The Conduit is one of the most hotly-anticipated Wii games of 2009, a first-person shooter that claims to be one of the best looking games on the console. We spoke to Eric Nofsinger, chief creative officer at High Voltage Software, about pushing the Wii's limits, video games for mums, and why you'll never see this game on a 360 or PS3.
VideoGamer.com: What was the original thinking behind this game?
Eric Nofsinger: The first thinking came from the fact that Kerry Ganofsky, who is our CEO and founder, had secured funding for our own original IP. Prior to that, for the past 16 years we'd primarily been producing licensed titles. That had done well for us but it was a bit of treadmill, and so it was good to stretch our legs creatively and try to really apply everything we'd learned into something that we could use to show the gaming world what we were capable of. This was right about the time the Wii was getting announced, and we were in early development with The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, which was a launch title for Midway. That was using our old engine technology, but we learned a lot about the strengths and weakness of the system. We determined that we needed to re-architect our engine from the ground up to really take advantage of the Wii and do some of the graphical capabilities we wanted to do, that we perceived were going to be next-gen.
VideoGamer.com: And how did The Conduit itself come together?
EN: First off we determined the console. We wanted it to be on the Wii because it was something really special, and it felt very compelling - the IR device and being able to interface that way seemed like something that afforded itself to new ways of playing games. Then that led to first-person shooters, which was really something that we felt very passionate about. And although Red Steel was announced right away, it was clear to us once we got hands-on with it that it was a bit of a disappointment to us. We felt like we could do a lot better. As we continued to develop, we saw more and more games that didn't seem to be doing much graphically with the system.
VideoGamer.com: Why do you think that was?
EN: Well, it's hard. It's not particularly easy if you're doing it on its own, and it's certainly not easy if all you're doing is porting your PSP or PS2 games over to Wii, which is really the approach that most publishers and developers took. They were definitely taking the stance of, "this is the me-too" and they were looking at the 360 and the PS3 as the exciting bling systems. And now they could finally be Hollywood! You saw these ridiculous budgets being thrown around that couldn't possibly be recouped, because there wasn't enough of an established install base yet. But everybody rushed towards it, and then lo and behold the Wii was the clear market leader. And 50 million units later, everybody's scratching their heads and saying, "Hmmm, maybe we should have looked a little bit more into that." Now what's happened in the interim is that we've seen more and more casual games come out, games that I'm very happy that my Mum plays. It's good to get her into gaming, but at the same time I and many of my gamer friends felt more and more left out by the games that were coming out. We felt there were a lot of poor-quality products and ports being released.
What we were trying to do with The Conduit was to ask, "How do you raise that quality bar? How do we do something really spectacular?" And by putting our biggest brains in the studio on the challenge, our Advanced Technology Group was amazing with everything we threw at them. We'd say, "Can the Wii do normal mapping?" because we hadn't seen it, and it's something that's commonplace on the 360 and PS3. They'd come back a few days later and they'd go, "Okay, I think we've figured out how to do it. It's not easy, it's going to take this amount of time and this amount of resources." So we'd tell them to go do that, then we'd throw another thing at them! And we just kept doing that: environment mapping, detail mapping, material-based effects, blooms and blurs, full-screen effects, dynamic water systems. Anything we threw at them, we found that with the right amount of effort it could be done and still maintain a decent frame rate. The system is quite capable, but it's not easy. And I will also say that as much as we'd hoped from the start to raise the quality bar and become the new standard for graphical fidelity on the system, I will say that the work the work we've done on the engine, as we've neared completion, has continued to show more areas for improvement. So where we're at right now with The Conduit will show well, up against any other Wii title, but the games that will be coming from here on out will be even more impressive.
VideoGamer.com: So do you think you've succeeded, that you've become the new standard?
EN: I think we've made a new standard for many publishers and developers, and hopefully if consumers get out and support it we'll see a lot more publishers and developers trying to the same. But I will say that with our future games we're prepared to go much further.
VideoGamer.com: Are you concerned about whether a hardcore market exists for the Wii? Despite good reviews, neither MadWorld nor HOTD: Overkill has sold particularly well. The Conduit doesn't have the same kind of adult imagery, but it's still hardly a casual title...
EN: I know exactly what you mean, and I understand that there may be cause for alarm. This is something that gets brought up quite a lot, but we're not concerned at all. Those games, and you can point to a few others as well... I think they're great games, but they're mature games. I think there's a nomenclature that you need to be certain on. Those games are gory and they are aesthetically niche. They're boutique games. They're great games and I love them, however I know that they're not accessible and they're not the kind of titles that are going to tap into both core and mainstream [audiences]. When I say that we're core, I mean that we have a level of detail and depth and customisation and variety that core gamers demand. When I say that we're accessible and that we're also aiming for the mainstream, that is why we specifically chose the art style we did, and the setting. The theme is very much in the mindset of going for that Hollywood blockbuster feel. I think we're absolutely different beasts to those other games. I love to be in the company of those great developers and I think they did amazing work. I would never defame anything that they've done and I'm happy to support them with my own dollars, however I do think that we have a much better shot at financial success than they did.
