26th Sep 2005 | 16:32
When Nintendo finally unveiled its long-awaited Revolution controller, much of the world scratched its head and made a sort of 'um' sound. Quite aside from the fact it looks exactly like a TV remote, it also has the dubious honour of genuinely promising to revolutionise the way we think about videogame interaction. Trouble is, Nintendo has an uphill struggle if it's going to successfully demonstrate the controller's worth and convince a largely close-minded hardcore gaming population - as well as a massively indifferent mass market - that this is the device they should be playing with come the next generation.
Last week, we had the chance to sit down with Jim Merrick, Nintendo's head of European marketing, fresh back from the Tokyo Game Show, and speak about the challenges Nintendo faces in bringing its unique next-gen console to the market in the face of more traditional, less conceptual competition from both Sony and Microsoft. Of course, we had plenty more to talk about as Nintendo gears up for one of the most exciting periods the gaming world has seen ever seen.
In fact, we ended up covering so much that we've decided to split our chat with Jim Merrick up - largely to stop you going blind through sheer textual assault. Today we talk about Mario's success, the Nintendo difference and just what the hell Nintendo thinks it's playing at with the Revolution. Tune in next time for the success of the Nintendo DS, the relative failure of Metroid Prime 2, Nintendo's European approach and it's plans to woo the mature gamer as the next generation of gaming approaches. And that's not including everything we've learned about Mario Kart, Animal Crossing, online security and the Nintendo Wi-fi Connection.
You have no idea how gnarled our fingers have gotten typing this little lot up.
Nintendo's recently celebrated Mario's 20th birthday. That's an impressive lifespan for someone who's little more than a bunch of pixels. Why do you think he's such an enduring character?
Jim Merrick: Well, obviously I can only offer my personal opinion but I think that Mario is a character who, even in his early days, had a personality - you could relate to him. He wasn't the brash hero, he was somehow an average guy. Okay, he could do back flips and things that maybe all of us can't do but nevertheless he was the unsung hero. He was the underdog against Donkey Kong and you wanted him to succeed - and he's never really lost that. He's not carrying weapons, he's not macho, he's still just Mario. Even, when he gets bored he scratches his butt - he has all those personalities that make him endearing. That combined with the fact that's he's always, always lived in games with great gameplay. Frankly it could be blocked pixels in some of the games and it would still play really well, so he has the luxury of living in great games and being a personality that people can relate to.
It's interesting you use the word 'underdog' to describe Mario. Many people would suggest it's a good a description as any for Nintendo itself in the present videogames market. Do you think this is a fair statement?
Jim Merrick: Well, that's interesting, I hadn't made that connection myself. I don't really think of Nintendo as an 'underdog'. To make that assumption suggests that we're competing on the same playing field as our competitors and I don't think that's true. Nintendo is not going to be the broadband portal and have pieces of music, movies and television distribution, so we're not selling our hardware at a phenomenal loss. We're a profitable company, we're happy living in our core business, which is entertainment. That's what we do - that's all we want to do.
As an entertainment focused company, Nintendo's clearly heading up the 'innovation' movement with the announcement of DS and now the Revolution. While we've long since recognized Nintendo as one of the leaders in gameplay innovation, how recent is this seemingly new focus on hardware innovation?
Jim Merrick: It's a recognition of the market situation and Nintendo is perhaps ahead of the curve. Everybody's talking about market expansion and attracting new users now, but we're the first company that's really deliberating on new ways to reach those consumers. Nintendo has a long history of innovation - we spent the last week trashing traditional controller design, saying "Oh, we're going to change the world with these new controllers!" But as someone pointed out to us last week in Tokyo, we're responsible for most of those elements that make up today's controller designs so we probably shouldn't trash it so much! However, it's a recognition that we have to change the way we play games and the way we do business and we want to continue to grow the market.
If we follow what Iwata-san calls 'the past success formula', if we keep refining the existing model - more power, more pixels, more polygons, more levels, more enemies, better AI - we're actually making the games for a narrower audience playing those kind of intense games. We need to take a step back and refocus on a broad audience where we reach to everybody otherwise we're going to see the market start shrinking - as we're already seeing in Japan. And we have the luxury of being last where I think in Europe we're lucky and can take advantage of what's happened in Japan and do something before it happens here. It puts us in a very good position right now.
