Q&A: Eric Nofsinger channels The Conduit

High Voltage CCO tells GameSpot why good graphics are worthwhile on the Wii, and why some publishers aren't keen on multiplayer games for Nintendo's console.

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With the Wii, Nintendo has introduced a new way of gaming that has attracted the nontraditional gaming audience in droves. However, though the system's library is replete with party and minigame compilations that appeal to this new breed of gamer, many feel that Nintendo and third-party publishers have not done enough to cater to the tastes of the established gaming crowd with more involved, visually appealing games.

One of the largest hurdles that have stayed the efforts of game makers is the Wii's technical horsepower, which is often viewed as a pony when matched against the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 stallions. Pony it may be, but the core audience may have found an unlikely champion in proving that the Wii has more than just one trick.

In June, High Voltage Software announced The Conduit, an original first-person shooter powered by the independent developer's proprietary Quantum 3 game engine, which significantly ups the bar on visual fidelity on the Wii. The announcement was surprising, considering that up until that point, High Voltage was best known for its work with kid-friendly licensed properties, including Codename: Kids Next Door: Operation V.I.D.E.O.G.A.M.E., The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Ben 10: Protector of Earth, among myriad others.

To get a better idea of what inspired High Voltage to alter its course in such a dramatic fashion, GameSpot spoke with the developer's chief creative officer, Eric Nofsinger. As part of the interview, Nofsinger discussed the differences in creating an original property versus playing in someone else's sandbox, why quality graphics are even worthwhile on the Wii, and why some publishers are skeptical about integrating multiplayer into Wii games.

GameSpot: To get underway, when did development start on The Conduit, and where did the inspiration for it come from?

Will The Conduit be the Wii's Halo?
Will The Conduit be the Wii's Halo?

Eric Nofsinger: Sure. Development started, I want to say, October of last year. And we still have about nine and a half months left of development before we're ready to hit the street. We're shooting for end of Q1 of next year for a release date.

And the inspiration came really from being Wii owners, and at the studio we were early adopters on the system. We had a launch title with The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. And we've released quite a few Wii titles. And those have been fun, but those have primarily been licensed properties, and really, that's been our bread and butter over the years. And those are fun and they serve a purpose.

But this is our 15th year in business, and we were looking at what we were doing, and Kerry Ganofsky, the CEO, and myself were sitting down, and we were just kind of going, "There's got to be a better way of doing this. It feels like we're on a treadmill, and we keep doing these things." And critics like yourself are doing your job, and looking out for consumers, and many times rating fairly, and saying the games are mediocre in a lot of cases. And that's not really where we want to be. That's not what we want written on the tombstone, you know? [Laughs.] But it's good that we've entertained a lot of folks, and we want to continue doing that with our kids' properties.

But we were also looking at it like there really isn't anything like Halo for the Wii--there's not many games for us. I mean, there's a few notable exceptions and those games are good, but those are primarily first-party, and it just didn't seem like there was a whole lot of interest from publishers to have third-party development of more serious games. And so we found our own financing, and we've been developing the game ourselves.

We're just now really starting to shop it a bit. We were out in your neck of the woods just earlier this week, hitting a few publishers out there in the San Francisco and Redwood City areas. The response all across the board has been really positive. Folks want this thing, which is encouraging. We were confident that consumers want this thing, and we want this thing, but it's a little bit of a roll of the dice when you start talking with the people that are willing to sign checks.

But we were really swamped with a lot of publisher and fan response when we first started getting a little bit of stuff out there. So, we felt like we were onto something good. And now that we've had a few initial publisher meetings, we feel very confident that we're onto something good now. But we want to take that slow, because we want the publisher to be involved enough that we can get good marketing and distribution and all of the other stuff that needs a little bit of time to get in motion. But we're a bit selfish in that we do want the game to be something we can be really proud of. We're throwing some pretty big claims out there, and we will want to make sure that we're living up to it.

Boy, that was a big, rambling answer, huh?

GS: [Laughs.] You actually answered a lot of my questions. So, that's wonderful. You mentioned that you guys have done a good deal of licensed work, and you've got this new, original property in The Conduit. How is approaching a licensed game different than approaching something original?

Just because it's a shooter doesn't mean it isn't original.
Just because it's a shooter doesn't mean it isn't original.

