The release of a new console generation is generally a time of scrambling for game developers, as they try and figure out just what is and what isn't possible on the next wave of gaming hardware. Nowhere has this been more explicit than with the launch of the Nintendo Wii, with its unique controls and focus on more casual-minded games. We recently spoke with Electronic Arts' senior vice president John Schappert about the launch of the Wii, the challenges of remodeling well-known EA franchises to the console, and the publisher's near-term Wii plans.
GameSpot: What were your reactions when Nintendo announced the Wii? What did you think when you heard about it, and how did you start working toward forming your well-known games to that mold?
John Schappert: You know, when we first heard about it, we were certainly scratching our heads and saying, "OK, well this is different." And in typical Nintendo fashion, it does things different and you go in expecting one thing or just having some ideas on what it might be, and then it's completely different than what you ever had thought, similar to the same reaction with the [Nintendo DS].
And then we got hands-on with some demos, some of which turned out to be the Wii Sports stuff that made it into there, and then you start realizing the potential of that machine. Brain Age and Nintendogs are perfect examples of showing developers and the world what can be done [on the DS] and what truly maximizes that machine. And I think when you play the Wii, and you play Wii Sports, and you play some of their demos, then you fully grasp how different this machine is and what new opportunities it affords. So I'd say the demos were critical for getting us to understand the potential, and Nintendo has just done a great job with doing something different and catering its device to this unique controller, [and tailoring] its games around that, too.
GS: How far in advance did you know the direction of the console, and how much time did you have to start molding your games toward what the Wii could do?
JS: I don't recall the exact date, but [when] Nintendo started unveiling it to publishers and developers, which was quite some time ago, we were right there with all the other folks early on. So we had ample time to work with this new controller while the silicon was still being worked on. We had the controllers first and foremost. We learned about it, and boom--quickly we got the controllers and got hands-on with them before all the final hardware arrived.
It's one thing to work in parallel while hardware is being developed, and that's never easy and always something that takes up a lot of time as you're continuing to update your system based on new hardware revisions and changes in the silicon. But what was nice was this controller was done and in a near-final state rather early on in the development of this machine, and we were able to really spend a lot of time getting our controls down for it.
GS: It seems like the controller was the key there. How powerful the machine was graphically and the various online things it could do didn't seem to be the primary development goal, were they? Is that fair to characterize it that way?
JS: When I think about the Wii, I certainly think [that] the huge differentiator is that controller, there's no doubt, yes.
GS: When did you decide what titles you wanted at the launch, and how did you decide which ones they'd be?
JS: We're pretty fortunate--we've got 27 titles that sold over a million copies, so we've got many fans' choice titles. So the question is, "OK, which titles work well from a timing standpoint of when the hardware's going to make its introduction, and which ones work well with the controller, and which ones will appeal to that audience?" So that was our filter. We knew we wanted to be there with our Madden product and our Need for Speed [Carbon] product, and we've got several other products in development for Q4, our Q4, which is spring of next year. I think that is our Tiger Woods product, our SSX product, and our Godfather product. So I think we're going to have a great spring lineup, as well.
GS: With NHL 07 coming out just a few months ago, and Tiger 07 as well, it seems as if those two games would have been natural Wii inclusions. Was it a matter of the amount of resources available that you couldn't get those out at launch?
JS: Yeah, I mean, the other factor is just how much hardware you get, and how much resources you can dedicate to these [projects]. And so certainly we have to prioritize and say, "What are the bets we want to make here, and what titles want to be the pioneers?" Madden and Need for Speed were the pioneers, and then you've got our spring titles, which are springboarding off of the technology that they've built, of which Tiger Woods is one of them.
I mean, quite frankly, we could have brought a whole ton of stuff over really quickly and said, "Hey, just take your controller, tilt it on its side, and assume it doesn't have any of this cool functionality. It's got a pointing device--it's just a controller with a couple of buttons..." but that would just not be delivering on what the promise of the Wii is. So the tactic we took, specifically with Madden and Need for Speed, was let's take the game experience that people know and love--a great racing experience, great football experience--and let's tailor it to this machine.
GS: I'm wondering if you can speak to how the development for Madden NFL 07 came about. It seems like it developed pretty organically--there were only a few things you could do at the E3 demo, but it turned out surprisingly deep. Did the development team just have crazy idea after crazy idea--"Hey, we can do this, we can do this,"--and just kept tossing things in right up until where you had to go to launch?
JS: That is kind of how it happened. What worked out really well with that the team got a glimpse of what the Wii controller was and got hands on with some of those demos, and then we started thinking about Madden and [the developers] said, "OK, here's what we know we want to do." So they started marching toward that, and it took a long time to get the gesture recognition, the free-motion controls implemented. I've likened it to handwriting recognition; it's not an easy art or technology to execute against. So we spent an awful lot of time trying to make it so that you can hike the ball and you can throw the ball and the system is going to recognize that without having to go through a laborious training process. So there's a lot of ramp-up time we spent there. And we developed some really good tools that can interpret what we were doing and turn that into free-motion controls.
And then we got the hiking [of the ball] in there, and at first you pulled it back to hike, and that just didn't feel right. And so we changed the snap. We got the passing in there. So we got those control schemes in, we got it in front of some people, inclusive of our own team, and said, "You know what? We need to make adjustments to this," which is why before you pass, you can call out your receiver ahead of time, so you can just gesture a passing motion without having to hold down and press the button before you pass, which makes it easier.
Then we got that working and the team got kicking implemented, started working on some of the minigames and then that's where you'll find some just great fun ideas. We had the kicking minigame in there, and [Madden NFL 07 lead producer Jason Armenise] said "Well, it's all about co-op play. I mean, the Wii is 'We,' let's play together."
