19 03 2014 09

While it may not have been making major headlines across the web, Nintendo's Wii U eShop has been pushing some landmarks in 2014. The first was with Blok Drop U, developer RCMADIAX seizing the crown of being the first developer to release a game through the Nintendo Web Framework, which allows games developed with codes such as HTML5. In an era of spiralling retail game budgets, it represents another step towards embracing the potentially vital download-only 'Indie' scene.

This week brings us another landmark, however, with the first download on a Nintendo system to offer fully-enabled online multiplayer that's cross-platform. Pure Chess arrives on Wii U and 3DS — another relatively rare combined release — with multiplayer support between not only the two Nintendo systems, but with players on iOS and Android versions, too.

With that in mind, and the fact that the title will fill a rather particular niche on the Nintendo download stores, we paid a visit to VooFoo Studios in Birmingham, England, to have a chat to the developers and their publishers, Ripstone.

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Joining us to talk over all things Pure Chess were Voofoo Studios' creative producer Shaun Read and technology director Mark Williams, while Michelle Senior and Ami Langton provided the publisher's perspective for Ripstone. The studio itself is, in many respects, a perfect representation of a slowly flourishing download developer. Situated within a modern technology centre complex, the office is sizeable enough to house three sections of desks and a meeting area, and at the time of our visit had a small team of around half a dozen to ten employees working on various projects. Small scale yet busy, it's indicative of a small studio that's enjoyed some solid success — and therefore growth — since beginning in 2007, primarily with games on Sony platforms and some mobile releases; those with a PS3 or Vita and a love of pool may best know the developer for Hustle Kings, while Big Sky Infinity is an eye-catching twin-stick shooter.

Pure Chess, meanwhile, has been released on PS3, Vita, iOS and Android prior to its arrival on the Wii U and 3DS, so naturally one of our early enquiries was simply why it, and not other games, became the studio's first foray on Nintendo hardware. Mark Williams highlighted that it was a natural progression: "there are no major chess games out on Wii U or 3DS at the moment, and it seemed well suited to the platform to both 3DS and Wii U", he explained. "Obviously it’s been proved really popular on PlayStation platforms, which is why we imported it to the mobile. So, yeah, just the fact that it’s been so popular there’s obviously demand for the game".

Coming to that decision also brought to light the approach that Ripstone takes, as a publisher, with its developers. With VooFoo Studios being independent, it's highlighted that business and development decisions are made by both parties together, rather than an old-fashioned relationship in which a publisher would dictate projects, targets and objectives to development teams.

Michelle Senior: They're always combined decisions, aren't they? We’re never saying, “We want you to do this, whether you’d like it or not.”

So it’s always kind of clear. Obviously want to have the developers on side.

Ami Langton: I think we have an open dialogue throughout the development cycle. A lot of us at Ripstone actually come from development backgrounds ourselves. We just naturally like to be involved in the process anyway. Obviously we’re a lot smaller that your traditional publishers as well, so everyone has to muck in and get involved in all different disciplines.

But it’s great because, you know, we have a good relationship, or we like to think we have a good relationship with developers we work for, we work with, and having that openness and that honesty between you just makes for making better games.

Michelle Senior: Yeah, and it’s always the thing when developers are making games, they always want to start shouting about it straight away. So rather than just us coming along at the end and then being like, “Right, yeah, let’s get it to market”, we just start off early and get people talking about it; we just give the developers the opportunity to start shouting about it early on as well.

Shaun Read: Yeah. I think, what Ami says, the big difference is that the guys are from development backgrounds.

Usually when you’re working with producers, you know they don’t know the process as well as these guys do.

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What's perhaps surprising, looking in from the outside, is that Pure Chess was a strong choice from a developer's and publisher's perspective. It seems like a niche market, which is alternately a strength and, arguably a weakness, and Williams admits to being "positively surprised" by the reaction to the title on Sony and mobile platforms. Considering the free alternatives and various online sites where players can easily jump into games, it perhaps defies expectation that what could be regarded as a 'premium' approach has resonated with gamers. It was explained to us that the detailed 3D models, for example, are "modelled from the ground up" by just two members of the team, and producing a new set alone could take "around two months", with Read explaining that is "flat out, full time" work for the designers in question.

What Pure Chess does bring to the table with its Wii U and 3DS releases, solving a common complaint of its original release on PS3 and PS Vita, is cross-platform online multiplayer. As mentioned at the top of this article that's a first for Nintendo hardware, with Cubemen 2 also on the Wii U eShop horizon in pushing the idea. While playing matches against others on Nintendo hardware, iOS and Android is entirely welcome, we asked whether online play with Sony gamers was ever on the table. "Yeah, there were a few technical issues that we didn’t manage to overcome", Williams said. "We’ve not been able to get the Sony versions of the game integrated into that cross-platform system, yet. It’s possible for the future, but we don’t know. We’re not sure how". When asked about whether that's still an aspiration, we were reassured that it is. "It is certainly something we’d like to do very much, definitely, but obviously the bigger audience we can get all playing in the same competitive online forum, would be great."

