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    Member Corey's Avatar
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    Wii East vs West - Developers speak out

    I talked to several people working directly within the Western games industry to gather their opinions on the subject, and to get a feeling whether we're blowing something relatively small out of proportion… or if there's a genuine concern sitting beneath the surface of it all.

    If you've been online much the past few months you've probably noticed a predictable batch of memes related to Wii, many of which are conveniently tied into each other.

    Firstly, that Wii should be more powerful than it currently is. This is a common complaint, one expressed by myself on several occasions, partly through fear that in a few years time that gap in visual and technical prowess between its impressive competition will be more noticeable than it is right now, making it a far less viable prospect for developers.

    Secondly, there's the train of thought that Wii's success is in the early stages of mimicking Nintendo's runaway market leader, DS, where large numbers of gamers -'non' or otherwise- are drawn to the handheld for its innovation and focus on more unconventional gaming rather than pure horsepower. So Nintendo's disruption/'Blue Ocean' strategy effectively drifts across both DS and Wii, despite the machines having obvious differences. But as I've said in a prior article, they're meant to work together rather than be totally apart, so the jump between handheld and home console isn’t as large as some may think.

    Which links to the third meme, and perhaps the most curious, if worrying, one. If Wii IS running a similar path to DS, then will it share its foibles too?

    - "Why is there a higher quality of Eastern games compared to the West?"



    Some may ask exactly what foibles exist given DS' huge and dominating success so far. But regardless of that, one thing has perhaps come to light of late; there seems to be a heavy slant within the handheld's development stable that shows a generally much higher quality of Eastern titles compared to those made in the West. While Japanese and Korean companies have pushed out fresh and exciting content, American and European code-shops have apparently resorted to a large number of ports and rehashes, failing to truly capitalise on the machine's success in comparison.

    Not to be totally unfair - all territories are guilty of this at various points, but there's certainly been an uneven showing of East vs. West. Given this viewpoint, it's quite likely that should you ask a cross-section of typical DS gamers what their most played or favourite titles are, a majority will be from the East despite any valiant efforts otherwise. It's an intriguing issue that will become even more pertinent if Wii is indeed following in the footsteps of its elder, if diminutive, relation.

    So why is no one asking the actual developers themselves?

    I talked to several people working directly within the Western games industry to gather their opinions on the subject, and to get a feeling whether we're blowing something relatively small out of proportion… or if there's a genuine concern sitting beneath the surface of it all.

    "There is a reluctance not only amongst developers, but also publishers, to take any major risks," offered Robert Dibley, a lead renderer programmer who's worked 13 years within the industry and gaming portfolio includes Paris Dakar Rally 2, Extreme G Racing Association (XGRA) and GTR 2. "So the more widely used a product becomes, the more they will be prepared to develop for it.

    "Wii is certainly another risky machine to tackle for developers, although perhaps less so, because it uses tried and tested technology. Going over to PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 technology is a major leap for a developer, but as was the case with GameCube, getting something working on Wii should be quite easy - and for those who have already worked on GameCube, it should be simplicity itself."


    - "I think the Wii has just enough technology appeal to keep the next gen developers keen to do stuff for it." - Robert Dibley, lead renderer programmer



    This is something of an interesting point that often comes up in the comparison between DS and Wii. While both machines do indeed share a lot of factors, their architecture is also similar in the fact they use technology the industry is relatively familiar with. DS acts along analogous -in the most basic of perceptional terms rather than literally- to
    Nintendo 64 and PS One, while Wii bridges a gap by aping power that's comparable to its older cube-shaped predecessor while boasting features outside its now aged generation. An advantage that should allow for more developers to play more effectively and efficiently with what they know. Although that in itself could be off-putting considering we, as a technology driven audience, are always looking for the next big thing. Naturally the Wii's motion sensing remote acts to balance that, but it's a precarious balance to maintain.

