James Temperton takes a look at the history of the Wii from an initial vision to a final reality.
The Wii isn’t a spur of the moment idea, nor is it something that has been in development for the last two years or so. The Wii is a direct thought process that has evolved out of the very beginings of the GameCube, the success of the DS and a huge shift in power at Nintendo’s HQ in Japan.
The arrival of Satoru Iwata, something of a business visionary for the company, has hailed a new beginning for Nintendo. Whilst Hiroshi Yamauchi has always guaranteed the company a robust financial status, fears of stagnation in the industry were growing and Nintendo weren’t doing enough to fight against this. Iwata-san’s first task when he took the helm at the company was to give it some fresh ideas. Ever since he took charge in early 2002, the company has never looked back...
Speaking at E3 2004, Iwata first outlined some of the ideology behind the Wii (then code-named Revolution) to an eager audience who wanted some solid information and details. Cleverly, he avoided saying pretty much anything. Nintendo have always kept their cards close to their chests, but the Wii was one of the company’s most closely guarded secrets.
"Different also defines our approach to our next home system. It won't simply be new or include new technologies. Better technology is good, but not enough. Today's consoles already offer fairly realistic expressions so simply beefing up the graphics will not let most of us see a difference. So what should a new machine do? Much more. An unprecedented gameplay experience. Something no other machine has delivered before.
The definition for a new machine must be different. I want you to know that Nintendo is working on our next system and that system will create a gaming revolution. Internal development is underway.
I could give you our technical specs, as I'd know you'd like that, but I won't for a simple reason: they really don't matter. The time when horsepower alone made all the difference is over.
Work on Revolution is well underway. When you see it you will be excited because you will experience a gaming revolution."
Satoru Iwata, Nintendo President
May 11, 2004
And it is that set of very basic ideas that Nintendo have religiously stuck to for the last two years. Iwata’s comment about the age of the importance of graphics being over is perhaps his most controversial, but the lack of visual oomph that the Wii possess is key to its approach to the industry. Shigeru Miyamoto recently stated that he would have liked the Wii to be a sub-$100 console, but that technological costs forced Nintendo to up the price. Nintendo cleverly invested in the right technologies, with the right companies and after over half a decade of work on the Wii it is clear to see a project that is both a labour of love but also a massive risk. Nintendo have always been realistic in their aims, they set a price and they worked towards it, realising that going down the HD route could prove hugely expensive; “We didn't think it was possible to build a powerful machine for less than 50,000 yen ($450). Not only would it use a lot of electricity, it would need a fan, which meant it would be noisy. Moms would rise up against it”
In May 2006, Iwata-san talked candidly for the first time about the Wii controller, the most innovative aspect of the whole system. "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." And prototype they did, in a Nintendo recruiting booklet, the company displayed some of their rough Wii controller designs. Indeed, in a recent interview Miyamoto-san revealed a lot about his role in the development of the Wii, with particular focus falling on the controller, or Wiimote as it has now been ‘cleverly’ dubbed: “Getting the infrared pointer to work took more than a year. It worked just fine in the ideal environment. But bright lights and sunlight interfered with its accuracy. And we had to test it in rooms of all sizes. The final version wasn't finished until this summer.” One of Miyamoto’s coworkers Kenichiro Ashida, one of the men behind the GameCube hardware design and logo, revealed how the process of development started: “Miyamoto brought in cell phones and car navigation remote controllers and tried them, too. We made one that resembled a cell phone. Another one had an analog stick on top and digital interface on bottom.”
And it is with the controller that Nintendo invested a huge chunk of their development budget. By going away from graphics it was essential that the Wii had a ‘visual’ hook for advertising. Something we have seen in Nintendo’s PR approach to the Wii is indicative of this. At every single press event for the Wii, signs or representatives have constantly told attendees “Do not photograph or film the TV screens, photograph the controller and people playing with the Wii”. There’s a reason for this, the controller is the Wii’s USP (unique selling point).
From an aesthetic point of view the Wii is totally different to any Nintendo system that has gone before it. For one it is sleek, stylish and very distinctive looking, the bold design is almost certainly based on the Apple brand, with the DS Lite following a similar look. Indeed, the DS is very much the forerunner to the Wii in a number of respects. Nintendo have gone on the record to state how they faced the challenge of getting the DS interface to work on a TV screen, so in essence replicate touch-screen gaming on a standard TV set using a home console. The success that the DS has experienced very much paved the way for the Wii to enter a much more accepting market. Companies like EA and Ubi Soft are far keener to support the Wii on the back of excellent sales of the DS.
But the Wii also comes out of major disappointment with the success of the GameCube. Whilst the console far from crashed and burned, it failed to ignite the industry in any sort of way and as a result has never really made a mark on it. Nintendo have always been at the forefront of the industry and the GameCube was a huge step backwards for them as a company. Big lessons were learned and it became abundantly clear to the decision makers at the top of Nintendo that something had to change.
The DS and the Wii are the result of a reported $6 billion dollar investment fund, one that Nintendo feel will not only change the fortunes of one company, but of a whole industry. The games industry is rapidly becoming one of the most valuable in the entertainment world, with the spoils for the winner in each round of the ‘console war’ potentially massive. Nintendo hope that by creating their ‘own industry’ or ‘paradigm shift’ (as they would have you believe) they can attract many more people to play videogames and to exploit them for cold hard cash.
The brutal world of business is never far from Nintendo’s plans and they know full well that Sony and Microsoft have them beaten in the race for graphical power, so the Wii and DS represent what Nintendo hope is an approach that will appeal to people in a different way, and a far more far reaching way. The origins of the Wii are long reaching and have come out of a necessity for Nintendo to evolve in order to survive. A daring and bold move, one that has cost billions, but the potential rewards are far greater.
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