[A lengthy Q&A that gets to the heart of Nintendo's latest handheld device -- with the man who lead the development of the project, working with Miyamoto and Iwata to create the successor to the company's most successful handheld platform ever.]
The Nintendo 3DS is a crucial launch for Nintendo. Already out in Japan, and shipping later this week in Europe and North America, the handheld is an obvious iterative successor to the runaway success of the original Nintendo DS; its primary innovation is a glasses-free stereoscopic 3D screen.
Nintendo is obviously hoping that by packing the handheld with features it can engage audiences and have another supremely successful generation -- but times have changed since the 2004 launch of the original DS.
Features like the StreetPass and SpotPass smart online functionality are innovative and fresh, but will they help bolster the appeal of the handheld in a meaningful way?
To find out more, Gamasutra interviewed Hideki Konno, the head of the 3DS project. A 25-year veteran of Nintendo's Entertainment Research and Development division whose first directorial job was on the 1988 NES favorite Ice Hockey, Konno brought a fresh perspective to the development of this bit of Nintendo hardware.
In the following interview, he explains the company's philosophy toward this design, explaining that it, as ever, is just trying to make entertaining products for its customers -- and is not really concerned about what the competition is up to.
I was able to attend your GDC presentation, and one of my takeaways was that it seems like the collaboration that led to the Wii Fit Balance Board -- which was formed between software and hardware -- was kind of the inspiration for bringing you into the development of the 3DS hardware, which would have been unusual for previous Nintendo systems.
Hideki Konno: Well actually, the hardware team that worked on Nintendo 3DS and the hardware team that worked on the Wii Fit Balance Board were not the same hardware teams.
One thing about our development style at Nintendo, we've had hardware teams and software teams, obviously, working in the same building for a long, long time. Personally myself, I've been 25 years on the software side of things. So having someone -- as you had said -- from the software side enter hardware development at such an early stage, may not be a common occurrence.
But as you said, and I think you're right, with the development of the Balance Board I think the software team provided a lot of information and a lot of ideas that the hardware team incorporated into the completion of the development process of that particular product.
Would you say that there are fundamental differences -- I'm not talking about technical differences as such -- between this and other previous handheld products because of the input of a software developer in the process?
HK: Yes, that's true. I mean, that's a difficult question; I had to think about the right way to answer that question so there was a good answer. But with Nintendo 3DS, I think because the software side was involved right early on, one of our goals was to build into the system that initial appeal for consumers; that initial inspiration, how to engage them right out of the box.
And one of the ways the software team decided to do that was look at what the hardware is offering -- the gyro sensor, the motion sensor, and other functionality -- and make the pre-installed applications take advantage of those in such a way that again, right from the very beginning, you open it up and you're engaged. And I think that's probably the software side influence on the development.
And I guess really I end up starting to talk about some of the more technical things, and I think the conversation gets back to technology. For example, StreetPass and SpotPass, just having that technology within the device is different than having the software team say, "Here are the ideas with which we want to use this technology."
So that then influences, in a way, how that is implemented and even developed. "Oh, you guys wanna use it for this? Well in that case we're going to have to make sure that the functionality works in this way." So it does influence the technology and how it's implemented as well. And also because it works in sleep mode -- again, the coordination between all of those different aspects influences, again, the technology.
I think really what you see in a lot of cases is they build the hardware system -- "Here's your hardware system, now go build software for it! Yay!" But in this case, because we have this operating system built right in, we really need the joint cooperation of the hardware and software teams.
The working together, again, influenced it. Not only the software development team's ideas and desires and needs influence the hardware team -- not only implements the technology that's available to them, but also influences the way they come up with the initial design and the housing and everything. So they all work together.
It's interesting to see a software developer being put in charge of a generation of hardware. Speaking to developers, what you would say about how that influenced your vision of how this system was ultimately designed?
HK: Well I was the overall producer in charge of both hardware and software sides. That doesn't mean I thought of everything by myself.
So in this case with Nintendo 3DS, we had meeting after meeting after very involved meeting, with Mr. Iwata, Mr. Miyamoto, the head of the hardware team and myself and it was this group that got together a lot and talked about this stuff over and over again that really determined the direction of the development process.
And it's actually another one of my roles -- because, you know, you get in these meetings. Mr. Miyamoto has his personality, and Mr. Iwata has his personality, and one person wants this thing, and the other person wants to do something else, and it's my job to say, "Yeah, I understand," and sort of make sure that those waters didn't get too rough.