EF: Well, it's very different in that when you approach a licensed property, you're acting a bit like an assemblage artist. You're taking a lot of different elements and trying to pull these disparate elements together into one cohesive thing that, hopefully, stands on its own. Everyone has their own agenda, as they should, and as game makers, you're trying to make the best game you can and make your clients happy along the way.

And the key word there is clients--your clients are the publisher, the license holder, and the fans. So, you're trying to make all of those people happy, and sometimes that can be a bit tricky, especially if they're coming to you and saying, "Oh, yeah, you have six months and it's going to hit day and date, and oh, by the way, we really like [Grand Theft Auto IV]. Do you think you can sort that out?"

It's a matter of doing a lot of negotiation to sort everything out with folks. And sometimes there are realistic expectations and sometimes there are not. I mean, you can go down a laundry list of our games--and we've released over the years like 65--and some of them are a lot better than others. And the ones that are quite good are the ones we've all played nicely together in the sandbox. And those are the ones that the publisher and the licensor and the developer all worked in tandem to make something that was true to the license and true to what the audience wanted out of that product and true to what the game needed to be a good game.

But as far the original properties, it has been a learning process in that you don't have an established IP just handed to you to work off of; you've got to develop all that. So, it's a bit different in that respect. We've done a little bit of that on Hunter: The Reckoning and things like that, where you're dealing more with a framework with a pen-and-paper role-playing game, but all the details are things we had to work out ourselves. And then there's the aspect of you're really having to do something that's a bit different. With a licensed property, fans are expecting something that does the license justice. When you're doing something original, people expect something original out of it, either through gameplay or story or visuals. They want something new for their money. And so that's been definitely an area where we've gotten to stretch our legs a bit more.

GS: Given the licensed work that you've done, have you found it's more difficult pitching a publisher on an original game when you've got this track record? As in, publishers are expecting something from your studio, and you throw them a curveball with something new. Does that problem ever arise?

EF: Yeah, I would say it would, and it has in the past. We've come up with plenty of original ideas over the years, but those ideas have primarily been on paper. This one's a little bit different. We've got a fully playable game that folks can sit down with and get hands-on with. And that's an entirely different scenario. Game publishers are in business to make money; if you've got a proven track record of doing lots of original stuff, and if you come to them with just an idea on paper, that's more of a smart bet. But if you have a proven track record of doing a different kind of product, they're more likely to bet on you for that. And the farther that you are along with an idea--even if you have no track record--the less of a risk that they have to assume. Because if it's just an idea, and you as a creator are thinking, "This is going to be the most amazing product, and nobody else is going to have anything like this," that idea really only exists in your head. Making that translation where somebody else can visualize that or conceptualize it can be a bit tricky.

So, the farther you are along from a business perspective, the folks can have it in their hands, actually play it, and say, "This is where this is going. This is what it's ultimately going to be." It's not so much of a leap at that point, and then it becomes very low risk, because they can run projections around that. They can look at it, and say, "Hey, this is similar to this product, and this product, and this product," or then, "On this console, there's not really much competition for that. This is how many potential users there are. We're going to guess, if we put this much marketing and PR behind it, we can make an educated guess that it's going to make X amount of dollars, and so we can gamble this amount of money." You know?

So, yeah, it's tricky, but I think we've got something good. So, I think no matter who you are, going to a publisher, if you've got something wonderful, and something that they can make money off of, they're going to be all ears. [Laughs.]

GS: I guess that would make sense. So, getting to the game specifically, a lot of the attention has been around the visuals. Why do you guys think it's important to make a game that pushes the Wii's graphical capabilities?

EF: Well, our take on that is that any game system should be all about gameplay, but the Wii is capable of a lot more than what people are really doing with it. I think that folks were doing some more interesting things on the GameCube and on the PS2 than a lot of what's being seen on the Wii. And I think that's unfortunate, because the system is more powerful than those. It just is.

I think there are some hardware limitations. The output resolution is never going to match that of a PS3 or 360. But, as a system, it's very powerful. And why not utilize some of the capabilities of that system. It seems like a bit of a cop-out. When I buy games on the Wii, a lot of times the gaming experience is good, but the visuals, I feel like I'm stepping back in time, you know? And I think it's important because it just adds to the immersiveness of it. It doesn't necessarily need to be realistic or anything like that, but pushing something, you know?

