Nintendo's Big Idea is Not the Wiimote

This whole Wii thing has been bouncing around in my head for weeks. There's some common thread between it, the Nintendo DS, the iPod and even Mac OS X. Is it less technology? Is it simpler technology? Is is overall experience? Then, of all publications, The Economist hit the nail right on the head.

The Economist article paraphrases for Nintendo president Satoru Iwata:

The main problem with modern games, he says, is that they require players to invest enormous amounts of time.

That's it in a nutshell, at least for me. The physical interactions of the Wii look interesting, and that's probably enough to differentiate it from PS3 and Xbox on the surface, but the new players won't stay if they have to restructure their entire schedule to find time to play.

The idea that you need to spend a lot of time upfront just to get oriented in a game before you actually get to the fun part is one thing. It's something else to consider you'll spend a lot more time trying to get to the end. How much of that time will equate to fun versus going through the motions is anyone's guess.

This was the basic problem I had with Oblivion for Xbox 360. Within a few hours of playing, I found out that the game is insanely deep and meticulously constructed. This sort of thing is only possible now because of more advanced hardware. It's not just RPGs. The same is true with many of the newer car racing titles.

Is Realism Really the Goal?

Part of me thinks (or thought) what I want in a game is a deep, intricate world which rewards exploration. The problem is that a realistic world leaves you with the same dilemma as the real world: it's not always obvious what you're supposed to be doing. Do I need to simulate this?

The question isn't if I'll feel like the game is rewarding after I play it for a while, but if it's fun right now. Why endure gameplay that isn't fun (for me) for the possibility of fun later?

Realism is part of fun, but only two a point. For a time, games were so unrealistic (meaning 8-bit games) that it was distracting. As the hardware got better, the distraction of unconvincing graphics slowly melted away. But infinitely more realism doesn't necessarily mean infinitely more fun.

I can't help but share a story that comes up in my head over and over again, because it fits so perfectly here.

My family went to Universal Studios about 15 years ago and I remember one of the stops on the "train" tour is the "avalanche." The train drives through a cylindrical, rotating tunnel. As you enter, the train tracks tilt about 20 degrees to the right to give you the impression that you're rotating too.

The tilt is "just enough" to experience the sensation without actually going through all the silliness of the train actually rolling over so you fall out along with all of your possessions and your loved ones. Enough realism to be convincing, but only to the point that it's serving the purpose of enjoyment.

Quick Payoff

The thing that's strikingly obvious now about Mario Brothers for the DS is that in most cases, any particular moment is fun. There's almost no learning curve, and you're rarely trying to figure out what to do, or digging through menus, or anything of that nature.

You can play for a few minutes, and just turn it off any time. A game like Brain Age is actually designed for many short sessions of play.

Even with more complex/specialized Nintendo games like Zelda, you're rarely bogged down in piles of busy work. It always feels there's an immediacy to your actions. You're generally not building up experience points or that sort of thing.

The Mac Side

So what I want is fun more than a "deep world." Maybe the counterpart to that in a computer is the idea of "deep features."

I need to meditate on all of this a bit more, but I have a feeling part of the link between the the Nintendo devices and the Mac/iPod is the assumption the user does not want to invest time. That is, the Mac tries to not assume that you're a "computer person." Sometimes it's simply unavoidable, or we'd end up with an appliance more than a general-purpose computer.

A quick glance at Photo Booth shows this mentality in action. No wizards, no tips of the day, no toolbars. Just what you need for the task at hand. The iPod is the same way. Instead of making a big deal about synching and playing music, it just does it.

A lot of gadgets get attention initially because of the idea of the thing. It's new, it's shiny, it has fancy specs on the side of the box. It seems like a moment in history.

Those moments are great, and even Apple and Nintendo users bask in them, but what sets the Mac, iPod and Nintendo devices apart is that you're still drawn to them after the initial newness wears off. The minute-to-minute experiences aren't a chore. They're simple, so they're in harmony with your real life.

Does any of this make sense? It's very late.
Design Element
Nintendo's Big Idea is Not the Wiimote
Posted Oct 27, 2006 — 26 comments below


Caleb — Oct 27, 06 2178

Spot on. I bought my first mac 2 years ago because I was tired of the daily chores and the thought of future reformats and dealing with viruses, I never really enjoyed my computer because I was always concerned about if it would crash tomorrow. I now enjoy my time on the computer. Great insight.

