I thought I was on another planet on Wednesday when I saw Alex Ward for the first time in five years.
This was Criterion's Alex Ward, the developer of a game studio that pushes gaming hardware to the brink and that hasn't made a game for Nintendo in 10 years. He was saying nothing but glowing things about the Wii U.
Which game creators, other than people who work at Nintendo, say glowing things about the Wii U these days?
Ward was pit-stopping in New York City, en route from his studio's offices in Guildford, England to Nintendo's in Seattle. He was on his way to show Nintendo the March-scheduled Wii U version of the excellent Need For Speed: Most Wanted. He consented to show it to some reporters while he was on his way. I was one of them and was waiting for him at an EA showcase on the fourth floor of a hotel in midtown Manhattan.
He'd just gotten off the phone with Nintendo people and set himself down on a rickety chair in front of a big TV. The TV was running what appeared to be a nearly-complete version of Most Wanted on Wii U demo hardware.
Ward started playing the game on a Wii U Pro Controller. Jayme, a colleague of his on the game, was holding the Game Pad—the signature Wii U controller with the big screen in the middle.
Ward started tearing down the streets of this open-world racing game. "Aston Martin, please," he said. He was driving some other car. "Tee it up."
Jayme tapped on an icon on the GamePad screen, scanned through the available cars, and selected the requested automobile. It appeared on screen. Ward was now driving an Aston Martin.
"This is our first game on Nintendo hardware since Burnout 2," Ward was telling me. "It's really important for us to do the best thing we can. We looked at the hardware and said, 'How do we use everything we've got?' We've thought for years, since probably Burnout 3, 'What can the second player do?'" He was showing me the results: a Need for Speed made for two people in the same room to play together.
Ward asked Jayme to change the game from night to day. His GamePad pal pressed an icon. Darkness on the TV was replaced with virtual sunshine.
Ward was pleased. This kind of thing enabled a second person to help what could have otherwise been a struggling solo player. "The Wii U to us is about people playing together around the TV," he said.
The mode Ward and Jayme were showing me is called co-driver. "It's obvious," Ward said. "The second player can help player one. We call it father-and-son mode." The GamePad player can turn traffic on and off. They can repair a damaged car with a tap of their screen. With another tap, they can force any pursuing cops to spin out. Using the GamePad's sticks and buttons they can also help steer or brake—even take over. "A lot of people are asking us if we're just having a lot of fun griefing," Ward said. "But we believe Wii U is about making it easier and simpler to play."
Like a few Wii U games before it, this Need for Speed can even be presented entirely on the screen of the GamePad controller. The GamePad player can play on their own while someone else is using the TV.
I'd heard that this Wii U take on Need for Speed: Most Wanted was supposed to be the best-looking console version of the game, a detail I figured people would care about. The game is out for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360—has been since the fall—but people question how well the Wii U's technical guts compare to the PS3 and 360's. Ward casually mentioned that they were using the PC graphics assets in the Wii U game, at least for the roads. "There's more memory in the hardware… The draw distance is a little better. It's not as mip-mapped out."
I tried to apply the brake here. Some people care about this power stuff. This is interesting, I said.
"Well this is our first game on the hardware," Ward said. "We wanted to go back to like we used to be. If you know we're doing the game, you know we've looked at the hardware and said, 'What's the best damned thing we can do on that?' We're going to support everything we can. We support MiiVerse fully, online play."
I pushed to know more about power.
I should talk to Criterion's engineers at some point, Ward suggested, but power isn't the point. "Everyone wants to talk about this and that on the hardware, and it's not as interesting to me. What's really important is what we're doing with the player experience. The games I'm playing on Wii U—Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U—what Nintendo [does], they just deliver excellent gameplay. It's probably one of the big problems in the industry at the moment. Everyone—you guys—like to talk about specs and this and that. We've got to get back to just playing the game. And that's what this game is about. It's about a simple, fun experience. It's not about 10,000,000 polygons and who does this and who does that.
"Sometimes it's interesting..." I interjected.
Alex Ward: "You guys like to talk about specs and this and that. We've got to get back to just playing the game."
"It's not so interesting to us," he said cheerfully. We weren't really arguing, more like bantering. "We make games for all the systems. What's important is that we look at the hardware and say, 'What's the best thing we can do on that?'"
Sure, I said, but there are people who bought a Wii U and are wondering if their machine may not be as robust as they hoped. They're going to be grateful to hear that this could do what the other versions of the game could do.
"Absolutely," Ward said, with the Wii U game running behind him looking as sharp as the PS3/360 games, to the naked eye. "Nothing to worry about. It's a great piece of hardware."
This was getting a bit too much. Good framerate, too?
"At Criterion we don't really struggle on the framerate," Ward said.
Is it 60 frames per second?
"No, it's not," he said. "It's 30 frames."
And the PS3 version?
"30," he replied. "You don't even know, but you have to ask, right?"
Yes, I acknowledged.
"It's three hundred and sixty," he deadpanned. "It's 2160p." (He was kidding, people!)
This was the Alex Ward I'd been missing for the last five years.
There was something very unusual about how Ward presented his Wii U game, and yet it made so much sense. The thing was that Ward sounded like a guy who had learned about the Wii U the way you might have. He didn't sound like a guy with early access. He talked about reading Nintendo's "Iwata Asks" and having epiphanies about the potential of the Wii U's MiiVerse system-wide social network. When did he really grasp the system? Not back when the Wii U was only at trade shows. "Only when we get the hardware at launch do we fully understand it," he said. "We didn't really see it at E3. The booth was really crowded. As developers we weren't quite sure what Nintendo was all about."
For Ward, MiiVerse was a revelation. It let him realize that it might keep people from turning the game off. Instead of shutting a game down in frustration, a Wii U player might load up the MiiVerse and ask for help to get through a tricky part.
He mentioned that the game still goes online on the Wii U, though with six players not eight. He wasn't sure why that number was lower on Wii U. I'd have to ask the engineers, he said. Furthermore, Wii U might well be more about playing in the same room.
"The Wii U audience is very early," he said. "We'll see how it develops."
And then he had his guy cue up the credits and showed me how the game's developers even added their Miis to the credits roll.
"We could have just done a port," he said.
He showed me how they'd improved the mini-map, changed the player's icon from a triangle on the PS3/360 version to a little car. He did think the wrench icons still looked like dog bones. Oh well.
They could have been lazy. They could have not cared about the Wii U version. Could have brushed the console off.
Not this time. Not Criterion. Not Alex Ward.