And sort of the idea of taking all of these disparate ideas and personalities and putting them into a cohesive unit and a smooth development process, that was another one of my roles.
Interestingly, when you speak about this development process, it occurs to me that while you're in charge, Mr. Iwata has a lot to say about the project; Mr. Miyamoto as well. All three of you are software developers, originally.
HK: Yes, that's right; Mr. Iwata of course is a former programmer, Mr. Miyamoto of course game direction and design, and of course I've been working under Mr. Miyamoto for a long time.
And though this is my first experience working on hardware development, of course Mr. Iwata and Mr. Miyamoto have been doing this for a long time. So I think it's been part of Nintendo's development process for hardware, where you have people with a software background involved right from the very beginning in designing consoles and devices.
You know, speaking of Mr. Iwata, we talk about coming into high hurdles -- things that are difficult problems, "Holy heck, what are we going to do here?" When those situations arise, that's when Mr. Iwata's eyes start to shine and sparkle; he loves that sort of thing. So being involved in here is just something that he really likes; he likes tackling really difficult problems.
Having gone to a lot of presentations by people from Nintendo and read interviews over the years, I get the impression that Mr. Miyamoto sort of pops up every so often and like looks and goes, "…really?" And then drops small bits of wisdom as he's able to attend to it. I was curious about that.
HK: Well, you're right. Mr. Miyamoto is always thinking of a lot of different things; and I mean always. And he can't keep it to himself -- this is not the sort of person who'll go, "Yeah, yeah, I'll keep that in my head and talk about it later." No, when it's there, it's there.
And it's sort of an extreme example, but let's say I'm sitting at my desk one day at 10 o'clock at night, getting ready to go home, and all of a sudden he'll just -- as you said -- pop up and be like, "Hey! About that one thing, how's that going?"; "Oh hey, I just thought of this, I think it would be really cool if we did this."; "What do you think if we did this? Can you give me your ideas on this? Let's talk about this."
And I'm like, "Can we do this tomorrow? I wanna go home!" and he's like, "No, no, no -- let's do it now." And then that's just an extreme example, but again, he is always involved in that way.
One thing that's interesting about the system is that you're not launching it with the eShop yet. Is it because you're putting a lot of thought into exactly how you should tackle that?
HK: We definitely want to make sure that it's ready before we bring it out. The iterations that we've had before -- for Wii and DS -- to be honest, we just haven't been as satisfied as we would like.
It's browser-based, and to be honest, the ease of use wasn't what we wanted, and I don't think that anyone has been pleased with the user response. And I don't think that people have been using it as often as we want. And being able to, again, easily go into it, look around and purchase things. Again, it just didn't work out quite as we were hoping.
And you know on Wii, of course, you had the promotion channel, which is where you went to get new information, and see game demos, or whatever. And so having those two separate, I think, didn't work really all that well, either.
And for Nintendo 3DS, we really want to cover that all in one spot and cover it from all sides. And so we're really taking the right amount of time to make sure that it's right.
And because we're also taking the promotional aspect that we would once separate out and putting that together with the actual shopping aspect to give you the eShop, it's not going to be browser-based; it's a native application. So again, the preparation needed for that is quite extensive.
And again, we're taking more time because we want to be able to create a system where a consumer sees a promotion and says, "Wow, that looks great!" Sees a game demo, game trailer, whatever it is, and says, "I want that!" And the ability to then say "Now I can purchase it right here without having to back out and go somewhere else" -- we want to provide that experience. So that's one other reason why we're not bringing it out with the system itself.
EShop, being similar to WiiWare or DSiWare, would offer games -- independently-developed games, smaller games.
At the same time, Nintendo's been public lately about being not super happy with the way things are going on -- in terms of things like the Apple iOS App Store, in terms of developers selling games on the cheap for download. I was wondering where your opinion falls.
HK: And you know personally -- and this is my own personal opinion from a development standpoint -- we don't want content to be devalued. So if you're a developer and you put some time and effort into a software title and you put it out there...
Let's say that there's a ton of other software out there that's free, which forces you then to take your content which you want to sell for ten dollars and you have to lower it down to one dollar to be competitive. It's not a business model that's going to make developers happy.
