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WayForward To The Handheld Future: Shantaes Creators Talk GBA, PSP, DS, and Beyond

November 17, 2004
 

The climate in the handheld development world is rapidly changing. With two new major pieces of hardware on the way, Sony’s PSP and Nintendo’s DS, and a number of more niche handhelds already on the market (GP32, Gizmondo, Zodiac), smaller handheld game creators are starting to feel out their places in the expanding industry.

WayForward is a particularly interesting example of such a company, having established a small cult following for its Capcom-published original IP title, Shantae for the Game Boy Color, and also garnering a decent, if low-key reputation for licensed portable titles such as Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie and Godzilla: Domination for Game Boy Advance, Wendy: Every Witch Way for Game Boy Color, as well as PC value titles that include Pearl Harbor: Defend The Fleet. It’s also worked on a host of educational and kid-friendly products for PC CD-ROM, learning-specific ‘consoles’, and other more exotic hardware.

However, like many notable game companies before it, (Colecovision, Tiger Telematics), the Valencia, California-based firm’s beginnings lie in the fabrication industry. WayForward’s CEO John Beck explains:

"We were founded in 1990 by a guy named Voldi Way, and he had previously had a company that did software for sheet metal fabrication, which he founded at the tender age of 14. With a couple of partners, he had grown that company into a $5 million annual concern. In 1990, he broke off to form WayForward. Early on, we did console work for a variety of platforms; Super Nintendo, Sega CD, some of the 8-bit systems… Later on, we started doing PC CD-ROM product in the educational genre and largely focused in on character animation as one of our core skill-sets. Because of that, we became sort of a contract house focused on developing interactive products built on licensed brands."


The as-yet unreleased Shantae Advance for GBA

It's this very tendency to work on a host of smaller licensed properties which allows WayForward to continue as a going concern. Beck comments:

"The capital requirements for that team size are built into the budget of the project, since we're primarily a work-for-hire developer. And it's an amazingly stable structure, surprisingly stable, because of the fact that your capital needs are being met by the project you're working on. Larger developers that have to sustain large internal teams, I've been reading, have experienced difficulty when the workflow stops. But with a smaller project and with more diverse platforms and customers, we've kept ourselves going quite nicely."

Although this description is somewhat different from stability concerns felt by other smaller developers, Beck continues by explaining how limited outsourcing helps keep the team lean: "We utilize external teams for specific modular content work. For example if we need character modeling done, it's a very well-defined, modular task that can be easily shopped out to an external company, and we'll take advantage of that. For the most part, we don't. We prefer to use internal team members to do work. But we will staff up with freelance help as project needs dictate."

WayForward has made their most recent titles on Nintendo-branded handheld platforms. This is not by design, but rather current industry convention in the handheld market. A platform-agnostic policy certainly helps diversify a small company's interests, but the level of support from the publishers is a serious factor. Beck elaborates: "We've been interested in other portable systems (Zodiac, Gizmondo, GP32), but the limiting factor is the investment it takes for us to port our engine and art tool to them, relative to how much work we expect to get. So if we have an opportunity come up, where someone offers us a job doing a product for one of these platforms, or a port as the case may be, we'll look at the investment involved, and what additional work we can expect to generate from that investment, and make the judgment on whether or not to pursue it. Recently we've been involved in doing some games for plug and play [‘TV game’-style] consoles. And these games run on specialized hardware, they're embedded applications. And we were able to very simply port our game engine and art tool to the platform."

According to Beck, the plug and play consoles are relatively simple to develop for. He explains: "In some ways they're even more powerful (than the GBA). The audio, for example, is really good, but you still know you're not going to have the hardware capabilities to do point of view 3D shooters. The first plug and play project we worked on was just a demo that the company was doing experimentally in-house, so it kind of dragged on for a long time. But we're working on one now that's going to be a 4-month turnaround. So it's very similar to GBA, but by my judgment that's a long schedule for the work involved. It could probably be done in three months."

