Although I have never been a big fan of console gaming, it has nonetheless been interesting to watch the latest crop of consoles come to market. What really struck me is, even though I don’t intend to buy any of these consoles, I found myself hoping the Nintendo’s Wii would be the big winner. It is certainly not the most powerful, I’ve heard griping about the graphics and the better reviewed games are generally not in genres that interest me. Yet, despite this, I wanted the plucky little upstart to be win the day over the leviathan Sony and Microsoft’s entrants.
Why? Probably because it seems the most “human” of the three. I could easily imagine Nintendo developers actually having fun designing and testing the system. At Sony and Microsoft I could imagine, at best, nameless engineers spending long hours wringing one more frame per second out of the hardware – heat/power-consumption/cost/gameplay be damned.
For this reason, it was fascinating to read an extensive set of interviews with the system’s designers and developers, all on the Wii’s home page. It is an absorbing look into the creative process at one of the most clever companies out there.
There are a few interesting lessons I drew from the interviews:
- Establish a strong central concept: What made the Wii successful was that it has a strong central concept around which the entire system is built, from the bits of hardware to the bytes of software. Most simply, the goal was accessibility: anyone should be able to use the Wii, regardless of age, experience, personal feelings toward gaming and so on. This drove the team to create intuitive interfaces, such as the remote controller, to underlying software that sought to include the entire family within the same shared space.
- Use creativity to push boundaries: Nintendo sought from the very beginning to do something with the Wii. Yet they didn’t start out knowing exactly what that “different” thing would be. Initially they focused on very technical goals: lowering power consumption, heat, noise and the overall size of the console. Nonetheless, the end result was a stylish and easy-to-live-with white box that fits perfectly with Nintendo’s intended “humanization” of the console gaming experience. Merely shifting the rules of the game opened up vast new avenues for creativity, leading to something truly innovative that no one had expected.
This is what really separates Nintendo from their competitors. It has been a long time since a system really shifted the paradigm of console gaming. The Xbox 360 is really just an original Xbox, only more-so. The Playstation 3? Ultimately an upgraded Playstation 2, itself conceptually the same as the original Playstation 1.
- Focus on simplicity: As many out there advocate, focusing on simplicity can be a strong driver for creating successful products. This is certainly true with the Wii. While much attention was focused on delivering on proposed innovations, the developers also sought to strip out anything unnecessary.
[O]ur previous controllers, for the NES, SNES, N64 and GameCube, have evolved by adding features… With the Wii Remote however, we didn’t just add, but subtracted as well.
This is an important point, particularly for console system developers. As consoles become more and more complex, more like desktop computers, it’s a salient point that the first consoles were successful because they weren’t complex and did not function like full-blown computers.
This might not be said very often, but a very important thing about the NES was that it worked no matter who used it. It turned on when you pressed the power button, started when you pressed the start button, and reset when you pressed the reset button. I always wondered why something so simple couldn’t be achieved with a PC.
- Think holistically: With the Wii, Nintendo thought beyond how people would directly use the system, namely the details of gaming experience. They also considered how the Wii would fit into someone’s – and their family’s – life.
We really couldn’t give up on that goal once we decided to make Wii a sleepless machine that stays on 24 hours a day. If the fan is spinning in the middle of the night, I could just imagine mothers everywhere pulling the plug right out of the wall because they thought it had been left on again.
Thinking about their customers in this very personal way, one gets the impression that the developers really respect the end-users of the Wii. They weren’t just thinking about raw marketing demographics (X feature will entice Y buyer) but rather considering about how the Wii will fit into each of their lives.
This comes through quite saliently in a key design concession Nintendo was forced to make: making users to place a small sensor bar on their TV so the system would properly detect the location of the wireless remote. To minimize the intrusion on user’s lives, the design team went through iteration after iteration to get the smallest and most unobtrusive strip possible. Nintendo was almost saying, “Please accept our apologies for the irritation, but we promise you will have fun if you accommodate this small annoyance!”
We thought about all possible TV shapes and stands, and did our best to make it fit perfectly. All I could say now is, “We’ve done everything we could, so please do your best to make it fit!”
- Create passionate users: On seeing the new controller being used for the first time, one developer had this to say:
I’m a little embarrassed to say this in front of you guys, but I was overflowing with emotion. And even after that, I thought I was going to cry again when I saw how much everyone enjoyed using the controller.
A point often said but still worth reiterating, when competing at this level, creating passionate users is the ultimate measure of success. It is why Apple has hundred dollar profit margins on iPods while other manufacturers stomach losses on each transaction. It is why Nintendo sells the Wii at a profit while Sony and Microsoft are giving away free hardware with each Playstation or XBox purchase. Its why I am writing this article despite having no intention to buy any of the consoles mentioned here.