Interview: Frontier Hopes LostWinds Breezes In More WiiWare InnovationS

The design philosophy of WiiWare launch title LostWinds appears to echo a broader industry trend favoring innovation on the usual mechanics. The peaceful platformer has a distinctly "indie" feel and a unique look, and seems to be getting the biggest share of the buzz among its fellows on the service.

And as studios consider smaller, digitally-distributed formats as a lower-risk avenue for new game concepts, launching Wiiware with a title like LostWinds might herald further potential for the service and those like it.

How are clean, compact ideas like these born? We spoke in-depth to developer Frontier about the possibilities for WiiWare and the inspiration for LostWinds' breezy world; hit the jump for the full interview.

David Braben, chairman of Frontier, said it often takes the failure of countless other ideas to create the success of one, and LostWinds rose to the top in the studio's internal "game of the week" competition. "We all suggest game ideas, and we criticize them furiously and the ones that survive... are the ones that are quite good," said Braben. "It's a very constructive, open and positive thing."

The concept for LostWinds actually predates the Wii, said lead designer Steven Burgess. "Then, once we'd seen the Wii, it all clicked together."

The game's mechanic of "drawing" gusts of wind in the air to guide the player character could only have been achieved on the Wii, Burgess said. The control scheme and game mechanics were laid out first over the first few weeks of development, initially just using blocks and triangles to get the feel just right.

"In trying to make a world that fit the design of the wind, we wanted to have lots of things the player could interact with and blow around and move," said Burgess.

LostWinds' standout aesthetic, with its high blue skies, tall grasses and cherry blossom trees that can be gently rustled in the wind, grew later. The visual style, which has a naturalistic tribal feel in its character design and environment, was the domain of artist Chris Symonds.

"The culture is very based on the idea of the wind," Symonds said. "It came very naturally to have a culture that lived in high, indigenous environments, and we immediately centered it to an area thinking of a Tibetan culture, or cultures in the Andes. And so there was a cultural influence from those areas, and a blending and emerging of some of those aesthetics that they have. The world developed from there, quite organically, really."

Added chairman Braben, "The organic feel of the whole thing also fits in well with those cultures, and trying to make sure that the puzzles vaguely center around that sort of gentle mechanic."

LostWinds teaches the player the gameplay gradually through its narrative, rather than through a separate tutorial phase, so learning to play doesn't feel divorced from the game itself. Despite having an objective in mind, the player is generally free to navigate the game's areas on his or her own, and the world opens up over time as the player learns new skills, enhancing the sense of discovery.

"I was very conscious, because I don't like being led by the hand," said designer Burgess. "It's better to let the player learn about how to do something through experience, rather than being told 'this is how you're meant to do it'. It has a bunch of things lying around, and you don't necessarily know how they all fit together, but you discover eventually."

The game industry is riding high on a wave of large budgets - but with that comes large risk. WiiWare, along with the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade, hope to offer developers the freedom to test out new ideas and to develop the games they'd personally want to play - to write for themselves, in Braben's words. Burgess is certain that without the unique opportunity afforded them in WiiWare, LostWinds might have never been made.

"Trying to describe a game about the wind to a publisher... the word 'platformer' alone kind of scares them," Burgess said. "Experimenting with the Wii... scares publishers. [WiiWare] is small enough that we can experiment without failing miserably and spending millions of pounds and not having a result. It's a really good platform for new ideas - hopefully, other people will start experimenting, and it will result in better games."

Braben said the comparatively small file sizes were not an issue, as every project always has some type of constraint. "Fantastic" support from Nintendo also helped the Frontier team turn out the project on a tight time scale. "I think what's happened is this wonderful virtuous circle, because we all care about the game. It's a very interesting opportunity that's only coming up now because of local storage on machines, and how the service is managed in the future is going to be really key."

"I'm very hopeful about WiiWare... as a player, rather than as a developer. From a developer point of view, it means if we do a good game then it will be seen and it will be found and it won't get lost in the morass. It's not marketing dollars anymore that's going to sell it... quality is the ultimate test where it's worth going the extra mile."

Burgess said WiiWare could play a role in legitimizing Wii as a "serious" platform. "It's doing serious numbers... but there haven't been as many titles that you expect to use the Wii the way its designed to. I'm hoping that WiiWare will help make developers and publishers realize that it's actually got more legs than they're giving it."

Finally, with all this enthusiasm, what about those LostWinds sequel hints we saw recently?

"We would be mad not to consider following it up," said Braben, "But we're still in that gray area... where we really want to push for it, but we still have to wait for our figures to come back. But we're very excited by how the game's being received so far... there's much going on that we can't really say."

"If the response we have gotten so far is reflected in sales, we think we're on a good push for that one," said Burgess.