    "It's always more tempting to work on the shiny new machine that can push a bazillion polygons rather than an ancient sprite engine," continued Dibley. "Overall I think Wii has just enough technology appeal to keep the next gen developers keen to do stuff for it, and if it attracts a big enough slice of market share then it's sure to attract some good games- and with the lower development costs it makes a lot of sense for everyone to look carefully at whether they should be developing on it."

    However, the question remains as to why there appears to be such a difference between the territories in their support for DS and potentially, Wii. Given Wii's fairly short time on the shelves (in both its conception and its consistently high sales, it seems), it's worth taking a closer look at Nintendo's handheld to see why this may be the case. Ben Carter, technical director at Weirdwood Ltd, suggests that how DS was initially perceived, especially in the light of its more powerful PlayStation Portable competition, stunted its early software development cycle in terms of third-parties approaching it. "The DS… suffered in the early days as a result of being seen as a 'gimmick' by many, and as technologically inferior to Sony's PSPs - hence many were reluctant to develop for the machine, predicting poor sales and games which would 'inevitably' suffer in comparison to the home-console-quality graphics the PSP promised," explains Carter, who's experience contains over ten years in the industry and work on high profile titles such as the Harry Potter titles, Burnout Legends and Battle Engine Aquila. "Of course, history now paints a rather different picture, but this perception during the pre-launch and initial phases of the machine's lifespan kept many developers away, I think."


    - "Developers [in Japan] have more of a track record with developing titles which eschew leading-edge technology in favour of attracting players through other aspects… such as storyline, gameplay or novelty factor." – Ben Carter, technical director at Weirdwood Ltd



    Which would make perfect sense given GameCube's rather erratic and ultimately poor performance, and Nintendo's consequent decision to create a handheld format that was not only initially touted as a rather suspicious 'failsafe' "third pillar", but also using an interface far away from the established norm; a touch screen. Dibley's observations were similar to Carter's: "DS came out to widespread derision because it was so different," added Dibley. "But of course nobody can tell what the public will think of something like that, and I'm sure many developers are surprised that it has been so successful when up against the clearly more powerful PSP. Now of course there are more developers coming on board for DS, but it is always tricky trying to jump on the bandwagon after so long, because you still have to get the technology working and get used to the system, while everyone else has already done that. Only those developers who already developed for handhelds or phones or some other low-spec system are really geared up to work on DS."

    So it's taken a forcible display of sales clout for some to take notice of the dual screen handheld despite its apparent hardware weaknesses. And strong sales are obviously something Wii will have to consistently show in the coming months, irregardless of an extremely impressive opening. But the differences between East and West markets and ideologies only serve to make things decidedly more uncertain, as Carter explains. "As for the comparison with the Japanese market, I would have to say that developers there have more of a track record with developing titles which eschew leading-edge technology in favour of attracting players through other aspects of the game, such as storyline (particularly in the case of RPGs), gameplay or novelty factor.

    "In addition, at present many more Japanese development houses work on single-platform games (although this appears to be slowly changing), and I think this is also a significant contributing factor - as the Nintendo DS has much more in common with 16-bit or early 32-bit systems than the current home consoles, it is much harder to include in a 'broad sweep' porting strategy. Since many large Western publishers (and hence developers) have taken the approach of bringing their titles to as many platforms as possible to maximise sales, the PSP (which can run a cut-down PS2 port with 'relative ease') is a much more attractive option than the lower power DS with it's unusual control system and screen configuration."

    Another games industry figure, who wished to remain anonymous, also implies that the market difference between East and West are so noticeably dissimilar that such a gulf of support almost seems inevitable and almost immutable unless substantial changes are made. "For a start, the DS market in Japan is radically different in the West. DS is a bona-fide craze in Japan, with the DS Lite still quite hard to get a hold of there. You can knock together a little English-learning app or a cookery book or something like that and it has a good shot at breaking even at the worst case.

