Here’s an odd little magazine feature of mine I’d forgotten about. It was part of the Making Of… retrospective series I wrote regularly for NGC magazine – but, unusually, it’s about a hardware system rather than a game. It was published in January 2005, about a year after the Nintendo DS was announced and a few months after it hit the shops.
1.2 million sales by December means gamers love the Nintendo DS. But what do the people who make the games think? NGC peeks behind the scenes to find out.
It was January 20th last year when Nintendo finally stopped teasing us about an “unconventional new hardware project”, and formally announced the Nintendo DS. It was quite the big announcement – but not half as eye-opening as watching Americans skipping out of stores with a carrier bag full of finished console, just ten months later.
That’s fast. Almost too fast, in fact, for the people meant to be bringing you twin-screened, stylused-up games. It’s easy to imagine that, long before that January press release, Nintendo were whispering secrets into the trembling ears of developers and freely handing out the kit needed to get started on DS games. But the special shield of secrecy was working overtime on DS – as Ruud van de Moosdijk of DS developers Engine Software recalls.
“We knew something was going on,” he says. “Nintendo of America send everyone a regular mail that keeps us informed when they’re working on something. But concrete information on Nintendo DS? Somehow, the press got it earlier than we did.” Another coder moans that, before January, “we didn’t even know it was a handheld console”.
Of course, not everyone outside Nintendo HQ was kept in the dark. Two or three of Nintendo’s “favoured” friends were probably working on DS back in 2003. It’s easy to guess who from the video of impressed coders – EA, Sega, Square, Konami – that Nintendo showed at May 2004′s E3 expo. But whoever the privileged few were, they must have been let in on the secret early – or those American shoppers would have been staring at empty game shelves. “Based on when we received the kit, there’s no way we would have been able to develop a DS game in time for launch,” says Ruud. “Impossible.”
Ruud was actually one of the lucky ones, bagging a DS dev kit – the raw guts of a DS, used to actually make the games – just after E3 in May. “I understand from my fellow developers that it was quite tough at the time to get one,” he says. It still is: most of the developers we rang in early December were still waiting for theirs. One was jumping up and down because the customs people had locked up his DS for a week-and-a-half; another had no dev kit, but a meaty deduction from his credit card account by Nintendo all the same.
Those that have kicked off work on DS, though, are impressed. They might not like the look of the console (“It’s like that old GBA,” one coder spat), but they’re impressed. “We were quite surprised as we expected it to be less powerful than we originally thought,” says Mark Crane at Pocketeers, an official DS developer from the UK. Playing around with DS, he’s found that 3D games will be much faster and more detailed than he expected. “It’s easier developing for DS than Game Boy Advance,” he says.
Nintendo has a special website for DS developers – and by May last year, hidden behind the site’s password-heavy security obsessiveness, its forums were filling up with comments from happy developers. “Everyone was very active exploring DS,” says Ruud at Engine. “We were all experimenting and having fun with the touch screen – some in ways that are too rude for me to describe. And a lot of people were starting to think again. For the last couple of years, we’ve had too many copycat games. With DS, Nintendo is clearly saying: you have to really think about how to make a good game with this system. The chain of effects it’s having on developers is very positive, I think.”
In fact, when big Reggie told us in May that DS stands for “Developer’s System”, his big roaring mouth wasn’t lying. Not just because the twin screens, fancy stylus and wi-fi magic are setting coders’ brains alight with sparks of idea-electric. But also because Nintendo are being much nicer than usual to the world’s games people.
“I’ve worked with Nintendo for a while now,” says Damir Slogar at Big Blue Bubble, a Canadian developer working on a DS game for release in 2006. “And this time, they’re doing a lot of the stuff they missed with GBA. Take the development kit itself: the Game Boy Advance kit was very limited and problematic, but the DS one is much better. Not to mention the price. The initial price for a GBA dev kit was really, really high. The DS kits are very reasonably priced.”
The reason for Nintendo’s new nice-as-pie attitude is simple: without friendly developers, this risky new handheld would be finished before you’d even put in your order at Argos. But the smiles and beckoning waves from The Big N still surprised people like Ed Magnin, a veteran Texas coder who had a surprise drop through his letterbox last summer.
“I was invited to a DS developer conference in Santa Monica in September,” he says. “I’ve been an authorised developer for previous consoles and, usually, they invite the publishers. They don’t invite you. With this one, I hadn’t even been asked about developing for DS – and yet I still got the invitation. And there were a *lot* of people there. People flew in from all over the world. Reginald Fils-Aime got up and gave a talk to us about how Nintendo ‘gets it’ this time – and they had dev kits there complete with a price list and everything.”
