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Interview: Meet Naked War, The Wii Advance Wars Beater That Never Was

Posted by Damien McFerran

"This was the game that was going to make the blue light really matter!"

Ste and John Pickford have been making video games for decades, starting with humble home micros like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 before graduating to the NES and SNES as the '90s dawned. Such was the prestigious talent of these skillful siblings that their company Zippo Games was purchased by Rare and rechristened Rare Manchester in 1990, and later on at Software Creations, the pair would work on Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball — notable for being the first Nintendo of America game to be developed by a third-party from the ground up.

Since then, other critically-acclaimed hits have followed, including Plok, Wetrix and Future Tactics: The Uprising. In 2005 the Pickford Brothers went independent and formed Zee-3. As well as providing consultancy services to other studios, Ste and John continue to produce their own games — the devilishly addictive and BAFTA-nominated Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint being possibly the most famous. However, the duo are currently revisiting their very first indie game, 2004's PC strategy title Naked War, with the aim of bringing it to iOS in the near future.

Interestingly, this isn't the first time that the Pickfords have attempted to port Naked War to another platform. We sat down with Ste to talk about the proposed Wii version of the game, how it could have revolutionised multiplayer titles on Nintendo's insanely popular home console and the reason why it never went into development.

Nintendo Life: Naked War originally launched on the PC back in 2004. Can you tell us a little about the core gameplay? What made it unique compared to other strategy titles?

Ste Pickford: It's a squad based asynchronous turn based strategy game for two players, played remotely, with the ability to issue orders to all of your squad before committing.

We loved games like Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea, but all of those games had an identical mechanic, which we hated, and that was that even though you had a squad of units to move each turn, you had to commit to each unit's individual move during the turn. Often you'd move one unit, then realise it was in the way of another you wanted to move later in the turn, or you'd realise a slightly better approach midway through a turn which required you to move all your units in a different way. Obviously those games are built around the instant commit per unit — and turn it to their advantage in some ways — but we thought it dull that all of those games did things in exactly the same way.

We wanted to try something different, so our approach was to let you set up planned moves for all four units in your squad, then when you're happy, you 'commit', send the turn and all four units execute their orders simultaneously. This brings new strategies and pitfalls into play. It allows a new kind of ganging up on opponents with simultaneous attacks, but there's also a danger of planning your move badly, and units getting into each other's way.

Also, to a certain extent, this multi-unit planning was a solution to the remote turn-based nature of the game. We wanted players to be able to send turns to each other without the requirement for each player to be online at the same time. We needed each turn to contain a decent chunk of gameplay, so we wanted to give the player the ability to plan moves for their whole squad without needing to communicate with the opposing team, then the opponent getting a decent amount of gameplay arriving in their inbox to respond to.

The other key feature of the game was that it was a two player battle, which meant it had to be properly balanced, like Chess. Most of the games I've mentioned previously are against CPU opponents, which means the games can cheat by having lots of dumb cannon fodder enemies — or feed new enemies into the battle at pre-set points — to make each encounter work. If you've ever tried playing Advance Wars as a two player game via the Game Boy Advance link up cables, you'll know that it just doesn't work. There comes a point towards the end of the battle where one player is inevitably going to win, but there are still several turns to play before they've officially "won" the game where they sweep up the remaining opponent's units. That's totally rubbish for the losing opponent to play through, and they usually just agree to give up and cancel the game.

Our target for Naked War was to make it so there was always a possibility for either player to come back and win the game right up to the last move to keep it interesting for both players, but at the same time not do this via random swings — the game still need to be totally based on the best player winning.

That's where the "Naked" comes in. Each squad has four units, but you can never permanently lose a unit. The equivalent of "dying" means that unit loses their uniform — going almost Naked, with spotty underwear like in Ghosts 'n Goblins — until a turn or two later when they earn a promotion back to Private and can fight in the battle once more.

I think our design really worked, and games are always interesting right up until the last turn, but never feel unfair. The best player always wins, but there are lots of clever strategies or opportunities for mistakes that mean apparently losing players can come back and win.