Steve-o — Oct 27, 06 2179

I agree completely. Moreover, until the DS, I started moving away from gaming because I just didn't have the time to really get in deep with a game anymore. Pick-up-and-play games were about all I could be bothered with. The DS provided a great source for this (right down to the sleep mode when closed which means no booting up to play, just literally pick-up-and-play!).

Other games can feel like a chore I have to find a way to fit in my day (even if I'm having "fun" playing them).

I hope for the same from the Wii.

And it's a great comparison to OS X and the Mac.

Bill Coleman — Oct 27, 06 2180

Two comments:

1) I remember an article a while back (I think it was in Discover magazine) talking about the human factors issues with game development. If you make a game too difficult, people will get frustrated trying to play and give up. If you make a game too easy, people will get bored and quit playing. It's sort of a human factors "coffin corner" that doesn't exist for other types of applications.

This makes creating a (good) game much more difficult that ordinary software. You've got to get just the right amount of difficulty or you lose your audience. It's even harder when your audience varies from 12-20-somethings who play 10+ hours a week and have super-twitchy thumbs to the weekend gamer.

2) Early in my carreer at the Hayes Corportion (a long-defunct modem maker), I ran across the dilemma of automatic operations. When things worked automatically -- customers loved it. However, when they stopped working, there was usually almost no way to diagnose the problem. Mainly because it is just supposed to work.

My wife recently ran into this issue when she upgrade last years version of iMovie HD (I know, we're a year behind). She had some old iMovie projects she wanted to edit. The documentation says you just open them -- but these projects just wouldn't open! Extremely frustrating.

The rule for automatic operations then, is that they must be either iron-clad robust, or they must be completely self-diagnostic to the user. Anything less invites unhappy customers.

Philip — Oct 27, 06 2181

"2) Early in my carreer at the Hayes Corportion (a long-defunct modem maker), I ran across the dilemma of automatic operations."

What a coincidence. I just dug a Hayes V-series Smartmodem 9600 out while cleaning out our lab's basement. Speeds up to 25Kbs and a new lower price of $799!

Samo — Oct 27, 06 2182

Simplicity is what makes it interesting. It will allow the Wii to appeal to a greater audience.

At the end of the day, Nintendo will have a console that will look simple enough for people to actually use. The top latch covering the "complicated connectors" is part of it, the small form factor that is not intimidating people, the "natural" controller and, to some extent, the simple nature of the launch titles, are, too. It will lower the entry bar and that's what Nintendo wants.

Carl — Oct 27, 06 2183

Here's a really good article for explaining Nintendo's strategy.

Basically, the theory is that Nintendo pushes hardware innovation because it's easier for them to pioneer than to plow an exhausted old field. I think part of that means pulling in new people, and new people aren't going to be interested in anything that feels like busywork.

Michael James — Oct 27, 06 2184

I agree. Although, to this day, I still prefer in many cases the old video games I used to play as a kid (especially the arcade versions of those games).

Today's video game developers and users (gamers) are too addicted to the false concept that a game with excellent 3D graphics and cinematic intermissions = a great game. Not true. I still get much more fun and pleasure playing Robotron 2084 in all of it's 8-bit, 2D glory than almost anything today. This is mostly for the reasons you stated in this post.

Video games today don't have the gameplay and duration of earlier games. Most earlier games didn't need manuals, walkthroughs, and menus. It was easy to get addicted. I also miss games with scores and high-score tables. Now it's all about how quick you can finish the game.

Erik J. Barzeski — Oct 27, 06 2186

"Pick up and play" gameplay is one of the reasons I'm buying Rayman Raving Rabbids, Super Monkey Ball, Madden, and (the included) Wii Sports and not buying Zelda with my Wii. I just don't have the time to play Zelda.

Scott Stevenson — Oct 27, 06 2187 Scotty the Leopard

Bill Coleman: If you make a game too difficult, people will get frustrated trying to play and give up.

Also it matters if the user feels a failure was their "fault" or not. There's easy, and there's making a game difficult in the right way. The reason Tetris is so addictive is that it was possible you could do better by playing again.

When you play a role playing-style game where the opponent is unreasonably powerful, it can get very frustrating. Admittedly, Metroid Prime 2 (and even the first one) falls into this trap. The game was a lot of fun up until the point that I decided I wasn't going to spend 45 minutes trying to beat one boss characters.

Michael James: I also miss games with scores and high-score tables.