You can’t please all the developers all of the time, though – see the bit on programming problems elsewhere on these pages. And certain areas of DS’s insides are “not very well designed,” says an anonymous coder. “But then we’re working with very low-priced materials,” he concedes. “If something doesn’t work quite as well as I’d like in order to make DS cheaper – well, I can live with that.”
And the publishers? Given their excitement, Nintendo might as well have called it the ‘PS’.
“Publishers are very, very excited,” says Damir at Big Blue Bubble. “A couple of years ago, they were very cautious about new consoles like Gamecube – they didn’t know if they should dive into development or not. It was very hard to get a contract to make a game back them. Now, with DS, it’s a lot easier. The publishers really believe that DS will be as big a success as Game Boy Advance.”
It helps that Nintendo have cut down the slice of money that they demand from every cartridge sold – one of the biggest complaints about developing for Game Boy Advance. You still need a bigish team to take advantage of DS’s 3D frippery – a band of six people working for nine months on a top GBA game becomes ten people and a full year on DS. But with publishers throwing their moneybags around, all the big names are hopping on board the DS train. One coder even mentioned they’d seen evidence that *Grand Theft Auto* goliath Rockstar is beavering away on Nintendo DS right now.
But wait – what about Game Boy Advance? Lorie Clay, producer at Digital Eclipse – the people who brought you GTA on GBA – thinks there’s plenty of life left in it. “Nintendo has got an awful lot of Game Boy Advance systems out there,” she says. “By allowing DS to play Game Boy Advance carts, they’ve made it very easy for developers – if you develop a GBA game, you can still reach DS owners. I don’t think DS means the end of GBA.”
Maybe. But we repeatedly heard the words “switching development” from coding teams we spoke to. Over the last half year or so, developers have clearly been shifting people away from GBA as their DS dev kits arrive. Nintendo stresses that it doesn’t want its new double-screened baby to compete with its superstar handheld – but DS’s success with developers may be the very thing that eventually drains the life out of Game Boy.
Still, we’d rather have new ideas than another round of indentikit GBA platformers. “Of course, that’s the biggest problem with DS,” admits Ruud. “How the hell do I use those two screens and not make it look like I’ve just used them because they’re there? But that’s a good thing, too. We used to come up with a game idea first, then think about how to make it fit with a particular console’s technology – which joypad buttons to use, that sort of thing. But now, with DS, you have a touch screen, you have two screens… you actually start with the technology, and you have game ideas based around that.”
And according to him, it’s not the developers who are the biggest key to DS’s success – it’s you. “If people like your readers are enthusiastic about DS,” he says, “we developers go with them. Because we read everything. Remember that when you’re writing to a magazine or posting to an online forum about DS. Don’t think we don’t read it. We read *everything*.”
THE FUTURE OF DS
The new ideas that coders are cooking up in their big programming pots.
Ruud van de Moosdijk: “I think this will happen. DS will connect with your PC in the same way that Gamecube connects with GBA. Imagine a free PC program that, say, uploads your times from a racing game and sends it to the developer so they can create a live, constantly updated high-score table.”
Ruud van de Moosdijk again: “The wireless function is fine for multiplayer, so I hope coders avoid using the online capabilities only for battling and racing. They’ve got the potential to create a huge community, by offering the ability to simply go their website and download new stuff straight to your DS.”
Damir at Big Blue Bubble: “I don’t think any of the developers have had a DS or a development kit long enough to develop something that is really specifically developed for DS and its potential. The games out now are quite good, but far away from what you can expect a year from now.”
Mr Anonymous Developer: “I’ve seen demos that demonstrate some very nice uses for the drag and drop’ feature of the touch screen – sliding objects around the screen with the stylus. The potential comes from the screen being made for kids, so you can really scratch it with the stylus.”
Developers want to get up close and personal with DS’s insides.
In July, news broke that some coders were unhappy that Nintendo had made one the chips inside DS ‘off-limits’ to coders. Basically, the ‘ARM7′ chip – responsible for controlling Nintendo DS’s sound, touch screen and wireless functions – is impossible to use as intricately as developers would like. Coders like Ruud van de Moosdijk at Engine would rather it were different.
“It’s still very much possible to create a great game on DS – that’s not the problem,” he says. “But if you want to do really, really amazing stuff, or write your own music player, it’s impossible. I hope they change their approach. If they’re doing it from a commercial point of view – they intend to make money by selling us tools that can access the chip – they won’t change it. If they’re doing it from a security point of view – they wanted to stop us knowing too much before the DS was launched – maybe it’ll change. A lot of people have actually been moaning about this on the Nintendo developer forums, so I’m hoping the pressure will help them change their minds.”