Nintendo opens up to indies with Unity Wii U deal

Wii U

Engine and tools creator Unity Technologies has announced a new partnership with Nintendo that will see its Unity development platform supplied to Nintendo’s first and thirdparty developers, and give the platform’s 1.2 million registered developers a way to deploy their games to Wii U.

While Unity already allows developers to export projects to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and, indeed, Wii, today’s announcement represents a much closer relationship between the Danish company and a major console manufacturer than has been seen previously.

Most notable is the ability for existing Unity developers to deploy their games to Wii U. While Nintendo’s WiiWare channel has provided a steady flow of experimental and indie games on Wii, the Unity deal hints at the possibility of Nintendo curating something more akin to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Indie Games, making smaller, cheaper games available on Wii U.

While neither Unity nor Nintendo are ready to reveal exactly how the relationship between Unity’s indie developer community and Wii U publishing will play out, the company’s embracement of them today is in stark contrast to its position last year when Nintendo Of America president Reggie Fils-Aime stated that Nintendo was not interested in what it termed “garage developers”.

Nintendo’s Hideki Konno also ruled out the possibility of Nintendo ever adopting mobile-style “one-dollar” game pricing for its platforms. Of course, Unity has come a long way in the past few years, graduating from indie champion to a genuine contender for use in big-budget projects as it squares up to the likes of Unreal Engine – it’s no longer synonymous, then, with only “garage developers”.

“The details of how this is all going to play out are not yet announced,” Unity Technologies CEO David Helgason tells us, “but basically, we can bring a lot of awesome developers, both big and small, and a very large number of indie studios with very creative games and game ideas to the Wii U ecosystem.

“It’s kind of emerging as two ecosystems – one is Unity, which is new and fresh, and one is Nintendo’s, which is old and formidable. After 120 years, they have a pretty big developer ecosystem, right? That’s kind of how we think of it, and it’s really exciting.”

To date, Nintendo has been notoriously houseproud, keeping a tight grip on quality control when it comes to which games make it into the hands of its audience. Unity, meanwhile, thanks to being free and easy to learn, has encouraged a new generation of coders to create software, some of which are rougher around the edges than others. If Nintendo invites this rowdy crowd into its pristine front room, aren’t things in danger of getting broken?

“We supported the Wii, and that was fairly open,” responds Helgason, amused at the analogy. “There’s an approval process, obviously, and it’s heavier than, for example, the mobile market today. But we had really small, fresh developers publishing Wii games, so [Nintendo] wasn’t that closed. And there was the WiiWare channel that had a low barrier to entry.

“I think the world is moving in a more open direction. I shouldn’t announce Nintendo’s plans – which I mostly don’t know either – but the feeling is, of course, that [this deal] is moving in the direction of opening things up even more. And without putting words in Nintendo’s mouth, I feel pretty confident that they feel excited about having access to the very big, sprawling, chaotic and awesome ecosystem of developers using Unity.”

He won’t be drawn on just exactly how much freedom members of Unity’s “sprawling” and “chaotic” ecosystem will be afforded on Nintendo’s console, but promises that more announcements will be made soon. As for dates and prices, the deployment add-on will be released in 2013, though it’s not yet clear whether it will form a free update for existing users, or whether it will incur an additional licence fee. A number of major developers are working with Unity on games for Wii U but neither Unity or Nintendo are in a position to announce names just yet.

Helgason is quick to commend Nintendo’s approach to product design, citing the similarities between OS, tool chains and APIs between devices as a boon for developers, allowing for the re-use of code and techniques with each new generation.

“At the same time, they have a very innovative approach to peripherals and gameplay mechanics,” he adds, “which is where it’s fun to innovate. But on top of that, because Unity is now going to be supporting it, it means it will be extremely easy for anyone who already knows Unity to have access to that.”

It’s not hard to imagine similarly close partnerships being setup with Sony and Microsoft in future, especially given Unity Technologies drive to empower developers with access to as many different platforms as possible. And this initial deal could usher in an interesting new age of indie developers and larger studios working more closely together on console, and even sharing assets – Unity’s Asset Store is already used heavily by big-budget developers elsewhere. It seems increasingly clear, as we approach the next generation of under-set hardware, that the age of “walled garden” console development is becoming less viable for even the most established of companies looking to court both new talent, and new audiences.