In the original design, [the controls] had worked out really well and [the development team] continued to fine-tune it and add adjustments along the way. At E3 not everything was in there, but we were really happy with what was in there. So we were able to spend that time from E3 till now polishing the game, finessing the game, and adding some extra controls in there such as TD dances, etc., etc., that we didn't originally have planned.
GS: Is there anything in the game that you thought maybe you could do better for next year or maybe add for next year?
JS: Well, there's no shortage of things we want to add and that they're talking about and the things that we want to do. I will say that this is one of those products where we don't have a huge hangover list, and say "Let's get all this stuff in for next year." We were really able to get what we wanted to get in there. I'm sure there's going to be areas that we can improve upon. But overall, I'm real happy with where we got to. I think that our controller gestures are pretty cool. I think our free-motion controls work out real well. I'm happy that it's a full...very full-featured game. I think graphically we're pleased with where we ended up on the title.
I think online is an area I guess I would say that we certainly look toward. That was something that was still developing while we were developing the title, and it kind of got to a point where we had to say, "Look, we can spend more time on this and take it to the last minute or we could invest it in the game," and we invested it back in the game, which I think was a great call.
GS: Who are you aiming your particular Wii titles at? Do you think it's your traditional user base that's looking for a different approach, or is it more casual folks? And how does that affect your approach to development?
JS: I think the challenge is all of the above. I think there's going to be folks that are gamers that are going to pick up the Wii. I think there's going to be folks that are casual gamers that haven't played the system in a while, but say "You know what, this will get me back into it." And then I think there's folks that haven't played the system before. And so I think we've got all of those audiences right there. We need to make sure that our lineup caters to all of those folks, that we have offerings for the casual folk, [as well as] the hardcore guy.
You take a title like Madden...this is a game that many people have played and they've got their own Madden stories and they're own experiences over the years, so we need to make sure that those hardcore folks that have played Madden are happy with it at the same time. They can pick it up and play versus somebody who's never played it before and have an enjoyable time.
But you look at our lineup and [see] Godfather, it's a Mature-rated game, it's got mature content in there--I think that's going toward obviously an older audience. And then you've got titles like SSX, which are certainly more mainstream, a bit more casual. And you've got Tiger Woods just kind of right in the middle.
GS: You touched on the minigames in Madden earlier, and I'm wondering if that's going to be sort of a new staple for the Wii EA Sports games.
JS: I can't say it's going to be a new staple in all of our games. I think we're going to look at every single title and say, "OK, what's going to make this the best Wii experience?" I think for Madden we had a basis of minigames in there that we could build upon and make better. So it just was a perfect fit. I think the team over delivered and just did a great job with the YAC Attack and so on. So, I mean, I hope that Nintendo churns out a lot of the Wii Remotes and the Nunchuks because I think it's a great four-player experience.
GS: What do you think of the Mii feature, and will we see any Mii-enabled titles out there from EA soon?
JS: That's something that we learned about pretty late, and I think it's pretty cool. I don't know how we're going to make use of it just yet, but [it's] certainly something we want to digest and think about. I've created my own Mii, and I've actually got it in my little controller, too--I think that's really cool.
The whole [Wii online] channel thing is just really new and cool. As we learn more about these systems, and as they mature and the software gets to where it is, and these have now launched and we've got our hands-on with them, I think we're going to digest all this and see how it relates. So I don't know exactly, but we're certainly looking at all that stuff.
GS: What about more Nintendo characters in EA Sports games?
JS: Well, we were pretty fortunate to have Mario and Princess Peach and Luigi inside of NBA Street and also in SSX. So we've got a great relationship with Nintendo. Nothing planned right now, but maybe in the future.
GS: OK. How about the Virtual Console? We spoke a little bit about online earlier, and it's a safe bet fans would like to see games like NHL '94 available.
JS: Yeah, we continue to talk with Nintendo about that. We're working through the licensing issue, so hopefully if we can get some of the licensing stuff worked out, you'll see some of our great Genesis and [SNES] titles up there. In the meanwhile, we do have SimCity up there for the [SNES].
GS: So, as of now, the spring lineup looks like Godfather, Tiger, and what else are you planning in the short term?
GS: OK. Is that an entirely new SSX?
JS: It is a new SSX, I mean, it's certainly baked in the SSX world, but it is a unique experience just for the Wii. And Godfather and Tiger, so a strong lineup there. Then I think you'll see next year's titles coming out after that, and we've got big support planned for the Wii. I think our Q4 titles are just shaping up really well. I think SSX is a game that just feels like it was made for that controller, and Tiger Woods is pretty darned cool. I mean, we've all played Wii Golf at this point, which is...or the Wii Sports Golf, which is fun already. So I can't wait to be able to play it as Tiger.
GS: Is Madden NFL 08 for the Wii a foregone conclusion?
JS: Well, I think if it does as well as we hope, it will then--I think it is a foregone conclusion. So in my mind, I think we created a top title that I hope we can iterate on this platform for many years. So, if consumers feel the same way, then yes, we're there.
GS: I know people are curious as to your online Wii plans, and I'm wondering if there's any plans for online in the next batch of games that you can speak to.
JS: Well, we are big in online, I mean, we've been supporters of online on the varying consoles very, very early on, and we certainly look at that as something that came together later in development and didn't really allow us to kind of get there. And so we certainly look for that in the future, so yes, don't hold us out of online. I mean, our games are certainly online capable and that's something that we've got there, and it's not that much work for us to get it enabled. We will be online.
GS: Good, glad to hear it. John, thanks so much for your time, much appreciated.