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Are bite-sized games the next big thing?

On Monday, Nintendo launches WiiWare, a service that allows gamers to download games straight to their Wiis. Are the growing number of games-on-demand services and the sometimes unusual bite-sized games they offer the wave of the future? Indie developers — and big console makers — are betting on it.
Image: Lost Winds
"LostWinds," a new game from indie developer Frontier Developments, launches with Nintendo's WiiWare online service on Monday. Frontier Developments
/ Source: contributor

"Defend Your Castle" isn't the kind of game you'd ever find sitting on a store shelf next to the likes of "Grand Theft Auto IV" or "Halo 3."

The game doesn't boast any spectacular digital effects or cutting-edge artificial intelligence. There are no sweeping landscapes rendered in startling detail, no aliens or gangsters, no well-armored super soldiers who look like they just walked off a big-budget Hollywood film.

Play "Defend Your Castle" and you'll quickly notice that the castle you're charged with defending looks as though it was made of construction paper and the clouds above it look like puffs of tissue paper. As for the enemies that must be repelled from your walled citadel — they're crudely drawn stick men with buttons for heads.

Likewise, "Defend Your Castle" wasn't created by hundred or even dozens of game developers slaving away for months and years on end. This little game was made by a team of eight young game entrepreneurs (the geezer of the group is 25 years old) and its first iteration took a mere three weeks to create.

But while it might not sound like much on the surface, quirky and unique little games like "Defend Your Castle" are not only shaping the future of gaming but may just be the harbinger of what's to come.

On Monday, Nintendo launches its new WiiWare service, which allows Wii owners to buy video games and download them directly to their machines. Unlike the games sold in retail outlets, these titles typically won't cost $60 or $40 or even $30. Instead, players can purchase games like "Defend Your Castle"  or "TV Show King," by Gameloft — games that are typically smaller in size and scope — for around the price of a ticket to a movie.

By offering this download service, Nintendo execs say they're removing many of the hurdles that prevent small, independent game developers and developers with unusual ideas from bringing their creations to the Wii. And by opening up the Wii in this way, they say they hope to offer players some of the most innovative games ever created.

"We are enabling the content creators to make the games that they want to make," says Tom Prata, Nintendo of America's senior director of product development. "We're not giving them some type of restrictions on genres or themes. We're leaving it up to them. In some sense, if they dream it, they can create it."

Where dreams go to die
This is certainly a change from how things often work in the mainstream games industry.

"Had we attempted to take our game concept to a traditional publisher it probably wouldn't have got past the discussion phase," says Skye Boyes, president and CEO of XGen Studios, the indie outfit that created "Defend Your Castle."

"The irony of the whole thing is that what the games industry really thrives on is innovation and creativity and yet that's where things tend to get damped down a little bit," says David Walsh, managing director of Frontier Developments, the UK-based company that created the much-anticipated "LostWinds," a WiiWare title that launches alongside "Defend Your Castle" Monday.

In "LostWinds," players control two characters with the Wii's motion-sensitive controllers — a young boy named Toku and a wind spirit trapped in a stone shard. The player must figure out how to use both characters together to solve a host of clever and creative environmental puzzles.

It's whimsical. It's smart. It's different. But in the games biz, "different" isn't always a good thing.

As Walsh and other developers explain it, it costs great gobs of money to create and deliver the kind of games that are sold on store shelves. For that, game developers need the help of a publishing company with pockets deep enough to handle the high costs of creating the physical game discs, storing them and distributing them to retail outlets around the world, not to mention pay for international marketing campaigns.

That kind of investment means publishers are often afraid to take risks on unproven ideas. And without risks, the same game gets made over and over again, with only slight variations (note the game industry's fondness for sequels).

"Game developers have to convince a publisher that they can make a big game that will sell well in a store and will be worth the huge investment, and if you're a new company and there's only three or four of you, that's going to be quite a difficult proposition," says Nic Watt, creative director at Nnooo, a Sydney-based company of four developers who created the WiiWare launch title "Pop."

The zen-like "Pop" is one of those deceptively simple-looking games that hides a surprising level of depth. Here you simply point the Wii Remote at the TV screen, aim and shoot to pop floating bubbles and score points. It's the kind of game that even the greenest player can pick up, but at the same time more seasoned vets can step up the competition by going for bubble-bursting combinations and clock-beating records.

But rather than trying to convince a publisher that a bubbly game with nary an alien or carjacking in sight could be a whole lot of fun and worth the investment, Watt financed the game himself by selling an apartment he owned in the UK. "Pop" can be downloaded to the Wii for $7 and though neither Nintendo nor developers will discuss how money from downloaded games get divvied up among them, the business model is attracting interest from both indie and mainstream companies.

For example, gaming powerhouse Square Enix will begin selling the kingdom-building simulation title "Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King" via WiiWare starting Monday, and publishing giant Ubisoft has announced it's bringing a scrolling shooting game called "Protothea" to WiiWare in the near future.

Meanwhile, Prata says that, based on what they've heard from developers, there are some 100 WiiWare games in the works and "eighty percent of the developers currently are new companies that haven't published for Nintendo platforms in the past."

The future is coming up digital
Six games launch with WiiWare Monday with prices ranging from $5 ("Defend Your Castle") to $15 ("My Life as a King"). The company says new games will be posted via the WiiShop Channel on Mondays. Gamers can also download some 220-plus retro Nintendo console titles through the Virtual Console service, which has been up and running since the Wii launched in 2006.

But Nintendo is running in last place with its new download service. Microsoft and Sony already provide services that allow gamers to download bite-sized games for pocket-change prices to their competing machines.

Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade was the groundbreaker when it launched back in 2004. It now offers more than 120 games that can be downloaded straight to the Xbox 360 — old arcade classics like "Joust," casual hits like "Zuma" and quirky original games like "RezHD" and "N+." These kinds of smaller, pick-up-and-play style games can also be downloaded straight to the PS3 through the PlayStation Network, which boasts outstanding indie games such as "Flow" and "Everyday Shooter."

"Theyv'e been a little slower when it comes to dealing with online," Brian Crecente, managing editor of the popular game news site, says of Nintendo. "One of the key issues is that SatoruIwata, the president of Nintendo, has deep down always felt like online isn't core to gaming."

But "the fact they're coming late to party is not going to be a problem," Crecente says. "They have a fan base that is prepared to play games in a different way. Those games are going to do really well on the Wii."

Meanwhile, talk to many indie developers and they'll tell you that the growing popularity of these download services is an important sign of things to come.

"Part of the reason we're so excited about this game and the ways it's being delivered and launched is that we believe it really is the first step towards the future for us," says Walsh, from Frontier Developments. "If you look at the way music has gone, look at the way movies are going — games are going to go the way of digital downloads."

And one need only look at the growth of Internet-based gaming download services such as Steam and GameTap to see that people are increasingly willing to use digital channels to get their gaming fix.

But don't say goodbye to real-world stores yet. Michael Pachter, games analyst for Wedbush Morgan, says piracy and storage issues are part of the reason it'll be some time before gamers stop making trips to their local retail outlets.

"Current consoles have small or no hard drives, and most HD games are nine gigabytes or bigger," he says. "Until we have 1,000 gigabyte hard drives, it will be hard to convince consumers to download."

Prata is quick to point out that Nintendo does not see WiiWare as the death knell for retail. "WiiWare is more of an expansive opportunity. It's trying to expand the games consumers can experience, it's not intended to be a replacement for retail whatsoever."

No matter how the future plays out, game developers say that the growing number of digital distribution services make now a great time to be an independent spirit.

"I think it's breathing a whole new life into games and into games development," Nnooo's Watt says.