Working with publishers on contracted projects is one thing, but getting one’s own IP published is entirely another. WayForward released Shantae, its first significant in-house intellectual property, for the Game Boy Color in mid 2002, published by Capcom. Creative lead Matt Bozon talks about the experience of getting the game actually published:

“Well, it was a chore. It was definitely an uphill battle. I think the key to that was having so much of it done up front. We really financed that internally, and it was a labor of love. So that game, I think it was probably about 90% complete when Capcom picked it up.”

Matt continues: “So aside from that, I think that the industry is…the people are very friendly and encouraging to original properties and ideas. But the way that the industry is structured, though the people were very welcoming of [Shantae], their jobs in many cases were hindering them from doing anything about it. People could basically be a fan of the game or what we were trying to do, but they didn't have the ability to necessarily get it published, or through their marketing, or they were hindered by how much space they had at retail, or how much it would cost to manufacture the cartridges. The money was definitely the enemy, the cost of marketing, the risk. It was just too big of a risk for a lot of people.”

Shantae was one of the last games ever released in North America for the Game Boy Color, and critically well-received, but WayForward has had a difficult time getting funding for a sequel. Now, once again, the company finds itself at a hardware crossroads. Matt continues: “[The reasons for the next Shantae game not yet finding a publisher] are not exactly the same. I think that the second title is a little more proven - there's an interest in it. So it's not a complete risk, but at the same time I think we're in a really funny situation, because we have one title out there that people really like, and there's almost a hesitation to do it until [publishers] can do it on multiple SKUs. Like, if they want to do it, now they want to do it on everything. It's almost like it gets more difficult to release a single game on a single platform. That's the impression I get, anyway. Almost like it needs to grow, or it'll be stuck in obscurity.”

As a result, WayForward has been working with other technologies, recently developing the Nintendo DS instant messenging/trading software Ping Pals for publisher THQ. Bozon talks a little about the way the company shows new tech to prospective clients:


Ping Pals for the Nintendo DS

“We've dabbled a lot at WayForward, and any new technology that we're working on, we try to see if there's a place for [Shantae] in demonstrating it. Also, we have a lot of assets from the Shantae game, and from other attempts at things like building 3D models of her, so it's easy to demo with. So it almost naturally makes it that, when we dabble in some new technology, we'll end up with a Shantae demo of some kind that could evolve into a game. But usually, if there's not someone partnered with us, and financing us, it's back to the labor of love. That’s only whenever there's extra time and extra resources, which is pretty rare for a place that's a contractor, a developer for hire like us. Typically, we don't have a lot of people sitting around with nothing to do. *laughs*”

Though the company usually works with licenses, WayForward has a tendency to introduce unusual or intriguing gameplay elements into its titles, such as the ability to flip your playing field upside-down in the Game Boy Color game Wendy: Every Witch Way. Matt explains why the company takes this approach: “I don't think we think we're doing anything more than what we should, because we're being hired by people to - in a lot of cases - bring a brand to gaming for the first time. Sometimes it's a new show, or a character that hasn't been done in games yet. It seems like that's part of our responsibility, just giving these characters or properties a good game. So the fact that other developers don't, or think that they can get by with something mediocre, is actually very strange.”

He continues: “From our point of view, most of the people at WayForward who are directors, or are influential, animators or even a lot of the programmers, they're very into filmmaking, they're all entertainers, almost everybody here is an entertainer. They want a stage to play on, and for them it's an opportunity. People definitely want to express themselves, and find some really cool angle, like some neat way of controlling a character. We like to add something to the brand if possible, instead of just soaking up the brand and making it do all the work.”

While licenses may be the company’s bread and butter, WayForward is still looking for possible platforms for its next original Shantae game. In Matt Bozon’s words:

“As long as places like DS and PSP are accepting to some of the work we've already done, I don't see why it couldn't come out on one of those systems. Especially the DS, I mean, the DS is similar enough to the GBA that the game could pretty much be directly put on it, but it's that old enemy of 'I don't just want to put something on the second screen.' We have a solid plan to kind of tear it up and build a new foundation of gameplay underneath it that incorporates the two screens, so it'd be worth playing and people would feel that it was intended for the system. And so we'll just have to see what happens with DS development in the next few months.”

