Note: This article was originally published on NotEnoughShaders on November 3rd, 2012. The interview was conducted by an author who went by the name of InquiringMind.
With the release of Nano Assault Neo around Wii U launch, we had the chance to chat with Manfred Linzner from Shin’en Multimedia. This was an opportunity for us to know more about their studio which has developed on Nintendo devices for the last decade, their awaited eShop shoot-em-up, as well as their relation with Big N. But more importantly, we tried to uncover the secret behind their praised technical mastery in this thorough interview that will give to starved techies around the globe exclusive hardware info to comment and speculate on !
InquiringMind: Hi Manfred, what lessons have you learned from the feedback and reviews of Nano Assault 3DS for Neo? Its reception was globally positive, but some players – forgetting it’s quite common for the genre – criticized its shortness, its unforgiving difficulty with instant hit deaths, as well as a few control problems.
Manfred Linzner: We try to read all reviews and boards about our games and think about what could be done better next time. For Nano Assault 3DS, I believe most people were very pleased with length and replay value. Our game has much more to offer than the majority of shoot’em ups available on the market, but of course people tend to ask for more if its fun. Also regarding difficulty, we got very different opinions in reviews and from players. If you give the game only a few minutes you might think: “Wow, that’s hard!” but if you play for some time you adjust your tactics and see how the game adapts the difficulty depending on your progress. And we have now ship energy to avoid one-hit deaths. Regarding controls, we were never fully satisfied but we think the current controls were the best achievable on the 3DS. For Nano Assault EX, we finally perfected the controls by adding Circle Pad Pro support. And thanks to the Wii U gamepad, we can also deliver on this system a true dual analog stick control scheme.
Nano Assault had 32 levels, Nano Assault Neo apparently 16, and a similar reduction in the number of bosses. Comfort us, there will be enough content?
Nano Assault Neo is a pure arcade game. Although the number of levels is less, it has much more playing depth. We also added 14 brand new Missions to the game and of course the two player mode. All of your progress is shown to the world in the online rankings, which are much more detailed than on 3DS and faster to use. Beside that, we added too a new game mode called Survivor especially for the core gamers. All in all it’s a big fun package and we also keep the price in the lower region to get everyone into testing Neo.
Why is there no cooperative or competitive online mode? Many of your games like Nano Assault or Fun! Fun! Minigolf don’t have this feature requested by players. Will you change this approach in the future?
In reality there are almost no modern shoot’em ups at all that work online. You need about 50x the data-rate compared to a standard 3rd person shooter game and very short latencies which can’t easily be hidden. You also require near pixel perfect collisions which doesn’t tolerate any lags or corrections. It’s very difficult to make that work without degrading the games quality, and I don’t even mention the much longer development cycle. For Fun Fun Minigolf we didn’t saw a good appealing online part.
In general, instead of serving mediocre online modes in our games we concentrate on making the core game better. However, for future projects we will certainly add more online features where appropriate. For example, a title like “FAST – Racing League” would have of course online play features on Wii U.
Are the tunnel sequences of the 3DS opus still present in Neo? Many have enjoyed them and how they diversified the gameplay.
On Neo we have a new tunnel racing part that acts as a bonus round. This is even playable together in two player mode which is super fun. Beside that we felt the long tunnel sequences didn’t work in the fast arcade approach of Neo.
Could you describe the development of Nano Assault Neo? For instance, have you taken the 3DS engine as a foundation?
We use the same engine since ‘Nanostray 2’ for Nintendo DS. It’s simply called the ‘C Engine’ because it was the third engine we developed for our games. The first two ran on GameBoy Color and GameBoy Advance. This engine has no limits for certain game types and has a hardware abstraction layer for every console we work with. So far we used it on around 17 games.
But can you optimize, change, and add layers to this engine to a point it’s not betraying its old DS roots on Wii U? And will you make a “D Engine”, build from the ground up for this system? In this scenario, can we anticipate even greater graphic prowess from you on this console?
