Regaining what we have lost : Nintendo CEO Iwata's Ambitions for the "Wii"

May 25, 2006

Nintendo has revealed its new gaming console, the "Wii", currently scheduled for release within 2006. Nintendo has redesigned its traditional game controller, introducing a new user interface that allows players to control characters by moving the controller up/down or left/right and activating an acceleration sensor. Satoru Iwata, CEO of Nintendo, shared his thoughts with us on his ambitions for the "Wii"; revolutionizing gaming console user interfaces in the wake of the highly successful "Nintendo DS".(Interviewers: Naoki Asami, ITpro Publisher, and Hiroki Yomogita, Silicon Valley)

Q: What led you to place emphasis on the user interface?

Iwata: Nintendo has spent several years tackling the question of how to increase the number of users who will enjoy playing games. Being a techie myself, I have no intention to discredit the importance of technology. Yet I was concerned that improving the graphical quality any further would not lead to more people playing games. This led us to focus on the user interface.

Q: Wasn't changing a 20-year-old controller design a bold decision for you?

Iwata: The current design for game controllers was determined by Nintendo, so some of our staff disagreed with changing it. Yet after some hands-on time with the prototypes, we knew we had a working formula. That is why I declared at last year's E3 that revolutionary interfaces will bring change to future games.

A Multitude of Prototypes

Q: Was the going rough or smooth while deciding on the current design?

Iwata: We initiated research on the elemental technology around 3 years ago, and had formed a task force team 2 years ago. Our software and hardware teams held joint discussions each week to explore possibilities. Interface tweaking is different from optimizing performance, for the former is largely subjective, and calls for actual testing. We created a multitude of prototypes.

Q: Why does your controller have a speaker?

Iwata: This feature was absent from the prototype a year ago – we introduced it fairly recently. We discussed what type of feedback the games should provide the user with. Households sporting 5.1 channel speakers will certainly be able to enjoy realistic sound, yet not all homes have such audio equipment. Adding a speaker to the controller will enable us, for example, to have it emit sound effects when hitting the ball in ping-pong, tennis or golf games.

Not a Next-Gen Console

Not a Next-Gen Console

Q: I have had hands-on time with the prototype myself, and find it difficult to express the enjoyment I feel with it – or should I call it immersion – with words.

Iwata: One of the issues we are faced with is how to convey its appeal to the users. For conventional games, showing innovative visuals on a TV screen would be sufficient advertisement. Interfaces cannot be represented numerically, and need to be actually used to be appreciated. Sony and Microsoft must be having their share of problems, as even though game consoles are sporting better graphical capabilities, most households only have SDTV sets, making them unable to enjoy the HDTV quality offered by the game console itself.

Though I'm aware this may be misunderstood, Nintendo is not working on a next-generation console. "Next-generation" implies that the console is an extension of previous installments. We believe that extending our current line will not lead to larger markets, and could possibly even lead to smaller markets. We need to introduce innovative appeal if we want to increase the number of people enjoying games. Recent games have complex control schemes and a steep learning curve for the inexperienced. Those with little gaming experience prefer watching someone else playing to playing the games themselves. Such is the status quo today. That is why we hoped to create an interface that would appeal to anyone.

Building on the success of the DS

Q: Wasn't there concern from developers with the innovative controller design?

Iwata: Deviating from tradition is a bold move for anyone. When Nintendo opted for the dual screens for the DS, more people were shaking their heads and wondering what we were thinking, than commending us for the decision. Yet the market turned out favorable to the DS. We had successfully proven that it was possible to expand the market by changing the user interface. I feel that this had led to more people looking upon our new controller favorably.

Q: Did Nintendo's disadvantage in the console market help in making this bold decision?

Iwata: Nintendo once was the champion in the console market, yet is now the challenger. Challengers have a hard time getting the market to listen to them. Our intent was to revolutionize the user interface in the portable games market, where Nintendo is the reigning champion, and follow that up with the Wii's success in the console market. We have earned support for our user interface innovation much faster than I had expected, and this should help propel the Wii forward.

Q: Is the "Virtual Console" concept proposed by Nintendo another step in the pursuit of simplicity?

Iwata: When creating a packaged game to be priced at 5,000 yen, developers tend to feel the need to create a rich game. Yet it is possible to create a reasonably entertaining game in 2 months with a team of three. Offering such games for 500 yen over a network could lead to a reasonable number of people purchasing it. By offering an environment that allows this, we hope to encourage more developers to pursue basic yet enjoyable gameplay. Of course, content-rich games have their own merit, and I have no intention of discrediting them. Such games are important in their own right, and will continue to be in demand. Still – think about it – eating French cuisine or a full dinner each day would quickly lead to boredom, wouldn't it? You’ll want a simple bowl of rice and soup every now and then. Our intention with the "Wii" is to propose an alternate approach to gaming business, as the gaming industry is currently far too single-minded.

Appeal with the Power Off

Appeal with the Power Off

Q: What will the Wii offer when connected to the Internet?

Iwata: I'll give you a specific example we are planning for. Let's say your Wii is connected to the Internet in a mode that allows activation on a 24-hour basis. This would allow Nintendo to send monthly promotional demos for the DS, during the night, to the Wii consoles in each household. Users would wake up each morning, find the LED lamp on their Wii flashing, and know that Nintendo has sent them something. They would then be able to download the promotional demo from their Wii's to their Nintendo DS's. This will, of course, be possible in gaming stores too, but I think users will enjoy being able to do this within their homes. The key merit here is having promotional material delivered to your home, instead of having to go collect it yourself.

Q: So you hope users will use their gaming consoles every day?

Iwata: More and more users have concentrated periods of gaming following major releases, and stop playing for months once that is over. I hope the Wii, like the Nintendo DS, will have its power turned on every day. To lead users to do that, we need to offer something new each day. That is why we thought of a system that would allow us to change our offerings during the night. I feel that allowing the system to stay connected to the Net throughout the night is a valid application of semiconductor technology.

We have nothing against advanced technology. Though many seem to feel that Nintendo is anti-technological, this is totally untrue. There are multiple ways in which you can apply new technology. Some design Formula 1 cars, others design hybrid cars. We have merely spent a lot of time discussing which approach would help us increase our customer base.