Andy Ford wears a number of hats: web developer, Dealspwn regular, and now Nintendo third-party partner, he's just about to release his first game on Wii U -- a physics-based puzzler called Internal Invasion. Take the drag-aim-fire mechanics from Angry Birds, add in multiple catapult points, replace the catapults with cannons and the birds with a robot, and the setting with various cartoonish visions of a human's insides and you're most of the way there.
Players have to guide the medical nanobot Ro-Bert through a series of delightfully squelchy human organs, passages, and gauntlets of bone and tissue in a bid to prevent an invading virus from taking hold. You fire Ro-Bert from cannon to cannon across the game's ever-expanding 50 levels, aiming for the green arrow at the end of each level, and using the pills you find to give you little boosts of propulsion to help steer between the cannons. There's a time limit on each level, and your grade out of five at the end is determined by your speed as well as whether or not you picked up all of the pills.
Needless to say, it's fiendishly addictive; and I'm rubbish at it. I'll blame that on the fact that I was playing the HTML 5 version rather than the deliciously tactile, touch-based Wii U experience. Yup, that's my excuse.
Anyway, I caught up with Andy to have a little chat about Internal Invasion and what it's been like working with Nintendo as an indie developer. Internal Invasion wasn't original designed for the system, but as the game developed, it seems like making the jump to Nintendo's wii box of tricks (sorry) was the only way for Ford to make the game as he wanted it.
"What I tend to do is create a whole bunch of prototypes, and this was one of them," he told me earlier this week. "I was playing Angry Birds, where you know, you just fire off these birds and then sit back and watch everything happen, but I wondered what might happen if you moved on to another catapult, and then another, until you have this larger world you're moving around. So from there I kind of developed the cannon concept, and incorporated proper physics in for traversal and went from there.
"It started off as a mobile game and just got bigger really: more levels, a greater emphasis on physics, more objects on-screen, and all of that led me to jumping over onto the Wii U. I think it was particles. There were certain limitations I encountered on mobile devices, and I know you can get really in-depth, 3D games on mobile devices now, but having so many things on screen happening at the same time, having to work out all of the necessary physics calculations, and wanting to fill up the screen with more detail, that's what led me over onto the Wii U. Of course, being a mobile game with touchscreen controls, and with the Game Pad acting much like a tablet, porting what I had over to the Wii U was pretty simple so it didn't take long before I was up and running."
Ease of Development
"The tool which I use... you have to get in contact with Nintendo and show them what you can do, and if they like it things progress onwards," he said. "They gave me an exporter for the programme I've been using, and so it's pretty straightforward. I got to use the Wii U dev kit and everything's just been very smooth and simple. I've heard, of course, how easy it is to develop for Sony, but Nintendo have been great, they've been really helpful and useful. I've been using the Nintendo Web Framework, which is pretty new -- only one game, I think, has been released on it so far, and I think mine's due to be the third or fourth, if not the second.
"They've been honest, saying, 'Look, we're trying some new things out here. If something goes wrong or doesn't work, let us know and we'll sort it out.' But it's been very open and honest and straightforward, and they've been really great to work with."
Such sentiments rather fly in the face of earlier reports of development hell on Wii U, but for Ford and his game (and we've been hearing this from a number of other indie devs as well), Nintendo have been rather marvellous.
"To be honest the only difficulty, if you can call it that, has been the time difference. I'm working in conjunction with Nintendo of America, and so there's an eight-hour time difference to account for. If I send a query over at midday, I'll likely only get a response around 6-8 p.m. But I've never had to wait a huge amount of time or had reason to be annoyed or frustrated."
The Wii U as a Next-Gen Machine
But what of the machine itself? Underpowered and underloved by the mainstream, the Wii U has struggled to find traction where its predecessor once ruled supreme. Ford recalled a friend of his expressing surprise at the Wii U being a full console, having previously thought it to be a tablet accessory for the Wii. That this is still an issue 18 months after launch rather says it all in terms of where Nintendo have dropped the ball. But Ford couldn't be happier with the machine, and that's really down to the fact that there's nothing quite like the Wii U out there.
"It's been interesting poking about under the hood because there are a few things that you realise as a developer that you don't necessarily pick up on as a consumer," he said. "If anything it's convinced me further about the nature of the Wii U as a unique console. I say this a lot when I'm talking about the console, but the Xbox One and PS4 are next-gen in terms of power, but you're playing the same games on them that you always have. The Wii U is next-gen in terms of actual gameplay. There are games on the Wii U that you simply can't get anywhere else.
"From a development standpoint, too, I was surprised to see that it's faster. I can be working on my game and then in a matter of seconds be testing it out on my console, on my TV. Working on Wii U has taken much less time, everything happens faster, than working on mobile, and that did surprise me."
But for all of that promise, not much is being realised in terms of games being released. The dichotomy that lies at the heart of the Wii U is that it needs games that take advantage of its unique systems to shift consoles, but then that needs to be backed up by third party support with multiplatform titles, many of whom have abandoned the platform for now because of its small install base, and the pressure to use those very systems. For companies with investments elsewhere, it's all too easy to ignore the Wii U. But this, says Ford, is where the indie developers can really strike home and make the Wii U a valuable platform, positively bristling with creativity and invention. It's a strategy that can work; just ask Sony, or Microsoft in the early days of the Xbox 360.
"There need to be more games that really utilise everything that the Wii U has to offer," Ford told me. "You look at Rayman Legends and the Wii U version is still the best version because it was designed with the Wii U in mind. But not enough games do that, there aren't enough big titles out there that have taken a long hard look at the Wii U and used its unique features to create truly unique experiences. And that's particularly true of multiplatform games, so you end up with basic ports or nothing at all because people would rather do a rush job and make easy money elsewhere rather than making the best games they can for the Wii U."
"But that's where indie developers come in. What happens then is they make the games that they want to make, and that's why Nintendo are encouraging indie development on Wii U. I think there's something like 150 games queued up over the coming months, so these games are coming for the Wii U, and I think that it does have a really good future ahead of it."
Internal Invasion will be one of those games, out early next month on the eShop, and priced at £2.99. Asked if the Wii U is the platform for him going forward, Ford laughed and said that would definitely be the case. Not only that, but he's already started thinking about his next project.
Yeah, I'm going to continue developing on Wii U going forward," he said. "In fact, I already have two games planned out that I'm going to be making once work has wrapped up on Internal Invasion and the game's out.
"I can tell you one of them: So the idea is that I've always wanted to make a quiz game. And I know that we've had titles like Buzz come out and they been enjoyable enough, but I want to make something a little more involved and use the Wii U Game Pad to allow one player to be the host. So the idea is that everyone else has Wiimotes, and you only really need one button for chiming in with the correct answer, but I thought it might be quite fun to have sort of minigames in there, a little bit like Mario Party, with parameters set and affected by the host with the Game Pad. And I could only do something like that on Wii U. It's in really, really early development, but I think that there's a lot of potential there."
There's potential indeed; and we've said it time and time again here on Dealspwn -- putting inventive tech into the hands of indies is a sure-fire way of reaping the rewards of creatively interesting projects. "Only On Wii U" needs to become a brand for Nintendo, and it starts right here, with minds like that of Andy Ford.
Thanks enormously to Andy for taking the time to chat with me, there's a smaller Part 2 of our interview coming early next week where we chat about the Wii U in more general detail and what Nintendo can and must do in order to turn the console's fortunes around.