    "Here [in the UK], the market is much more traditional. The hardware is perceived as a gaming device, the software is all games, most of them carrying a hefty £30 price tag in the UK. Within a month of launch, the DS shelves in GAME were starting to resemble the autumn years of Game Boy Advance, with wall to wall crummy licensed tat. Bad games, sold at too high a price, to young consumers who don't know any better."

    This brings up a good point that, along with the clear audience and economic differences that hamstring certain Western developers compared to their Eastern counterparts, part of the issue could be with Nintendo itself rather than directly the fault of its machines, given the company's rather chequered history and dealings with its software partners. "Being a Nintendo platform, there's a sense that things are always stacked against the third-party developers," continued the insider. "You can't compete with Nintendo software on a Nintendo platform, and the licensing and manufacturing costs usually mean it is much harder for a third-party game to cover costs.

    "Certainly that was the case with GBA, where the vast majority of titles were developed on a shoestring, had some license attached no matter how irrelevant, and still lost money. So many Western devs have been stung by their experiences developing for Nintendo, that as much as we all love their hardware and would relish the challenge of doing something for it, we'd need some convincing from a commercial point view."

    The importance of Nintendo's relationship with third-parties cannot be underestimated by any means, given the history of the Kyoto based company which has often reportedly acted almost as 'harsh uncle' to the industry compared to other platform publishers. High propriety medium costs, increased publishing rates, prolonged development times and uneven distribution are just a few of the things some companies have had to deal with in trying to get their games on a Nintendo machine. And in the past, Nintendo has shown a clear bias towards its more Japanese based partners compared to its American and European ones, which when coupled with the obvious geographical advantages to be had, led to some alienation and bad feeling; especially when the company was under the reign of former Nintendo president, Hiroshi Yamauchi before he stepped down in 2002.

    - "I haven't seen Nintendo going out of their way to attract Western developers." – An anonymous insider



    "I think the Japanese developers had a head-start due to proximity to Nintendo and (in many cases) better established relationships, which gave them a greater comfort level," said Dan Marchant, business development director of Strawdog Studios, whose 19 years in the industry has seen work on titles including Dune II, Beneath a Steel Sky, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Alone in the Dark IV. "There is also the issue of Western publishers being somewhat reticent to jump on the DS early due to Nintendo's history of offering less attractive business terms for third-party publishers (compared to the other console makers)."

    The difference in outlook between Nintendo and some of its Western third-parties is a bad situation that has shown signs of improving in recent years partially thanks to DS' subsequent success, but also due to the substantial and influential changes in Nintendo's staff (such as the rise of Reggie Fils-Aime to president & COO of Nintendo of America) and the noticeable -if very late- realisation that the West matters in terms of early launch dates and software priority. There's still plenty of work to be done, however, as the insider suggests. "[Nintendo President Satoru] Iwata always talks about how he's worked in the West, he has a much more global vision for the company etc. However, I haven't seen Nintendo going out of its way to attract Western developers. All I've seen are the usual big name publishers churning out licensed dross."

    Along with an increasing quantity of licensed games, the previously noted risk of continuous ports and conversions from other formats lingers over Wii's portfolio, something that will seemingly forever be to an attractive prospect for any company wishing to tentatively test the waters first before dipping more fully into Nintendo's evidently risky waters. Such a process is relatively cheap and quick in terms of development time and comparative effort, yet yields rather patchy results as shown by the large difference between something like the widely disparaged FarCry Vengeance by Ubisoft and Activision's more favoured Call of Duty 3.

    One thing that may help stymie a deluge of such games, though, is the gameplay possibilities and obvious interface uniqueness, as explained by Marchant. "In the case of DS specifically I think that its differences may help to make the platform more successful simply because it discourages the zero effort 'port a PS2 game' syndrome that publishers have favoured with PSP. Developing for Wii and DS requires the developer to make games that work with the hardware and if you are already forced to make that effort then it is a small additional step to try something new instead of just porting."

