When High Voltage Software first showed off its self-funded FPS The Conduit back in 2008, both core game-starved Wii owners and press intrigued by how a low-profile tie-in factory was eeking such impressive visuals from Nintendo's humble console immediately sat up and took notice.
Sniffing an opportunity, SEGA swooped in to publish, while the developers continued to talk up a storm, raising expectations to levels that the finished game couldn't hope to match. Duly, the release date rolled around and reviews made for ugly reading.
Now, chewed up and spat out by the hype machine it so knowingly fueled, High Voltage is back, quietly talking up a bigger, bolder, better sequel. Eurogamer sat down with senior producer Kevin Sheller and producer Keith Hladik to discuss making amends for past mistakes, growing up in public and finding a receptive FPS audience on the Wii.
Eurogamer: Before The Conduit, High Voltage mainly focused on ports and licensed titles. How did you make the step up to creating your own IP?
Kevin Sheller: It's something we'd wanted to do for a long time. We watched as, over the years, publishers became successful with us doing their licensed titles for them. And we liked it too – we learned a lot, we got to understand game development.
We delivered time and time again with all those titles – on time and on budget. We were always trying to stretch our wings. It was like, "Man, if we could just have a little bit more time or this perfect licence then we could really do something great." And we came really close when we worked on Hunter: The Reckoning because we had a cool licence to work with and a great publisher [Interplay]. We were excited about being able to do something good there – and we were able to. It was like, "Yes, we can do this". So when the opportunity came for us to do our own thing, we had to take that.
We decided the real success, the real excitement, everything we want do as a company – that is in making original titles. Yes, we did get investment help and then started on The Conduit.
Eurogamer: Was it a steep learning curve?
Kevin Sheller: Well, there's certainly a difference. When you're working with licensed titles, all the characters have already been pre-drawn for you. The story is already well known, we know all their personalities, we know everything about the world we're working in. It's all there for you. All we had to do was to convert that into a videogame.
When you're starting with a completely clean state it's a different situation. Now we get to create that. So there are certainly some disagreements and some direction changes because you go, "Yeah, I think that's good," and then you start to work with it and then you go, "Well wait a minute, it's maybe not going to work in this situation." So there was some learning involved.
But when you have a couple of games to do it in – like Conduit 1 and Conduit 2 – now we have an opportunity where we learned quite a bit from the first game and we figured out what worked and what didn't.
Eurogamer: Was it hard to get specialist press, and gamers, to take you seriously?
Keith Hladik: As an outsider, I saw Eric [Nofsinger, chief creative officer] and Matt [Corso, art director] go over to E3 and they won people over with their enthusiasm for this game. It was pretty easy for people to latch on to their enthusiasm for the Wii and for making a mature title for the platform. We were ushering in a new era of higher quality games people who only had a Wii didn't have before.
Kevin Sheller: We made some bold statements when we started off. We said, "People aren't taking advantage of the Wii's power – we're going to." We said, "People aren't respecting the fans of the Wii with serious games – we're going to." That really woke some people up. People started to get excited about it and the fans got into it. And the media wants to go where the fans are, so the media said, "Okay, let's see what this is all about."
Eurogamer: The review scores came in and no doubt they were a bit lower than you hoped. Was there a lot of deflation in the office?
Keith Hladik: We were pleased with the first announcement of the sales. I don't recall exactly, but it was about 100,000 for the first few weeks. Coming from where we were at – we're an independent studio and this is our first IP – we had pretty decent sales and the reviews were fair.
I don't recall anyone being down. We already knew we were going to make a sequel, so the fallout from that was we were determined to make the sequel way better than the first one.
Kevin Sheller: I'm not going to make a comparison to Grand Theft Auto... but okay, I'm going to make a slight comparison to Grand Theft Auto. The first two GTA games, nobody knows anything about them, right? Grand Theft Auto 1? Nobody even said that word. They never said two either. It wasn't until Grand Theft Auto 3 that people really got excited about what they were doing.
We look at the first Conduit as our learning experience, our foundation work – and we'll see where we go from there.
Eurogamer: How do you think it would have played out if Eric and Matt hadn't gone to E3 and set the hype train in motion? If you'd just quietly got on with it instead?
Kevin Sheller: It's hard to imagine. What happened is what happened, y'know? It worked for us in that we secured publisher assistance, because we generated a lot of excitement. We had a lot of offers from many different parties. So that gave us an opportunity. If we'd been quiet about it I don't think we would have been able to publish it.
And most of the time publishers want every SKU imaginable. They want the PS3 and the 360 and the Wii and so on and so forth, because if they're going to make that investment they're going to want to see a big return. It would have been a really hard sell to go out and say, "We're going to make this awesome thing for Wii only." They'd have been like, "Hmm, yeah, sure you are."
Eurogamer: Obviously the original didn't exactly sell millions of copies. How did you get the sequel green-lit? Was it locked in before the first game was even out?
Kevin Sheller: It was always a two-game contract.
Eurogamer: Take us through the things that the sequel is doing that the original didn't. What are the key improvements?
