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Steel Diver: Sub Wars will go down in Nintendo history, an honour perhaps exceeding its status as a very good download game — this is because it represents the big N's first full dalliance with free-to-play. Its February arrival on the 3DS eShop caused plenty of fascination, as a result, and it was a solid first entry to utilise the payment model, as the free offering was substantial enough to hook plenty in for the full experience.

With a campaign and online multiplayer showing off its surprisingly enjoyable brand of slow-paced first-person shooting, it's still a title that can be spotted on some 3DS screens here in the Nintendo Life office. With the dust settled after its arrival and the free-to-play model having successfully avoided causing Nintendo fans to riot on the streets, we've had the opportunity to have a brief catch up with some of the key figures behind the project. We spoke to producer Tadashi Sugiyama and director Takaya Imamura, both from Nintendo, while development partner Vitei's Giles Goddard, who also served as program director, popped in to clarify his studio's role.

We learn a little more about the most successful paid content aspects of the project, design choices that have helped it succeed and, notably, why we should stop looking for hidden meaning in the cameo appearance of Peppy Hare.

Tadashi Sugiyama (Nintendo), Sub Wars Producer
Image: Nintendo

Why did you pick Steel Diver as the basis for one of your first free to play releases?

Sugiyama-san: We felt that this game is part of a niche genre of games about submarines, and as such we wanted to ensure as many people as possible could try this out and as such we felt it would be a good title to have as a free to play game.

Given the game's free to play concept, did you have to approach development and design in a slightly different fashion to a typical title?

Sugiyama-san: We were adjusting the game right up until the end of development and as such thinking thinking about what to add to make it as fun as possible as a free game, as well as how to encourage players who do try it out to upgrade to the premium version and see the benefits of the premium version.

Can you explain and clarify the working relationship between Vitei and Nintendo for this project? What was Nintendo's role in the process?

Sugiyama-san: We have a long history with Mr Goddard of Vitei; he helped us in the development of Star Fox for the SNES. When we were first talking about the previous title, Steel Diver, it was Mr Miyamoto who wanted us to work together with Mr Goddard’s company, Vitei, on the project. Nintendo handled, for example, the direction and sound side of things, as well as providing programming support for the multiplayer.

Giles Goddard (Vitei), Sub Wars Program Director

And what duties did Vitei handle during development?

Goddard: Vitei handled the programming, graphics, level design and such.

Can you outline some of the considerations and steps taken to find the right balance with the pricing and structure of the paid content, while encouraging interest with the free version?

Sugiyama-san: We didn’t really have a concrete process for this, we just focused on making something that users would naturally want to go on to purchase, rather than making something that keeps asking for payment during play.

Can you share with us the kind of buying patterns you have seen? Have the premium subs been popular? Can we expect to see more?

Imamura-san: The premium subs are extremely popular and we’re planning on making more in the future. Subs with powerful torpedoes are really popular too as they can be used for making long range hits, but recently the U-boat is being used quite a lot as well.

What drove the decision to use a first-person viewpoint over the side-on view seen in the 3DS original?

Takaya Imamura (Nintendo), Sub Wars Director
Image: Nintendo

Sugiyama-san: In the beginning, we did test out the side-scrolling view based on the system in the original title. It was fun in its own way, but it lacked that certain something, so we went back to the drawing board.

We tried playing the “Periscope Strike” mode again, and ended up testing a system where you could move around like this.

At first it was a very simple movement system, but as we refined it we arrived at the system you see in the game today.

The inclusion of equivalent touch and physical controls clearly supports players of various abilities, but can you share your preferred control methods, as individuals, and explain why you like that option?

Sugiyama-san: As you get used to the game, you’ll end up using the periscope a lot more, and I personally turn on motion controls in Options. That way, you can control the periscope just by tilting the Nintendo 3DS. Once you get used to it, it’s really useful in combat!

Were there any particular challenges or considerations when producing the online multiplayer component?

Sugiyama-san: The rule for most FPS games is that when you die, you respawn. We intentionally made it so there is no respawn here, and so if you die you have to watch the rest of the battle, but can still cheer on your allies, or send them advice via Morse code.

The FPS is a genre which has arguably been more popular in the west than Japan. If this title succeeds, do you see FPS games becoming more prominent and popular on Nintendo hardware?

Sugiyama-san: The game has been especially popular with our Japanese users, and I feel we’ve found some hints for what makes an FPS that Japanese gamers would enjoy. We hope to continue this line of inquiry and investigate what makes an FPS that’s fun for everyone.

Peppy Hare

We noticed that Peppy Hare from Star Fox has a cameo in this title - what was the reasoning behind adding him in? Is this game set in the same universe, as some fans have assumed?

Imamura: At first, we had some dodgy salesman character acting as a guide, but this turned out to be a bit too shady. Instead we looked for a character that users are more familiar with and gives off a nicer impression, hence we went with Peppy Hare. I’m sorry to say though that there’s no connection to the Star Fox universe.

Could we see this free to play approach applied to other eShop releases in the future? Will more free to play games also be introduced on the Wii U eShop?

Sugiyama-san: I’m afraid we can’t comment on this at present.

We'd like to thank Tadashi Sugiyama, Takaya Imamura and Giles Goddard for their time, in addition to Nintendo UK for arranging this interview.