I never quite "got" the games where a high score was the goal. It just seemed like a series of numbers to me at the top of the screen. That's just me, though.

Uli Kusterer — Oct 27, 06 2188

Now, this may be a pet peeve of mine, so maybe I'm just thinking on a track here, but does the above description of software you don't have to invest time in remind anyone of ... HyperCard?

Scott Stevenson — Oct 27, 06 2189 Scotty the Leopard

does the above description of software you don't have to invest time in remind anyone of ... HyperCard

More specifically? You mean it's easy to use?

Cameron — Oct 27, 06 2190

I don't really know about this...

While I agree that there are a lot of games that are just too long, I've gotten frustrated over Nintendo's new attitude of "quick fun". The problem is, the game is fun at first, but quickly becomes repetitive. This is how I feel about Nintendogs and Wario Ware. Some examples of good games that are long but can be played in small chunks are Castlevania DS and Trauma Center. In fact, I've been eagerly awaiting Children of Mana and Final Fantasy 3 so I can finally play a game that lasts longer than a few minutes on my DS.

Scott Stevenson — Oct 27, 06 2191 Scotty the Leopard

This is how I feel about Nintendogs and Wario Ware

I haven't played those, but those are on the more extreme end. The new Mario game is just about right.

warplayer — Oct 27, 06 2192

Great article, MS and Sony are definately going after a more tech-saavy niche crowd while Nintendo once again produces for the masses.

I couldn't help but point out that at Universal Studios, on the Avalance section of the tram ride (it's been updated to some more recent IP, I can't quite recall), the track actually never moves. It's an optical illusion that makes you feel like you are tiltling, but if you notice, you will never shift in your seat at all. Which, is somehow strangely still an appropriate allusion for the Wii...

Zauron — Oct 27, 06 2193

This is what I've been thinking for quite a while, and why I got so excited about Nintendo's new philosophy. I just don't have time to enjoy deep games any more. Big RPG's used to be my favorite genre, and new ones that come out sound tempting all the time, but I never play very much of them when I give in and buy one.

As I've gotten older and had more responsibilities, I've found myself more and more seeking out games that are 'short and sweet' or as I like to think of it, 'condensed fun.'

It seems as if longer games rarely have more "fun" than shorter games, they just spread the fun out over a longer stretch of time. Instead of 4-6 hours of incredibly fun gameplay, you get 40-60 hours of barely fun gameplay, with a lot of very boring gameplay and moments here and there of truly fun play.

I think its a result of gamers, particularly younger ones, wanting the "most for their money" and demanding games be long and in-depth to feel worth it. 60 hours of gameplay for $50 sounds like a better deal than 6 hours of gameplay for $50 to these gamers.

But, as a busy adult with way too much to do and decent finances, I'd sooner buy the 6 hour game if its going to be a thrill from beginning to end. I've noticed other gamers my age generally feel the same way, when I've asked. This is why I'm far more interested in the games coming for Wii than the ones on the competing platforms, new controller or not!

Scott Stevenson — Oct 27, 06 2194 Scotty the Leopard

the track actually never moves

I'm pretty sure it did when I was there because I remember somebody pointing at it. But I was twelve so who knows.

Scott Stevenson — Oct 27, 06 2195 Scotty the Leopard

As I've gotten older and had more responsibilities, I've found myself more and more seeking out games that are 'short and sweet'

For me it's some of that, but it's also just that it's a lot of time to spend in front of a TV. Also, there's a difference between 60 hours of play, and 60 hours of enjoyable play (as you say).

Jason — Oct 28, 06 2196

You hit the button on the nose.

This is the exact same thing I have been trying to communicate...just could not come up with the words. For me the Dreamcast was the peak of videogames that I enjoy. The graphics are good, the control is nice and the games are not bogged down in over complex control schemes, 30 year fanchise modes, how much to charge for a hot dog and so on.

Being older I have maybe a half hour at a time to play a game. I bought a 360 and I was blown away when Oblivian showed up from Gamefly. But after 3 days I was lost. I just did not have the time invest in something like this. If I was 13 who knows. I sold my 360 after NCAA 07 came out. It looked good, but the animations were shotty. I put in NFL 2k1 on the ole dreamcast and saw to my amazement-- gang tackling and animations that were great for me. Keep it simple is it for me.

Great post.

