Info-tech

Game for innovation

D. Murali | Updated on January 23, 2011

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At the time of writing, more than a thousand news articles are about Nintendo 3DS, to be launched in March, at a sub-$250-dollar price. With the handheld, you can play 3-D games, without the need for glasses, and take 3-D pictures, reports state.

A section on 3DS in ‘Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and the video game industry's greatest comeback' by Daniel Sloan (www.wiley.com), cites the company's president Satoru Iwata about how in a game like ‘Nintendogs,' the dogs can “really pop out of that screen and you can see them… You're kind of looking and touching, and it feels like you're touching a real dog.”

Bark mode

Tracing the ‘dogs' back to their release in April 2005 for the company's DS (dual screen) console, the author informs that Nintendogs set the stage for a more inclusive user base. “In its first month in Japan, the game sold 400,000 units. By May 2006, with an avid market among young and older women, global sales reached six million.”

What can be more interesting than those numbers is that in Japan, “people in large cities sometimes paid for a brief opportunity to walk or play with others' real dogs or pets, and the video game was an obvious avenue to attract those who owned – or wished they owned animals, without some of the time and resource commitments. Overseas, consumers were also waiting to rub the virtual bellies of the 18 dog breeds available…”

It may amaze you to read about the game's ‘Bark Mode,' which led to social networking for virtual pet owners, who were alerted if nearby players wanted to discuss or swap animals.

Senior plus

Corporate meetings are generally dull events but it was at one such meeting in Nintendo that an executive had asked why there were no games for older people. Taking that as a good start, Iwata decided, however, that it might be a mistake to target only seniors. In December 2004, Iwata went to meet Ryuta Kawashima, a professor at Tohoku University whose book ‘Train Your Brain: 60 days to a better brain' had taken the country by storm. Iwata's mission was to convince the professor to help develop games using his books on mental training.

During the three-hour meeting, Iwata showed him Nintendo's prototype brain training software and explained how the book might translate to other media. “He was enthused,” reminisces Iwata. “His assistant came in with a strange bowl with wires attached. He placed it upside down on my team member's head. It looked like a 1950s' sci-fi movie. He could prove that the game was changing the blood movement on the surface of the brain.”

Brain game

Over three months, a small team developed ‘Brain Age,' based on the neuroscientist's writings, and it proved immensely popular, writes Sloan. He narrates that people responded eagerly to its potential to improve mental acuity, a self-help issue for middle-aged and senior players, many of whom had never touched a game console. Also, that the duration of play, long a major factor in why adults would not – or could not – commit to gaming, was addressed by designing the IQ builder to take only two minutes per session.

“The potential to work certain areas of grey matter with math and comprehension games that potentially countered memory loss proved a ‘no-brainer' for sales success, as of course people wanted it. The daily training regimen, which involved drawing pictures using the stylus and even interfamily contests, also made the professor himself a character – his expressions denoted player progress.”

Software, then hardware

It is in a chapter titled ‘The kid' that you meet Iwata, a ‘much admired game creator' who had joined the company and board the previous year. “Iwata is the right guy for the job because he is acquainted with both game software and game hardware,” reads a quote of Hiroshi Yamauchi in the book. “Software should come first and hardware second, but some people seem to see it the other way around.” One of the first statements Iwata made as president was that no matter how many consoles Sony sold, and whatever Microsoft did, it was important for the company to make its game software attractive enough to drive consumers to buy the hardware. He publicly eschewed consoles with higher resolution, more digitally enhanced sound, and intricate design, instead calling for a product that would broaden the consumer base and ultimately sell more, notes the author.

Codename ‘Revolution'

What the success of DS reaffirmed to Nintendo was that a compelling interface with new utilities could help it regain the top position, Sloan chronicles. This, even as the rivals were betting on complex, multi-purpose machines. Codenamed ‘Revolution,' it was to focus on improving energy consumption while maintaining performance, aiming to create a 24/7 console that ran software spanning the range from sports and leisure to self-help and e-commerce, he describes. “In automotive parlance, the console hardware, no bigger than three DVD cases, would down-shift power to ensure better – or continual – energy utilisation without affecting duration or quality of use.” Another automotive analogy is from Genyo Takeda, general manager of Integrated Research and Development Division of Nintendo, who was tasked with the development. If automobiles can be used as a metaphor, the industry has always been trying to compete on horsepower, even though not all cars are made to compete in F1 race, he says.

Next-generation remote

Take, for instance, the next-generation remote that went through over a hundred concept proposals and prototypes, including one worn on the head and another known as the gunbai, after a fan used by sumo judges, recounts Sloan. “But Shigeru Miyamoto would come to console planning meetings and pull out his cell phone or car navigation system pointer, asking the development group to try to make a controller in the same vein.”

Elaborates Sloan, how most game remotes had not changed significantly in two decades, requiring hunched-over, two-handed command execution, while TV and audio devices had, for decades, been employing single-handed ‘zappers,' which had become increasingly ubiquitous in homes. “I wanted to make something that would make people want to pick it up and try using it… We started to question everything about conventional controllers, including the idea that a controller had to be held with both hands,” is a snatch of Miyamoto-speak in the book.

Disney of game design

To those who wonder who Miyamoto is, a quick fact-sheet about him at the age of 50, in 2002, can be helpful: Acclaimed ‘the Disney of game design,' he was responsible for creating 6 of the 10 best-selling console games, producing more than $7 billion in sales with the ‘Mario' franchise and $10 billion overall. In the early 1980s, ‘Donkey Kong' was his brainchild, as a novice game designer, and it helped make the Nintendo name eponymous with the industry, underscores Sloan.

He takes us back to the time when Miyamoto was hired as a staff artist who was, however, to begin by remodelling a failed arcade game for the US, because the company's top designers were focused on new games for the Japanese market, assuming the repurposing of game cabinets for an American audience to be a relative dead end.

The lesson that Miyamoto got from his mentor, the legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi, was about “the importance of treating the craft as the work of an artisan, as that of its first card makers had been. He also emphasised the absolute necessity of the search for ‘fun,' which Miyamoto passed on to many others over the decades.”

Sturdy cards

Cards are where the origins of Nintendo lie, when started in September 1889 by Fusajiro Yamauchi, seeing that Kyoto's gamblers as well as its landed elite, students, and labourers yearned for the turn of a friendly, well-made card. The city had been home to Japan's emperors from the 8th century into the 19th, but like the entire nation it had endured a ban on card gambling for about 250 years, Sloan notes.

“The new Meiji Era government, as a sign of its progressive agenda, decided to allow card games using pictures instead of numbers… Fusajiro had a ready market for his ‘flower cards,' which stunned players with their beauty. They presented 48 paintings in 12 suits based on the months of the year.” What contributed to the success of Fusajiro was that his mulberry-bark cards had brilliant artwork. And gambling with the sturdy cards became popular, particularly among Japanese yakuza, gangsters who wanted a new deck for each game, continues the ‘origins' section of the book.

An inspiring corporate story, well told.

Tailpiece

“Motivated by a recent training programme, we created software to automatically draw the ego-grams of anyone entering the office. As a result…”

“You are able to work faster?”

“Yes, faster, going round in circles!”

>dmurali@thehindu.co.in

Published on January 23, 2011

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