"We think that WiiWare offers an opportunity for content that may otherwise not be developed."
--Nintendo's Tom Prata To MTV Multiplayer, February 20, 2008
If you were sitting in on my interview with Nintendo of America's Tom Prata at the Game Developers Conference you might have thought I was pitching him a Wii horoscope program that features Miis.
I wasn't, though you have to admit the Wii horoscope channel downloadable through WiiWare is a great idea. (No? Disagree?)
I was trying to get beyond the boilerplate. It was the Wednesday of GDC week and I had an interview with Prata, who is director of product development at Nintendo of America and the man Nintendo made available to reporters to talk about the new downloadable games service on the Wii. Prata was more than happy to reiterate the fundamentals -- downloadable service, unrestricted in terms of content, launching May 12, "developers being able to create their own ideas in combination with the Wii remote," "wonderful experiences for consumers to enjoy."
I had already seen "LostWinds" and interviewed game developer David Braben about it. I had already heard the creators of my Independent Games Festival pick for game of show, "World of Goo," invoke Prata's name and then clam up when someone else asked them how their game would be coming to the Wii.
I knew the WiiWare basics. I wanted to know more. Hence my questions about Miis, horoscopes, demos, Americans and more.
Pitching A WiiWare Horoscope
I talked to Prata for just under a half hour in a room in Nintendo's GDC area marked "Zelda." Prata told me about how he and his team, in concert with Nintendo's Japan office and Nintendo of Europe, have been talking about WiiWare to developers around the world. He told me he met with 20 developers just at GDC, game makers from the U.S., Canada, Australia and South America. He said about 100 games are in development for expected North American WiiWare release, a mix of games for hardcore and casual users. And he said that "about 80% of the content is being created by companies that haven't published on Wii before."
Prata kept using the word "content" to describe what they all might offer to the WiiWare service.
I asked him if that word choice was deliberate. Did that mean non-games were allowed? What if, say, someone pitched a WiiWare horoscope?
"WiiWare is primarily games," he said. "And the reason I think I'm using the word 'content' is it's a little bit broader…I think it's hard to say what does 'a game' necessarily mean? I think the key thing to focus on is something that is adding value to the consumer and something that is going to entertain consumers. That is more important than if we're using the word 'game' or using the word 'content.'"
Next he told me that the content coming through WiiWare would be offered at a "variety of Wii points," so one price won't suit all. He said more pricing info and some more information about "content as it relates to the launch line-up" would be forthcoming.
WiiWare Concerns For Me And The Team At GameStop
I imagined that someone might not like WiiWare, that it might cause someone trouble.
Maybe WiiWare will aggravate gamers?
The word at GDC from developers was that WiiWare games had to be 40-50 megabytes, meaning that no more than a dozen or so could fit onto the Wii's 512 megabytes of flash memory, fewer for Wii owners who already downloaded some of the bigger Nintendo 64 titles through the Wii's Virtual Console retro gaming service. I thought this might be a frustration for gamers. I asked Prata if I was missing something key. He said WiiWare games could be saved not just to the Wii but to SD cards. Additionally, he told me, "in the event that you feel like you need more space, you're able to delete that item and download it again in the future … you effectively own that item." I imagined that re-downloading could be a pain, one that background downloading, a feature not available on the Wii, could help alleviate. I asked if that would be an option. He said he did not know.
Maybe WiiWare will aggravate game store owners?
I suggested that retailers don't love these gaming download services because the services encourage gamers to buy products without stepping into a store or logging on to a store's website. Pity the folks who run GameStop? "Retail tends to be Nintendo and the industry's major way to have content delivered," Prata said. "The close collaboration we have with a lot of the major products -- "Smash" and "Kart" and "Wii Fit" -- that won't change. We think that WiiWare offers an opportunity for content that may otherwise not be developed."
He said WiiWare was a possible "proving ground" for smaller developers and a service that can host contributions from small teams taking a break between big projects at large game companies. As for competing with traditional game stores, he said, " It's really not a one or the other. It's an additional opportunity if you will and in some ways I think it will complement retail."
Any Chance Of MiiWare?
I was curious about a lot of things and hungering for details even as time was winding down. I asked Prata if there was any special reason that "LostWinds" and other announced WiiWare games were looking better, graphically, than some Wii disc-based games. No reason, he replied. They're all running off the same system.
I also wondered if the relatively large amount of already-announced Western support for WiiWare, support that also includes episodic-gaming developers Telltale Games, implied a greater focus for Nintendo on recruiting non-Japanese developers than normal. "We are not really making a different effort," he said. "But we are happy with the response we're seeing from North American and European developers." He said major publishers in both of those regions are working on WiiWare games.
He explained that WiiWare was, primarily, a program for professional developers, at least in the early going. Only licensed developers who have been granted access to Nintendo's $2000 Wii development kits can make WiiWare games.
He dismissed demos as something Nintendo is not requiring of WiiWare developers. When I pressed him on whether a developer would be able to make a demo if they wanted to, he repeated his initial answer: "Again, we're not inclined to require it from developers."
He did say a lot is possible. WiiWare developers can make games for the Wii remote, the nunchuk, the classic controller, anything (though the remote is clearly the device Prata and team believe will be developers' most inspired choice).
How about Miis, then? Could developers use them? "That's a great question," Prata said. "They are able to discuss with Nintendo about the use of the Miis."
Prata's team is not just working on getting things ready for the May 12 WiiWare launch. They are also preparing to implement the Everybody's Nintendo information channel that is already available to Japanese Wii owners onto North American Wiis. That service will provide more information about WiiWare games once it is launched, though Prata did not say when that launch would be.
Take all that in, and are you still left with questions? Will WiiWare be an effective counterpoint to Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade and Sony's PlayStation Network? Or an endeavor entirely of its own?
Prata's answers provided some insight but still leave much unanswered. I do know, though, that if a downloadable horoscope game/piece-of-content has any way to get to home consoles, it would be through WiiWare. I think so, at least.