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Destructoid interview: The Conduit developer High Voltage Software

12:00 PM on 02.13.2009 // Nick Chester

At New York Comic Con, heads were turning at Sega's booth space. Illinois-based developer High Voltage had brought along their upcoming Wii-exclusive first-person shooter, The Conduit.

Designed from the ground up to take advantage of the Wii hardware, The Conduit could be what "core gamers" have been waiting for. And according to High Voltage’s Chief Creative Officer, Eric Nofsinger, they hope to pick up some new gamers along the way.

We caught up with Nofsinger and High Voltage founder Kerry Gonofsky to talk about designing an original first-person shooter for the Wii, using (or not using) Wii MotionPlus, and more. Hit the jump for our full interview.

So give me the lowdown about The Conduit. What's it all about?

It's an exclusive first-person shooter for the Wii, and we're trying to make the definitive experience for the console.

What's the story?

The story is... we're still trying to figure that out. We've got easily, like, a month before we go into full-on bug testing, so we have plenty of time.

About 29 days!

Exactly. No, the story [has] a science fiction-based, conspiracy big action blockbuster feel to it. You play Michael Ford, a Secret Service Agent that's been inducted into something called "The Trust," sort of a shadowy, Men In Black kind of organization. You're called into thwart an alien invasion. You've got to protect the President, you get to fight in all sorts of cool places like the Library of Congress, the Jefferson Memorial, the Pentagon.

The White House ...

So you guys are going up against some pretty big, triple-A first-person shooters on other platforms, games that are setting new bars for things like visuals -- Killzone 2, games like that.

People are pretty impressed by the game, watching them and listening to them on the Comic Con floor. A lot of what I'm hearing is "it looks really good for a Wii game." Why the Wii? Why not another system where you could have pushed more polygons?

Yeah, sure. We could have pushed more polygons, but we believe that gameplay is king. Although we want to make a higher-quality experience than sort of the really minimum bar that most Wii games are, for us it was all about control. With the Wii, it affords you a different type of control mechanism other than playing with two analog sticks or a "brick" on a PC. It's a different way to interact, and it afforded a whole other level of interactivity with a first-person shooter.

It makes a lot of sense to just point and kill things. Beyond that, we were able to do a lot of stuff with the motion controls in it. We're able to do melee attacks with the jab, we're able to do grenade tosses with the Nunchuk. And we have a lot of Wii-specific weapons with the alien technlogy and the Trust technology that you just couldn't do on a 360 or a PlayStation 3. Personally, I'd take good gameplay over a few more polys anyday.

And I think you've said it best: "but for the Wii." There's 50 million "buts" out there, and [Wii gamers] need a quality title just as much as a they do on a PlayStation 3 or a 360. I think when you look at the technology and what we've done, it's not just about hey "This looks great on the Wii." But it also plays great on the Wii, and it was built for the Wii. So I think that's the critical component that some people might be missing.

Sure, absolutely. Who else is really doing this? Outside of Sega? You've got very few folks that are trying to push the system. Now you hear a few more folks coming out publicly and saying "Yeah, maybe we need to explore this little Wii thing." But it's like, we've been saying this for a year and a half. The system deserves good games instead of just ports.

Creating a triple-A title, that requires partnering with a triple-A publisher. I think Sega understands that, and Sega management understands that. So it's been a great relationship.

Yeah, Sega has The Conduit, House of the Dead: Overkill, MadWorld ... all of these kind of mature, grittier titles that people have been sort of asking for. Do you think that there's a market for that?

There's definitely a very vocal crowd of people -- myself included -- that are done with Wii Sports, done with the mini-games. So me, for sure, I definitely want experiences like these. The Wii brought in a lot of "non-gamers"; do you think stuff like this will catch their attention?