Andrew — Oct 28, 06 2197

I really disagree with you there. I mean really what we want is shorter less interesting games? If there is any absoulute, and I don't think there is I think games have really gotten too darned short. I'm a college student, so I guess that leaves me a lot more time for games than someone with a career and family. Regardless I'm getting sick of picking up a game and finishing it in one or two days. Like Where I'd like to see games going is towards more fully realized narratives, more developed characters, less about just picking them up and having a good time for half an hour and more about something like Indigo Prophecy or Knights of the Old Republic where it's telling me a good lenghty story that has time for plenty of twists and turns. And then once you have that kind of experience finding ways to fuse the gameplay together with the story.

I mean yeah pick up and play is great for when i'm on a bus and i'm bored but it's not something I'm going to want to sit down to for a weekend of enjoying myself with a game.

Scott Stevenson — Oct 28, 06 2199 Scotty the Leopard

I mean really what we want is shorter less interesting games?

It's not about being less interesting. What would be the point? It's not so much about "shorter" either. It's less busywork. I don't want to spend two hours building experience points or reading manuals so I know how to interact with the world.

I'm a college student, so I guess that leaves me a lot more time for games than someone with a career and family

A bunch of people did jump on here and say they don't have time to play games because they're too busy. I respect that, but it wasn't really my point. I'm sort of a believer in the idea that you'll make time for things if you really want to do them.

If you can come up with a game of 60 hours of enjoyment, then I'm on board. That's different than 60 hours of gameplay, of course.

Where I'd like to see games going is towards more fully realized narratives, more developed characters

All of that's fine if it's fun. The idea isn't time investment upfront for a promise of fun later. It's should be fun now. In any case, I think the argument is that there should be more room for casual games, not that they should completely replace deeper titles. That would mean no Metroid or Zelda.

I also think a game can be deep without being ridiculously complicated to get into and keep playing. Ico is great example.

Kirzen — Oct 28, 06 2200

I'm not certain that you understand the broad spectrum of gamers that encompass the market. There are a lot of people out there that really -devour- that intricate environment, that really reach out and grab onto it with both hands.

The secret is to make hand holds, make it fun, make it challenging. You have to make it playable and enjoyable to the extent that someone can pick the controller up, drop their butt onto the couch and start playing without having to read the instruction manual or go to the store in search of a game guide, but by the same token if the game is 'too' easy you will rapidly alienate your audience. And being too easy isn't always a measure of how difficult the game is, an inmersive environment that doesn't point out the 'next step' can be a wonderful challenge itself. If you were to drop a gamer off in the middle of an open field in Oblivion and hand them a sword and a shield, and not say a single word but suddenly throw a couple monsters at them, they'll probably enjoy killing the monsters. And if one of those monsters happens to have a map and the moment you kill it a -big sign- tells you that you've A > Found a Map and B > How to access said map.

You're going to be happy. You've accomplished something, and if that map is poorly drawn in bugbear common, but there's a location marked with a big red skull and crossbones? Guess what... half of the fun is 'not' knowing what that means, half of the fun is finding out. Some people don't want to be 'spoon fed' their daily allotment of fun, some want to carve it off of a big block with their own bare hands...

The secret is being able to 'suggest' where to go and what to do, but still leave the final choice up to your game's player. If that message came up and said "You need to go to the city of <Yadda> and talk to <Third NPC from the Right>" you're robbing people of the sense of discovery... why even bother with content if you're not going to let people 'play'.

That's what games are for.

Jake — Oct 28, 06 2204

Kirzen, with all due respect, don't you think the type of gamer you mentioned is VERY well catered for already? The type of game you describe exists in abundance already on the PS2, so I'm not certain you really see what Nintendo are doing.

I'm 31. I've played games since I was about 12, on my ZX Spectrum. I moved onto Sega and Nintendo, and then Sony Playstation. All the while, these companies, and the other creating games, targeted my age group and the nature of those games grew too. We all knew the >action< >reward< sequences, and language of gaming grew with us. Hence now, with the power of the latest consoles, you have ridiculously complex game scenarios, plots, sub-plots, controls and reward mechanisims.

For us thats fine. We've grown with it and understand it. It may look a little daunting for someone just getting into consoles, especially if they're younger, and this is what Nintendo are addressing. They are targetting the younger generation with games that are easier to access. Why? Because nobody else is, and nobody else has done for 10+ years. Nintendo are the only ones who have. Just look at the success of the Gameboy/Advance/DS. You can point and moan saying those games are simplistic, but they are selling to a demographic of a scale that pisses all over the one you describe. Need proof? The resilience of the DS over the PSP should be enough.