A DS game is not that much different from a Wii U game from a technical point of view. In fact it is much easier to create a great Wii U game than to create a great DS game because you have so much more resources. Doing stuff still as efficient as we were forced to do on the DS is not a drawback but a benefit for our games. Every year we add a few large new features into our engine. For instance, FAST – Racing League on Wii had problems to maintain solid 60fps when having two players splitscreen. For that case we added a CPU based Occlusion culling system. Since then every game we do can use that system, no matter if it’s on 3DS or Wii U. As the complete engine is powered by an own designed scripting language there are no boundaries. New code and modules are exposed to the script and then they can be freely used.
Tell us about the specifics of this Wii U version, including the possibility to play on the gamepad only, or use it as a screen to customize the strategic placement of satellites.
Nano Assault Neo allows you to play any style. You can play on the GamePad from the start or you can choose to do so anytime later. When you play on the TV you can use the GamePad directly to manipulate your collected satellites and rotate the level to see where items and enemies are hidden. In two player mode, one is on the TV and the other on the GamePad. We also use its camera to capture the first player and show his face on the TV along with his vehicle. This is a gimmick but adds a lot of fun !
Great, but how it works, is it a video stream captured on key moments when the other player is supposed to yell at you? [laugh]
It’s a video stream in 30fps that always captures the GamePad player when in two player mode. So the other player on the TV can constantly see you playing. Of course this can be disabled if you don’t like that feature.
How are achievements managed in Neo ? Through software like on 3DS, or a consolidated system on the console? And what can we expect in terms of special challenge, rewards or items?
We have so called ‘Missions’ in Neo. Your progress in these missions is visible in the online rankings. They are quite challenging and in the rankings you will see who is a real pro. About items and collectibles, Neo has doubled their numbers from 3DS. And there is also a shop available where you can spend the credits collected throughout the levels for items.
Give us some details on the size of the game, are you still thriving to reduce it to the maximum even though restrictions seem to have disappeared on the Wii U eShop? And about its price and release date?
The game will be around 100MB. For download games we always use our best compression and procedural techniques to keep the players happy without scarifying any quality. It has very high detail in its graphics and audio is coded in 5.1 LPCM surround. We keep the price on the lower side and hope to be available on launch day.
eShop/Digital distribution on Nintendo devices
In retrospect, how do you honestly view the Wiiware and more generally the digital distribution policy of Nintendo during the Wii and DS era? Many developers have pointed their shortcomings compared to the Xbox Live and the PSN.
Well, we can’t complain because we had some good earnings on WiiWare, though for some games we felt the market was too small. We never felt limited but we can understand that other developers had their issues. WiiWare was a first step for Nintendo and I think the 3DS eShop already showed that they are taking digital now as serious as the retail market.
Interesting. Which games earned you the most, and for which others you feel the market was too limited?
On Nintendo Wii, our biggest financial success was Fun Fun Minigolf because it was quite early in the system lifecycle and it was a perfect party game.
So you’ve been privileged observers of the evolution of Nintendo in this domain. Developers are now complimenting the eShop and Nintendo Network for the 3DS after those services were improved. Information are even more promising with respect to Wii U. What are the differences, the kind of support now brought by Nintendo that you did not receive before?
We always got very friendly and quick support from Nintendo. We are also very happy that we were allowed to work on GBA, DS, Wii, 3DS and now Wii U right from the start. In general we experienced over the years that Nintendo is really listening to feedback and actively asks the developer how to change certain things too. We also love that Nintendo doesn’t apply restrictions to the games we develop, neither in size nor in content or gameplay.
With Nintendo really embracing digital distribution with their latest systems, how Shin’en position itself for the years to come, as you have developed titles either for retail or download. Will you focus on content only available on eShop, or can we expect new games on store shelves?
Everyone knows that the future is digital but retail won’t go away soon. Currently many smaller projects are a perfect fit for digital distribution but we will always develop games for the medium most requested by the gamers.
Your games are often showcases of what a platform can deliver, with Iridion on GBA or Nano Assault on 3DS being strong illustrations. You were also one of the rare studios that have coped with the restricted size of Wiiware projects. Can you explain this quest for technical prowess and optimization? Does it originate from the background of your developers, your will to build proprietary engines?