Naked War was the first game you made as indies. Was it a difficult process, releasing a game without the help of a publisher?

SP: It wasn't difficult to release the game, but there was a lot of work setting up the online turn handling system. The game wasn't a commercial success though, so perhaps it would have been with a publisher to help. Then again, if we had a publisher, they would never have commissioned the game in the first place because it wasn't a clone of an existing hit, so I don't think there was any way it could have come into existence with a publisher.

You've described Naked War as one of the best games you've ever done — why are you so proud of it?

SP: I think it's the best designed game we've ever made. It all works really well. The game design is really robust and naturally balanced. The game works on nearly any map you can design — it's not reliant on great level design, although great level design works brilliantly; the game would still be fun on a completely flat square island with no features.

How did you see the game working on the Wii? How would it have differed from the original, and how would it have made use of the Wii Remote?

SP: The key thing for us about the Wii wasn't the Wii remote — although we'd make use of that like a pointer, which would have been an easy port for a mouse-based PC game — but the blue light on the front of the Wii, and the always-on internet connectivity the Wii had. This was a massively powerful feature that Nintendo barely used, but which would have been amazing for a game like Naked War.

Our idea was that players could send turns to each other at any time. Originally on PC these turns took for form of email attachments, and later website downloads. We could duplicate this exactly on the Wii. A player would send a turn to a Wii friend opponent. That turn would be sent to them as a Wii message. The blue light on the front of their Wii would light up, and instead of a dull notification, the message contained an actual chunk of gameplay. The attached turn would boot up the Naked War game on the receiving player's Wii and they could play the incoming turn, then respond with their own turn, which would be sent back to the original player in the same way. Nothing on Wii was doing anything like this. It would have been amazing!

When you pitched the title to Nintendo, what kind of response did you get?

SP: We made a great little pitch document. The front page of the pitch doc was a sheet of transparent acetate with just the Wii's blue light printed on it. This lined up with the second page, which was a picture of a Wii. The front sheet could be opened and closed to make the blue light on the Wii image appear to go off and on. We were stating that this was the game that was going to make the blue light really matter! We pitched the game, then finished off with a little comic strip showing my eldest daughter playing a mock up of an incoming turn. We sent it to everyone we still knew at Nintendo.

The response we got was...absolute silence. Not even an acknowledgement. Nothing.

About six months later a friend was going to visit Nintendo of America and kindly took a few more copies of our pitch, and put them in the hands of the people he was meeting at Nintendo about a different project. Still nothing. Eventually we tried to apply to become Nintendo developers. We were knocked back straight away because we didn't have a separate office from our home address — both John and I work from home. We pleaded our case, but they wouldn't budge. So, that was the end of that!

You're currently reworking the game for iOS - what kind of improvements are you looking to include?

SP: There are two big jobs with the iOS version. Interface and business model. Touch screen interfaces are really, really different from pointer control or button / joystick control. You can't just add touch screen controls to an existing pointer based interface, it doesn't work. So we've had to redesign and rebuild the interface from scratch, to be based around touch. We've also been able to make the UI look a lot nicer along the way.

Business model is a tricky one as well. We actually had a ahead-of-its-time business model with Naked War on PC when it came out. It was free-to-play, with (effectively) in-app-purchases of 'challenges' which were the ability to start new games. That was a good system at the time, but not quite right for today. The game has to be free-to-play, because the game is two player only so we really need people to be able to challenge anyone on their friend list, including people who may not have the game yet. We've working on ways to sell new features, content, upgrades, and cosmetic enhancements within the game — including a couple of brand new features — while still allowing players to experience the full game without having to pay.

Do you see yourselves producing any content for the Wii U or 3DS in the future, or are you focused on iOS now?

SP: The Wii U and 3DS are our two favourite consoles at the moment. We'd love to design and make games for either system and we know that Nintendo has since relaxed the home office requirement, but we've done enough chasing. If they bunged us some devkits though, who knows?

