In recent weeks Curve Studios has been responsible for adding three high-quality titles to the Wii U eShop library — it ported and published both Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut and The Swapper, while bringing its own Stealth Inc 2: A Game of Clones to the store as a Wii U exclusive. We were big fans of all of these titles, being ports of excellent games or — in the case of Stealth Inc 2 — a new release making the most of the system's GamePad. All three are certainly highly recommended.
There's one final part to Curve's late 2014 Wii U line-up, however, which is the port of Mike Bithell's Thomas Was Alone; it's a hugely successful "lo-fi" puzzle platformer that's made its name on PC, PS3 and Vita along with other systems. Due on 25th November on Wii U, it'll finally be available to Nintendo gamers.
We caught up with Curve Studios' PR and Marketing Manager, Rob Clarke, to chat about the upcoming release. A key to the game's success, and no doubt the challenge when communicating its charms to Wii U owners, was in getting past potentially negative opinions based on its simple aesthetic and emphasizing its unique qualities. In Clarke's view the storytelling is key.
We have an easy job, as Curve Studios is making this when Thomas has already got a name for itself. When Mike was originally making it, and he isn't an artist by trade, he started doing the graphics as a necessity in order to build a prototype without spending years working with artist. Now, with his new game, he's working with a lot of artists. With Thomas it's a very lo-fi game, and that does sometimes put people off: they look at a screenshot and think "oh, it's another indie game, another typical puzzle platformer".
Luckily as Thomas has that story and narration it sets itself apart from other platform games and is a very different experience.
The story and narration certainly drives the experience, as those who've played Thomas Was Alone can attest, particularly in the early stages. Though you're playing as an assortment of cubes and there's only one narrator, it's surprisingly effective at developing personalities and a range of relationships. That is to the credit of Mike Bithell, but his friendship with the award-winning Danny Wallace enabled the game to have its distinctive voice.
It has a very cool, unique, well-written story by Mike Bithell — the creator of the game — and it's also completely narrated by Danny Wallace; he's a BAFTA award winning comedian. Very few games, I think, have that well-known voice actor involved, in the indie scene anyway; obviously you can get Peter Dinklage if you're making Destiny. When you've got the budget of an indie game getting a voice actor can cost more than developing the game, but Danny and Mike were friends before and Danny did the whole game.
The writing is sort-of a comedy script, but it's got some deep, quite cool messages about friendship, about this guy who's struggling to understand himself. The whole thing is very story-driven — the best example, in terms of the voice-over's role, is Portal. The characters themselves don't speak, but the narrator explains the thoughts of each character and gives them personality as you go through. You're the guy Thomas, the titular cube, who is very nervous and self aware, while other cubes are more powerful and strong in abilities and personalities.
So while this is a puzzle game, it's also about getting this really cool story told.
That focus on narrative also leads to a surprising target audience. While the download game scene is flooded with platformers — of the basic or puzzle variety — Clarke believes that it's the story-telling that is the core selling point. He emphasizes that twitch controls and difficulty aren't a notable factor in Thomas Was Alone, but that the narrative — mostly linear but with some alternative "triggers" at key points — is the primary focus.
In terms of when I talk to friends who might want to play it, I say it's perfect for gamers that like a strong story rather than say the same for puzzle games. There's something for both sets, but I think it's a story game first and foremost.
It pushes people to want to solve the puzzles, too. Thomas is not the most difficult game; it's designed to be slightly challenging, as opposed to another of our games (The Swapper) which is very challenging. In Thomas you can generally work out what to do, they're not too tricky. The twitch style gameplay isn't too complicated either; the puzzle element doesn't get in the way of the overall progression of the story. It does pace it out a bit, so at the beginning you may get a lot of exposition as you learn to play in the tutorial, and less as you go through.
While Stealth Inc 2 utilises the GamePad in impressive ways and The Swapper makes use of the touch screen, Thomas Was Alone is — as defined by the game's nature, a rather minimal port. Its simplicity sees to that, though there should be an improved frame rate, if nothing else.
It's a straightforward port. I think it runs slightly faster, although it doesn't necessarily matter too much, but I think it's running at 60 FPS. It's a low-graphic game, there aren't a lot of extra things we'd want to do to add to it. We always look and see how we can add new control systems, like with The Swapper the stylus and GamePad are doing quite a bit, but with Thomas you're using pretty much one button for most of the game, two when you count swapping between shapes. There's not much that needs the hardware, so our focus has been on producing a really good quality port that will stand up to all other versions out there; what we're aiming to do is bring it to an audience on Wii U that hasn't been able to play it before.
As mentioned above, Thomas Was Alone will conclude a rapid-fire release of four games from Curve Studios on Wii U. The publisher and developer has always been prolific — and developed both Hydroventure / Fluidity games on WiiWare and 3DS. In the home console space, however, it's been focused on Sony (primarily) and also released a substantial number of games on PC. Stepping on to Wii U hasn't necessarily been excessively difficult due to the company's previous relationship with Nintendo, but naturally has its own challenges.
Clarke gave a detailed answer on working towards these eShop releases, and explained what distinguishes Nintendo's approach from its contemporaries.
We're excited about releasing a lot of content on Wii U. A really long time ago we worked with Sony with things like the Buzz games, so we are console guys and have been doing it for a long time. Then suddenly the floodgates opened for all the platform holders, and Nintendo work a little but different — all three of the main players work differently — in terms of what they want, what they're looking for, how they manage it. Working with Nintendo, doing these four titles, it's really exciting.
Everyone [at Nintendo] is really passionate about what they're doing. They don't see 'indie' in the same way that I think some of the other guys do, because from our experience they [Nintendo] see an indie product simply as a 'game'. Where you maybe have Sony saying 'we love developers, we love indie, now here's a triple-A title like Destiny', Nintendo don't have that divide. That's really cool, as we get treated in a similar way as if we were making a one million pound game. So, with Stealth we took it to all sorts of shows with Nintendo, and that's really important that they do that as we can't afford it; it costs a lot of money to do these shows. We get to go to shows with Nintendo and be next to all sorts of awesome eShop games; the more games Nintendo gets, and the more eShop titles there are, the better it is for everyone because more people see the Wii U as something that supports those sorts of titles.
It's exciting to be on the sort of store that was out of reach not that long ago, even if it's a sort of nostalgia. Mike Bithell was talking about how having Thomas appear on a console, on the TV, adds a sort of legitimacy; even though I'm a big PC gamer, as is Mike, having it on a console like Wii U — which is based on years and years of previous consoles — with a company we've all grown up with is a really cool experience. Having a game on the eShop, the same console that has Mario on it, is just crazy; being able to do that with a small company, just 20-or-so developers at Curve in London, it's really cool to be able to do that.
We'd like to thank Rob Clarke for his time, and Nintendo UK for arranging the interview. Let us know whether you're interested in picking up Thomas Was Alone, and what you think of the comments around Nintendo's eShop approach and support for indie developers.