We are happy that our games are frequently considered to stand a bit out of the crowd. A big factor is that if it’s possible, we want to see our titles run in 60fps. Having a game running in 60fps is of course a challenge when everyone else uses 20-30fps and you want to look even better than those games. 60fps improves also many aspects of the gameplay although players don’t usually make this connection. Sloppy controls are often the result of having a game at a low framerate, though it depends a lot of the genre. Many developers create their games and as an afterthought they try to make it run at a certain framerate. For us a good framerate is always the start of any project and we keep it high until everything is finished. As our background comes from 8bit and 16bit computers we tend to keep our code fast and simple. We try not to over engineer. Finally we have of course the benefit of having an engine of our own that is improving since 2006 and no day goes by without talking how we can optimize certain things. And the fun part is even though we are working since so many years on it we are still able to improve it.
So I guess it’s a blessing to have started in the 8-bit era and the demo scene. Do you think a lot of newcomers in programming who work on AAA projects nowadays don’t always “keep their code fast and simple”?
There are very talented programmers working on AAA and indie games, most of them also started programming in the 80ties or 90ties. For newcomers it is natural that they have a different point of view. Often it also really depends of the genre. Not every game needs to stretch the boundaries of reality as we know it, especially when you do a 2d game with only 10 objects on screen. Today it is very hard as well to take ownership of the code, because you usually work with large groups of people on the same project. Moreover, many companies use middleware solutions. So today, most programmers don’t have to write their own physics, collision, or audio-engines. That saves a lot of time but also let you miss the inner workings of such systems. That can be a problem, on the other hand you can concentrate to create great content for the games.
You recently made positive statements about the Wii U, on its more modern GPU, its computational power that allows more enemies in Nano Assault Neo, and that you only used a fraction of its capacity. What are globally the advantages in graphics, physics, AI, to develop on Wii U in comparison to the Wii and the 3DS too which, albeit obviously weaker, also has relatively modern graphical functions? Describe us how your team felt when you first worked on the console dev kits while you were accustomed to Wii technology?
The 3DS and Wii U GPU are totally different. The 3DS GPU is very specialized while the Wii U GPU is quite open. For both designs you have to choose wisely how to use them. Both can generate great visuals and have lots of options.
When testing our first code on Wii U we were amazed how much we could throw at it without any slowdowns, at that time we even had zero optimizations. The performance problem of hardware nowadays is not clock speed but ram latency. Fortunately Nintendo took great efforts to ensure developers can really work around that typical bottleneck on Wii U. They put a lot of thought on how CPU, GPU, caches and memory controllers work together to amplify your code speed. For instance, with only some tiny changes we were able to optimize certain heavy load parts of the rendering pipeline to 6x of the original speed, and that was even without using any of the extra cores.
In comparison to the Wii, the Wii U has much more potential for optimizing. On Wii you knew what was possible and used that power. On Wii U you can take many different approaches to tackle a problem. Fortunately you already have lots of power at hands without digging deeper. So i’m pretty sure we will see many cool stuff on the Wii U when developers are understanding it better.
More specifically, we’ve heard rumors about the CPU, that it’s supposedly the weakest link of the system. Word has spread that it’s some sort of Broadway (Wii CPU) but in a three-core configuration and improved. Others have argued that based on its reduced size seen in recent pictures and the overall low consumption of the unit, it is not very powerful. Have you encountered any problems during your development because of this component or is it efficient enough?
We didn’t have such problems. The CPU and GPU are a good match. As said before, today’s hardware has bottlenecks with memory throughput when you don’t care about your coding style and data layout. This is true for any hardware and can’t be only cured by throwing more megahertz and cores on it. Fortunately Nintendo made very wise choices for cache layout, ram latency and ram size to work against these pitfalls. Also Nintendo took care that other components like the Wii U GamePad screen streaming, or the built-in camera don’t put a burden on the CPU or GPU.
Concerning the graphical aspect, are the features supported satisfactory for you? Is the system allowing a good amount of effects not present or not really used on current gen consoles, such as tessellation? Iwata has promoted the GPGPU side of the chip, have you taken advantage of this?
For Nano Assault Neo we already used a few tricks that are not possible on the current console cycle.
Due to the modern GPU architecture you have plenty of effects you can use to make Wii U games look better than anything you have seen on consoles before.