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User Comments (37)

WiiLovePeace

#1

WiiLovePeace said:

It's too bad they feel like they've done enough chasing because I think that now Nintendo's made a massive turn around in the indie department & are far more open than they used to be. Now would be the perfect time for them to knock on Nintendo's door once again & hopefully be met with more than just silence this time. But I don't see Nintendo hunting them down. I could be wrong, of course. I'd love to play the game on Wii U, it sounds awesome like Pure Chess is.

THENAMESNORM

#2

THENAMESNORM said:

This game sounds really appealing to me, anything resembling Fire Emblem or Advance Wars has my attention really!

PorllM

#3

PorllM said:

Sounds like a really good idea for a game and the WiiConnect24 stuff would have been great too. Honestly I think it could be even better now with the Gamepad flashing up notifications when someone makes a move. It could still play the same, using the Wiimote, but could have touch controls on the gamepad too for those who wanted it.

I can't shake the feeling they did this interview in the hope of getting an apology/free devkit from Nintendo though, especially with the comment at the end. I applied to be a Nintendo developer with no experience whatsoever and was accepted within a few weeks and now have the ability to purchase a Wii U devkit at an extremely reasonable price. For accomplished, experienced devs like these guys, there is really no excuse not to fill in a simple application form and get things moving. "Chasing" would be no part of it.

DamoAdmin

#4

Damo said:

@PorllM You're right of course, and Nintendo has become very welcoming towards indies in recent years. But put yourself in their shoes - they went through all that effort to put the pitch together and were blanked, and since then an entire new market for indies has opened up elsewhere, on smartphones. I'm sure we can all understand why they're not banging on Nintendo's door again. But how knows? Perhaps this interview will be the first step towards Zee-3 working on the Wii U and 3DS? Time will tell.

PorllM

#5

PorllM said:

@Damo Fair point, I guess it's Nintendo's fault really for having such a closed door policy in the first place. I really do hope this ends up happening though.

Nintenjoe64

#6

Nintenjoe64 said:

I hope Nintendo reads this interview and makes a new Wii U Wars game and a separate Battalion Wars 3. The gamepad could make the ultimate squad based military shooter and playing on the gamepad is great for Advance Wars.

No matter how good Splatoon is, I still want to crash a tank into people or shoot people in the face with bullets now and then.

Yorumi

#7

Yorumi said:

This kind of ties into the other article from last week about creativity in the industry. Here's some people who were planning to use nintendo's hardware better than even nintendo was and were shut down. Sure nintendo has become more open but considering how little real use the gamepad is getting they should be banging on the doors of people like this.

It's such a waste to see such a creative system squander all it's assets. This game sounds like a ton of fun and I'd love to see what people like this could do with all the wiiU has available. So come on nintendo it may be a few years late but it's time to respond to their proposal.

Mega719

#9

Mega719 said:

Didn't Nintendo shut down Wiis online components? I don't think this game would work on the system anymore

Iggly

#10

Iggly said:

Quite an odd name for a game, but we've seen worse. It's a shame Nintendo denied them back in the Wii era, we probably won't be seeing this game anytime soon on Nintendo platforms unless Nintendo gives them a devkit.

Gerbwmu

#11

Gerbwmu said:

Ken Griffey on SNES is still one of my favorite games of all time. Was a great baseball game then and still today. Hopefully they will work with Nintendo again. This seemed like an interesting project.

redivgamer90

#12

redivgamer90 said:

The graphics look really bad, the characters look scary, but who care when the game shows an appealing gameplay and presents creative concepts!

sketchturner

#13

sketchturner said:

@Mega719 This is not a current pitch. It was back when Wii's online was active.

This sounds like it could have been a great idea. I'm not normally a turn-based fan, but even I would probably enjoy this.

ejamer

#14

ejamer said:

Best of luck to these guys. Sounds like an awesome idea, and would've been wonderful to see it on Wii. I'm a Nintendo fan... but it's a shame they don't have people in place to make smart innovation like this happen.

(On the upside, WiiWare sold so poorly that maybe this is a hidden blessing.)

