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.


Ben Combee said...

One of the most creative games I've seen is "Wario Ware Smooth Moves" -- a hundred mini-games, all finding some odd way to use the controller, everything from pulling it to/from the screen to put items in focus to controlled dropping of the controller :) I don't have a Wii yet (stupid product release schedule :), but when we ship, I'm going to get one and this game.

Jose Manuel Cristobal said...

We have just bought a Wii for our Office (along with a 42" TV, of course :P). This could look a bit strange, but it turns out to be one of our best decisions. It's a great activity playing tennis against your colleagues.

I agree with you regarding the kind of games suitable for this controller. I know that EA Sports is currently developing FIFA Soccer 2K8 for Wii, but I strongly doubt how Wii mote can manage a soccer game.

Jay said...

Wow...reading the first few sentences reminded me of our experience purchasing a Wii. At my wifes suggestion (I have a really cool wife) we started to call local stores. We called EVERY best buy, target, wal-mart and mom and pop shop in the Salt Lake valley with no luck. We found one in Boise, ID and had the in-laws go pick it up for us and ship it to Salt Lake.

I completely agree with you review of Wii Sports. Fun at first but gets old and lame quickly. The good news is that there are tons of other great games out there that utilize the innovative Wii-mote. If your looking for a "light saber game" try Zelda. You can swing the mote like a sword and use the nunchuck as a shield.

Dave Haupert said...

Guess we're simpletons, as though my kids have about 7 or 8 games, we still enjoy Wii Sports the most. And I didn't find wii golf hard at all to control and definitely more fun to play than any golf simulator I've tried, even if it's not as realistic.

The thing I like about the Wii is that of the good games we have each has chosen to go a totally new route with the controller. In Rayman's Raving Rabids (or whatever it's actually called) each event has you doing something completely different and really fun. In Zelda, you're using many different tools each different, and that's what makes the games fun.

I wonder if that will wear off and we'll be longing for 'standardization' but right now it's the variety and multi-player party friendliness of it that makes the Wii a huge hit in my house.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for all the pointers on games I should try, folks. And Dave, I am glad to hear that someone can get the golf game to work.

Jose wrote:

>>I know that EA Sports is currently developing FIFA Soccer 2K8 for Wii

Ewwwww, gross. The only way I can picture that working well is if you taped the controller to your foot.

Dave Haupert said...

Actually Michael, did you see the Wii fit controller they announced a week or two ago at the E3 conference? It's like a step aerobics step but is a weight and balance sensor. Seems from the demos I saw that it can easily measure your balance and footsteps in some insane ways- for example, they have a soccer goalie demo where you just try to stop the ball with your head by moving it where the shot is being sent. The controller recognizes the weight shifts almost perfectly. So maybe there is a foot controller for soccer and track and field type games as well in the near future!

It's more interesting from a marketing perspective though- clearly Nintendo realizes the potential of a whole new market of users using Video games to get in shape and are seeing this already with the current setup.

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Michael Mace said...

Dave H. wrote:

>>did you see the Wii fit controller they announced a week or two ago at the E3 conference?

Thanks, David. Yes I did; it looked really intriguing, and it's something I'd love to try.

By the way, to everyone who recommended Zelda as a sword-fighting game on the Wii, I got it and it's not what I was hoping for. You can indeed control the sword with the controller, but it's mostly through arcane little gestures that are very similar to what you do with a joystick. So you waggle the controller and push a button to do a forward slash, you do a different wiggle/press combination to do a spinning slash, and so on.

What I'm looking for is something that gives you the same feeling of direct control you get from Wii tennis and bowling: You move your arm to the left and the sword moves to the left. You move your arm up and that raises the sword. That sort of stuff.

I have an uneasy feeling that the controller is not yet accurate enough to make that work, and the cable between the wand and the nunchuck is too short to give you the freedom of motion you need (boo).

But that's what I want.

Michael Brown said...


One of the other interesting things about the Wii controller is using it stuff other than the Wii. Just google for "Wiimote hacking" and you will find people using the Wiimote for:

- A vehicle accelerometer (hooked to a PC getting readings on his VW)
- A presentation remote
- A PC, MAC or Linux mouse
- A PC, MAC, or Linux game controller

I don't have a Wii, but I bought a Wiimote specifically to use with our Linux-based HTPC (Home Theatre PC) as the interface for some Linux-based Children's learning games ( A Wiimote is easier to use for a 4 year old than a PS3 game controller.

The linux drivers are in development, but are very flexible and configurable. I just have to write a wrapper plugin for the HTPC framework that I use (, in order to choose which mode I want the Wiimote in.

Michael Mace said...

Ahhh, hacking the remote. Sweet idea!

I love the Internet; fifteen years ago, word about something like that would have probably never spread beyond a few enthusiast clubs.