I think it will pull a lot of them into what would be considered typically the "core" gamers. Just like Halo did with the Xbox -- before Halo, how many folks played first-person shooters on consoles? It was kind of looked down on. We're hoping to do the same sort of thing with The Conduit. I mean, here's an even more exciting way to play on a more accessible console. We believe that when folks get that in their hands and try it, and realize "Hey this is something that I can interface with." We believe it's going to pull in folks that wouldn't have even considered a first-person shooter before.

The development team did such an incredible job of creating a control system that's intuitive. It fits the Wii controls perfectly. For instance, the grenades -- point and toss. Point your cursor at that little blue barrel right there, move your Nunchuk, that's where the grenade goes. I think that's ostensible to that casual audience. So I think we can hit a larger demographic by doing things like that, and kudos to the team for putting together a product like this.

Can you see someone's grandmother playing The Conduit? When designing it, were you thinking about that, maybe skewing it a little bit easier to play?

No, no. We had to make it really intuitive. Everybody wants intuitive gameplay, but outside of that, we had to give a lot of depth and customization to it. Because even around the office, we had this ideal of making the definitive first-person shooter. Well what is that? If I ask you that, you're going to have a different explanation than me or Kerry. Each of us is going to have a different take on what's right for it. So customization was a big point to us.

Every little piece that we opened up and exposed to these folks, we found that a lot of core gamers would say, "That's great. we want even more." So we just kept listening to them. I mean the level of minutiae that a core gamer can get into, I don't even know of another first-person shooter, 360, PC or otherwise, that has quite the level of customization. I don't know of any PC or console shooter that allows you to point at the HUD elements and drag them and drop them wherever you want them. We're able to do a lot of crazy customization that would be tough to do on the PC.

Yeah, Eric led the charge or reaching out to the online community for feedback, opinions. Even a contest on designing the best HUD. I think that's valuable, that kind of feedback. We're not so much making the game for ourselves as we are for 50 million Wii owners.

Right. When I was at the Nintendo Media Summit [late last year], I had a question about the controls, and I made a suggestion. And I was really surprised [Eric] pulled out a notebook and you were like "OK, what was that again?" It was wild, you were actually listening to me.

That was really his grocery list. [laughs]

No, I did that with every person there. I did that at PAX, and each of these shows. Obvious media and press folks, you guys play a lot of games, so you know what's what. But even "John Q. Public," the folks coming to PAX, they gravitate more towards the hardcore. If we're making them happy and we can make the casual player happy, we hope we can do that.

Before you reached out and start getting suggestions, was there anything that you thought, "Oh, this is going to work great." But then, ultimately, found that it just didn't work?

Oh yeah, there's a lot of examples of that stuff. The proof is kind of in the pudding, and once you try it, it's kind of proved or disproved. One of the things was melee attacks. We had to play a lot with the sensitivity on that. I mean, you could map the melee to the D-pad but it defaults right now to a quick thrust forward on the Wii Remote. It's really easy to get disoriented, so we had to play a lot with that. "Oh yeah, you'll just thrust forward and it's going to work great." But really, the first implementations of it were terrible; it just didn't work at all. We had to do a lot of work with that to see what would work.

The biggest example of that that I could give was Wii MotionPlus. We were really excited about Wii MotionPlus; we got the kits when everyone else got them -- actually a little bit before. We were really excited, going back and forth with Nintendo on how to integrate this and what the best use for it was. But when we actually implemented it, it really didn't bring that much to the table. It really felt like a bit of a gimmick. The other things in the game had been built from the ground up to take advantage of the Wii Remote. This just felt way too tacked on. We didn't have a lot of melee weapons to take advantage of it; actually, we had no melee weapons. So we tried to scramble a little bit: "Oh, are we going to try to tack on a melee weapon?" We played around with that. To be real honest, it just felt like a cop-out. From day one, our mantra has always been, "If we're not doing it right, don't do it."

