In the fourth entry of this 2014 'Year in Development' series, we chat to Michael Aschenbrenner, the man behind Wii U eShop developer RCMADIAX. We chat over the developer's landmark achievement with the first Nintendo Web Framework game in the West — BLOK DROP U — his approach to current projects and the varying quality to be found on the platform.
Nintendo Life: To kick us off, can you outline the beginning of the year and getting started as a Wii U developer?
Michael Aschenbrenner: Yes, oh what a stressful time that was! By the beginning of this year, development of BLOK DROP U was completed already and I was preparing for my first submission to Nintendo.
Keep in mind this was my first submission of a game EVER, zero experience making games prior to BLOK DROP U. So it was very stressful my first time around.
Everyone at Nintendo of America is fantastic and understood that some of us may have some trouble our first time around. In fact, it kinda seemed like I was also teaching them at the same time. Let me explain:
You see, in North America, and Europe too, no one had published a Nintendo Web Framework game before. So not only was it a new experience for me, but also a new one for Nintendo. There was frequent back and forth communication with Nintendo Co. Ltd (NCL) but even then, they only had experience publishing one title like this in Japan (Gaiaibreaker).
So by early January I had my first run of BLOK DROP U submitted and after having to submit a few times because of them constantly updating the tool at that time, I had my first LotCheck....and... I failed!
Oh boy did that feel like a ton of bricks failing down on me. I later then realized that it is very rare that anyone passes their first time in testing. Some folks don't realize the tests that Nintendo puts your title through are very extensive to say the least. So I fixed the few problems and re-submitted the title.
Luckily this time I passed and I was on my way to having a published title on a NINTENDO system. This is the best feeling in the world to say the least. I remember requesting off work that day so I could stay home and monitor Miiverse. I also remember not being able to sleep for at least a week before launch! That is basically how my 2014 started.
You mentioned that there were challenges, from Nintendo's perspective too, with releasing a Web Framework game. What are the key areas that differentiate that platform? Is it just the coding or matters of infrastructure?
To be honest, I'm not sure. The certification process is the same no matter how your game was made, but I would assume there are some behind the scenes differences on Nintendo's end. I think since the process was so new, they just wanted to be sure everything worked as intended. Nintendo really prides themselves on having a product that works flawlessly, so sometimes they "overtest" things to ensure the customer has a great experience.
There was a good amount of discussion between myself, NCL, and the team that developed Nintendo Web Framework. So between the different teams and time zone changes in Japan, this sometimes led to delays my first time around.
As you said above, BLOK DROP U was the first Web Framework release in the West, but you've turned around more projects since, including collaborations. Are you producing these titles rapidly, were they older projects that you polished for Wii U, or a mixture of both?
A good mixture of both. Titles like POKER DICE SOLITAIRE FUTURE, SHUT THE BOX, and TOSS N GO were developed in collaboration with someone else. Whereas BLOK DROP U, SPIKEY WALLS, and the upcoming SUPER ROBO MOUSE were developed in-house. Then there are my numerous indie collaborations with PING 1.5+, U Host, ZaciSa's Last Stand, Maze, and the joint project with Leuvsion, BLOK DROP X TWISTED FUSION.
That sheer volume perhaps reflects your approach to release low priced, small projects aiming to provide simple fun. Would you agree with that as a summary?
Yes. I like to try something different with each new release. I'd rather work on many smaller projects to gain experience so that someday I can release a large-scale massive game.
This was an interesting year for smaller Web Framework games, and there was some controversy too. SPIKEY WALLS, for example, prompted a lot of debate. What was you main goal in releasing that title? Some suggest it was a parody, but is that the case?
