Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Design lessons from the Nintendo Wii

"Every time we ship product to the market, whether it's in Japan or here in the U.S. or in Europe, it sells out in a matter of days.... If you see one, buy it. Don't assume that you can come back later and find one." --George Harrison, SVP of marketing and corporate communications, Nintendo of America, quoted by Reuters

For a marketing guy, Nirvana is when the world gives you permission to say something utterly outrageous, without anyone questioning it or even believing that it's marketing. Nintendo reached Nirvana two weeks ago.

Coincidentally, that's also when I wandered into the local Wal-Mart, on the off chance that they might have a Wii in stock. I had been looking for one for eight months, ever since my wife shocked me by telling me that she wanted a Wii for Christmas. (This from a woman who has traditionally had about as much interest in video games as I have in quilting. Her only explanation: "It looks like fun.")

Anyway, I walked into Wal-Mart, and sure enough, there was a single Wii box locked into the glass display case. Did I follow Mr. Harrison's "advice," and buy it on the spot? You bet I did, especially after the clerk told me someone else had called the store and tried to reserve my Wii. Tough luck, buddy. Wal-Mart doesn't do reservations. Try Toys-R-Us.

So I bring the Wii home, and now I find that I'm going through stages in my feelings about it, much like the Kubler-Ross model of the stages people go through when confronting grief (link). The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The stages of Wii (so far) are delight, disgust, and anticipation. I have no idea what'll come next.

The delight stage was all about discovering the controller. There has been plenty written about the Wii's wireless, motion-sensing controllers, but until you actually play with them it's hard to understand how much fun they can be. I set up the system after everyone else was asleep, feeling that it was my responsibility to do some thorough testing that night, so there would be no risk of the family being disappointed if the system didn't work properly.

The first thing I tried was the Wii's tennis game, which was astonishingly easy, and fun. You just swing the "racket" at the right time, and you'll hit the ball. The controller has a vibrator in it, so you feel a little jump when you make contact. But the best feature is that there's a speaker in the controller too, so when you hit the ball you hear the familiar pock sound from your hand, rather than the television. I didn't notice the speaker when I set up the Wii. The first few times I hit the ball, I kept wondering how Nintento had manipulated the TV's stereo to make it seem like the sound was coming from my hand.

The tennis game's graphics are embarrassingly bad (it's like playing tennis against a salt shaker with a head on it), but the gameplay was so fluid and immediately rewarding that I didn't care.

Great new technology products give you a rush, a feeling of empowerment as you realize that you can now do things you simply couldn't do before. The first time I used a Macintosh was all about that. HyperCard was the same. And WordPress came pretty close. The Wii fits in that company because it opens up a whole new paradigm of gaming.

After testing the tennis game tennis thoroughly, my arm started to tighten up, so I decided to try some different games. That was when I entered the second phase of Wii discovery...

Complete disgust. There have been plenty of press reports about people accidentally throwing the Wii's controller through a window when they got too enthusiastic, but I may be the first person who almost did it intentionally. In contrast to the tennis game, some of the Wii's games are infuriatingly bad. The Wii's golf game is ridiculously difficult to control -- I couldn't even get my golfer to point in the right direction, let alone control a shot accurately. Fortunately, the game requires you to give up on a hole after 20 shots; otherwise, I might still be playing. Even a simple whack-a-mole simulation became an exercise in frustration as I tried in vain to position the hammer on the screen.

The common denominator of these games is bad use of the controller. The golf game has several modes, in which you choose direction for a shot, elevation, and so on. The controller's just not accurate enough to make it work. In Whack-a-Mole, the problem is that you're supposed to move the controller like the tip of a joystick -- forward, backward, left, right -- like the slider on a Ouija board. That's OK on a table, but when you're holding the controller in midair your arm gets tired really quickly. Human arms aren't designed to move like that on an ongoing basis.

The ironic thing is that those games actually work pretty well on a traditional joystick.

There's a lesson here about the strengths and weaknesses of integrated systems design. The controller on its own would not have been successful -- it's terrible for controlling traditional games. But the games on their own would also have failed -- bowling was one of the worst games on the Nintendo GameCube, but it's one of the best on the Wii. To get a breakthrough, you have to design the hardware and software together as an integrated system.

But that same integration also presents a lot of challenges to game designers. The Wii requires a thorough rethink of how a game is structured and what you can do with it. You can't just take an existing game, port it directly, and expect it to work well. At a minimum, the whole interface has to be rethought. But really what we should be doing is rethinking what sorts of things you can do in a game. What about a game in which you draw images on the screen using the controller, or conduct an orchestra? I don't know if either of those would be entertaining, but it's the sort of stuff we should be thinking about.

Which brings me to the third stage of Wii discovery...

Anticipation. I have one word for you: lightsaber. Like every boy who grew up watching the Star Wars movies, I've always had a secret desire to play with a lightsaber. Not one of those plastic things they sell at Toys-R-Us, I'm talking about a real lightsaber that makes that buzzing noise and can cut through steel like butter. I'm not sure what I'd use it for -- it seems a bit like overkill for tree pruning -- but I know I want one.

With the Wii, we finally have a device that can make it happen, at least in simulation. Supposedly there's a Lego Star Wars game on the way for the Wii, which will let you control your lightsaber directly. I am both impatient to get it and dreading it. The dread comes because this is a port of an existing game rather than a redesign. Some reports say you won't really have full control over your lightsaber (link).

The disappointment could be crushing, so I'll have to test it before I let the family try it. To protect them.

One thing's for sure -- if it works, my wife's not going to be wasting the Wii on tennis anymore.

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