    Although there are signs of things improving for Western based devs, especially with the most recent and rather important (in terms of a statement of support) announcement of Rockstar simultaneously developing Manhunt 2 for Wii as well as PS2 and PSP, the anonymous insider isn’t quite convinced. "[There's been plenty] talk of smaller games, three-week development times and sketches of fun little toys, rather than wall-to-wall blockbusters. They have not delivered on any of those things, though. [While] the virtual console remains a rather clunky way for you to play beloved old Nintendo IP. Perhaps [Nintendo] may yet deliver, and perhaps it may yet try to court third-party devs and indie devs in the same way that Microsoft has with Xbox Live Arcade and XNA [development tools] etc. We'll have to wait and see.


    - "Is anything that isn't Mario or Zelda ever likely to make money on a Nintendo platform in the West?" – An anonymous insider



    "In the meantime, Wii is very nice, but are any of the third-party titles making money? Is anything that isn't Mario or Zelda ever likely to make money on a Nintendo platform in the West? As much as I am a fan of Nintendo's stuff, it really seems to mismanage its platforms when it comes to third-party content. So far with Wii, it seems like business as usual."

    Regardless of how the current situation may be seen, there's still a relatively large amount of time for Nintendo to capitalise on Wii's high demand. However, with the machine selling out swiftly in many territories and doing great guns in Japan, there's a danger of complacency if the software momentum can't be maintained, especially within the West where its stability and appeal may not be quite as strong as in the East "I think that many developers and publishers have realised that they missed out on a significant opportunity with DS, and are eager not to underestimate Nintendo's potential to bring a large number of users (particularly from the 'casual gaming' sphere) on-board with Wii," said Carter. "Hence, I would expect that Wii is off to a good start - and that the real danger to Nintendo lies not now, but in a year or two's time when the 'novelty' value of the Wiimote has worn off, and titles on PS3 and Xbox 360 are pushing the hardware on those machines to deliver gaming experiences that can differentiate themselves from existing titles in ways other than pure graphical quality."

    The ever-present issue of visuals is certainly something of a bigger sticking point in the West by comparison, although as Carter said, it will be the following years that become the most important in establishing whether a machine can last the distance; and that will be via creating unique or high quality game titles to drive sales. It's here that a well worn truism rears its head again via history often dictating that if a machine reaches a substantial lead during its second year, then most of the time that lead becomes insurmountable. This is something added to the perpetually fascinating aspect of the industry (via its entertainment niche rather than its technological one) that a console's hardware power usually doesn’t matter to the influential mainstream audience, as the most powerful machine on shop shelves is rarely the outright market leader by the end of a generation's typical five year life span.


    - "I think that the Wii's performance at retail is making it a very attractive option for developers." – Dan Marchant, Strawdog Studios



    Either way, it's hard to deny that despite numerous problems, DS and Wii must be doing something right to gather such a massive amount of popularity despite the bumpy sway between East and Western developer support. And even that may eventually balance out a tad given a longer period to weigh up the ever-changing market forces. As with DS, attitudes are changing towards Wii as time goes on.

    "The success of DS has certainly had a positive impact on publishers and developers thinking in regard to Wii," said Marchant. "Strawdog Studios is certainly keen on Wii (and DS) and I think that Wii's performance at retail is making it a very attractive option for developers. The chance to work on a platform that offers new design challenges is also very interesting to designers (and in fact all the dev staff)."


    - "All any gamer truly wants, regardless of where they're developed, are good games…"



    It wouldn’t be churlish to say that all any gamer truly wants are good games regardless of where they're developed - and lots of them. If the formative years of a machine means a scramble of shovel-ware to get to that stage in the following years, then it may well be worth gritting our teeth and baring out the quick and dirty ports to get to the cream that will eventually rise over them. Wii's swiftly expanding user-base may well allow it to side-step some of the traps of the past a little easier should the range of software increase; and there's little argument that it is increasing against the predictions of nay-sayers who expected the machine to follow in the footsteps of GameCube and its dried-up games library.