Neo’s resolution is 720p. Why is it not 1080p? Beside, we’ve witnessed jaggies and seemingly a lack of anti-aliasing in some other games footage, can you reassure us on the image quality of your title? With its more up-to-date GPU and other factors such as cache amount, the Wii U should be pretty capable in this area.
We can’t detail the Wii U graphics chip, but any modern GPU supports various anti-aliasing modes with the usual Pros and Cons. Many GPUs have a certain amount of AA even for ‘free’ when rendering. Usage of these modes depends on your rendering style (like forward or deferred) and other implementation details.
Nano Assault Neo is running in 720p yes. We had the game also running in 1080p but the difference was not distinguishable when playing. Therefore we used 720p and put the free GPU cycles into higher resolution post-Fx. This was much more visible. If we had a project with less quick motions we would have gone 1080p instead i guess.
It’s not a problem to make beautiful 1080p games on the Wii U. As on any console or PC such titles need ~200% more fill rate than 720p. You can use this power either for 1080p rendering or for more particles, better post-Fx, better materials, etc.
It should also be not forgotten that many current gen games don’t even run at 720p, but at lower resolutions which are scaled up (not to mention that most also only run at 30fps).
The console also includes a DSP (a chip specialized in audio) like on previous Nintendo systems. Shin’en is known for the quality of its music, its sound effects, you have made the soundtracks for more than 200 games and developed audio middleware. What does this DSP bring for sound creation on Wii U?
DSPs in current hardware are mainly used to take tasks away from the CPU. As we take audio in our games very seriously we were happy to see that the DSP can handle all the tasks we throw at it. We use it for 3D audio, lowpass filtering and many other things.
You talked about the console memory earlier. It contains 2GB of ram which is a lot, with 1GB set aside for gaming. This should be a remarkable leap for your team in contrast to the amount you had on Wii.
In fact we simply forgot to think about the memory size in the Wii U. There was always enough there. We never had to cut anything down due to memory restrictions.
On the lauded general organization of the system memory, surely you’re referring in part to the important role of the edram in the Wii U? And about the ram, are other parameters than latency such as bandwidth favorable compare to current platforms?
I’m not able to be precise on that but for us as a developer we see everything works perfectly together. Many systems in the past forced the programmers to shift around their data and code quite a lot to fight against latency.
1GB is dedicated to the operating system. It’s a quantity never seen before on such devices. What’s your take on this allocated space and do you forecast more memory to be unlocked for you, as it was the case with previous consoles?
Nano Assault Neo only needs a fraction of the memory, even when all assets are unpacked and processed. So we use all remaining memory as a cache. So for instance loading times are nearly zero after a short while. It feels like playing from a SNES rom 🙂
All this information is very impressive! But as actors within a global industry, you may be aware of the capabilities of competing next gen consoles as well as the technical evolutions seen in PC hardware or upcoming middleware like Unreal Engine 4. From what you’ve experienced on Wii U, do you think the system is future-proof, does it have the required feature-set of the next generation games (we’re talking about direct x 11/OpenGL 4 level features) and that it will run titles available on its rival platforms? Some players are afraid of living a situation similar to the Wii which couldn’t handle engines and software released on Xbox 360 and PS3.
We can’t be too specific on the Wii U hardware but you can’t compare anyway an OpenGl/DirectX driver version to the actual Wii U GPU. I can only assure that the Wii U GPU feature set allows to do many cool things that are not possible on any current console. The Wii U has enough of potential for the next years to create jaw-dropping visuals. Also remember the immense improvement we saw on the PS3 and XBOX360 over the years. I’m really excited to see what developers will show on the Wii U in the years to come.
How do you feel about the Gamepad, is it an interface that excites you compared to the Wii control scheme? And what’s your opinion on the other features such as Miiverse or NFC, have you started brainstorming sessions to find applications for your next projects?
The best thing about the GamePad is that it feels like something new and unique. It changes the way you play but it doesn’t force you to do so. The possibilities are endless for new game ideas.
We are at the very start of using the features you mentioned and think they have a lot of promising potential.
Despite high production values, a great deal of your past games were relatively small in scope, distribution, promotion, etc. What can you answer to people who think that, considering you exist since the late 90s and with your mastery of technology demonstrated on many occasions, you should have more resources and support to release AAA titles with the help of Nintendo?
