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Monday, November 18, 2013

On porting AAA-games to Wii U; interview with Aussie studio, Straight Right

Interview by Matt S. 

Of all the third party developers working on the Nintendo Wii U, there is one that stands out as going out of its way to take the unique features of the console; the Australian porting house, Straight Right.

When the Wii U launched Straight Right gave us the best version of the brilliant Mass Effect 3, that really showed the way a game can provide players with information on the bottom screen in a way that enhances the overall experience. Then Straight Right was responsible for the excellent remake of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The Director's Cut was initially meant to be a Wii U exclusive and use the Wii U Game Pad in a way that is integral to the game's experience. And it worked. After playing The Director's Cut I can't imagine playing Deus Ex without that excellent second screen enhancing the play.

Unfortunately for Straight Right both of its games have been mired by controversy that has meant the players have overlooked the games for superficial reasons. At the same time that Mass Effect 3 launched with the Wii U, players felt hard done by because EA also released the Mass Effect Collection (1, 2 and 3) for the same price on the other consoles. It didn't matter that the PS3 and Xbox 360 games in the collection had no work done to them, while the Wii U Mass Effect 3 was almost a remake, it was so extensively reworked for the Wii U; apparently players want quantity rather than quality.

And then the Deus Ex port was hampered by the fact it was also released (complete with second screen experience) for the PS3 and Xbox 360 at a slightly less price.

It's disappointing that the gaming community is more interested in complaining about what they're not getting than appreciating that they have the best version of two great games, but Straight Right Managing Director, Tom Crago, still wants to work on the console. Straight Right's sister company, Tantalus, is working on a sequel to the excellent casual farming sim Funky Barn, and even with two new consoles now on the market, Crago says his team has ideas for even more games.

We sat down to have a chat with Crago about Deus Ex, his hopes for the Wii U and other opportunities he sees in the market.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): You are obviously fans of the Wii U. What is it about the console that you and your team find appealing?
Tom Crago (TC): From the outset we were thrilled to get a chance to work on a launch title. That's always pretty cool and Nintendo has long held a special place in our hearts. As we worked with those guys in the months up until the launch we came to understanding the thinking behind the console and it made a lot of sense to us, especially in the context of a game like Mass Effect 3, which was our first Wii U release. That second screen is pretty powerful. From a pure 'ease of play' perspective it opens a lot of doors and I really feel as though with Mass Effect 3 and now Deus Ex: Human Revolution we have improved upon the originals and built the definitive versions of each game. That's been fun to have been a part of.

DD: Does it concern you that the console has been underperforming on the market?
TC: Of course. We'd love to see it do better. The conventional wisdom is that when Nintendo start releasing more first-party titles they start shifting more hardware. We're going to see a lot more big franchises come to market in the next 12 months and we can only hope that causes a big spike in sales. We certainly haven't lost faith.

DD: The quality of both your Wii U games has been somewhat overlooked by outside factors; For instance with Mass Effect 3 on the Wii U the trilogy collection was released at the same time on the other consoles, and the Deus Ex port was released cheaper on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Is it frustrating that the focus on both ports has been taken away from the game, and on to external factors outside of your control?
TC: I always chuckle when reviewers reference the price of a game and score it lower as a result, as though the developer has some say in that or as though it's somehow relevant in the context of the game's quality. Certainly Deus Ex has been marked down on the grounds that it's 'too expensive' but overall we've been happy with the reviews. It's among the top few games ever released on the platform and that's gratifying. Overall I've been very happy with the critical reception to both titles.

DD: Will there be opportunities to work on further Wii U ports or original games, do you think? What would your team like to tackle next?
TC: We'd love to do more Wii U. In fact our sister studio, Tantalus, released a Wii U launch title, Funky Barn, which is in the process of being iterated right now. It's an original title, much more casual, and something pretty far removed from Deus Ex and Mass Effect.

DD: Do you see opportunities with the Xbox One and PS4? Do you expect to transition the bulk of your development focus to those consoles moving forwards?
TC: We've been poking around on the PS4 and we're very interested in Xbox One. Expect to see releases from us on both of those platforms. I hope we'll be able to continue to work on the Wii U at the same time.

DD: The Australian games industry, in terms of the studio business, is largely falling away. Has this created pressures on your own business as one of the few studios remaining?
TC: We're always under pressure! It certainly is tough down here at times and it's true that we're one of the survivors. That said, and I really mean this, the industry in Australia feels rejuvenated right now. We just had our annual conference, GCAP, here in Melbourne and the atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive. We're seeing small studios who have enjoyed success in the mobile space starting to release their second or third games and gradually building sustainable businesses. I feel as though we've reached that tipping point where once again there's a vibrancy and a real sense in which we are a hub for game development, especially in the mobile space.

DD: Straight Right has yet to produce an original IP. Will this be important for you in the future?
TC: We continue to develop original titles on the Tantalus side of the family tree and for sure it would be great to do something new under the Straight Right label. We're pretty cautious around how we progress original ideas through the company, but there are one or two kicking around at present that we're pretty excited by. Something for the future for sure.

DD: What are some of the more exciting opportunities that you see out there for game development?
TC: I had a bit of a play with an Oculus Rift the other day. That thing is really cool. I don't know if it will break through commercially but it's certainly something I want to spend some more time with. Beyond that it's hard not to get excited by the PS4 and Xbox One. Who doesn't love new, shiny stuff? I'm really looking forward to playing some of the big releases on those platforms and ultimately to working on them here at our studio.

DD: What advice would you have for someone looking to step into the games industry?
TC: I get asked that question a lot and I guess my perspective has changed over the last few years. It used to be that the thing to do was to get a job at a big studio, learn the ropes and then go from there. Unfortunately that model doesn't exist anymore, at least not in Australia, so kids are left contemplating a different path. At the end of the day you still have to be ultra-talented and you still need a solid tertiary education in whatever field you want to specialise in. Now more than ever, you also need to have been working on your own projects on the side. You probably need to have finished a game at College or wherever and be able to show that to prospective employers or collaborators. Even if it's not a particularly good game, at lease you'll be able to demonstrate that you've been though the process. Then you'll need some initiative and you'll need to be brave as you come to look for either a job or a project on which you can work. Maybe you need to work unpaid on an indie project with friends as you learn the ropes. There are definitely easier ways to make money but in so many ways this is the best industry in the world. Don't be disheartened by how messed up it looks at times.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment?
TC: I'm always a little behind when it comes to my personal game playing, so I've only just started on The Last of Us. It's sickeningly good.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
On porting AAA-games to Wii U; interview with Aussie studio, Straight Right
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