Perhaps wishing for Sony play is greedy at this stage, especially in light of the greatly expanded audience that will be available through combining eShop players with those on smart devices. It's notable that, with Nintendo often — sometimes fairly — criticised for its online infrastructure, Voofoo's experiences have been positive, albeit while tackling challenges in linking the appropriate networks; the title was originally due on 26th December 2013, with the technical implementation of online one aspect that delayed release. Williams, who led the technology team in making cross-platform play a reality, was full of praise for Nintendo's role in assisting the studio.

There were a lot of technicalities in doing that [cross-platform play]. I mean the initial implementation of it all was actually fairly straightforward. It was all a kind of testing, just making sure everything was right for us, and then making sure everything was fitting within Nintendo’s guidelines. Obviously being a new platform for us as well, with not working with Nintendo before, there were a lot of new things for us to learn. So there were a lot of different reasons really why it ended up taking us a bit longer than we originally envisaged it in taking.

...They [Nintendo] were surprisingly open. They’ve really been great to be honest, really open minded, forward thinking. I think it’s a really good thing. I just wish more platform holders ... well, hopefully more holders will do this going forwards.

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It surprised us just how far this connection will go. Pure Chess utilises its own account system, and when you've set that account up you can log into multiple versions of the game, on different devices, to pick up where you left off. It's quite possible to envisage a scenario of making some moves at home, checking progress on a smartphone while out and then, if away from the Wii U, continuing a game on 3DS. That's all supported, with the option to dive into as many online matches as you please. Unfortunately, the Wii U and 3DS version won't notify you via the respective system's SpotPass options that an opponent has moved; the very first screen when you load the game will point you towards online matches awaiting your move. If you're online at the same time as an opponent, meanwhile, we're told the network is fast enough that the experience can serve as a "live" match, as well as the typical practice of making a move and then logging on at a later hour to see if your opponent has pitched in.

SpotPass missed out due to technical restraints, but there's nevertheless impressive flexibility apparently on offer. Match-making can be random — though it pairs you with similarly ranked player — or it can utilise friends through the Pure Chess account system; pleasingly, considering how many games ignore it, your Friend Lists on either system will also be accessible for matchmaking. Matches are just user-to-user at present — tournaments may be considered if "the community cries out for it" — but online results do affect your ranking. For real-world chess players the good news is that the ratings are based on the official ELO standard — quantity of games won't give you a high ranking, it's earned through wins.

With substantial offline modes — including tutorials to help beginners, challenges and tournaments — Pure Chess does look set to offer plenty of content. As for platform differences, we've been assured that the 3DS entry has all of the content and functionality of the Wii U version, with Williams surprisingly highlighting that even the networking challenges weren't any greater for the older portable platform. Compromises are restricted to visuals.

To be honest the networking stuff on 3DS was very, very straightforward. Nintendo were really helpful with that. They provided us with what we needed to get that integrated. It was certainly no more of a challenge than it was on Wii U, which was fairly straightforward, and Nintendo have been a great help in that respect, to be honest. On the 3DS the biggest challenge was the rendering side of it. It’s a very, very different architecture to anything else we’ve worked with.

We’re still actually rendering the full detail models, but the way we’re rendering them is slightly different. So we’re still getting really good assets. We just had to drop a few things ... like, for example, on Wii U you can actually go in and seem up close to the features and pan round them. We can’t do that on 3DS.

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As for the Wii U, the GamePad will enable multiple control inputs — touch and physical controls — and also switches up local multiplayer. While another player can use a different controller and use the TV — the TV view can be switched from cinematic angles to a practical top-down perspective — it's also an option to play across the GamePad screen, similar to tabletop games in Wii Party U.

Despite the differences, we did pose the inevitable question of whether cross-buy between 3DS and Wii U was ever on the table — buy one and get the other free. Both versions have to be bought separately on PS3 and Vita, too. Shaun Read admitted it was a question asked a lot — "the price point dictated to us the way we did it." Coming at a price that's relatively low, the company opted to focus on providing a good value initial offering, with DLC extras. The core modes and three sets / environments are all in the initial price, and it was clearly a strategic choice. The argument can certainly be made for cross-buy or a cheaper price on 3DS, but Ripstone and Voofoo are confident in the model.

As for confidence in potential sales success, both representatives of Voofoo feel that a combination of a niche product and the target platforms will serve Pure Chess well.

Williams: Well, I think it could do fairly well. Like I said earlier, chess has really surprised us on the other platforms. So there’s a lot more people play chess than I thought, you know? So even though on Wii U you’ve got a slightly smaller user base, I think we can still do fairly well within there.

Read: I think on balance it is quite niche, which will hopefully go in our favour as well. You know it’s not a 3D platformer, or some kind of motion game.

In terms of what's next, Williams described the Wii U in particular as "a great platform to work on", and the studio is open to more projects on Nintendo hardware should Pure Chess perform well. It's down to "how it’s taken, how the community responds, and we go from there", though the team has discussed potential options from its existing catalogue.

It'll be interesting to see how Pure Chess performs on Wii U and 3DS with its release this week. Its success on Sony systems, as well as iOS and Android, bodes well, and it's also given Voofoo Studios a first step into working with Nintendo hardware. It brings us a landmark in cross-platform online play, regardless, and will hopefully be the first of many to connect Nintendo gamers with contemporaries on other platforms.

We'd like to thank Voofoo Studios and Ripstone for arranging this interview.