If the road ahead looks like the road to nowhere...
Learn from Nintendo. The Wii, its family-friendly, power-saving, paradigm-shifting games console, points to a more sustainable consumer electronics industry
Article by Lloyd Bradley
Last year every me-too chief executive declared that he wanted to make his company ‘the iPod of...’ This year the mantra is changing, as managers try to position their companies as ‘the Wii of...’
This new games console from Nintendo, which seems to have sprung out of a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel, has single-handedly dragged living-room hardware out of its self-imposed Dark Ages. The unit’s astonishing interface with what’s happening on screen is changing software direction. But it’s the thinking behind Wii (pronounced ‘wee’) that offers a vivid lesson for any firm trying to innovate its way to a brighter future. Thinking which Nintendo has, in an intriguing move, preserved for posterity online (at wii.nintendo.com/iwata_asks_vol1_p1.jsp).
Wii’s sexiest selling point is its revolutionary approach to gaming: wirelessly linked to the main box you have a small rectangular, hand-held device that can detect and accurately digitise motion and rotation in three dimensions and through 360 º. In your capable hands it can be a sword, a tennis racquet, a golf club, a bowling ball and so on, allowing up to four people to participate virtually, in real time and using real movement, in whatever is happening on the screen.
Remarkably, Nintendo made these leaps forward by looking back to a time when, in the consumer electronics industry, the ‘consumer’ was still more important than the ‘electronics’.
Nintendo’s development teams started with the idea of expanding a market that had stagnated into, largely, young men or older men who had retained their younger self’s level of leisure time and familial responsibilities. Almost all product development (across the industry, not just Nintendo) had been geared to this proportionately massive sector, but sales trends showed there was a limit to how often they would upgrade their hardware, while fewer new gamers were entering the market. So Nintendo had to widen their console’s appeal. That meant taking it out of the teenager’s bedroom and reinstalling it in the living room. Wii, the developers soon decided, had to be family friendly.
This intended demographic shift was one of the driving forces behind the development of Wii’s spectacularly versatile handset. Nintendo felt the physicality of the old controller was limiting consumer desirability as gamers grew out of it.
Product designer Kenichiro Ashida says: “More than anything else, I felt as though the GameCube [Nintendo’s previous flagship console] controller and I were incompatible. Having a family, the time I had to play games decreased. There was a gap between my ‘creator self’ and my ‘player self’. When I understood the Wii concept, I felt this would be a console that I too could enjoy. I also felt it might be time to reconsider the gameplay style of grasping the controller with two hands, sitting glued to the TV until morning. I’m not rejecting that intense style of play, but taking the whole idea of grasping the controller with two hands back to the drawing board offered a glimpse of the future.”
The gunbai fan, once a samurai fashion accessory, is used by referees in sumo matches and inspired Nintendo to think about one-handed control.
Alongside this motivation was Nintendo’s far more pragmatic notion that the GameCube’s handset was the ultimate in conventional two-handed units. After years of subtle evolution and technological additions, designers believed the controller just couldn’t be developed any further. If they had to return to the drawing board they might as well pin a blank sheet of paper to it.
Wii was always going to be wireless, but the big idea was the single-handed operation, a radical departure from the traditional hunched-over-the-handset operating posture and its exclusive body language. Manufacturers had consistently objected that there weren’t any single-handed controllers so buyers would be resistant. That might have been true 15 years ago, when this theory passed unchallenged into industry lore, but to Wii’s developers it seemed outdated and irrelevant.
It didn’t hurt that, for the first time ever, Nintendo was working with various outside design teams on every aspect of the unit’s development. Computer mouse manipulation, TV remote controlling and mobile phone usage were striking examples of one-handed technology that consumers had been happy to use. Such items were used as inspiration along with the gunbai – the small fan held by sumo wrestling referees to keep cool in the ring – to evolve a handset that was ergonomically viable across a family’s range of hand sizes and rugged enough to smash that match-winning volley at Wimbledon.
To create something as off the dial as Wii, the developers had to think radically at the very outset. The most daring step was to rip up the gaming business’s so-called roadmap. The roadmap is a path of ‘predicted industry evolution as dictated by an overview that takes in semiconductor development, parallel products and the recent past’. Boiled down, that means that depending on what chips are about to become available, what other consumer electronics sectors are doing and what past trends have been, the leisure electronics manufacturers look to develop ideas that will be in step with that coming technology.
This roadmap thwarted innovation. Semiconductor technology was driving it and their developers were working to provide what they assumed, from past experience, the hardware manufacturers across the spectrum wanted. And it seemed all they wanted was power. Plenty of it.
Wii needed to do something different because, Genyo Takeda, general manager of the integrated research and development division, says, it was subject to a rule of diminishing returns.
“If we had followed existing roadmaps we would have aimed to make it faster and flashier. We’d have tried to improve the speed at which it displays stunning graphics. But we could not help but ask, ‘How big an impact would that really have on our customers?’ In development, we came to realise the sheer inefficiency of this path when we compared the hardships and costs of development against the new experiences customers might have.