    "The thing which always works is a variety of software, the bigger the range, the more chance of hitting the one game which will make somebody want to buy the machine," offered Dibley. "And of course because they are appealing to a much wider audience, even the most unusual game ideas stand a chance of attracting buyers - it won't be just the same old hardcore gamers wanting the same old games any more.

    "So if there is one thing Nintendo needs to do, is to encourage developers - probably whether by partially funding them, since it should be clear to anyone that if Nintendo really believes the machine will succeed, then they will be prepared to stump up the money to help innovative developers bring novel games to the market."
    <script type="text/javascript">
    digg_url = 'http://www.digg.com/gaming_news/Wii_East_vs_West_Developers_speak_out';
    </script>
    <script src="http://digg.com/tools/diggthis.js" type="text/javascript"></script>




    Thanks to all contributors for their time and input for this feature.

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  3. #2
    get crunk. blueradio's Avatar
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    I agree.
    The style, gameplay and just in total retrospect.
    All of the excellent games are focused in Japan rather than in America.

    A look at that would be Earthbound 2 for the SNES very popular game in the West, but it was never released here.
    This article made a really great point. I think that Nintendo mainly focuses on it's Japan market mainly because the feel that Japan has more of a feeling towards Nintendo than in the States.
    It just seems like to me. That many Americans want power over novelty.
    With the PS3 and 360.
    Mind you, I own a Wii and I love it but most of the kids at my school, and even family members like the 360 and PS3 more because of the grown up aspect of it.
    I think that the Japanese are more cartoony and maybe less serious about things. So that's why Nintendo would side with them and focused more so on the eastern market.
    Plus you have to think that Nintendo has been around in the game world a lot longer than Sony and Microsoft. Specifically in Japan.
    I don't know I guess I'm just trying to say that we Americans would like more horsepower rather than fuel effiency.
    I just compared a PS3 and 360 to a Truck and a Wii to a Hybrid... Whatever.



    Well do you?

  4. #3
    WiiMaster csiguy4u's Avatar
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    Could somebody summerize the mess into one short paragrah?? It's just tooo much to read!

  5. #4
    WiiChat Member anark's Avatar
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    you write so much crap (csiguy) and you can't take a few minutes to read something put together intelligently? *sigh*

    ========

    I sold my N64 for the same reasons. I hated the games on the N64 and was disappointed with the "future releases" so i sold it to my friend. I have hopes for the Wii.

    Allan!

  6. #5
    Special Olympics Medalist BrandonMcAuslan's Avatar
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    The major failure on nintendo's part previously has been its lack of decent N64/GC 3rd party support in the west...
    Correct me if I'm wrong but Japan is the minority market in computer games compared with the US and Europe (population thing I guess?). But culturally Computer gaming is far more ingrained into japanese society. I'd love to see some "must have" western games hit the wii...

  7. #6
    Moody Loner Rolex's Avatar
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    Corey,

    Scheesh - you should get out more - Riveting article - cheers

    Do you not think that Nintendo thinks of themselves as iconoclastic within the realm of games development - especially with the DS and now Wii, we could take the handheld market in general but hey, we need to sleep.

    They've certainly attacked cherished traditional approaches to the experiences of gaming more so than Sony and now MS...this could be where your article eminates from primarily - Nintendo may not be really awkward but protective of the *iconic* status they have forged within the gaming community, this could transduce into the differential described in your article between east and west devs. (I am purely going on your article - I am not a secret insider)

    Nintendos' self-esteem when launching a new product is all apparent, take the Wii sports launch (CES? can't remember). I watched similar from Sony and MS which didn't even come close in the excited childlike smugness stakes, mainly down to the fact that Nintendo realised that this was the current technological pinnacle of todays gaming systems...It has obviously sent shockwaves in both east & west (Re: Dibleys para).

    Again - a jolly good read! I am in the North East, does this mean that I will get half decent games as opposed to living in the west??

