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31 Features

Why is PlayStation's most prolific indie now backing Wii U?

By Rob Crossley on Thursday 1st May 2014 at 8:58 AM UTC

It would have been easy to imagine that Curve Studios' next major project would be destined for PlayStation.

After all, the London developer kept itself busy last year porting a trio of acclaimed indie games (Thomas Was Alone, Lone Survivor and Proteus) to PS3 and Vita. Then in December it shipped the PC and PS3 version of FutureLab's cerebral Vita shooter, Velocity Ultra, before publishing its sleeper hit Stealth Inc on PS4, an endeavour which Sony America reciprocated with a big splash on the front page of the PS Store.

Soon, the group will co-publish three more promising indie games (Titan Attacks, MouseCraft and The Swapper) to desktops, PS3, Vita and PS4. But perhaps the biggest talking point recently has been the studio's public stance on why it's not working with Microsoft at the moment (which you can read more of here).

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Curve, which on Tuesday was nominated for a Publishing Hero Award by industry watcher Develop, has become a dream partner for Sony. A prolific producer of excellent content and a go-to for likeminded indies who want to be noticed on PlayStation.

It comes as a surprise, then, the group has chosen to launch its next big project, Stealth Inc 2, exclusively on Wii U.

How has this happened?

According to Jason Perkins, managing director at Curve, part of the attraction of jumping onto Wii U is that it solves one of the biggest challenges of any creative endeavour: getting noticed.

That's not just regarding the inevitable swarm of "Nintendolol" tweets this announcement will trigger, nor the smattering of loaded headlines such as the one standing atop this article.

It's also because there's a discoverability challenge for games developers. As platforms like iOS and Steam have grown into oceanic games stores, each creator faces more of a challenge to stand out. That's not the case on next-gen systems, and certainly not on Wii U, which perhaps represents the biggest advantage console manufacturers have over the PC and mobile markets right now.

"There isn't much competition on Nintendo's store, so we thought that commercially it's a really good opportunity for us," says Jason Perkins, managing director at Curve.

"Nintendo has sold a few million Wii Us too, so the audience is there. We want to see what the market is like. We want to test it."

"There isn't much competition on Nintendo's store, so we thought that commercially it's a really good opportunity for us"

Though many will be quick to point out the Wii U's commercial performance has been, to put it mildly, disappointing, the raw number of an installed base is only one part of a larger equation.

Despite PlayStation Vita representing an extraordinary collapse in sales for Sony's handheld division, Curve says it has become the studio's most successful platform for some of its games.

"I think Vita has been a surprise success for us. If you compare it to the PS3, for example, you'd expect the home console would be selling the most," says Curve's design director Jonathan Biddle.

"Vita's doing way better for us though. That's not proportionally, that's in terms of unit sales. I think it's because there's a more dedicated set of people who appreciate the kinds of games that are coming to Vita. And you don't have the kind of competition that you have with PS3, because there aren't triple-A games on Vita."

Kyoto protocols

There is also that unmistakable allure of working with Nintendo; a legendary, garlanded, globally respected games company with an institutional memory on how to create magical memories.

Biddle, who devised the original Stealth Inc (the first build was made during his lunch hours) seems more enthused about the creative opportunities from working with Nintendo than the commercial advantages. Much of this comes from experience; he and his team created Fluidity for WiiWare, before launching Fluidity: Spin Cycle on the 3DS.

"Working with Nintendo, seeing how they work, was incredible. You almost expect them to have this big bible next to them on every aspect of games development," he says.

Considering Nintendo's notorious secrecy, coupled with Curve's relaxed openness, it would be remiss not to ask: What is that fabled Kyoto company like to work with? How do they see things?

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"They let us try our own things, they sit back and let us prove things work, and then they suggest ways for us to look at the game and look at its systems," Biddle begins.

"They're also very big on punishment, in fact. They like hard games. They like enforcing failure, in that, they always want failure to be an option in any given system. They want families to play their games, of course, but they also want to make sure that the challenge is there, that the challenge is big enough, then they want to create a clear system of rewarding people for overcoming that challenge.

"The way they've taught us about puzzle design, over the years, is reinforcing the view that there needs to be a clear element of choice within a puzzle. Each choice needs to have conflict, and each choice needs to have its own effect.

"Also, Nintendo are really big on playing. They don't want things to be so connected and obvious, they want people to discover the path for themselves. Let people try and fail. Let them interact. Let them find solutions for themselves. A red line leading to a red door isn't interesting."

Working with Iwata

It seems extraordinary, but apparently Nintendo chief executive Satoru Iwata still takes a hands-on approach to signing off developer milestones.

The buttoned-down games exec somehow still finds time, between shareholder meetings and daily interactions with finance teams, development heads and communications bosses, to try out game prototypes and send over feedback.

In the case of Spin Cycle: Fluidity, Iwata's notes had upended the project somewhat. The game used the 3DS accelerometers to move physics-based bodies of water around the screen, but there was one idea in particular that had interested the seasoned games executive.

"So, Iwata had a look at it - he likes to look at everything, really - and began to rotate the 3DS so it was completely upside down," Perkins explains.

"Consequently, Nintendo comes back to us, saying they want to publish the game, only they wanted the 360-degree feature. That in itself broke a lot of design ideas we had."

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Biddle says Iwata's suggestions created "a very challenging brief".

"There were some seriously complicated design issues," he adds, "but we expected this kind of pressure straight away. I mean, from our own perspective, we are working with Nintendo of Japan. The stakes are already elevated when that happens. Then when we found out it was Iwata who was signing off our milestones. Every time he was testing the build, he said the water movements were making him feel a little sick, so that was a complicated issue to overcome."

Perkins, enacting some diplomacy, points out that working with Nintendo was nevertheless "a really great experience".

"These people know how to make games. They know about the time that's needed. There's a really old school pressure on delivery. It's all about the game, it's all about the build."

Stealth mode

Curve's unexpected commitment to Wii U demonstrates commercial pragmatism, an eye for opportunity, and a creative desire to work with the best in the world. Perhaps it shouldn't be such a shock.

Game details are, for now, still in stealth mode. However, the studio says the sequel will include co-operative gameplay via the Wii U GamePad.

As for the exclusivity period on Wii U, Curve isn't willing to discuss any details. The game is going to be self-published, but one expects various clauses and timings in the contract between both parties. Will it eventually arrive on other platforms? Curve won't say, but it's understandably difficult to imagine this is an unshakable lifetime exclusive.

"[Nintendo knows] how to make games. They know about the time that's needed. It's all about the game, it's all about the build"

But Curve doesn't want to sour relationships by airing sensitive information. After all, even during a time when people question the viability of Nintendo's games business, Curve still considers it a long-term partner.

"I think we're going to make a game for every Nintendo platform that comes out," says Biddle.

"They're kind of like an indie platform holder these days. They work completely differently to everyone else and they're in this for different reasons. There's a bit more sincerity with them, I think.

"They're a treasure to the industry."

Stealth Inc 2 is due out for Nintendo's Wii U some time in 2014