Shambo

#15

Shambo said:

While the art style doesn't really appeal to me, I like the idea, and am happy that Nintendo has become way more indie friendly than they used to be back then. Maybe some day on the 3DS/WiiU with cross-platform play?

Advance Wars should really get another sequel too. On the Big screen, with the gamepad for a closer view, maybe even á la Game & Wario photographic minigame.

mike_intv

#16

mike_intv said:

This seems like it would be a good game to develop for WiiU.
And if put in contact with the right person (Dan Adelman with NoA), they probably could get that free dev kit.

Too many people in this industry (and in life) seem to hold onto what happened in the past too long. That can lead to bad decisions.

andrea987

#17

andrea987 said:

Shame on you, Ninty! Bad, bad Ninty...and so on.
Anyway, day one buy for me if they release it on Wii U. No i-stuff allowed in my house, thanks.

FritzFrapp

#18

FritzFrapp said:

Thanks for the interview, it was a nice read.
I think I have just about every Spectrum game John and Ste have worked on. I never got around to playing Naked War - major shame about the proposed Wii version.
Hope Nintendo are reading and sort them out with a dev kit. These are seriously talented guys who make original games, who love Nintendo and should be making games for Nintendo systems.

CrabGats

#19

CrabGats said:

Nintendo doesn't deserve the Pickfords honestly. Love Nintendo and all, but you can't excuse them for everything. I hope this new project of theirs is a success. Using Push notifications on phones can easily mimmick WiiConnect24 messages.

ogo79

#21

ogo79 said:

i survived several naked wars. most of the time when i arrived at the battlefield the enemies just raised a white flag and ran away. cowards.

SCAR392

#22

SCAR392 said:

I'm honestly not surprised. It's a cool concept, but based on the pitch sheet, they would have been distributing the game for free. There's no money in that for Nintendo, so that's probably why they denied it. Maybe if it was F2P or a paid game, they would have accepted it.

Asking for an office in 2 locations is pretty ridiculous, but it is no doubt a bit easier to release a game on Wii U.

EDIT: Even if Nintendo would have accepted the game, the developers would have probably had to stay in Japan(if they weren't already there), anyway, with an office, which is what they ended up having to do, but couldn't.

Captain_Gonru

#27

Captain_Gonru said:

I've been wanting more asynchronous games on my consoles. As for the "blue light", I honestly can't remember ever getting a message that I cared about, outside of ones from friends, of course. A shame this never had a chance.

Dinosaurs

#29

Dinosaurs said:

Companies don't have 'feelings' and neither should their business. If the way is open now they should go for it regardless of past sweat and tears. The game would positively resonate with Nintendo game players and thats the part of Nintendo that would matter to them anyway.

Captain_Gonru

#33

Captain_Gonru said:

@AJWolfTill Maybe. But a few articles down from this are a review for "Bombing Bastards" and a piece related to a violent game "Devil's Third", so we know they aren't always as prudish as we think they are.
I wonder if it was too close to something they already had cooking. Wouldn't be the first game that started life on a previous gen console, had a rough development, and comes out eventually, or not at all.

datamonkey

#34

datamonkey said:

Personally I think the Wii U is perfect for a new Advance Wars using the Gamepad second screen etc? Make it happen Ninty!

Pod

#36

Pod said:

Man, I really loved Wetrix on the N64.

If those guys were to do something, I'm sure it'd be good.

eviLaTtenDant

#37

eviLaTtenDant said:

Like many others here i don't really like the artstyle but it sounds like an interesting concept that could be even better on the Wii U - thanks to its multitasking capabilities and the GamePad.

And amen to what he said about not having something like an undo button for TBS games. I'm currently playing Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars on the 3DS and really hate that when i just move and not attack an enemy there's no way to rewind.
That also was the thing that made the E3 showcase of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M look even more torn to me. In the one game where every step you make should permanently use up your turns movement points you can just go back and pretend none of it ever happened. If it stays that way in the final game it's quite the wasted opportunity. It could really profit from being suitably consistent imo.

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