    As a denouement to the following statement:
    Quote Originally Posted by blueradio
    I think that the Japanese are more cartoony and maybe less serious about things. So that's why Nintendo would side with them and focused more so on the eastern market.
    BR - I presume you are summarising with Manga / Japanamation even Hentai etc.. (whatever you would like to call it..). Historically Japan certainly hasn't been less serious about a lot of things but in particular popular culture - most Anime is soooo deep you couldn't fall to the bottom of it, can I ask; is this the way that the Japanese are perceived in America? Here in the UK I would say that Japan is looked upon as a mysterious culture who assimilate with tradition and technology - is it so different where you are?
    ---Smithy...
    "This IS the difference over the other systems....graphics can make you believe you're there to some extent but motion gesture can make you believe you're doing it!"

  8. #7
    WiiChat Member Happy Camper's Avatar
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    Japanese games are usually better made and more original than american produced games, Nintendo is one of the best developers in the world and then there is EA who just care about money

  9. #8
    WiiChat Feature Writer cbrotherson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rolex
    Corey,

    Scheesh - you should get out more - Riveting article – cheers
    Thanks for reading… and you're right I should get out more – but I'd only start feeling guilty for not writing…

    Do you not think that Nintendo thinks of themselves as iconoclastic within the realm of games development - especially with the DS and now Wii, we could take the handheld market in general but hey, we need to sleep.

    They've certainly attacked cherished traditional approaches to the experiences of gaming more so than Sony and now MS...this could be where your article eminates from primarily - Nintendo may not be really awkward but protective of the *iconic* status they have forged within the gaming community, this could transduce into the differential described in your article between east and west devs. (I am purely going on your article - I am not a secret insider)
    Hmm, it could be –in part- a combination. Although aside from the relationship Nintendo has with devs, the company has been notoriously difficult to deal with for a long time up until the past few years (and even then things have been patchy), showing -intentionally or no- a superiority complex of sorts. For example, many readers back in the 90s used to complain about the lack of Nintendo coverage in mags and such, but that was mostly due to it not sending out code to the publications in time. So reviews would either be late or not appear at all, while previews were mostly limited to press trips rather than code sent to the mags. Sometimes through third parties not getting enough code from Nintendo, sometimes because there weren’t any code to go around full stop (when I worked for Games Domain we had a GameCube dev reader machine, which was used all one time for the several years I was there - companies just didnt send out any preview code because it was so sparse).

    Nintendo in the UK has forever been a see-sawing issue because there's no 'true' UK base – Germany is where Nintendo Europe (per se) sits, everywhere else in the continent tends to be handled by subsidiaries of varying efficiency, but even they can have their hands tied by Nintendo Japan and US, as they're the ones who deal with the bigger decisions. It's very splintered. And while the situation now is better than it's been in a long time, there's still a lack of equality among territories that Sony and Microsoft instantly sorted out (by comparison) when they first started dealing with foreign boundaries, partly because they're entertainment companies rather than just games companies. So I feel a lot of this is symptomatic of the treatment of third-parties on a whole as well. Some of Nintendo's wounds are badly self-inflicted; like Radiohead said many-a-time "you do it to yourself, you do, and that's why it really hurts..."

    Again - a jolly good read! I am in the North East, does this mean that I will get half decent games as opposed to living in the west??
    I think at this rate we're all waiting for ANY games at the moment!

  10. #9
    Moody Loner Rolex's Avatar
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    So on the whole,

    No-one could predict if Nintendo 3rd party titles would have been so much better as a result of Nintendo [worldwide] cooperation with devs even if they bent over backward, but could you say that there would have been more support and popularity for the GC especially?

    So Nintendo are now seemingly "glueing their nose back on to spite their own knife"
    Last edited by Rolex; 02-20-2007 at 09:02 AM.
    ---Smithy...
    "This IS the difference over the other systems....graphics can make you believe you're there to some extent but motion gesture can make you believe you're doing it!"

  11. #10
    WiiMaster csiguy4u's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by csiguy4u
    Could somebody summerize the mess into one short paragrah?? It's just tooo much to read!
    Thanks.

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