EGM Issue 204 Get!: Iwata Interview

After hours of typing it out, here is the long Iwata interview. It’s 4:40AM, so goodnight.

EGM: Could you discuss the history of the Revolution project?

Satoru Iwata: In early 2004, we began discussing in earnest what to do with the controller for our new console. Around that time, the DS concept had recently come together. One common objective that we’ve had with both DS and Revolution is the idea, “What can we do to expand the audience beyond people who normally play videogames?”

Just to give you an example of how we’ve approached this, think about hardcore gamers- they have a console in their home. Does everyone who lives in that household use the console? My guess is, the answer is no. Our driving concept behind the Revolution is to make it something that everyone in the household can relate to and interact with.

One question we had was why people are willing to pick up a TV remote and interact with that, but at the same time they’re not able to pick up a videogame controller. The funny thing was, at that same time, even though we’d been discussing the TV remote, we never thought to translate that into our controller design. So for a while we were unable to escape our fixed perception that a videogame controller is something you grip in both hands. We drew a lot of concept sketches and put together a lot of prototype controllers at this time. And there were a lot of ideas there that people would look at and never equate with being a videogame controller! We spent close to a year going through this prototyping process, going through tons of concepts.

One of Nintendo’s biggest strengths is that we have both hardware and software developers in one building, and they’re continually cooperating in their efforts. The hardware developers can come up with an idea, propose it to the software side, and say, “What do you think you can do with this?” They’re able to quickly put together a simple gamelike mechanic related to that idea, then quickly evaluate it to see if it has that gameplay hook that they’re looking for.

In early 2005, a young leader on the controller development team proposed the idea of this one-handed controller. Shortly before that, we had already developed this direct-pointing-device technology, and we were thinking of using that to point to objects onscreen and to hit things. Most people on the team said, “You can’t play a standard game with that… what are we going to do about the [downloadable classic] Virtual Console games?” So there were some doubts about the design… but then Mr. Miyamoto said, “Why don’t we give it a shot, and make it work by making the remote small and compact, but with an expansion port for other functions?” By creating a shell of a classic-style controller, you can have all the functionality for standard games.

So we were able to put together a prototype, implement it in a gameplay demo, and we found out that this kind of control actually makes first-person shooters really fun with the aiming and pointing… but what do you do with movement? That’s when we took advantage of the expansion port for the nunchaku configuration [where you plug in a second device connected by a cord]- that setup was proposed by the NCL [Nintendo Co., Ltd., Nintendo’s name in Japan] producer of the Metroid Prime series.

EGM: How are things going with the Revolution now?

SI: It’s progressing smoothly. A lot of developers have gotten their hands on the Revolution controller, and they’re starting to understand the types of things that they’re able to do with it. Our internal developers and second-party teams are now bringing to me the projects that they’re working on, and I’m getting more and more excited with each one.

At [May’s game trade show] E3, we’ll be demonstrating different ideas on how to apply this innovative new technology. We’ll be able to provide third-party developers a hint as to what directions they can take with their own development.

EGM: How will third-party support compare to what we’ve seen for GameCube?

SI: I think the conditions in Japan and in the U.S. are slightly different. Our goal in expanding the market [with the DS] has been met with tremendous results in Japan. A lot of developers are looking at those results and now have high expectations for their games on that system, as well as what they’ll be able to do on the Revolution.

On top of that, the Xbox 360 has had virtually no impact whatsoever in the Japanese market. And maybe there are some special considerations going on within that market, but because the 360 has had no impact, it’s leaving Japanese developers with essentially two choices: either Playstation 3, or Revolution. So because of that, we’re seeing a lot of developers who are getting very excited about the unique things that you can do with the Revolution controller.