Obviously, the DS was your first big step away from the norm in terms of traditional console design. From a development perspective, how does a device like the DS - or even the Revolution - come into being?
Jim Merrick: There is always ongoing development - somebody asked me "When did you start working on the Revolution controller?" Well, about twenty years ago - it's a natural progression for us. When did we make a recognition that we had to change the user interface in order to move forward the market today? I think that was maybe two years ago at the keynote speech Iwata-san did at the Tokyo Game Show then, discussing what he sees as happening, watching the market shrinking with people moving away from games more and more. At that time he said that we had to make a change. It was about that time that we were looking at the lifecycle of our handhelds saying where do we go from here?
GBA has been launched, it's solid, it's going to last a couple of years, but it isn't doing anything to expand the market. So where can we go? There are all kinds of development projects in the works at any given time at Nintendo. Some of them leak occasionally - you might remember references to "Atlantis" about five years ago which was a new handheld that turned out to be GBA. At the time though it wasn't GBA, it was just another project, you know, screwing around with something else. We're always fooling around with human interfaces. You know, we've done a lot of different controllers and ideas in the past - from something like Super Scope to where we even had a little clip that measured your heart rate.
We linked it up to a version of Tetris and I played it once - it adjusted the rate of these falling blocks to try and keep you at this maximum level that you could handle. But actually, it was not enjoyable (laughs). But you know, we're always fooling around with a lot of different things like that.
One of the most immediately surprising things about the Revolution controller is the way it eschews traditional controller design in favour of what's essentially a glorified TV remote. What was the thinking behind the design from a purely aesthetic level?
Jim Merrick: There were multiple objectives with the Revolution controller, certainly improving gameplay was one of them. But also one which speaks directly to the industrial design - we wanted the Revolution controller to be something relevant to every single person in the household, that is not intimidating, that looks like something you would pick up and use and your mother would pick up and use without looking at it and saying "That's not for me - that's not what I'm about." We very much wanted the Revolution controller living on the coffee table just like a TV remote does - part of your lifestyle, not something that has to be hidden away every time you've finished playing games.
You've got the GameCube - and I like Wavebirds so I use them these days - but you've got your GameCube in front of your TV and a huge tangle of wires, memory cards and discs and so on. It's not a good fit for the average lifestyle - it has to be put away. We wanted something that could be there as a natural part of your lifestyle all the time - so little things like being able to turn the Revolution on and off using the remote. We've expected that from televisions for a long time so why not our games systems? We've included little things that make it more tangible and more accessible to everybody.
Now, on to the magic of the wand itself: we've obviously seen the video and we've got some idea of what it can do. Why does Nintendo feel that the future of gaming relies so heavily on interaction in a 3D space?
Jim Merrick: You know, we've spent the last twenty years teaching ourselves to move up, down, left, right, forward and backward with our thumbs and it takes a bit of doing. To quickly target something in the opposite corner of the screen with an analogue controller is a bit of a trick - it's a less than perfect input device, but we've taught ourselves to use it as gamers. At the same time, we've created a barrier for none gamers with that stuff. But with this type of controller, what we call a Direct Pointing Device, it's like a laser pointer. If I want to point at the corner of the screen, I point at the corner of the screen - there's no lag time between when I think about looking at something and when I do. It's immediate, it's a much more direct form of control than can be accomplished today using analogue sticks or d-pads or even a mouse on a PC. So it truly improves just the X/Y co-ordinate entry.
But then you can take it a step forward and say I want to move front to back, I want to be able to zoom in on my scope on my sniper rifle for example, so why not just push the controller forward? The closer I move in, the more it zooms in - there are a lot of different ways of doing it - and yet, I still haven't pressed a single button on the controller yet. People say "You don't have enough buttons to support the games", but actually, I've got way more input than you're getting out of a standard controller and I haven't even pressed a button yet.
One of the examples we used in Japan was a simple flight simulator. I have a little bi-plane, it flies through a little Mario town - there's some bridges to fly under and rings to fly through and it was a really easy way to get a feel for what the controller can do. Because if you have to use the analogue controller, you're banking left and right, and your body is going left and right - or at least when I play, there's a lot of body English involved - but for Revolution, the easiest way is just to hold the controller like it's a model airplane and fly. Tilt it this way, tilt it that way, dive, pull it back up, do a loop - it's all very natural and I still haven't pressed a single button. There's no barrier for my manual dexterity and there's no need to educate myself how and which button does what, it just works.
