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What’s News: Wii Usability Woos Non-Gamers

Nintendo broke a usability barrier with the release of its Wii gaming system. It is so easy to use that even middle-aged-women-who-never-played-video-games-because-they-couldn’t-figure-out-how-the-controllers-worked (such as the author of this story) are instantly able to pick up a controller and start swatting a virtual tennis ball.

Nintendo has been focusing on the Wii’s user friendliness in its advertising: the Wii website and ads feature shots of a wide range of different types of users, from grandparents to families. And, quite sensibly, Nintendo overcame skepticism by promoting the product with hands-on demos in shopping malls during the months leading up the busy holiday gift-buying season. They knew from having demonstrated the system at trade shows that once people saw others using it, they would want to try it themselves. And it was so easy to use that just about everyone who tried it would get the hang of it quickly.

According to Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo Co., Ltd., this ease of use was no fluke. “We [went] back to the basics and ask[ed] ourselves, ‘What is the entertainment? Who are the users?’” It was an intentional plan to stop “game drift”—the loss of players as they age because their lives become more busy. In addition to regaining some of the lost players, they also realized that the way other companies were trying to grow, with more and more sophisticated photo-realistic graphics, was increasing development complexity and costs to an unreasonable extent and making the games so complex that they could only be played by experienced, hardcore gamers.

This meant that Nintendo intentionally left out some features in order to make the design simpler, even though, as noted by Shigeru Miyamoto, general manager of Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis and Development Division, “We had to overcome the hurdle of how to convince [hardcore] users and game designers who had grown accustomed to traditional interfaces.”

Kenichiro Ashida, one of the designers, commented that the amount of user input to the process was “unparalleled. After all, our previous controllers, for the NES, SNES, N64, and GameCube, have evolved by adding features. That is to say, a unit of functionality is added and integrated into the design. With the Wii Remote however, we didn ‘t just add, but subtracted as well…we’ve gone about developing the controller in a fundamentally different manner. We received so many requests and ideas from people creating a whole variety of games that the whole process of wading through and responding to them in some form or another was really intense. In fact, we ‘ve never had so much input.”

The designers focused on simplicity and user friendliness of both the hardware and the games. Mr. Iwata insisted to his developers that, “These [games] will be the titles which can be played by anybody even if they do not have past game-play[ing] experiences, knowledge, and techniques. As soon as people see the software and are given the Wii Remote, they feel that they can do it…We did not include some functions but it is not because we couldn ‘t do so. It was just that we eliminated them to make Wii a better proposal.”

Akio Ikeda, one of the lead developers of the controller—the Wii Remote (or Wiimote, as it is sometimes called), also stressed usability: “When playing a game, the nearest thing to the player is the controller. The controller should therefore be regarded as an extension of the player rather than as part of the console. I always bear in mind the importance of the fact that the player will have far more contact with the controller and UI than the console itself …It should be both simple and comfortable….I was always aware that the controller should be usable by anyone, and that it shouldn ‘t be seen as an enemy. Indeed, it should make you want to pick it up.”

No matter how usable a system, though, there will always be those who run into problems. In this case, the problems were not that they couldn’t figure out how to use it, but rather that some users got too carried away with the experience. Within days of Wii’s North American release, websites had sprung up reporting cases of damage and injury resulting from over-zealous playing with the Wii. Numerous television screens have been smashed by remote controls flying out of overly-energetic hands, and users with a strong back swing have cut their fingers on ceiling fans and light fixtures when playing in low-ceilinged basements. As the author of the blog wrote: “Nintendo thought of everything except for stupid American kids with long arms and low ceilings!”