Kevin Sheller: Let's break it down, because man, there's so much. If you start off with single-player obviously it's a longer gameplay experience. We have a much richer story, cinematics, characters that you're going to see and interact with that we didn't have in the first game. The boss battles are huge.
Keith Hladik: The first game was mainly set in Washington DC, but this one is set in China, Siberia, DC, in the middle of the ocean, and some other locations we can't talk about right now. And we have a lot more weapons. You can take more weapons into each level, you can pick which weapons to take into each level.
Then there's multiplayer. The big thing, there is split-screen. A lot of people wanted it in the first game but we just didn't have time. So that was one of the first things we worked on. And there's also split-screen co-op in the Invasion mode where one to four people can fight wave after wave of enemies.
There are over a dozen maps. Some are returning from the first game but they're mainly all new. There are all the weapons from the first game and around six or so new ones.
Kevin Sheller: And the ones from the original are all upgraded and improved.
Keith Hladik: There are suit upgrades too that can, say, make you run faster or do more damage with certain weapons. We also allow voice chat with rivals now so you can befriend random people online you play against using the Headbanger headset.
Eurogamer: Clearly you're doing you're best to make sure it's a superior game, but is that enough? You've got the continued reluctance of Wii owners to buy into third-party games, dwindling enthusiasm for the console in general, not to mention gamers who might feel burned by the original.
Kevin Sheller: One of the things you already called out in one of your earlier questions is we hyped up the first game quite a bit. We've done the opposite with this one. We've been subtle about it. Here's what we're doing, tell us what you think. I'm hoping it will have that surprise element.
Keith Hladik: And we're hoping word of mouth can play its part. If you remember in the nineties when GoldenEye first came out, I didn't hear about it. People were talking in school and I was like, "Maybe I should get that game". So that's one thing I'm personally hoping picks up.
Eurogamer: Third-party Wii titles continue to under perform – Red Steel 2, Dead Space, even Epic Mickey. Is there a big enough market there to turn a profit?
Kevin Sheller: The install base is large – we all know that. Though we also talk about the demographics of that install base. It is difficult to know for sure, but certainly by all the feedback we see – on many sites we're in the top five "games you're excited about" lists - we can only hope that the audience is out there and they're excited about it.
Eurogamer: Who do you see as your key demographic? Who is the typical Conduit player?
Kevin Sheller: It's that 10 to 18 age range, for sure. But because there's so much customisation and so many gameplay elements familiar to folks on the HD consoles, I expect the demographic is a little wider this time.
Are we looking to pull in gamers from HD consoles? If we can, absolutely. If anyone wants to have crazy sci-fi weapons and a fun online experience with a control scheme where you actually have precise control over where you're shooting, rather than trying to get there with the thumbstick, then I think you might be pretty excited about it.
Eurogamer: You've got some ambitious ideas for the game and want to make as deep an experience as possible. A lot of people will be looking on and asking why you're bothering to do this on the Wii, rather than on the PS3 or Xbox 360?
Kevin Sheller: There's a bunch of different reasons. One of those is we have this foundation we put together on the Wii, so to just go, "Well, this is secondary, so let's just go and work on these other platforms," I think is an insult to Wii gamers. We have generated that fan base and they are excited about it. They're clamouring for something like this, so it's awesome to be able to provide that.
Keith Hladik: When we started making the first one, the competition on the Wii for these sorts of games was nil. Whereas on Xbox 360 you've got the Call of Duties, Halo – the competition is fierce. So we were striking while the iron was hot.
Kevin Sheller: And obviously we're not the only guys who believe the Wii is worth doing something like this for. There are the GoldenEye guys too, for example.
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Eurogamer: Is there stuff that you want to do with the franchise but are held back by the limitations of the tech or by cost issues?
Keith Hladik: We would have loved to do DLC maps. That's one of the things fans call about all the time. They always talk about a party system – that's one thing we've looked at but couldn't physically do.
Kevin Sheller: Going sky-high crazy, it would be awesome to do the full campaign in multiplayer. That's quite the undertaking. That's a whole new way to look at things.
Keith Hladik: Online co-op!
Kevin Sheller: Yeah right!
Eurogamer: Regarding online, there were hacking and exploits going on with the first game. How are you managing that for the sequel?
Keith Hladik: Of the exploits that people found and did YouTube clips of, we fixed those. As for the hacking stuff, I obviously can't divulge exactly what we've done but our network guys have spent hours making sure it's fairly hack-proof. Fighting hackers is always a losing battle – every game suffers from that – but we're doing our best to thwart them.
Kevin Sheller: And then there will be downloadable patches, which we couldn't do in the first game. Now we can see what people are doing, make modifications and if you want to play online you'll have to download the patch.
Eurogamer: What else does High Voltage have going on at the minute? Is The Grinder still a going concern?
Kevin Sheller: Yeah, we probably can't talk a heck of a lot about that right now. I wouldn't feel comfortable.
Eurogamer: But you've got more original IPs in the works?
Kevin Sheller: Absolutely. Oh yeah, lots of things.