SAN FRANCISCO -- Nintendo's Takashi Aoyama talked about the project that consumed the last two years of his life, the Wii Menu, at Game Developers Conference.
He made two very big announcements during his talk: First, Wii games would soon be able to feature downloadable content that users can spend Wii Points on. Second, Nintendo will begin charging for certain games' online gameplay services.
But the rest of Aoyama's talk was also quite interesting, detailing the reasons why the Wii Menu has so many of its interesting features like the news and weather reports. and it's all below.
"It's been one year and three months since the Wii was released. We really put a lot of passion and ideas into the development of this little machine. This turned out to be a greater challenge than any of us had imagined," Aoyama began.
Aoyama, who joined Nintendo in 2000, started in the Corporate Planning Division, reporting directly to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. "It seemed that everyone had an equal opportunity to be listened to, even me, although I had no game industry experience."
At that time, Aoyama pointed out, the industry viewed Nintendo as a "passive" contributor to online gaming technology. But they were spending a lot of time creating a reasonably-budgeted, easy-to-use online gaming system, which became Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection and WiiConnect 24.
In 2002, Aoyama moved to the Integrated Research & Development Division, who created the GameCube hardware. This is when he began experimenting with peer-to-peer network gaming, using a central server to match players and then let them play on a direct connection, to lower the costs.
In 2005, once development had begun on Wii, Aoyama was made a team leader on a company-wide project: the Wii Menu.
The two development concepts that Nintendo had in mind for WIi in general were "fun for the entire family" and "something new every day." In line with this second ambition, Aoyama said that the WIi hardware team was looking into the idea of leaving the hardware running 24 hours a day by reducing power consumption.
But, Aoyama said, they had yet to start thinking about what exactly they would be sending over the Wii's always-on internet connection to entertain people every day.
This was the 2005 company-wide project, called "Console Feature Realization Project." "We tried to get people of varying expertise and specialization," Aoyama said -- people who could come up with new ideas, and people who were experienced at communicating with Nintendo's technology partners. "Mister Iwata attended when he could," Aoyama said.
They began the project by working on some text input methods using the Wii remote. Aoyama said they first tried to work on a full on-screen keyboard, "the Animal Crossing system", among other things.
"When we considered adding the weather, news, and web browsing features, we had to contend with the fact that most people could already do those things with PCs. We decided to create a stress-free experience... compared to PC." Reducing the start-up time of the news and weather channels, Aoyama said, was thus a critical task -- reducing display time by a few milliseconds here and there.
We should see improvements to this with each new system update, says Aoyama, as the team is still working on streamlining the experience.
The team experimented with having separate user accounts for each member of the family, but decided that having people enter passwords for their Wii accounts,
"Iwata presented us with a lot of unexpected demands," Aoyama continued.
One of them, he said, was parental controls that let parents shut the system down after a certain amount of time. "The debate over this continued for several weeks," said Aoyama. Some thought an automatic shutdown that saved game progress would have taken too much development time. Aoyama protested and tried to convince Iwata not to do it.
But the reason they didn't implement it was because they used the "Play History" system, which logs gameplay time and lets parents monitor how much time the kids spend gaming. "This is why you can't erase the play history on the console," says Aoyama.
"What would it mean to make a machine that is fun for the entire family?" Aoyama asked. "First of all, you have to make the console not seem like an enemy in the household." They wanted moms to stop saying things like "You shouldn't play games all the time! Turn that off right now!"
They also wanted to avoid members of the family saying "I don't know how to use this," said Aoyama. Good examples of overcoming this, said Aoyama, were the aforementioned weather and news report features.
"With other consoles, parents are always telling children to turn them off. But with Wii, perhaps we can see parents who remind children to turn on the Wii in the morning," Aoyama said a team member of his once said.
But they realized (accurately, sirs!) that weather and news reports would not be enough. Their final conclusion was that they would have to "pack a lot of interesting things into one space."
Great. But how on earth does one do that without making a confusing mess of it?
The "visual key," Aoyama said, was a television shop window filled with rows of screens showing different content. This was the visual inspiration for the Wii Menu's "channels."
"We feel that this kind of menu and channels framework offers many opportunities for people who don't play games," he said -- a machine that is more of a "companion to the television."
