Posted by: Kenji Hall on September 14, 2006
Nintendo’s video game visionary Shigeru Miyamoto likes to say that his company has a machine that even a mother could love. On Sept. 14, the Kyoto-based game maker announced that its Wii would arrive on store shelves in time for the holiday shopping season (Nov. 19 in the U.S., Dec. 2 in Japan), and that they would sell for $249.99 apiece (25,000 yen in Japan). That’s a price that plenty of moms and dads—who will no doubt get pressure from their kids to buy a game machine for Christmas—will be relieved to hear. But the Wii’s low price is only one part of Nintendo’s strategy of winning over parents who might normally object to video games.
In the past the majority of game titles have appealed to a limited audience. The typical gamer is male, aged 18 to 35, with dexterous thumbs, plenty of time to delve into an alternative reality, and pocket money to burn. While video games have evolved into complex virtual worlds, the industry’s main audience has pretty much stayed the same. Girls? Not invited. Nintendo wants to go after the girls—and the moms and dads, and even the grandparents. “Some people will say Nintendo’s games are for children,” said President Satoru Iwata. “But our goal is to boost the population of gamers by making games for all ages.”
How does he hope to do that? By carefully crafting the message, for starters. Nintendo’s promo videos and handouts for the Wii show people of all ages taking the machine for a spin. Company execs say the designers thought about ways to make the box less intimidating—it’s small, about the size of paperback book—and engineers worked to make sure that the chips inside wouldn’t run up the electricity bill and the machine wouldn’t run noisily. That’s important because the console can be plugged in 24-7 to a broadband connection. They got their best brains to toss out the old designs for consoles. Their main focus: the controller, which resembles a TV remote (it uses wireless and motion-sensing technology to translate a user’s movements into on-screen action). The idea is that while junior isn’t playing games, mom and dad won’t be scared to pick up the wand-like remote and check out the othe content—Net surfing, news, weather, instant messaging and photo-sharing.
Then there are the games. At the Tokyo event, held in a convention center, Miyamoto offered a demonstration of the machine’s ease-of-use by playing tennis and a quiz game with three women who'd never laid hands on the Wii before. Nintendo will have 16 titles ready for Wii's launch and 9 others by the year-end, and plans to add more at the rate of 10 a month. It won't say what its targets are beyond the more immediate goal of having 4 million consoles shipped to stores worldwide by the end of this year and two million more by late March 2007. But the female demographic—a group that's been key to success of Nintendo's DS and DS-Lite portable consoles--is clearly one of its biggest targets. “It will take time to get women and girls to play,” says Iwata.
Sony and Microsoft say they're after the same crowd. But their strategy for luring the masses differs from Nintendo's: They're relying more on visually impressive games and a smorgasbord of online services that lets users form communities with other gamers. To ensure that happens, they've devoted big budgets to make consoles with high-powered chips that promise faster games and more photorealistic graphics.
Nintendo has decided it doesn't need a supercomputer to run its games. Analysts say the processing speed of its IBM-made chip will be several times slower than the CPU's of Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360. The prospect doesn't seem to bother Miyamoto, who says the Wii is more powerful than Nintendo's GameCube, Wii's predecessor. “We want people to realize that you don't need all that power to make fun games,” he says.
Nintendo has driven home the point—starting with its own employees. Iwata has forbidden anyone from talking about “next-generation console” in the hallways or round the water cooler. Miyamoto, a senior managing director, says it's Iwata's way of getting his own people to stop obsessing about power. “The media likes to refer to this as the 'war of next-generation consoles,'” says Miyamoto, the inventor of Mario Bros. and Zelda who now leads hardware platform and game software development. “But that implies that we have the same strategy as the others.”
Not everything is clear about Nintendo's master plan. For instance, will Nintendo let users play massive multiplayer online games that have been a hit with Xbox 360 gamers? So far, the only online features Nintendo execs have shown are Net browsing, content downloading and messaging. But you don't want to second-guess Nintendo just yet. The launch date is still months away and while the box is already being mass-produced (which Iwata confirmed) there's time to beef up the online content. And at least, it seems for now, that Nintendo has learned from its rivals and is being careful to avoid the supply shortages of the Xbox 360 and the launch delays of the PS3.