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Wii U Was a Nightmare to Design For, Reveals Developer

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A game designer divulges the bugs, delays, and junky hardware that made Wii U development so arduous and despised.

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Although it's been over a year since Nintendo (OTCMKTS:NTDOY) debuted the Wii U console, the company is still having trouble generating appeal for the machine.

With only a few exceptions, its existing library of games lacks the best-selling franchises and beloved characters that gamers have come to expect from Nintendo. Third-party development continues to be a problem for the notoriously insular company, and the console's slower chipset hamstrings its potential for titles to be on par with those released on the PlayStation 4 (NYSE:SNE) and Xbox One (NASDAQ:MSFT). In fact, even though the latter two have only been out for less than two months, estimates put the PlayStation 4 roughly equal to the Wii U in terms of units sold (over 4 million), with the Xbox One finishing last year with 3 million in sales.

Considering the dour state of the Wii U, analysts and consumers alike are begging Nintendo to go third party and develop games for iOS (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Android (NASDAQ:GOOG) devices. (See: Nintendo Needs Apple and Google for More Than Just Smartphones.)

But despite the rough first year, things might soon be looking up for the Wii U. With new entries for the massively popular Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart franchises in the hopper, not to mention a Zelda spin-off in the works, characters and titles that users grew up adoring could finally boost interest in the ailing console.

After all, according to a recent tell-all account from an anonymous game designer, it's not like things could get any worse than the early days of the Wii U.

Posting the nightmarish tale on Eurogamer, an unnamed developer describes the painful and prolonged experience of creating a game for the Wii U prior to its release. From the start, he and his team were forced to work with the prototype's underpowered CPU which, they concluded, "wasn't going to be powerful enough to run next-gen engines" and "might even struggle to do current-gen (PS3 and X360) titles." The team actually had to build custom PC rigs with under-clocked CPUs to test how the code would run on the Wii U.

And from the sound of it, coding was particularly unpleasant.

Nintendo's development kits had an extremely poor integration with Visual Studio, the standard for video game development, which created buggy load times that were over four times as long as they would be for other consoles.

"This doesn't sound bad," he explained, "but when you are debugging and making lots of changes, these additional times add up. If you made 10 changes to a file in a morning, you could be spending over 50 minutes waiting for the linker to complete, which is a lot of wasted time."

The programmers also had to contend with extensive delays when asking for clarification from Nintendo. The documentation the company provided the team was scanty, so the team routinely sought more information when dealing with a problem. However, the local Nintendo support team, who couldn't provide the answers, often had to relay those requests to Japan -- which created even more problems when a week would go by before they heard back.

"After the second delay we asked why it was taking to long for replies to come back from Japan, were they very busy? The local support team said no, it's just that any questions had to be sent off for translation into Japanese, then sent to the developers, who replied and then the replies were translated back to English and sent back to us."

And as you can imagine, the queries and answers suffered in the translation, leaving the team just as lost as when they started.

After a while, the designers got the hang of things and found the machine's GPU to be quite capable after removing video game elements that became too taxing for the underpowered CPU. The unnamed programmer concluded, "The GPU is better than on PS3 or Xbox 360, but leagues away from the graphics hardware in the PS4 or Xbox One."

But there was still the matter of online integration for the Wii U, which Nintendo kept pushing back, leaving the software designers to basically code in the dark and hope for the best. Also, Nintendo's support team reportedly never had any experience using Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network, which meant the designers had to struggle to explain even the most basic elements to those online networks. "They were trying to play catch-up with the rival systems, but without the years of experience to back it up," the developer said.

When the development kit with the network system implemented was finally sent out, "(just) before the worldwide release," it was a bug-filled mess. The last-minute release also required gamers to download a big patch on Day One in order to access components that were missing upon launch. "Without that patch a lot of the release titles would have been only semi-functional."

In the end, the game was "generally well-received," but sales were allegedly "less than impressive." The developer writes, "In fact we would be lucky to make back all the money that we had invested in making the game in the first place, and although the management publicly supported the Wii U platform, it is unlikely that we would ever release another Wii U title."

While the developer remains optimistic that Nintendo's in-house team will get all the kinks ironed out and "make the hardware sing," he believes that the situation is far grimmer for third parties "with the opportunity to progress on the hardware held back by both the quality of the tools and the lack of financial reward for tailoring our code to the strengths of the hardware."

It remains to be seen whether those tiny successes that Nintendo finds add up and allow the Wii U to catch up to its competitors.

See also:

Nintendo Needs Apple and Google for More Than Just Smartphones

Sony's PlayStation 4 Versus Microsoft's Xbox One: A Timeline


Facebook, Inc. Makes a Mobile Move

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