So when we looked at that we said, "Hey, this doesn't feel right. It feels like a tack on. There's really not a lot of gameplay that supports it. Let's not lie to our fan base and say, 'Hey Wii MotionPlus,' just to use it as a bullet point on a box." Unlike Wii Speak, we plug that it and it works great. It's really cool to be able to trash talk with your buddies online. But maybe for a future version we'll revisit [Wii MotionPlus], and if we can build something around it that makes sense. We're not going to just tack it on to tack it on.

Did you find that the technology for the Wii MotionPlus worked as advertised, and it was just for this particular game that it wasn't right?

Yeah, it works. It lends itself better to certain kinds of things over others. Because the way that you have to calibrate it, and because of the way that there are some issues with some of the data and the way that it lags and so forth. It really lends itself better to melee-type things and things where you calibrate in-between [sections]. If The Conduit was starting development today -- which it's not -- but if it was and we wanted to use it, we'd probably look at it differently and incorporate weapons that make more sense for it. But it just didn't work out.

On the topic of Wii Speak -- can you clarify how online play is going to work? Are you supporting friend codes, is there a lobby system?

Well a lot of the details we're not releasing quite yet. But the details that we have told folks: it's 16-player online multiplayer, and that's running smoothly. We've told people Wii Speak, and that's working beautifully. We've gotten really good data transfer. We've told folks Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag. That in itself is kind of meat-and-potatoes, and any online shooter is going to have those kind of things, so it's not telling you a whole lot.

Over the next few weeks there's going to be a lot more information on it. But we're definitely looking to up the ante, and do some things that are going to be special for the Wii. In the same way that we did for the core game, making the single-player experience special for the Wii, we tried to do the same thing with the online component.

Cool. So Nintendo's introducing the SD card support. Would downloadable content be something you'd be able to support?

No, not for this version. It's just not designed for it. We love downloadable content of any kind; it's a natural fit for first-person shooters and other kinds of games. But it's just too late in the game to come on board. Again, we wouldn't want to put in a half-assed solution. It does everyone a disservice.

Yeah, tacking something on at this point would be a disservice to everybody.

How many maps are you going to ship with?

We're not ready to talk about that yet. But there's a lot of great maps, and I can say the single-player experience is a lot of fun, but the most mileage we've had with it as a team has been in multiplayer. It's just a lot of fun to shoot your co-workers in the face. Who knew?

How do you feel about that, Kerry?

Everyone loves to see the boss join in the lobby.

For some reason he's a target, it must be some kind of glitch in the system.

I join and suddenly there's a lot of arrows pointing at me. I don't know why.

Again, it looks good for a Wii game ...

It looks good for a game, period!

Right, right! So, this is technology you've built from the ground up. Is that technology something that would share with other developers, or maybe your publishing partners like Sega?

We've been approached a lot about the idea of licensing, as you might imagine. A lot of folks have come out about our Quantum 3 tech. We've not really pursued that, because that's a full-time gig. I don't think Kerry or I are looking to be Epic or anything like that. You need to have an infrastructure for that.

The guys at Epic do a great job of that. We're really a developer, and we're approached frequently by developers and publishers for licensing. Part of it is, you know, we want to release this game first and foremost. Our commitment is to the consumer and finishing this game and doing it right. We'll look at ancillary revenue streams and licensing it to a handful of partners because we want everything to be great on the Wii. Right now, we want this title to be great on the Wii.

I will say too that some of the folks that reached out to us right away they were really quality, great developers, great publishers. And some of them sure weren't. That gets into a fuzzy area where you know, we want to make sure that High Voltage is establishing itself as a high-quality developer. I think a lot of folks can overlook some of our less stellar titles that we've done under the licensed yoke. They'll give us a free pass once, but they won't give it to us twice.

We believe you have to judge the titles for what they are. Time-to-market titles, for a license [developed] in seven to eight months, you have to judge them differently from a title built from the ground up.

Do you have a ship date for The Conduit?

Summer 2009.

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Nick Chester, Former Editor-in-Chief (2011)
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