Historically Nintendo's online presence has been lackluster to say the least. The Wii's digital storefront Wiiware had some great games like World of Goo, the Lost Winds series, and just this summer we saw the fiendishly difficult exploratory platformer La-Mulana make an appearance. Yet, by and large the service was forgotten. It didn't have the visibility or diversity of XBLA, PSN or Steam and customers tended to forget it existed. Nintendo certainly hasn't been doing it any favours by releasing a new model of the Wii that can't even go online to access its own shop.
That could all change with the Wii U eShop which, according to several indie developers I spoke to, has addressed almost every issue WiiWare had.
Martin Pichlmair of Broken Rules, whose 2D multiplayer flying game Chasing Aurora was a launch title in the US and is coming soon to Europe, noted that developers on the Wii U eShop can set their own price and release date. Furthermore, they can implement sales, promotions and price-drops. They can even add demos whenever they'd like.
There's also more DLC support this time around. Devs can add updates with new features, instead of simply patches that fix broken games or bugs. There's even options to add microtransactions. "There is a process associated with this that makes sure that our game maintains or surpasses the level of quality it had before the update," explained Pichlmair.
"The eShop interface appears to make games much more discoverable as compared to the original Wii, which is very important to smaller studios with zero marketing budget."Kyle Gabler, co-founder, The Tomorrow Corporation
Trine 2 developer Frozenbyte's Joel Kinnunen - who previously published Trine on PSN and Steam and its sequel on the same plus XBLA - said, "the Wii U eShop is much better than XBLA and PSN from this point of view. Updates still need certification if they're meaningful (i.e. changes 'code') but it seems like that's not a very long process usually - i.e. not the two to three weeks wait that the other platforms have."
There's also fewer size restrictions on eShop games. On Wiiware games had to be under a minuscule 40MB. On the Wii U eShop the size limit is much larger, if indeed there is one at all. "I don't think there is a size limit you should worry about," said Toki Tori 2 developer Two Tribes' Collin Van Ginkel. "There are full retail titles being offered, so it's at least 25GB."
Pichlmair noted several other improvements to the way the eShop operates. You can now buy games with local currency instead of confusing Nintendo Points. The notoriously cumbersome friend codes are a thing of the past and people can add friends simply by sending requests like on any other digital gaming platform, and there's better visibility all around with games being promoted more frequently on the eShop's front page, complete with its own indie games section.
"The eShop interface appears to make games much more discoverable as compared to the original Wii, which is very important to smaller studios with zero marketing budget like us," said Littler Inferno developer The Tomorrow Corporation's Kyle Gabler.
Pichlmair added, "There is a very well defined pipeline into the eShop and it will make it a much more lively place than good old WiiWare."
"There is a very well defined pipeline into the eShop and it will make it a much more lively place than good old WiiWare."Martin Pichlmair, programmer, Broken Rules
The system sounds like a massive improvement then, but what's it actually like to work with Nintendo? "It was a pleasant surprise," noted Pichlmair. "Nintendo's QA department had a lightning fast turnaround time."
According to Pichlmair, Nintendo has a rather laissez faire towards requirements. You don't need to force an online mode, for example, and a game like Chasing Aurora that centers around local-only multiplayer was released without even online leaderboards - though these will be added later in an update.
When asked if Nintendo enforced GamePad support Pichlmair said, "I have to admit that I do not know if that is a requirement, but I guess it is. Most restrictions that stood out to us were quite obvious. E.g. certain motion-control gestures with the GamePad require clearance from Nintendo."
"The GamePad is the single most interesting feature of the Wii U, so every game designer will try to make it a key feature of his game. In general, Nintendo offers many possibilities. Their restrictions come from them having to protect their brands and from safety concerns. But they try to be an enabler that leaves a lot to you as the developer rather than executing a lot of control. I like that attitude a lot."
Regarding the requirements Van Ginkel said, "It's all pretty basic, there's not much beyond useful technical and user experience requirements. They let you make the game the way you want it. "
"They let you make the game the way you want it."Collin Van Ginkel, co-founder, Two Tribes
Judging by those who have published for the Wii U eShop it seems to be a substantially more developer friendly environment than Wiiware was. Of course, Nintendo has a lot of bad will to overcome after its previous underwhelming online presence and it stands to be seen if the Wii U audience will give its eShop a shot.
Furthermore, there are still some logistical kinks to work out with the hardware itself. The basic Wii U model offers an 8GB hard drive that only leaves about 3GB available after the day one system update. More disconcertingly, your Wii U Nintendo Network ID is tied to a specific console, so if it breaks you could lose all your downloaded games and data. Nintendo has stated that "in the future, you will be able to use your Nintendo Network ID with future Nintendo consoles and other devices, such as PCs," so hopefully this will be added before too long.
It's a shame these issues persist with the hardware because the eShop itself seems like a remarkable improvement over the Nintendo of yesteryear. With transferable Nintendo Network IDs and more hard drive space, the Wii U could become a haven for indie game development. Those who have developed for the Wii U eShop think highly of it anyway.