I think its something different to create a game from the first prototype until the final particle effect than to be one of several hundred people working on it. We enjoy very much our current situation. That was our job dream when we started, and now we are living it. What else can you ask for? Of course we understand that people want to see bigger games and we don’t rule anything out for the future.
Yes it’s certainly a different philosophy, a craftsman fashion. Have some of your staff experienced this “factory” aspect of major developers?
In our beginnings, we also did a lot of contract work for large companies. It doesn’t mean it’s not fun but it is more of a nine to five work process. You do your part as good as possible and that’s all you can do. If you work on something directly, you can change its direction anytime, you can spend that extra two months to polish it, you can decide what is important.
You seem to alternate between hardcore gamer oriented projects and more casual and relaxing ones, like Art of Balance or Fun! Fun! Minigolf. Is this a mix of your 80’s shoot’em up influences and newer trends?
We are very influenced by the arcade style 80’s and 90’s games but we love to make games for everyone too. And in the end, we only create what we play ourselves. We also enjoy trying out different genres and applying our techniques to them because this often gives surprising results.
It’s not a big surprise that we play every first party Nintendo games. They make everything look easy and polished. We like that. We also think the PS3 game Journey was really great. And Nano Assault would have never been created without playing Mario Galaxy before.
Because of your origin country and the talent of your programmers, a lot of people see you as the “new Factor 5”, a studio with a high proficiency to create technical vitrines on Nintendo consoles. Many would like you to take over the mantle, and constitute another ambitious and welcomed western studio for Nintendo aside from Retro or NST, which would be responsible for major titles on Wii U.
We feel very honored to be compared to Factor 5. In fact, without their efforts on SNES we never would have dared to develop for Nintendo consoles ourselves. At this time that was something unthinkable for us, a few young guys from the demo scene. We are flattered when people suggest us for brands like F-Zero or Starfox. And you never know who is reading such comments too.
Indeed, with Fast Racing League, some imagined you as a potential developer for a new F-Zero. Is it possible that Nintendo, like for Donkey Kong Country Returns and Retro, entrust you with the reins of one of their cherished licenses?
Nintendo has the most valued gaming intellectual proprieties in the world so they don’t pick a new developer easily, but who knows, anything can happen.
What is it like to work with them, considering that in the past, Nintendo have been sometimes criticized for their rigidity with developers? Moreover, how it’s done, concretely, do representatives and licensing managers from Nintendo Europe visit your office in Munich to check your progress? What kind of assistance do they bring? And have you made suggestions for their services they have kept?
Usually we get invited by Nintendo when something really new is happening. For special occasions like launch date games we show prototypes to them but usually we work on our titles until they are ready and then they go to Nintendo for final testing. Working with Nintendo is nice and relaxed. We are always welcomed for ideas and get asked for feedback on certain things. We are pretty happy about our relationship.
For the moment, you only released games for them. Is there a form of exclusivity agreement between you? Or can we expect to play Shin’en productions on competitor’s platforms?
Of course we can develop for any platform but Nintendo always amazes with new hardware which we want to explore. They always launched the right hardware at the right time for us. A perfect match! And working on Nintendo consoles is like a little childhood dream come true…
After Neo Nano Assault for Wii U and EX on 3DS, also Jet Rocket 2 that you’ve announced, what can you tell us about your coming games?
Yes, we’re developing a new Jett Rocket game for 3DS. It’s a fast paced action jump’n’run! We’re currently applying the finishing touches and hope to release it in a few months. We’re also already planing a new Wii U game. We can’t talk about it yet but we will announce it early next year.
How do you see the future for your studio? Any plans to expand or open other offices outside Germany, as some others have done? Or do you prefer to remain reasonable in size in this risky industry, with controlled objectives?
Since we started in the late 90’s, we have seen many studios come and go in Germany. You do a good game, grow bigger, make it AAA and after one or two flops you are gone if you have bad luck. We didn’t want to go that way. Instead of growing, we invested in our software tech and quality of life. Our future is also bright because we have enough resources to make any needed changes and the digital market is on the rise. It’s nice as well to have a steady cash flow from the many games we have already available online. And thanks to our fans, we have enough motivation to do it better with each release !
Contact the author: inquiringmind3[@]gmail.com