VideoGamer.com: In terms of other FPS games, what were the major influences on The Conduit?
EN: We had influences both direct and indirect. We certainly explored everything and we're first-person shooter fans ourselves, so really we're all drinking from the same water. So it's nearly impossible not to get inspired by the things you like as gamers. But to answer your question, some of the games that we get compared with a lot are Perfect Dark, which is good company to be in, GoldenEye and Resistance: Fall of Man. There's also been a fair amount of comparison with Halo. I can see some of the parallels but if I had to pick just one, I sure like being compared to Perfect Dark!
VideoGamer.com: I haven't played Perfect Dark in ages, but it certainly feels similar at times...
EN: If we live up to your nostalgia, I'll be very happy!
VideoGamer.com: Well, that makes two of us! To change topic... I've just had a chance to check out MotionPlus for the first time. What are you feelings about the new add-on, and did you consider supporting it with The Conduit?
EN: Absolutely. I actually went out on a limb and said that we were going to support MotionPlus early on, and I had to do a bit of back-pedalling. We had every intention of supporting it and Nintendo had graciously supplied us with early prototypes, but the time we got them we were very far down the road in the game development. Once we implemented it we were quick to discover that it really didn't give much benefit to ranged combat, which we were primarily focused on. It was very good for short experiences and melee experiences - we even went so far as to prototype up some melee weapons. However what we found was that we just didn't have enough time left in the schedule to properly implement them. Our mantra all along has been "quality first" and if we couldn't do it to a high quality standard, it didn't belong in this version of the game.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think MotionPlus will ultimately change Wii game development?
EN: I think that it's a wonderful device. I don't know that I would say that it's going to completely change the Wii, because I think the Wii is quite nice just by itself, but I think it's very novel and I think it affords some new and interesting types of games. And that's what I love about the Nintendo system in general. Whether it's just the Wii remote and the nunchuck or the balance board or MotionPlus, each device has a unique methodology of interfacing with the console. Nintendo is not afraid to take risks, and you have to commend them for that. For every Virtual Boy that might not come out so strong, they come out with a whole lot of systems like the Wii that are fantastic.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think MotionPlus will become a mandatory thing for Wii developers to support, or will it remain optional?
EN: I think it will probably be optional. It's really on a game by game scenario. It's not going to make sense on every type of game, nor is it going to make sense for every type of publisher and what they're trying to do with their products. Some types of games you want to have as many options as possible for the core gamers. But on a really super-casual type of game the more peripherals you need to support... that can actually backfire and cause you to have a smaller audience.
VideoGamer.com: Clearly at the moment The Conduit is a Wii-only game. Would you ever consider bringing to the other consoles?
EN: No, not a chance.
VideoGamer.com: Why not?
EN: Because we made it for the Wii. The Wii needs quality games, it needs games that are specifically for it. I'm not joking when I said that we made it for this kind of controller. Yeah, we could probably get better graphical fidelity with high definition output and a hard drive - great! But I am of the mindset that gameplay is king. I love playing first-person shooters now with a Wii remote and a nunchuck. I think that's a really very elegant and intuitive methodology of interfacing with a first-person shooter. And they've got plenty already! Let us have a couple.
VideoGamer.com: Online multiplayer is a big part of The Conduit. Do you think the Wii can develop the same kind of thriving communities that you see with games like Halo 3 and Killzone 2 on the Xbox 360 and PS3?
EN: I would sure love to believe that much like Halo was one of the first games to get consumers to play first-person shooters on console, and really trained them to play shooters with dual analogue sticks, I'd like to think that we're the first game that trains people to properly play a first-person shooter with a Wii Remote and a Nunchuck. But that wish aside, I would like to think that we'll pull in a new type of gamer. One of the most exciting things for us has been when we've some of these trade shows and comic book shows, consumers will come up and play the game, and you'd see people that had never played any kind of first-person shooter before, and within a few minutes they could pick it up and start playing it. That was very exciting to me, the idea that you could expand the first-person shooter market. Right now there is a wonderful core of first-person shooter fans, but it does become sort of incestuous in its growth. Everyone's trying to one-up each other in the same ways and selling graphics cards and new hardware. I know we're all guilty of doing that in our shop, but I would love to see our game be something that starts pulling in a new type of first person shooter fan, a new breed. That would be good. It would be healthy!
The Conduit will be released on June 26, exclusively on Wii.