Industry News

[November 16, 2006]

The Big Ideas Behind Nintendo's Wii

(BusinessWeek Online Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)
When Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata offered the gaming public a glimpse of the company's next-generation home-entertainment system during the Tokyo Game Show in September, 2005, he was hardly prepared for the stunned silence that followed. "It was as though the audience didn't know how to react," he recalls. But now, as Nintendo prepares for the Nov. 19 launch of its console, dubbed Wii [pronounced "we"], many of the early reviews have been glowing.


The reason: Nintendo's new controller. The device resembles a TV remote but with fewer buttons. It relies on wireless technology with built-in motion sensors to translate movement directly onto a TV screen. Wii can be swung like a tennis racket, twirled like a steering wheel, or pointed at the screen like a gun. BusinessWeek Tokyo correspondent Kenji Hall recently talked with two members of the development team, Shigeru Miyamoto and veteran designer Ken'ichiro Ashida, about developing the Wii and getting inspiration from cell phones, earlier consoles -- and moms. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow.

<strong>How did you approach the redesign of the controller?

Miyamoto:</strong> We started work on the Wii around the time the GameCube went on sale in 2001. [Internally, the Wii had the codename "Revolution.") We started with the idea that we wanted to come up with a unique game interface. The consensus was that power isn't everything for a console. Too many powerful consoles can't coexist. It's like having only ferocious dinosaurs. They might fight and hasten their own extinction.

Ultimately, it came down to whether power should be a key element of the console or not. We didn't think it was possible to build a powerful machine for less than 50,000 yen [$450]. Not only would it use a lot of electricity, it would need a fan, which meant it would be noisy. Moms would rise up against it. Plus, it would take too long to boot up, like a PC, which isn't an ideal toy.

<strong>Can you recount the scene at one of those early meetings?

Miyamoto:</strong> It was 2003. We got game designers and engineers together to discuss the future of video games. We talked about what specs and features a console should have. But we knew we would get nowhere if we didn't get moms' approval. So we thought about what might convince moms to buy this for their kids. When that happened, we talked about basic concepts and goals, not about the technical specifications of the console. This was the Wii's first major step.

We decided on the basic technology for the console in late 2004, early 2005. By then, we had come up with the remote controller's wand shape and the nunchuk analog controller attachment. We also decided on the motion sensor, infrared pointer, and the layout of buttons.

We tested all kinds of technologies for the controller. We made working prototypes and tested them on games to see how they might be used. We actually were ready to show off the controller at E3 [Electronic Entertainment Expo, the annual video game conference in Los Angeles] in 2005, but we had some troubleshooting to do. So we decided not to reveal the controller and instead we displayed just the console.

<strong>Was making a console that would cost $250 or less the goal from the start?

Miyamoto:</strong> Originally, I wanted a machine that would cost $100. My idea was to spend nothing on the console technology so all the money could be spent on improving the interface and software. If we hadn't used NAND flash memory [to store data such as games and photos) and other pricey parts, we might have succeeded.

To answer your questions, yes, we set out to design a console that would sell for less than 25,000 yen [$211]. It was a tall hurdle. But unless you start off with a target, you can't control costs and you'll inevitably lose money. Also, we thought a low-cost console would make moms happy.

<strong>So moms were a key target audience for this console?

Miyamoto:</strong> Our goal was to come up with a machine that moms would want -- easy to use, quick to start up, not a huge energy drain, and quiet while it was running. Rather than just picking new technology, we thought seriously about what a game console should be. [CEO Satoru) Iwata wanted a console that would play every Nintendo game ever made. Moms would hate it if they had to have several consoles lying around.

<strong>Ashida:</strong> We didn't want wires all over the place, which might anger moms because of the mess.

<strong>Did you ever worry about the Wii's inability to match the realistic graphics and high-speed processing power of rivals' machines?

Miyamoto:</strong> We had to compromise on graphics and give up on a powerful chip. Many of our employees initially wanted high-definition graphics. But they agreed with us that graphics wouldn't matter if the games weren't fun to play. That said, the Wii is much faster than the GameCube.

As new chip technology becomes available, we'll consider less power-hungry varieties that don't cost too much. And once high-definition TVs take off, we'll consider the merits of better graphics and more power.

<strong>Were there any nongame controllers that you looked to for inspiration?

Ashida:</strong> Miyamoto brought in cell phones and car navigation remote controllers and tried them, too. We made one that resembled a cell phone. Another one had an analog stick on top and digital interface on bottom.

<strong>The DS handheld gaming console, released in 2004, is now the hottest-selling portable video game machine. Did the success of the DS influence your design decisions?

Ashida:</strong> The DS had a huge impact on the Wii's design. We had the DS on our minds as we worked on the Wii. We thought about copying the DS's touch-panel interface and even came up with a prototype. But then we rejected the idea, since the portable console and the living-room console would have been exactly the same.

<strong>Miyamoto:</strong> The DS prepared the way for the Wii. The DS's unique interface had traction with nongamers. That made us think we had a shot at reaching a broader audience. But if the DS had flopped, we might have taken the Wii back to the drawing board.

<strong>Game controllers haven't changed radically for more than two decades. How has that affected the industry?

Miyamoto:</strong> The classic controller was something we had become fond of and gamers had become comfortable with. It had many important elements. But it also had come to dictate a lot of what went into games -- the way graphics were made, the way battles were fought in role-playing games, the arc of in-game stories. They were all being made to fit one standard. Creativity was being stifled, and the range of games was narrowing.

There are examples of controllers that were made for specific games such as Konami's Dance Revolution. And for a long time, we thought that changing the interface would broaden game design and loosen creative constraints on programmers. We found that to be true when we released the DS. Around that time, we were also agreeing that we would start from the drawing board with something entirely unlike anything we had made before.

<strong>What were the biggest technical challenges in the controller redesign?

Ashida:</strong> The controller's wireless technology. It took two years.

<strong>Miyamoto:</strong> Getting the infrared pointer to work took more than a year. It worked just fine in the ideal environment. But bright lights and sunlight interfered with its accuracy. And we had to test it in rooms of all sizes. The final version wasn't finished until this summer.

We also had reservations about adding a sensor bar to boost the pointer's precision, since we wanted to make the setup as simple as possible. Combining the different technologies to mimic 3D space recognition took time. By the end of 2005, it was ready for mass production. But we were making adjustments up to the last minute.

<strong>Did you ask consumer focus groups to try out the Wii?

Miyamoto:</strong> We don't use consumer focus groups. We got a lot of feedback from developers in the industry, and we invited family members of employees to test the prototypes. We took lots of precautions to prevent leaks.

<strong>Ashida:</strong> My family was among those that tested the Wii. My son is a second grader. He loved it. After playing, he was completely drenched in sweat.

Copyright 2006 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., All rights reserved.

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