While WayForward is excited about the new DS technology, they are wary of the longevity of the system. Matt argues: “I definitely like what it represents. There are things about it that I wonder if developers are going to understand how to properly use. I get the impression a lot of times that – I think Nintendo had an inspiration, and I'm not sure if everybody really understands how to carry that.

It has a lot of things about it that make it unique, but the things that make it unique also make it be that once you dedicate towards making a DS game that can really only exist on DS, there's a lot of risk for people. In a lot of cases, you're making something that's completely untried, and I'm not seeing enough things that are untried, I'm seeing a lot of things on the system so far where it's like "well we have a second screen, what can we put there?" And I think that's a backwards approach, I think it should be: you're going to make a game that has two screens. You've got to look at what you have available to you, you know we're going to make a game that's about two screens, so maybe it's a game about two points of view.

For example, if you're going to make a movie that had two screens on it, like sometimes you'll go to an attraction, and they'll have something weird where they'll have two screens or two objects of attention. The attraction wouldn't show a movie on one screen, and on the other screen roll credits, or just text. There would be something equally engaging on both screens, that would have your attention divided, or from time to time: 'OK, look here, now look over here.' I think they'd have entertainment on both screens, I think that's what it boils down to, with a lot of these games, I see entertainment on one screen, then something that's just functions on the other screen.”

Being a developer-for-hire, WayForward is naturally interested in the PSP as well, but Matt himself worries about bigger publishers hogging the spotlight.

“My experience has been GBC to GBA, and the PSP is kind of a bigger jump, and it seems like the PSP is attracting a lot of the people who were doing PS2 and Xbox titles. That's just me as a designer, I know that WayForward itself has tons of interest in it. And what I'm really curious to see on PSP is how some of the hand drawn animation type games. I want to see what Street Fighter is like, or Metal Slug, or things like Symphony of the Night. I'm really hoping that we see some of those games that were friendly to PSOne 2D.”

In Matt’s mind, the DS may be more friendly to a 2D gaming aesthetic, especially with its digital and touch-screen interfaces. Matt argues: “As far as this stuff goes, one of the things I like about DS is that it's not so far from GBA. It welcomes 2D gaming, and it also welcomes 2D game concepts in 3D space. I think that a lot of times people have difficulty limiting themselves, because if they're on PS2 and they can move through all that space, it's hard to pull back and restrain yourself and say, even if it's a fully 3D game, we're going to confine our gameplay to moving on two planes. For instance, older games have significant advantages over newer games in elements like high and low attacks - a character that can simply attack high or attack low. That kind of thing isn't done a lot in newer titles, because if the game is fully 3D, you can't deal in things that are as abstract concepts as "Let's attack from the side, because we can have a nice clean view." These elements are small nuances of gameplay that you relied heavily on before. But now, with a lot of the 3D games, all of the movements are very broad, or you're attacking in hemispheres. You get large attack spaces, and it becomes more clunky and less precise.

So I'm looking forward to seeing some of the beautiful things that 3D offers, alongside some of the confines of 2D that you'll get from the D-pad or the stylus - things that are 2D interfaces.”

Matt elaborates: “[There is a lot of] potential that I hope we get to see used. Like, for example, there are things built into the DS that are really neat if they can be utilized properly. For example, there's this way that you can get your 3D images to be composited in with the 2D stuff. It's basically like taking 3D snapshots and using them as background layers in 2D. And it's really clever, because I can't even get my mind around the kinds of things that can be done with that.

So, many of the [games] that are based on the touch screen seem to be gimmicks or one-trick ponies, that kind of thing. I hope it doesn't mean that we don't get full-fledged games though, on DS. I see a lot of things that are individual ideas, but a lot of the time they haven't gone all the way into becoming fully realized games yet.”

But as interesting as the DS hardware is on paper, it remains to be seen whether or not developers will understand it, let alone the consumers. Matt’s final word is a cautionary one for himself as much as other developers:

“When I heard that there were going to be two screens I thought 'That's cool, how are they going to have entertainment on both? And I don't always see it. I'm worried that if enough people don't understand how to do this that pretty soon – because the public is only going to be as educated as the people developing the games, and they'll see what they see."

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