I think that in the West, looking at the conditions there, many of the publishers have been operating under the business model of producing one game and releasing it on three different consoles. And while it’s not impossible for people to do that with the Revolution, I think a lot of people will have concerns with that, given the fact that the system has this unique controller. Will gamers want to play “standard” games on the Revolution? Similarly, a lot of developers continue to operate on what I call “sustainable innovation”, in terms of processing power and graphics. Those kinds of developers might not be quite as interested in developing on the Revolution. What we are seeing are a lot of Western developers who are getting attracted to the idea of “disruptive innovation,” and they’re looking at the Revolution controller and coming up with their own unique ideas of what to do with it. So I believe that we’ll see a lot more exclusive third-party content than we saw on the GameCube, with lots of different ideas and unique gameplay. And in order to continue fostering this development, it’s Nintendo’s job to make sure that the Revolution is a console with a lot of momentum and strength, and by building our installed base, we’ll attract even more third-party developers. With Revolution, we’re really focusing on not only having a strong launch lineup, but also having a steady supply of games coming after launch. That’s our task in the years ahead.

EGM: The perception is that the Revolution has this cool controller and unique tech, but that it’s visuals won’t be comparable to what you see on the PS3, and the Xbox 360. It doesn’t even support high definition….

SI: Because we chose to not go HD, you’re essentially looking at freeing one-forth to one-sixth of the console’s processing power. When I look at that, I don’t think the Revolution is going to be underpowered. If you were to go look at the straight list of hard specs, yeah, in that sense the Revolution is probably not as high as the other systems. But in my mind, HD is still an unstable format. Some people consider 720p to be true HD, but others say that 1080p is HD. You don’t actually have a standard there, unlike NTSC [television signals]. And if you look at the number of TVs in America that are actually HD compatible…you’re essentially taking the biggest selling point of your games and devoting all of your processing power and memory to this idea of HD graphics, yet only a very, very small percentage of people in the US will be able to view those graphics in the way they were intended. So in that sense, for us, it really became a question of whether it was worth it for us to put HD graphics in there in order to please a very small minority. We decided that the it was more important to reinvent the interface, to really change the way people play games with “disruptive innovation.”

Personally, I like technology. I’m an early adopter- the kind of guy who goes out and buys new tech as soon as it comes out. I have an HDTV in my home, but I’m not the mass-market consumer. We really want to bring the Revolution to as many people as possible. The specs of the system were based on that idea. My ultimate goal is to have as many people in the world as possible experiencing the interactive entertainment that Nintendo provides.

EGM: We’re not just talking about HD, but the actual graphical power of the console itself. Will the system be capable of keeping up with the other systems?

SI: If you were to compare how many calculations all of the systems are able to do, I think that you’d find that there are areas where the Revolution is not as capable. But in the end I don’t feel that has really anything to do with what impression a game leaves on the player. Do the graphics have as much impact as the interaction itself? The customer’s experience is what is most important. That’s where it becomes a question of balance. Where do you balance what you’re doing with the hardware with what you’re doing wit the controller? It’s more important to focus on bringing these new experiences to the user, rather than focus on the same stuff that everyone else has been doing for all these years, [which is] just trying to find new ways to make games look better.

EGM: And out side of the graphics?

SI: Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of different videogame consoles, but we’ve never seen one that’s able to do anything when it’s turned off, no matter the horsepower of the system. An the Revolution has this ability to operate in a unique way with very low level’s of power: The memory a portion of the processor , and the system’s Wi-Fi connection will continue to function while the system is off. What that means is that it’s a game machine that is connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. Of course, you can unplug it. [Laughs}

Think about it this way: Everyone in the room probably has a cell phone, and even though you you’re not using it right now, it’s sitting there in a waiting mode where it can receive calls and email. We think that by taking advantage of this concept, we can bring some very interesting new ideas to gaming. Up until now, network gaming services have all offered the standard multiplayer experience brought online, where you battle against other players to test your skill. With our new functionality, we really think that we can change the types of things that you can do while online.

