WiiWare: Innovation and mistakes

I bought a Nintendo Wii earlier this year. I've never actually owned a console before, but have a reasonably strong loyalty to Nintendo. They appear to publish the best games (of course, that's entirely subjective). My game catalogue now includes the following titles:

You may have noticed that I'm not a big fan of the more lighthearted "party" style games out there - I prefer the more focused, single player games.Once I had purchased those titles I began to look for something else, but quickly found that there's not a whole lot of choice out there right now. Most new Wii games tend to be in the "party" category.

Thankfully, Nintendo have launched WiiWare. WiiWare is a collection of titles created by third party developers. There are many different titles to choose from, and each title costs around £10. I ended up purchasing two titles:
These are both splendid games. However, once again, the pool of good games in the WiiWare collection is very limited - the main reason for this as far as I can see is that it's incredibly difficult to get your hands on the tools required to develop games for the Wii. For a start, Nintendo are only selling their development kit to well-established development houses (you need a registerred business, proper offices, previously published titles etc.). Their application form states that:

The Application includes a NonDisclosure Agreement (NDA). Once the Application and NDA are
submitted by you, we will email you a copy of the Application and NDA for your records. Please
note that your submission of an Application and NDA does not imply that your company is approved,
or will be approved, as an Authorized Developer for the platforms above.

If the Application is approved by Nintendo, we will notify you by email. At this point, your
company will be considered an Authorized Developer for the platform(s) specified. If your company
is approved for Wii, this also includes WiiWare. If approved the appropriate SDKs can be downloaded
from Warioworld, and development kits can be purchased from Nintendo of America.

So First you need to sign an NDA, Then, if you are accepted you need to purchase the development kit (priced at over $1000 USD). All this makes is increadibly hard for "joe programmer" to start cutting code for the Wii.

I really think Nintendo have missed a trick here; imagine the community that could form behind a free development kit. Think about the success of the Apple AppStore for the iPhone, but with games instead. The Wii is a revolutionary platform, with a unique control interface: surely lowering the barriers to entry can only be a good thing?

There's another side to this as well: The Wii Homebrew team have already done a lot of work reverse engineering the Wii, to the point where there is already an SDKs available for use. Is it usable? I haven't tried it myself yet (perhaps when I finish some of my current projects I'll play with it), but there are already a fair number of games available for the homebrew channel: I count more than 70 games listed, as well as a number of utilities, emulators and other bits and pieces.

The free development kit is based on the gcc PPC port, and comes bundled with everything you need to start development. GNU gcc has been a well established payer on the compiler scene, so it's not like we're playing with untested technology here.

Given that many of the secrets of the Wii are out (or are being reverse engineered even as you read this), wouldn't it be prudent for Nintendo to officially welcome third party developers to the fold? More importantly, for other, future consoles, imagine a world where:

  • The original manufacturer (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony or whoever) use an open source toolchain from the beginning. I assume that Nintendo have spent a lot of time and money developing their toolchain, which seems a little wasteful to me, when an open source solution already exists. Sure, it may need to be tailored for the Wii, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who would embrace these changes. An open source toolchain lowers development costs, and lowers the barrier to entry for third party developers.
  • Third party developers are encouraged to write applications themselves, and the cost to entry is kept as low as possible. The manufacturer supplies the hardware, points to a pre-packaged toolchain of open source applications, and provides a development SDK with decent documentation. If all you need to test your games is a copy of the console itself, that would be great. However, why not build an emulator that can run on a standard PC?
  • The manufacturer provides bug-fixes for the SDK when needed, and creates a community-oriented website for budding developers.
  • The manufacturer provides a free (or very cheap) means of distributing third party applications via the internet, and offers the option of DRM routines, should the initial autors wish to make use of them.

I believe this setup could bring about a number of beneficial changes to the console gaming market:
  • An overall increase in the diversity and quality of available games.
  • A vibrant community of developers who help the manufacturer maintain the platform SDK and development toolchain by submitting bugs, feature requests and other suggestions.
  • Increased popularity for the platform (I'd buy any platform that offered all of the above).
Unfortunately, I can't see it happening any time soon. It seems to me that the big three console manufacturers are still engrossed in the "proprietary hardware, closed source" paradigm. Still, a guy can dream, right?