You've talked about bringing down barriers in order to reach a larger consumer base, but don't you worry that you might simultaneously be putting up barriers and putting off your existing audience with Nintendo's move away from traditional gaming?
Jim Merrick: You're right - any time you say "I'm creating something for new users", there is a subliminal message that says for the existing users, "I'm forgetting about you, I'm ignoring you". I think that's one of the elegant things about this controller - it offers so much for an existing gamer. The capabilities to directly, precisely target things, pointing in a much more natural way than using analogue control. If you play a first-person shooter, using what we call the nunchukk controller - the little analogue stick on a pigtail - you can never go back. It is so easy to target someone over here, an enemy over there, duck behind something then run across an open area, strafing and shooting as you go. It is the first-person shooter's dream controller and it can be used in a lot of other ways.
At E3, you said that the Revolution would include ports for GameCube controllers. However, we've now heard that Nintendo intends to deliver a controller cradle housing the new input device for certain games. Is this true and does it mean you've done away with those GameCube ports since we last saw the console?
Jim Merrick: We'll go both ways. The four ports for the GameCube controllers are still on the top, you can use your Wavebirds controllers and existing wired controllers - and that's great because if you've got GameCube games, you've probably got GameCube controllers too so there's no reason not to use them. Not only for GameCube games either - we have something called the Virtual Console which allows you to download N64 games, Super Famicom games - what am I going to do with those? NES games are obviously easy - you just flip the controller on its side and you're there. For other games, and even for today's games, we're not trying to say that the existing controller designs are not useful, there are many great games that play very well with existing controllers.
We will offer what we call the Classic-style controller which is based on the more traditional controller - or at least as traditional as you can get in an industry that's only twenty years old. Basically, it has a hole that you slot in the free-hand controller so that brings wireless communications, rumble pack and other features and you just slot it right in there. It's an easy and presumably - I don't have any pricing yet - inexpensive way to give you another controller option. So we're really excited about having this expansion port on the controller - you start realizing there's all kinds of things we can do. One of the reasons we didn't show it at TGS though was we haven't completed the design yet - it's not completely signed off.
There's been a lot discussions about what kind of features does it have to have to support N64 games and GameCube games and NES games, and what a third party might expect on a cross-platform controller because, let's face it, every hardware manufacturer wants third parties to write games exclusively for them and take one hundred percent advantage of what's unique on their platform - but, in reality, third parties have to write cross-platform - and there has to be some commonality between them, or at least they'd like it to make their job easier. That said, there are good examples, such as the Sims 2, which really uses the DS' unique features and it certainly is a cross-platform game.
The Revolution obviously offers a significantly different experience for developers and not just end users, in terms of the machine's potential for creative challenges. What sort of feedback has Nintendo had from developers who've had chance to get their hands on the new controller?
Jim Merrick: As we showed in the testimonial videos in Japan, Kojima-san said this is a really, really creative system and he says that they're thrilled that someone's willing to take a risk. Because it is a risk and hardware companies tend to be fairly risk adverse. For example, the Microsoft model, taking 360 which is basically Xbox on steroids - it's a pretty safe choice. The Revolution offers a lot more creative freedom for developers so they respond very well to it. You know, we have a couple of European developers who're very excited and busy working on it.
Jumping back slightly, Nintendo went through a very similar process with the DS, facing the potentially difficult challenge of educating both consumers and developers about these new forms of videogame interaction. From a development perspective, how is the DS doing? Would you say developers have embraced the DS' unique hardware and exploited it effectively?
Jim Merrick: Initially for third party developers and even for Nintendo to some extent, they retargeted GBA games and moved them to the DS and they didn't take as much advantage of the DS as maybe they could have. Now though, we're really seeing developers embracing the system. Certainly, in Japan, the die seems to be cast on the handheld market with DS outselling PSP two to one. The majority of development in the handheld space is certainly DS.
Keep eyes peeled for part two of our interview with Jim Merrick, appearing on these pages shortly.