“In 2002 I started to feel unsure about following the accepted path. I became keenly aware of the fact that there is no end to the desire of those who just want more. Give them one, they ask for two. Give them two and next time they will ask for five instead of three, their desire growing exponentially. Giving in to this will lead us nowhere in the end.”
Wii is a human-centric, business-technology ecosystem and it’s making money right now Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week
Power and its application were not ignored, but instead of raising performance levels by increasing the power available, which proportionately increases the energy the unit consumes, the designers, mindful of an existing potential for waste, looked to power the new console down. Instead of using state-of-the-art technology to ramp up the output, Wii sought to use it to drastically reduce the power needed to drive the unit, while maintaining the highest gaming specifications. It was one giant step away from games manufacturing convention, so Takeda, mindful of domestic electricity bills and sustainability, looked to the car industry.
“If automobiles can be used as a metaphor, our industry has always been trying to compete over horsepower, while not all cars are made to compete in Formula 1 races. Not every car follows the same evolutionary course. Some are trying to make faster cars, others are gathering public attention around the world with their hybrid engines.”
Kou Shiota, of Nintendo’s product development department, believes this approach could extend beyond Wii. “When we were struggling to reduce power consumption, we simulated how power consumption would change in existing devices if we applied cutting-edge semiconductor technology. We discovered the GameCube’s power consumption could be reduced to between one-third and one-quarter of what it is, with no noticeable drop in quality or speed.”
This overtly eco-friendly, energy-saving aspect of Nintendo’s new hardware has sent the entire industry scrambling to apply the same techniques to their products in development.
The GameCube had developed power and quality of graphics to such a level that Nintendo didn’t see how it could be cost-effectively improved.
Using less power is vital to Wii’s ambition to become not only family-centric but at the centre of the family. Wii is designed to be left on 24/7 as it has several different ‘channels’ that, through an integrated web browser, provide a rolling news service and continuous world and local weather reports. The number and range of these channels is to expand, the idea being that Wii will be everyone’s first port of call for day-to-day information.
The system also runs an intranet-style family bulletin board and schedule planner, whereby instead of sticking notes on the fridge, family members can arrive home, rouse the Wii and be brought up to speed on all things domestic. In some ways it sounds a slightly scary prospect, but Wii aims to become a sort of 21st-century hearth.
With such a role comes responsibility and Wii has been designed not to shirk its parental duties. The unit can be programmed to switch itself off after a prescribed time, while the hard drive features an unerasable memory that reveals what it has been used for and for how long. Nintendo wants to ensure teenagers aren’t hogging the gaming so Mum and Dad can have a turn. There is even evidence, suggestive rather than conclusive, that users can lose weight playing Wii, virtual forearm smashes using up more calories than pressing buttons as hard as possible.
Absorbing what had been going on around games console evolution instead of simply within it, developers realised that TV sets are now ringed by lots of audio-visual equipment. Thus Wii had to be small – “no bigger than three DVD cases on top of each other” – but attractive. They went for a smooth surface for the first time. Ashida says: “We weren’t just aiming for a classy look. We wanted Wii to be accessible to all kinds of people, instead of just focusing on keeping costs down. So we’ve created something that has the functionality and durability of a toy but doesn’t look like one.”
The Toyota Prius, the famous hybrid car, reminded Wii developers that speed wasn’t the only criterion by which a new games console could be judged.
For an industry that has grown prosperous on the business of rapid-fire built-in obsolescence, Wii marks a significant shift, acknowledging the problem of sustainability and stepping back from a race over graphics and power that, for the industry and the planet, represents the road to nowhere.
Bruce Nussbaum, the innovations editor of Business Week, says: “Wii is making money right now. The PlayStation 3 is expected to be profitable years down the road. The Wii is a human-centric, business-technology ecosystem, on a par with iPod-iTunes-iMac. It involves many kinds of innovation integrated into a package that delivers a great, customisable, individual experience.”
Ten lessons from Wii
What the development of Nintendo’s bestselling game console can tell us about innovation
- When developing functionality, listen to your consumers’ needs rather than your technicians’ fantasies, because there is only so much you can sell people that they don’t actually want.
- Pay attention to what is happening outside your sector, as developments and customer preferences in parallel markets should affect your thinking.
- The most obvious and straightforward path is not always the best.
- Don’t bow to industry peer pressure. Just because your rivals are following a certain evolutionary path doesn’t mean it’s the only correct one.
- Know when to say goodbye. If a product has reached the end of its useful life don’t try to ‘develop’ new life into it, discontinue it and start again.
- If you opt to go back to the drawing board don’t take any previous baggage with you. Make your fresh start as fresh as possible and take full advantage of it.
- Don’t let your design team pander to one vociferous area of your market at the expense of an uncatered-for majority.
- Learn lessons from the past, but don’t let it be the only thing that dictates your future.
- Think the unthinkable. Nintendo thought about a console that parents could switch off to stop their kids over-indulging.
- Think costs and benefits. Does it make sense to deliver a small incremental advance in performance if the development costs are high?
Article first published in Design Council Magazine, Issue 2, Summer 2007