"We never thought of the Wii as fighting with television... we thought that Wii could make watching television even more enjoyable."
In Japan, they will provide a channel that has television programming listings. "Sadly, we can't launch this service worldwide with all the same features of the Japanese version," he said. Understandable -- Japan has one TV schedule; the U.S. has hundreds of different ones.
They weren't entirely high on the idea of weather and news reports. "You can get weather and news any time just by looking at a PC or a cell phone. Many argued whether it was a good idea for Nintendo" to provide this content as well, Aoyama said.
But they understood that Nintendo could provide weather and news in the "Nintendo way" by using the spinning globe interface, for example.
Aoyama moved on to discussion of Mii Channel. The idea began with a demo created by a team in Nintendo that was shown to Aoyama's team. "I remember seeing an Iwata Mii that the creator had made on his own. He was afraid that Iwata would react badly."
Even if a Wii wasn't connected to the internet, said Aoyama, they could make the Wii seem new every day by letting family members leave messages to each other, or glancing at the automatic play history. "Players can fill their Wii consoles with positive memories," said Aoyama.
(At this point, your humble author was reminded of that story where the husband caught his wife cheating by looking at the Wii Bowling play history.)
The "Everybody Votes Channel," said Aoyama, was intended to give Wii users the idea that there were other people out there in the world connected to them, and give them an idea of what they were thinking.
Recently, said Aoyama, they have provided developers of other Wii Channels with the information they need to scroll new information on the icons on the Wii Menu, like the latest news updates, without having to actually start the channel up.
Other new features in the third version of the Wii Menu include the ability for a game to install a channel on the system, like Wii Fit, which creates a channel that will update even when the disc is not in the drive.
Games can now send messages to players (like Mario Galaxy), he pointed out, and a message can now contain a URL link that will automatically open the Internet Channel.
Okay, this is hilarious: Aoyama then pointed out how the blue flashing light on the Wii that lets you know when you have a new message is actually timed to the bird call of the Japanese bush warbler, a tiny bird whose distinctive chirp is heard throughout Japan in the spring and summer. The flashing of the blue light syncs up perfectly to the timing of the bird's chirp.
"But let's get back to business," said Aoyama. "Let's talk about WiiWare."
"Why are we introducing WiiWare now? Are we shifting away from traditional retail sales? Rest assured that is not the case," said Aoyama. But boxed game sales are less price-flexible and require a certain base amount of game content, he said.
But downloadable games have neither of these restrictions, and the proof of concept of this was with Virtual Console. "WiiWare is an excellent complement to boxed game sales," he said.
"Wii consoles are very often connected to the televisions in living rooms," said Aoyama. "We have learned from surveys that Wii has claimed a high number of mambers in every family that owns one," he said.
For this reason, and because of the high numbers of Wiis connected to the internet, Aoyama said that WiiWare represents a significant business opportunity for Nintendo.
Aoyama moved on to discussion of the "Nintendo Channel," which launched last year in Japan -- the channel that lets people see new games for Wii and Nintendo DS, that finds new games that match players' preferences and lets them vote on what games they like.
They will offer this service in the U.S. and Europe in the coming months, said Aoyama.
For WiiWare, you'll be able to read the game's instruction manual before you decide to download it, so you can get ample information about it before you buy.
You'll also be able to use Wii Points to get add-on content and paid services, said Aoyama. This, he said, will let Nintendo offset the development costs of add-on content. This feature will also be available for disc-based games, but the payment for those will be in the game, not on the Wii Shop channel
Aoyama then addressed how Nintendo is dealing with a hot topic: Storage limitations.
They'll compress the games and then expand them when you start playing them. "This step should help alleviate the problem with size limitations."
Apparently the manuals for the game will also be stored online-only, not inside the game ROM itself.
Aoyama then talked about some WiiWare games.
The first was LostWinds, from Frontier Developments in the U.K. He showd some footage of the game. you control the character with the Nunchuk and use the Wii remote to make the wind blow and carry the character. You can use the wind to surround an enemy and blow it away. The video looks realy pretty! This is apparently a launch title in the U.S. and U.K., so let's look forward to it (bow).