- [It's a real delight to have Chris Remo join Gamasutra as Editor-At-Large, and here's one of his first editorials for us - discussing his thoughts on Nintendo's WiiWare digital download service, ahead of its launch.]

Last week, I attended a Nintendo presentation showcasing a small group of upcoming games for the WiiWare downloadable game service. I was impressed by the quality of several of the offerings on hand - moreso than I expected to be - but I was also relieved to see that one of Nintendo's early promises about the format is apparently being borne out.

Getting In Touch With the Indie Side

As it claimed it would, Nintendo does seem to be proactively contacting smaller independent developers, something the company has not traditionally been known to do.

One of its two headline exhibitors last week was Kyle Gabler of the three-man studio 2D Boy, which is developing its IGF Award-winning Erector-set-of-phlegm simulation World of Goo for WiiWare (pictured). According to a Nintendo rep, the company sought out Gabler specifically.

The other showcase studio was Telltale Games with its upcoming series based on the Homestar Runner online Flash movie site. This means WiiWare will have the first stab at real episodic gaming via consoles, despite the significant head start by Xbox Live Arcade and to a lesser extent PlayStation Network.

Both games played well, and neither felt redundant with games currently available on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. Notably, each is cursor-based and felt suited to the system's interface--I would not prefer an analog stick in either case. Considering how many retail Wii games fail in this regard, it is encouraging to see this level of effort from WiiWare developers.

Same goes for Frontier Developments' LostWinds, a sidescroller which uses the Wii remote pointer to control gusts of wind, and Square Enix's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King, a cursor-based city building sim that breaks heavily from other Final Fantasy titles, including those in the Crystal Chronicles sub-franchise.

Frontier too was contacted directly by Nintendo--and while the now 160-person studio can hardly be considered a bootstrapping garage developer like 2D Boy, it is an independent company. Studio chairman David Braben, co-creator of the legendary Elite, recently told Gamasutra, "There's quite low risk to produce a game at all. We fully expect the WiiWare service to be a success."

The Open Frontier of Game Development

If Nintendo can keep courting indie developers and their WiiWare exclusives (or semi-exclusives - both Telltale and 2D Boy's efforts are coming to PC as well), it will be able to distinguish itself from Xbox Live Arcade, which relies much more heavily on ports and the repackaging of existing titles.

Nintendo already uses Virtual Console for the reselling of classics. WiiWare can maintain a totally separate library, keeping the focus on what Nintendo last week (perhaps over-ambitiously) called "the most dramatic method of game development ever."

Some developers have strong reactions to the signal-to-noise ratio seen on Xbox Live Arcade, and hope for a better landscape on WiiWare. Said Raigan Burns of N+ developer Metanet, "When we started out...there were 30 games on Live Arcade. If N was one of them, it would stand out. Now there's like a hundred games, and they're all shit."

Metanet's Mare Sheppart bemoaned the increasing predominance of big-name publishers on Live Arcade, calling the service's landscape now "exactly the same" as retail. "There's all these big-budget ones with big publishers making them," he lamented. "The same people who are deciding what retail games get greenlit are deciding what Live Arcade games get greenlit."

Developers are excited about the prospects of WiiWare, even as Wii remains a less pervasively online console than Xbox 360. Telltale told me it contacted Nintendo directly with its pitch, and a number of other promising indie developers have already signed up--Contra 4 developer WayForward's first original game since cult classic Shantae is appearing on WiiWare, Luc Bernard's gorgeous 2D sidescroller Eternity's Child migrated from Xbox Live Arcade, Naughty Dog offshoot Steel Penny Games is on board, and indie middleware provider GarageGames has a license just for WiiWare.

The Quality Problem

Of course, there is a flip side. EGM reported last year a fairly straightforward reason for the conspicuous glut of sub-par Wii titles on retail shelves: a lack of any kind of stringent concept approval.

This does have its benefits when it comes to downloadable games - it opens the door to tiny indie devs who have great ideas but no hope of a retail publishing deal, but it also opens the door to kind of cynical low-cost cash-in attempts that have given us such retail embarrassments as Chicken Shoot.

Nintendo claims there will be some 100 games available for the service at launch - although they will be staggering their release dates a la Virtual Console. Not all of these have been individually announced yet, but many of the ones that have are orders of magnitude less exciting than the standout examples cited above. If Nintendo indeed declines to impose sufficient quality standards on submissions, the service could quickly end up causing WiiWare fatigue among gamers.

We already know Nintendo has no plans to let users try game demoes before buying--if the quality ratio isn't high enough, paying users are more apt to get their fingers burned than if they had some kind of initial screening test. A user review system could help to create a secondhand evaluation, but that too seems unlikely, as Nintendo traditionally has preferred to keep its game promotion a largely one-way street.

Coaxing Out Creativity

One surprising trait of a number of announced WiiWare games is how much they seem to cram into their small size. Surely this is partly due to the system's low resolution, but it also speaks to the potential creative benefits of technical limitations.

"I think the size restriction helped us," said Square Enix programmer Fumiaki Shiraishi to Game Developer Magazine in regards to the upcoming Crystal Chronicles WiiWare game. "I don't think we would've had this game design idea if we didn't have the memory restriction to begin with. You can fit a lot of game in a small size."

Telltale is shooting for about three hours per episode in Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, a figure similar to that of its PC-based Sam & Max series, which consumes a lot more disk space. And Frontier's LostWinds is an attractive 2.5D single-player adventure--it is only a few hours in length, but it feels like a "full game," and includes a robust level-editing tool.

This suggests WiiWare should have a broad library, not simply the pure-abstract-gameplay-and-nothing-else arcade-like titles I had initially expected to see more of.

The size limit also may provide a secondary safeguard against WiiWare getting too many quick ports of games released on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, whose file size limits are much higher. WiiWare is unlikely to be able to compete with XBLA for overall style and volume, so it probably shouldn't try.

Reserved Optimism

Obviously, Nintendo and its development parters are still feeling things out with WiiWare. There are already steps being taken towards microtransactions, with the total amount of fairly inessential Crystal Chronicles downloadable content in Japan almost adding up to the original price of the full game itself, as reported by consumer blog Game|Life. And hopefully once the first wave of games is released, Nintendo takes a look at what works and what doesn't, and starts cracking down on frivolous submissions. Then there's that looming issue of the console's limited internal storage space.

Some estimate the majority of WiiWare games running up absurdly low five-digit budgets. "I am impressed with the egalitarian approach Nintendo has taken toward WiiWare developers," said Steel Penny co-founder Jason Hughes. "It allows the risk burden to shift back onto the creative developers."

WiiWare represents an opportunity for a fresh start. Hopefully, that egalitarian approach doesn't set off an eventual avalanche of mediocrity, but rather allows worthwhile ideas to rise to the surface.