another title, I'm definitely going to try and squeeze as much as possible out of the hardware and see what we can produce. Flowerworks just doesn't push it at all.

There have been a lot of articles about how the Wii U is "underpowered". The way I see it, is you'll have to create a very specific sort of game for it to not work on the Wii U - especially from a gameplay/design perspective. There have been tens, if not hundreds of thousands of games written in the past - and 99.9% would run and play great on the Wii U. If anything, having access to a touch screen is a lot more important than having extra CPU cores or extra RAM.

Whether companies are interested in properly rewriting or porting games to the Wii U that were designed for completely different architectures ... that is another issue entirely. It has nothing to do with the specs of the Wii U.

We understand the release is likely to arrive in North America before Europe; do you have estimated release windows for each region?

It's going through submission now for a US release - so I think late March or April is likely. Europe is likely to be another month or two after that.

Speaking of which - I think it's unlikely that we'll ever release in Australia again, which is pretty sad given we are based there. Getting a game rated in Australia is a slow and expensive process, which is a real pity. A lot of other rating agencies now have special categories for small, downloadable titles: it literally took 5 minutes to get our ERSB rating the US - and it was free!

What are your personal views of the Wii U and its eShop so far? Are you a fan?

Yeah, absolutely. The eShop is much improved over the Wii Shop: it's very accessible, and there is lots of space to see specials and promotions from various games. It would be nice if it booted and loaded faster, but it's very usable as it is.

And using it on the GamePad is great - we all now take touch for granted, but the touch screen really makes it very usable and accessible.

As for the Wii U in general - it's ironic, but I already have a huge backlog of games to play (including some launch titles!). Maybe I'm just getting old, and don't have as much time for gaming as I used to. I really enjoyed Toki Tori 2 (finished that one), and I'm currently playing through Earthbound, Trine & Wind Waker (or as my son calls it - "Cutting grass game"). I also finished Darksiders II, which I enjoyed - but it had plenty of issues.

But if there is one title sucking most of my time away from development, it's Bravely Default (3DS). Playing on HARD, almost finished now, and clocked close to 120hrs. Got to be one of my favourite RPGs ever, loving it.

Are you optimistic that the Wii U eShop will be a successful platform for you and other download developers? If so, what gives you that confidence?

Honestly, I'll say that I'm "hopefully optimistic" at this stage. I haven't seen many sales figures for current eShop titles, but you do get a feeling of success from the Miiverse communities for each one.

I could sum up my optimism with these reasons:

  • The eShop is much easier to find, load, browse and buy things with.
  • Users are becoming used to buying digital games (even the big retail releases). As a result, people are used to visiting the store more often.
  • Developers have more control over pricing, sales and so on. On WiiWare, if you release something at the wrong price - you are stuck. On the Wii U you can fix the issue. This gives developers the ability to generate news post-release.
  • Miiverse and game ratings makes it much easier for users to discuss and rate games, which helps spread the word.

Are you planning future projects for the Wii U or even the 3DS?

For Nocturnal on the Wii U, everything now depends on how well Flowerworks HD does. Because the devkits are on loan, we need to purchase them if we are to continue with development. And new games are expensive to make, regardless of how simple they are.

So I would like to see Flowerworks hit certain sales targets before we commit to additional projects. Again, I'm optimistic and I think it's definitely doable - but we can't commit until it actually happens.

Assuming it does happen, there are lots of potential future projects. There is an epic RPG (which is almost finished) that I would love to bring to the Wii U. There is a sequel to a game (that I'm sure no one reading has ever heard of!) - "Timegap-X" - which is one of the games I worked on 20 years ago for the Microbee. Think open 2D world, with 3D graphics and a cross between Gradius & Metroid. There are also some pipeline projects designed around the GamePad, that would be impossible on rival consoles.

And a few other projects I don't want to talk about now, but are potentially much larger scope and would involve community and collaboration. So no shortage of ideas really!

As for the 3DS, I don't think we have capacity at the moment.


We'd like to thank Michael Shamgar for his time, as well as the video below in which he introduces some gameplay from Flowerworks HD: Follie's Adventure.

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User Comments (17)

epicdude12302

#2

epicdude12302 said:

My friend had the original and I played it on his Wii for a little while. It was pretty fun so I might pick this up. Any word on a release date?

ThomasBW84Admin

#3

ThomasBW84 said:

@epicdude12302 "It's going through submission now for a US release - so I think late March or April is likely. Europe is likely to be another month or two after that." There ya go :)

LittleIrves

#5

LittleIrves said:

Hmm. If this does well, I wouldn't mind seeing other WiiWare games get the HD treatment. So many good games never had a chance, given the limitations he talks about. Original games are even better, of course, but I'd definitely pay for a prettier/Miivers-ified Bonsai Barber, Rock 'n Roll Climber, or NyxQuest.

rdrunner1178

#6

rdrunner1178 said:

@LittleIrves I agree. There were quite a few gems on WiiWare that would be awesome upgraded with HD/Miiverse/Gamepad. It'd be great for Nocturnal to be pleased and work to port the other games he talked about.

steamtrain

#7

steamtrain said:

Looks good! But what's up with the high pitch sound???

I just want to relax and play the game, not have a headache...

Is it to scare away mosquitos, or players younger than 50 years of age?

I hope it's only the audio quality of the video, but the rest sound fine, hmmm...

Sean_Aaron

#8

Sean_Aaron said:

I did enjoy playing this on WiiWare - one of the more enjoyable games to review. I'll be happy to get this for Wii U. I've been showing the vid to my daughter so I hope it's something she'll want to play too.

cusman

#12

cusman said:

If I learn somehow that this game is released and it is priced $10 or lower, then I will buy it. I will certainly check out the trailer and miiverse impressions if the game is more expensive.

Cathousemaster

#14

Cathousemaster said:

Hi everyone - this is Michael. Apologies for the high-pitched sound - its purely a mic/recording thing, and my sound setup (or ears!) weren't good enough to pick it up - might be related to the PC hum in the background during recording.

I can confirm that we have now heard back from Nintendo (re: submission), and will do another pass with some minor fixes and improvements. So at this stage, looking like end of April or start May for the release (est. only!).

As always, any questions ... please let me know, and I'll do my best to answer them.

ultraraichu

#16

ultraraichu said:

Nice interview, very informative on the development process and the Wii shop/ eshop workings. Haven't played the Wii version (didn't know), so I'll check it out on the eshop when it comes out.

AshFoxX

#17

AshFoxX said:

This is kinda cool, Nintendo is becoming the Indie machine. Would have been better if we weren't pretty much forced to buy an external drive for all the cool eShop games they have been getting. Still, if they clean up the eShop a bit and take some organization cues from Steam, Wii U could have a real chance of gaining traction with sales with exclusive indie titles.

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