Just like when I go see a movie, I want to see something that hasn't been done before. And that's really what we're trying to do here as creators where we just saw it and said, "This is capable of a lot more than people are doing." It's really my favorite system, and I hated it when friends of mine would look at it, and they'd just go, "Yeah, but,"--you know, it started gathering dust. So we started playing the PS3 and 360 so much more, even though we like the Wii better, just because there are more games for those other systems that cater toward me. And part of that equation is graphics--not all of it, but part of it.

GS: So, if the Wii can't match the 360 and the PS3 as far as the technical, graphical capabilities go, wouldn't it make graphics a moot point for the Wii? If you're going to be making a really nice, slick-looking game, why even bother with the Wii? Why not just go and make a 360 or PS3 game?

It's no Ferrari, but it sure isn't a Fiat either.
It's no Ferrari, but it sure isn't a Fiat either.

EF: Well, I think that argument is a bit like, "Well, I can't afford a Ferrari, so, in effect, why bother getting a sports car at all," you know? [Laughs.] And you could still have a really nice sports car, and something that you have a lot of fun with, and is aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn't cost you an arm and a leg. Plus, there are some things that the Wii can do that the other systems can't. The Wii Remote and the Nunchuk are powerful tools. And the way that a user can interact with that system is very engaging. I think that that in combination with good graphics, it's a powerful match-up.

I don't think it has to be one or the other, and I think that Wii owners deserve to have games with better graphics. They deserve to have games that are made for them, not just for casual gamers. And to be clear, I think that it's wonderful that the Wii is attracting a broader audience. My wife had my mom and some other folks over for brunch, and I had just gotten a Wii, and it was the first system ever that my mom picked up and started playing. And then she and her girlfriends were playing it, and they all went out and bought Wiis. And that's something magical.

But I don't want to forget about us. I don't want my Wii to gather dust for me or my friends. I don't want to be in the situation where there's such a gap that when I go to buy a product, if it's available on the Wii and on the 360, I don't want to be in a situation where I have to go, "Well, I'm going to get it on a 360." I want to look at it and go, "Well, the graphics are pretty darn good on that still, and the control is a lot better on that."

GS: Running with the Ferrari sports-car analogy, do you think as the price of the 360 comes down, and if Microsoft makes a move on motion control, do you think that's dangerous for Nintendo?

EF: There's a potential risk there for sure, but I think the Wii has a pretty brilliant interface, and a pretty good head start. And, really, that's where we found ourselves with the Wii by being right there at a launch. We had a head start over other folks, when a lot of folks were just kind of going, "Oh, the Wii's not going to take off, well, not at least to the top system." I mean, Nintendo can still barely keep up with demand. And you look at the sales curves of the hardware systems, and Nintendo's on a really good path. So I don't think that system's going anywhere, but I would welcome any system as a gamer to pull in better control schemes. It just gives us more options to play with.

I don't know if it's directly a threat, but I'm sure it is something Nintendo is thinking about.

GS: Right. So, what do you think is holding other developers back from trying to expand or improve upon the way their games look on the Wii? Shouldn't there have been an easier transition to go to the Wii from the PS2 or GameCube, as opposed to messing around with all the new stuff in the 360 and PS3?

Dazzled by the bling?
Dazzled by the bling?

EF: Yeah, I think that everybody got dazzled by the bling, you know? And I think everyone's having to wake up and smell the coffee. 360 and PS3 development is insanely expensive. And if you look at the data on the sales of a lot of these games, they're not that great, at least, not when you consider how much money is spent on them. And all these games are starting to come to market, and they've not hit with the kind of sales that are necessary to support that.

I think as an industry, a lot of folks are looking at that and going, "Oh, this is [poised] to become the next Hollywood," as opposed to, "Really, what will the market support?" I think why a lot of folks didn't hop on the Wii is because there was the catch-22 of it. It was very much presented as a family-oriented device, and a communal device, and a lot of the games that came out initially and that have continued to come out have been successful and been very casual. You look at Carnival Games and the sales on that, and different things like that, and you go, "These games sold really well," and there's a catch-22 there of, well, that's what consumers want.

It's a bit of a cyclical argument in that the more of that kind of stuff that's out there, then more it becomes "Oh, well, that's what Wii owners want." But then when you really look at what's available for hardcore gamers, what's out there? It's games that are first-party, or it's ports, or it's games that are not done as effectively as they could be on the system.