With an innovation like this, we feel that the need to compete with other systems in terms of graphical power becomes less relevant. The kind of sustainable innovation we’re used to seeing means that last generation you might have seen 50 characters on screen, and now you’d be able to have 500. Sure, that can influence gameplay a little, but that kind of innovation is really just something that requires more hardware power, more manpower- and as you continue to go down that path, the only companies that can really be profitable are big publishers with very strong franchises.

I think about a game like Tetris, which was developed 20 years ago by one Russian scientist. If he were to make it now and pitch it to a publisher, they would probably tell him to go back and add better graphics, more levels, CG cut-scenes, and possibly even a movie license to make it sell more. If someone were to come up with the idea that could be the next Tetris-type phenomenon- a very simple, very fun game- it wouldn’t be approved. We want to encourage people to be more creative, and to open up development to people who don’t have the resources to do the type of development these other consoles require. It’s these new, different, innovative ideas that will broaden the interactive entertainment experience. Some people look at this and consider it risky and in some ways it is, but at the same time the potential for success will be huge if we can pull it off.

As for why we have not mentioned this up until now even though it was finalized over a year ago: We wanted to wait until a point in time when the other hardware manufacturers would be unable to copy this functionality.

Shigeru Miyamoto: We do have a lot of ideas on how to use this… we are looking with Zelda at ways of using this functionality to add an element to the Revolution gameplay. To be honest, I don’t have any more examples right now, but generally speaking, we have a lot of ideas around this concept of flowing information to the hardware whether it’s asleep or awake and seeing communities build something around it… but nothing concrete right now.

EGM: What else?

SM: There will be a speaker built in to the controller. It won’t be really high-fidelity sound- it will be kind of basic speaker noises. But in addition to the rumble, the controller itself will make noises as you use it.

EGM: Where did this idea come from?

SM: During the development of the controller, we heard from a lot of the different people offering a lot of different ideas about what to add. And there were more ideas about cameras and microphones and more, and we tried many of them out. But the sound teams in particular were very passionate about having a speaker in the controller that could make noise.

You are probably familiar with Yoot Saito, who developed Seaman and recently released Odama for the Gamecube- he made mention that if it had a speaker you could have it ring like a phone…that sort of thing. And a lot of the development teams were excited about it, too. So after debating its cost and function, we decided to include it.

EGM: So why not include a camera or especially a microphone?

SM: Well, obviously there are questions of cost and technology. When you thing about the type of microphone that would be easy for people to use for home play you think of a headset. And so the issue is, if you have a headset somehow attached to the controller, it gets complicated to use, and we wanted [everything to] be easy to use- simple and fun.

EGM: Did you look at what the Xbox 360 is doing online for your own online plans? Or will it look more like the DS, where you have a code for each game that you have to give to your friends?

SM: Unfortunately, I can’t really answer all of there questions right now, and part of it is [that] I’m not really familiar with everything they’re doing with Xbox Live. But in terms of service for a home console, we’ll be using servers and taking advantage of that functionality. We’ll be focusing on evolving it from the Wi-Fi Connection [service] we have on the DS. With the system being online all the time, it will be sitting there waiting to receive information, so we can take advantage of that to influence gameplay and do some different things. A lot of out ideas we’ll be talking about later this year.

EGM: What about the idea of improved graphics for the older games played through the Virtual Console?

SM: Well of course TVs now generally have much better resolution than they did back in the days of NES; progressive-scan TVs have much crisper and sharper pictures and such. So we’re looking at ways of taking advantage of those improved pictures, but not the sort of thing you are thinking about with more colors or reworking character art or anything like that.

EGM: What are you playing these days?

SI: Actually, I’ve been spending a lot of time on DS games lately, and I think that the reason for that is that DS games are the type that you can play in short spurts. Given my responsibilities now, I don’t really have a lot of time to devote to gameplay. So I tend to play these games that I can pick up, put down, and easily come back to later. I think I’ll have to give my schedule some thought when Zelda Twilight Princess comes out however… I’m at a loss as to what I’ll do then.

Wow, the thing I do to keep the readers happy…

KLind

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