Nintendo unleashed its WiiWare service a couple weeks back and arguably the best game of a fairly strong group of launch titles was Frontier Development’s LostWinds (read my review here). David Braben, founder of Frontier Developments and creator of the classic Elite series agreed to answer a few of my prying questions regarding the development of this great little action-adventure game and Frontier’s future plans in general…
Give us a bit of an idea of how the LostWinds project was born and evolved. Was it a concept that had been in germination for a long time and was simply fit into the WiiWare framework, or did it all come together rather quickly?
David Braben: The story of how LostWinds came about is a little unusual: at Frontier we have long encouraged debate and discussion on games design / ideas, and have an internal forum dedicated to sharing ideas and opinions under the name of “Game of the Week”Â. The scope ranges from one-line game ideas like ‘we should do a game about monkeys with detachable limbs’ to fully-fledged design documents. This causes a great deal of debate, criticism and argument, with many improvements, problems being raised and solved – we have likened the process to dangling a leg of lamb into a piranha-filled stream: the water boils for a while, but then whatever is left must be pretty tough.
The idea for LostWinds dates from the time that the Wii was first announced, when we were brainstorming design ideas that made good use of the Wii controls – it is one of many strong ideas we have built up over time, and it gathered a number of very enthusiastic internal advocates.
The actual original idea for the game came from when Steve Burgess was watching the trees and leaves from the window on a windy day. He remembers thinking about how many ways the wind shapes and manipulates different things within the world, and if only there was some way to become the wind in a game. He then applied this train of thought to the Wii controller.
As time has gone by, we felt more certain that LostWinds would satisfy a pent up demand from Wii owners for something innovative that delivers deep, involving, Wii-specific gameplay in a beautiful skin. The game gathered a number of very enthusiastic champions internally who worked on the concept, setting art direction, generating gameplay ideas, and inventing the mythos surrounding the gameworld.
Timing is often everything. Out of the blue, in late 2007, Nintendo invited us to a mysterious meeting in London: as it turned out, to explain their plans for WiiWare. We were delighted that their ideals for WiiWare were almost exactly fulfilled by LostWinds; allowing developers like us to create something innovative specifically for the Wii and, most importantly, its controller. We went well prepared, and took a copy of the LostWinds concept document to the meeting. Since some people were available after finishing “Thrillville Off the Rails” with LucasArts, we decided to go for it, as the chance to be a launch title for WiiWare was too good to pass up. So we said “sounds great, and this is what we’d like to do”. That was it!
What attracted Frontier Developments to the notion of doing a downloadable game, and what about WiiWare interested you specifically (as opposed to say, Xbox Live Arcade)?
DB: Download channels like WiiWare, PSN or XBLA seem to be a very interesting outlet for our creativity and commercially we think online distribution will become significant for games generally, as it has for music and is becoming for video. The opportunity to be a WiiWare launch title for the service was very attractive to us and we would certainly be very interested in doing games for the other download services, but that would be with games equally as appropriate for the console and its audience as we think LostWinds is for the Wii.
Significantly, the scope of LostWinds was such that we had the ability to deliver it entirely by ourselves. We see LostWinds as an early trailblazer of a possible future for us and it is therefore important to us that it isn’t a retail title. We don’t view the distribution mechanism as defining the effort we put into or quality that we deliver in any game and in LostWinds Frontier has delivered the highest quality Wii-specific game we can. We view the longer-term significance of LostWinds as revolving around the fact that we’ve done that all by ourselves.
Nintendo’s Wind Waker seems to be somewhat of an inspiration to LostWinds. What else served as inspiration to the development team?
DB: We have also seen some people comparing LostWinds to titles such as Ico, Metroid, Okami and so on, which is very flattering because these are great games, but the whole idea came from thinking about how to best use the Wii’s controller; the whole point of the game is to allow the player to use the Wii control system in a coherent, intuitive, satisfying way within the environment of a cool game with no compromises.
Within that mandate, we tried to follow our own path and be true to the game-world of Mistralis and its values – for example on the art direction; we started with the idea that the culture of Mistralis would be very wind based. It came very naturally to us to take inspiration from indigenous cultures that lived in high, windy environments, and we immediately started thinking of a mix of Tibetan culture, and cultures in the Andes. So there was a blending and merging of some of the naturalistic aesthetics that they have, together with our own take on how we felt the world of LostWinds should look.