Yeah I think Web Framework is still in it's infancy. I don't know that we really have that "killer app" just yet, which is why some people are questioning its purpose. XType Plus did a great job of showing off what Web Framework is capable of doing when using the Impact engine, which I haven't used myself. As for SPIKEY WALLS. It was meant to be a fun little title for those who enjoy high score chasing games. Was it a parody? Of course! I think some people mis-read the message I was sending with the title, which was... just have fun. Don't take games so seriously, and more importantly, if you don't like a particular game - no one is forcing you to buy it. I developed the game because there was nothing like it on the eShop at the time and it was bound to happen sooner rather than later. And now we have 3 flappy bird games, yet somehow SPIKEY WALLS still gets the most hate out of all of them!
That's an intriguing point on a killer app, and Web Framework quality has greatly varied. While we've generally enjoyed your bite-sized releases in our reviews, some other releases on the platform have been — in our view — borderline unacceptable. What's your feeling on some of the other Framework games we've seen, and do you feel that a minimum standard of programming and design should exist? Or should it simply be an open platform for consumers to decide?
I think it is important to have an open platform. I wouldn't be here if that weren't the case. At the same time, I think some of the content is, what you would say "questionable". The best thing a developer can do with their first release is to take the feedback and apply it to updating or "patching" the product. There are plenty of us developers on the eShop that are making our first product, so we go at it with our best foot forward. Sometimes we miss. Just look at the first BLOK DROP U that released in March, I have since patched that to fix almost everything that customers and reviewers disliked about the game.
Has 2014 been a case of 'learning on the job', then, and you feel that — assuming developers address feedback — is a positive process? The contrary argument could be that paying for games not ready on day one is a negative.
Yes, 2014 was surely an interesting learning process. I think that paying for games that are not ready on day one is a negative experience, but it depends on the developer. As a consumer I am much more forgiving when I do a quick Google search and see that a game is a developer's first title. Game development is hard work, something I myself didn't realize until I had already gotten deep into it. Now on the other side, if a company like Ubisoft, EA, or Activision releases an unfinished product, that just seems unacceptable. Not only do they have large teams of experienced developers, but they also charge 40-50X the amount I charge for my own games.
Your pricing has reflected the snappy experiences, of course. Have budget prices driven good volume to you, and are you now in a position to work full-time on your games?
Yes, volume is what I am going for with my lower prices. I want as many people as possible to experience my games in order to build a brand. Sales have been good, although I am not at the point were it can replace my full-time job. That is something I am striving for, and at this pace I may be able to accomplish that in 2016.
Would that benefit from releasing more of your games in Europe? We understand that localisation and ratings costs are higher, though there's hope that ratings will become free. Is that a target for the coming months, more games in PAL territories?
Yes, a big focus with 2015 will be getting Europe caught up with North American releases. BLOK DROP X TWISTED FUSION should be coming in late January or early February. I am also getting the 3 dice games I have combined into a single title to release under the name TABLETOP GALLERY. This is being done to reduce the cost of having 3 separate ratings. All of my 2015 releases are intended to also be released in EU as well. I have been hearing about this "FREE" ratings system for a good amount of time now. I think it will happen one day, but I'm not going to wait around for it to come.
Are you excited about 2015, and do you expect to be as busy as in 2014? You can tease your fans here if you like!
Yes, 2015 has me very excited. I have SUPER ROBO MOUSE on the way, which is my biggest title to date. There are also more levels coming to the original BLOK DROP U and another crossover title too. In addition to that I've got 3 other titles planned....so far! Stay tuned to RCMADIAX.com and @RCMADIAX on Twitter for the latest on those titles.
Also, thanks to the experience I got on the eShop, I have also been approved for development on Xbox One and PlayStation systems. Though nothing is planned for 2015.
That's exciting news. As a final comment, then, as a 'breakthrough' eShop developer of 2014, what would you say to budding game makers that may be reading this?
Go for it! Just a year ago, I had nothing, and now I have 6 games on a NINTENDO system. It's very rewarding to see your name up on the eShop. As a lifelong Nintendo fan, I never would have imagined anything like this would have been possible. Nintendo is giving aspiring game developers the best opportunity to break into this industry. And don't let anyone ever let you get discouraged.
We'd like to thanks Michael Aschenbrenner for his time.