Interview: Frontier's David Braben on LostWinds and WiiWare

With LostWinds, Frontier Developments have single-handedly ensured a successful launch for WiiWare, and made one of the best Wii games of the year to boot. It's a brilliantly designed and original title that clearly shows what developers should really be doing with the console, as well as a very exciting sign of WiiWare's future potential. Check out the review righthereif you haven't already. We talked to company boss and industry legend David Braben aboutdesigning for the Nintendo hardcore and why the Wii really could turn out to be a haven of creative freedom after all.

GamesRadar: In concept, execution and aesthetic, LostWinds is one of the most complete and rewarding games we've yet seen on the Wii. The kind of game that sold us on the idea of the machine in the first place, in fact. Was it ever planned as a full-scale disc release?

David Braben: Thank you! We never planned LostWinds as a WiiWare game. It was a Wii game in our minds. The details of how it would get to market were just that; details to be worked through later on.

The idea dates from the time we first saw the Wii controller, before the console shipped. We have a forum within Frontier called Game of the Week where people propose and discuss their game ideas, and Steve Burgess, one of our designers, proposed LostWinds as a way of focussing a game around the Wii’s controller. It had a great reception, and gathered a small group who continued to champion and work on it.

GR: We'd heard the concept was knocking around at Frontier for a few years before LostWinds was made. Why did it take so long to materialise?

DB: We’re not in a position to fund the development of a disc-based game. The reproduction cost makes it a large financial undertaking. When we heard from Nintendo about their plans for WiiWare, we immediately knew we had something which was perfect for the service, and the development costs and risks involved were ones that we are in a position to undertake ourselves.

As it happened we had some people coming free after finishing another project, and the chance to be a WiiWare launch title was too good to pass up. So LostWinds really is a great example of the benefit of digital distribution in action – it lowers the barriers and lets different people take the risk.

GR: Why did you feel WiiWare was the right release method for LostWinds? Did you ever consider XBLA or PSN?

DB: The game was always destined for Wii, and WiiWare was the right distribution method at the right time. We never considered it for XBLA or PSN – that’s not to say we won’t ever do games for XBLA or PSN, I hope we will, but I think you have to look at the target audience and capabilities of each console.

LostWinds was all about doing a game specifically for the Wii controller. There would be no point to it on PSN or XBLA. It would lose its uniqueness. Frontier has lots of great ideas for other games though, some of which could be PSN or XBLA only and some which would be good for all consoles.

GR: The official PR for WiiWare is heavily selling it as a bastion of creative freedom, something we’re heavily in need of. How was the process of working with Nintendo on LostWinds?

DB: Working with them has been a very smooth experience, they’ve been nothing but helpful to us on the mechanics of getting the game up and running on the service. On the actual development side of things its very much the developer’s show. Coupled with the much lower barrier to entry of a digital distribution system, that freedom gives WiiWare a chance to be that creative bastion if enough people recognise the opportunity.

GR: Frontier is a very eclectic studio in terms of both game styles and the formats you've developed for over the years. Was working on a smaller-scale downloadable game a new challenge? Did it require a different approach than usual?

DB: I think we have developed for every format there has been - it comes from being around for so long! - and we do have a refusal to be pigeon-holed. We consciously try to back ourselves to deliver on good ideas we have, irrespective of genre. The challenge of working on a game that we were funding ourselves was to ensure we could get a good result without the ’eyes’ of an external publisher giving feedback – we were very aware that there’s a danger of getting too close to a game.

Fortunately, we had a few people on the team who played the ‘bad cop’ role very well, and coupled with the desire for it to hit the launch date of WiiWare we were able to stay focussed pretty successfully. Other than that, the process of making the game was exactly the same as we’d do for any of our disc-based titles. The team were very experienced anyway and, for example, we made sure we still did gameplay focus tests - and acted on the results!

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.