I definitely noticed a strong Asian/Japanese aesthetic in LostWinds, despite you guys being based in England.
DB: The Eurogamer review of LostWinds described it, as “a disarming British love letter to Japanese game development” which I felt was quite apt.
Most of the stuff on WiiWare is relatively simplistic. Was the idea of doing a full action-adventure game for WiiWare intimidating when even Nintendo itself wasn’t attempting anything so ambitious? Was there any difficulty in fitting it all into a mere 43 MB?
DB: Perhaps this is quite revealing about Frontier, but we didn’t even consider such issues! We didn’t know what other people were up to anyway in the early days of development, we just tried to do the best implementation we could of the LostWinds game idea.
When developing a game, you always have to be aware of one limit or other, whether its system memory, processing power, disc space, streaming speed, and so on. Elite, which was my first game co-developed with Ian Bell, ran on a computer called the BBC Micro and fit a whole galaxy (or at least the illusion of one) into 32 kilobytes of memory – smaller than most e-mails today! Whether it’s a BBC Micro system memory or a BluRay disc for PlayStation 3, there will always be a limit that it’s easy for game developers to blow if they are not careful. So we are careful.
A sequel to LostWinds has already been announced. Is it safe to say you’re taking an episodic approach to the series? If so, how many chapters do you plan to divide the story into and how long will us poor deprived gamers have to wait between each entry?
DB: The enthusiasm of the team who developed the LostWinds concept meant they created a very detailed, coherent world and back-story for the game. There is still a lot more gameplay and story to come out of Mistralis. But we’d like people to try LostWinds for what it is, and then hopefully when we are ready to talk about another game they will remember a positive experience and feel that they want to sample a new experience in the world.
Have you been pleased with the fan and reviewer reaction to the game so far? Have there been any responses to the game that surprised you or criticisms you felt were unfair?
DB: We are definitely very pleased and grateful for the great reaction we’ve had so far. The enthusiasm of the guys who developed the early concept, and the reaction from others in Frontier to it, gave us an indication that people like us (i.e. dedicated Wii gamers) might “get it”Â in the same way we did, but even so its very exciting!
With any game you eagerly await people’s ‘verdict’ on the game, and even more so with LostWinds – because it is the first game that has come from Frontier’s Game of the Week forums everyone at the company feels a strong attachment to it, like a parent. Its very rewarding to have so many people enjoying what we did.
I think we’re old and wise enough to accept and respect the fact that everyone is entitled to their opinion on any topic whether we agree with it or not, so once something goes public its fair game. We just keep any feelings of injustice from that one negative review festering away until the time is ripe to gain cold-blooded revenge…only joking ;-)
Will Toku and Enril ever sail their way into retail shelves? Once the LostWinds story is complete could all the chapters be combined and sold on a disc? Or if the WiiWare entries are successful, could we see a larger scale sequel done as a full disc-based title?
DB: As we said above, an important part of the raison d’etre for LostWinds is the fact that it’s available via digital distribution. But “never say never” – certainly it is a possibility for the future.
What’s the point of collecting all 24 of the Melodia Idols? If I told you I got them all would you give me some candy? I didn’t even use a guide! Surely that counts for something.
DB: There is a gravely important point to collecting those idols – your sense of self-worth. Well done! ;-)
Well now, it’s not often you get a pat on the back for finishing a game directly from the title’s producer! Maybe I’ll write Shigeru Miyamoto and see if I can’t get a well done for getting all 121 stars in Mario Galaxy. Anyways back on track; tell us what other exciting stuff Frontier is working on. Do you have plans for any other Wii games aside from LostWinds? What about for the Xbox 360, PS3 or PC?
DB: We’re working on several things, but the only one we can talk about is The Outsider, an action-thriller game for PS3, Xbox360 and PC that gives the player unprecedented control over how the game’s story unfolds based on what they do and how they do it in the game. We certainly do have plans to support the Wii in future; it’s a huge gaming platform!
Finally, no interview with David Braben would be complete without asking…when the heck are we getting Elite 4?
DB: Thank you for that unique question! ;-) We’re not ready to talk about it (yet), sorry!
Well, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and keep the great games coming guys!
DB: It’s an absolute pleasure – thanks for your kind words and the opportunity to talk to your readers, we appreciate it.