But this is not a sleight on the gamers who like their complex MMORPG and racing games ala PGR. You have no need to get your knickers in a twist as your games are already catered for, and no one is saying you need to buy a Wii.

It's a bonus for Nintendo that so many veteran gamers are looking at it and thinking, "Phew, I can play a game for that 30 mins in the evening when my kids have gone to bed and the wife gets off my case."

As ever with games, it's each to their own and I fully respect everyones comments on here, as we're all gamers. It's just that Nintendo are re-opening an easy-in avenue that has only really been available on hand helds. I'm liking that.

John O. — Oct 29, 06 2216

Excellent post. I agree whole-heartedly. I am very excited to own the Wii, and I think because of this short-and-sweet playability, it could possibly be my favorite console of all time. I've never been one to spend hours upon hours on an attempt to complete a quest -- well, besides Ocarina of Time. As for Wii, that one (and probably only) long drawn-out game I'll own, will of course be Twilight Princess.

There is no point in arguing that this system is "not built for epic games or RPG's". The fact of the matter is; it isn't built for epic games or RPG's. At the same time, I'm sure the kinks will all be worked out in no time, and that developers will indeed be able to program some highly enjoyable extensive games. It irks me when I read articles belittling the Wii, when the people belittling it aren't at all the demographic that Nintendo is trying to cater to.

I think Nintendo has it incredibly right this time. I can't wait.

nate — Oct 30, 06 2239

You've hit everything right for me as I am comsidering on buying a Wii instead of a PS3 or a 360. I'm only 24 years old but I'm getting tired of playing RPGs or games that requires long hours just to really enjoy them having wasted an hour or 2 trying to learn the gist of the game. I have more important things to do than spend my time getting immersed on games.

Back then, I've spent 100+ hours playing FFVIII just to get everything the game has offered, and even playing multiple times just to get an A ranking and 2.5hours of gameplay on Resident Evil 2. As of now, I've played Kingdom Hearts 2 only reaching level 52 and not completing everything the game offers since I no longer have anytime; I might lost interest since I'm looking forward to the story; and I really hated that the boss fight at the end took almost an hour to finished just to see the damn ending to the game.

I'm out of the epic grandscale games and I don't want to be frustrated anymore trying for multiple times to get something perfect on the gameplay. I'm up for Wii instant gratification. Now I could have more fun in my 2 hours of quiet times at night before I go to bed.

Brendon — Nov 01, 06 2273

Carl, I read that article you linked to a long time ago and while it's insightful and I agreed with it at the time, I don't think you can really consider it their strategy. Maybe my memory is failing me and I remember it wrong but what that article talks about is the innovation behind the controller and why it'll make money in the current industry. Nintendo's strategy is much broader than that. They aim not only for kids (like someone else mentioned) but for everyone. They want to tear down the boundaries and stigma created by the hardcore gamer.

What Sony and Microsoft do in that respect is to advertise games to gamers, trying to convince them that video games are cool. If the market only tries to appeal to its core audience it'll only become more and more niche.

Nintendo wants to get rid of the stigma of video games by saturating the market with casual gamers. When more and more people play games, it stops being weird. Videogames will lose their stigma. If you want more insight into Nintendo' strategy look at the articles by this guy. He really goes deep into analyzing Nintendo's strategies (and the industry in general), and he uses a lot of sources while doing it.

Here you go

As for the article I'm commenting on, it really hits the nail on the head. Simplifying things for the user. The competition focuses on the product losing sight of the consumer, often overshooting the market based on the opinion of fanboys and hardcore enthusiasts. In doing so they alienate everyone else. Nintendo's looking at what consumers want. They are looking at what walls are preventing consumers that aren't playing from doing so and trying to tear down those walls.

Nintendo parallels Apple well in those respects.

jake jekel — Jan 05, 07 3051

It just seems to me that the author isn't concerned with the "chores" of a PC or ultra realistic games, it just seems that he's a moron. And anyone who agrees with him is a moron. I mean, I have a PC, not a bitch-ass Mac, and it's not hard for me to do anything on it. It's a chore to use Macs because Apple's MacOS is trying to be as simple as possible, and that ends up hindering any type of maintainance. Plus, Apple pretty much thinks that we're dumb (which most of you Mac users are), which is why they put out such an "easy to use" OS. Fuck that. I'm more complex than that and you whiney stupid bastards should be too.


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