I mean, there are definitely some games that you go, "Oh, wow, that's great." And that's where it's amazing. You look at Medal of Honor Heroes 2, and you go, "That was a really fun multiplayer experience. It's really good." But, graphically, I'm not impressed by that. And as far as we know, that was a PSP game that was ported over. The same thing with Resident Evil 4. That was a GameCube game that was ported over.

But then you look at something like Red Steel, and I think that set the trend for a lot of folks. It was one that a lot of folks that I know were very excited about, the consumer promise of what that game was going to deliver. But then when I bought it, I was a little let down. And then a couple of other things came out like that, didn't live up to everyone's expectations. I think that can cause a malaise of, "Well, maybe this system isn't about that," and it sort of becomes self-fulfilling.

But I think that with a few more good games that start coming out that push the system and are at least competitive in graphics and audio, you know, I think then you can get out of that rut of, "Well, that's only for families and kids." And I think it's wonderful that that's for families and older people and younger people, but there's a very vocal core audience there that I think would appreciate Wii-specific games.

GS: So you've got your Quantum 3 engine. Is that marketable middleware or is that just something you have internally?

EF: It's something we developed internally. Currently, we're not licensing that. We've been approached by a lot of folks to license it, but currently we're really not set up as a middleware provider. You know, typically, for the companies that are middleware providers, that's a good portion of their business. And, right now, we're more focused on trying to make some good games with this engine. And once we release those games, maybe we'll reconsider that. But for right now, we're not really actively licensing it.

GS: So, I just have one more topic I want to address--it has to do with multiplayer on the Wii. I know you guys have been thinking about or have been trying to do multiplayer with The Conduit.

EF: Yeah.

GS: What kind of challenges have you been running into?

EF: A lot. [Laughs.] Yeah, there have been a lot of challenges for multiplayer. It's not one of the system's strengths. It is very good on certain kinds of games. I think the improvements that Nintendo made for Mario Kart will do a lot to step it forward, but it's still got some catching up to do to get on par with Xbox Live.

And for us right now, probably the biggest challenge that we're bumping into with folks is that this isn't really the audience for multiplayer. There's not really that many games that are taking advantage of multiplayer, and so the data that's available there is kind of unclear. It's really more of a problem than the technical challenge, even. It's becoming somewhat of a challenge just talking to publishers as to even if they want multiplayer because--

GS: Really?

EF: Well, yeah, because I think a lot of the thinking is that a lot of folks have it set up in a basement or other things like that, and they don't have it online. And, yeah, we'll see. I think that there'll be--like anything else out there--I think it's one of those things that everybody's cautious at first. But we're planning on plowing ahead with it, and we're going to try to do the best implementation of it that we possibly can, and have our fingers crossed that there is enough of a demand for it out there. But I know that it is a concern with the publishers we've talked to so far.

GS: And is it just a concern with the Wii games, or is it the same with 360 and PS3 games also?

EF: It's primarily with the Wii right now, as far as their online--actually, both for download and, more importantly, for multiplayer games.

High Voltage has already managed 16-player multiplayer.
High Voltage has already managed 16-player multiplayer.

Nintendo's done some really cool stuff as far as their implementation. They cover a lot of those costs for publishers and developers that are typically associated with that. It's really good for certain types of games. For shooters, it's tricky. We were struggling for a while at eight players. We finally have 16 players simultaneously; we're doing pretty well. But it's going to be a challenge all the way to the wire just because it's really not built from the ground up to do those kind of products.

GS: Is it that Nintendo doesn't have an online service like Xbox Live or PlayStation Network?

EF: Well, there definitely are some challenges there, but I think that what it's been structured for is doing certain types of games where you don't need to worry about 32 or 64 players running around and any of the lags or anything else that would be extremely frustrating for players.

When you're playing with a handful of karts or a handful of players on Smash Brothers or something like that--although there was some frustration with, myself included, with getting online with Smash Brothers--the actual ones here and there playing it, it's a good experience.

But the only folks that have really cracked the nut of the multiplayer on the Wii effectively have been EA with Medal of Honor Heroes 2, and my understanding of that is that they rolled their own. They're not even using Nintendo's servers or networking at all. So, yeah, they have some special exception written from Nintendo that allows them to do that--it helps to be the 800-pound gorilla. [Laughs.]

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