Interview with Conduit developer: If we aren’t listening to the fans, we aren’t doing our jobs

Infendo

Eric Nofsigner, Chief Creative Officer of High Voltage Software, has long been an advocate of better gaming on the Wii. “Most of the games on the Wii look like crap.” Nofsinger told IGN last April, “We want to change that. …Our goal is to be the most technically innovative Wii developer on the planet.” High Voltage has spent the last year developing The Conduit, the much hyped independent first person shooter that seems to be pushing Wii graphics to the limit.

At Nintendo’s Fall Press Summit, Eric Nofsinger and I talked about how important fan feedback was to the development of The Conduit.  “One of the things we’ve really done at every one of these shows is gotten feedback from folks, from press, from fans, and that’s been awesome.” Nofsinger says, “We write up a list of all the stuff, and we go back to the studio and put it on a punch list – not all of it gets on there, but a lot of it does.” This kind of fan involvement is almost unheard of in the industry, as we approached the demo unit I asked for details. “Can you show me an example?”

“Absolutely.”

“I can point to a lot of things in this build that have changed since the PAX build directly as a result of fan feedback. One of the things that a lot of the fans talked about in the forums was the jaggy textures, they felt like when you got right up on the walls that the texturing was jaggy. So we went back to the studio and asked ‘how do we fix this,’ and sorted out a way to make it happen so you can go right up on a texture and it’s nice and crisp.”

Eric calls the trick “black magic,” explaining how The Conduit displays different textures depending on player distance from a surface. “I’ve not seen this in another Wii title.” he said, “There are other things we’ve incorporated, People came up to us and said ‘it would be nice if your character ran faster,’ or ‘it would be nice if the general turn speed, or cursor speed was more responsive,’ these are all things that we tweak and tweak and tweak, and people come back to the next show, and we have them try it and say ‘how does this feel now? We’re getting in the striking zone, closer and closer to an ideal, that’s something we don’t want to lose.”

Now I was interested!  I’ve seen fan suggestions ignored, ridiculed and dismissed, but never listened to, let alone implemented! As if reading my mind, Nofsinger continued, “I would hope that a couple of the things that we are doing aren’t typical to the developer/publisher mold, and I would hope that our example will help other folks. How many developers do you know at these shows who walk the hall with a notebook and have it filled up with ideas? I’ve written pages of comments directly from people, and I’ve done that at every show we’ve been to. It matters what the fans think. If we are not listening to them and we aren’t actively putting that stuff in there, we aren’t doing our jobs.”

I began to wonder if this philosophy had caused High Voltage any trouble, not all fans agree on what a game should be like. “What do you do when you have one person asking you to do something one way, and another person asking for the opposite?”
“That’s something we encountered very early on,” Eric explained, “even within our own office. You ask people ‘how should you control a first person shooter on the Wii,’ and out of fifty different people you’ll get fifty different responses. ‘Where should your HUD be?’ Everybody tells you something different!” Remembering a conversation from earlier, I had to interject. “Your colleague was telling me about that yesterday, that there is some dispute at the office about what to do with the HUD. He said you were thinking about letting the user decide.”

“Exactly,” Eric started again, “that’s in the next build, you guys will all see. You’ll be able to drag and drop your HUD elements exactly where you want them. If you want to play with no HUD, great – play with no HUD. If you want to play with your health meter right dead center in the middle of the screen? Sure, why should we stop you? We’ve had some dispute about that, ‘Well, then consumers can break it,’ and it’s like, ‘okay, let them break it if that’s what they want!’ Maybe putting the HUD somewhere that blocks your view is more of a challenge for you, maybe you just want to see if you can do it. After that you can throw it on YouTube and say ‘check it out, I beat the game with all the HUD stuff right in the middle of the screen!’”

One of the reasons High Voltage has the freedom to include fans in the development process is due to the fact that until recently, Conduit has been a completely independent title, without a publisher. Even so, their independent approach and revolutionary graphics for the Nintendo console garnered them a lot of attention. “We’ve had many suitors over the last few months; it was just a process of whittling that down to the ones that really made sense, and there is a lot of criteria that went into that. We weren’t just going with whoever was the highest bidder; we wanted to make sure they were somebody who would be a great partner, and that we would be able to continue to make a great game.”

With all the hype surrounding The Conduit, High Voltage’s long list of suitors is no surprise. When the game’s Quantum3 engine was first revealed as a tech demo in April, gamers and publishers alike were blown away by the promise of 60fps at near Xbox 360 quality graphics. Nofsinger explained that companies were inquiring about licensing the engine for their own games right away. “It’s something we’ve been approached a lot about, the initial tech demo that went out, that was really only made for internal and for publisher purposes, it wasn’t really intended for the public but people really grabbed onto it.

“Right now we’re not really looking to license the engine, really we’re focusing more on making a really high quality game than becoming a middleware provider. We’re trying to raise our quality level and raise the quality level of core games on Wii. We do want to make sure that if we were going to sell the engine we’d want to be sure it’s being utilized in interesting ways, as opposed to selling it to anybody with a dollar – because that pulls the whole thing down again.”
Amid all the licensing requests and fan feedback, High Voltage has still found time to pick out a suitor. “We have a publisher now, it’s just we haven’t announced it yet. It’s supposed to be signed, but there is some back and forth. It’s in the hands of the lawyers now.”

High Voltage Software and its new partner are expected to make an announcement sometime within the next two weeks.