And I don't think that you're going to see a game that takes a year or more to develop. Developers spending more time and manpower to do that -- it's not going to be matched in terms of content and quality by something that sells for a buck. I just don't think that's going to happen.
But we're reaching a point where the iPhone is globally popular -- including in Japan. A certain number of users are starting to think about games in a different way. And I wonder if that's informed any of the decisions you've been making with the 3DS.
HK: Competition is something that we've all been involved with, and take a look at. And when I say "competition," it's not only competition with other software maker, or other hardware developers and whatnot, but it's just competition for people's free time. What do people choose to do with their free time? That's what the competition is.
When we're looking at Nintendo 3DS, we're obviously trying to provide something that will engage people, and they say, "Hey, I want to choose that. That's where I want to spend my free time." Rather than how other developers -- whether it's hardware or software -- go about trying to compete for consumers' time is not something that we worry too much about.
So could we say that Nintendo 3DS' development process was not influenced by, or you weren't thinking about, this other situation when you were creating it?
HK: We just didn't think about it. It didn't "influence" us is maybe that is not the right word, but what we were thinking about was, "How can we engage and surprise and make our consumers happy?" That was what we were thinking about.
I think that developers would agree with you -- that selling games for a dollar isn't really sustainable. But what they've been able to do is evolve things very quickly. Things continue to evolve very quickly. Traditionally console or handheld platforms have not evolved as quickly; they've not been able to be updated to the same extent, or try new business models.
Apple has enabled in-app purchases. Also game developers all started racing to the bottom, and then they said "We can't do this anymore," so they thought of different strategies to try to combat that as well.
HK: Mr. Iwata has said that content has value, and we really want to maintain the high value of that content. So of course Nintendo makes hardware, but really what supports that is our software. And so what we're always thinking about is consistently creating engaging content that will keep customers, again, engaged and excited.
So now in terms of one dollar games, or free games, or whatever that is out there in the market, I mean, really, we're not going to be competing with that. We're not going to try to match that; we're just going to continually strive to not just maintain, but increase, the quality of the entertainment that we're providing, and let it sort itself out. Again, we're not worried about competing at a price point level.
And I don't think that's just Nintendo, I believe that's more than likely Sony and Microsoft's opinion on that as well. Now of course as a customer, if somebody said to me, "Hey, we've got Call of Duty on your portable device and it's only going to cost you 100 yen," yeah, I'd be super stoked, really excited about that.
And I'd be really excited to see a great game at a really cheap price, but I just don't think that you could make a game that's immersive and as big as, let's say Call of Duty, or any other large title, and sell it at that price point; it's just not possible. The only way that you're going to get a game at that price point is if it's a limited version with limited levels or something. They're going to have to reduce it to sell at that price. So that other game -- because the content is valuable -- it's still going to be a viable product at a higher price point.
If we went out and created one of our titles -- a big title for Nintendo -- and we decided to sell it at, like, say 100 yen, how many do we have to sell to get back our investment? That number's insane. It's just incredible, right?
Again, it's sort of the same thing, but as a game developer I've put my heart into what I create, and I'm hoping that what I'm putting out there is something that people will be engaged by and entertained by. And as a consumer, I want the same thing. If I go and I see a game that interests me and I think I want to play it, I don't mind the fact that I have to pay a reasonable price for it.
I'm not trying to say that I think games on cell phones are a bad thing; I'm not trying to say that they're worthless, or have no value at all. I'm just saying that they're just different.
One reason I ask is, of course, there's little doubt that Nintendo -- both in terms of game quality and established brands -- can compete very well. But third party developers have tough decisions to make these days.
HK: You know one thing, in answer to a response to that with Nintendo 3DS, we've implemented the gyro-sensor, the motion sensor, AR technology, and all these other new elements that we hope will provide tools and ideas for game developers and stimulate them into creating new and exciting things. So hopefully that balances some of that out a little bit.
As you said before, you're thinking about all the things you're competing with for someone's attention. When the original DS launched, people's lives were pretty different, in terms of their entertainment options. Have you guys done research and observed how the typical user that you would see when DS launched, how their play patterns and use patterns have changed and incorporated that feedback?
HK: To go back in time a little bit, coming up to the launch pre-DS days, I think there were a lot of people who had either played games and just stepped away and didn't come back, or people who just thought that "Games really have nothing to do with me."
So we really wanted to reach out and change that, and really change their opinion and say, "No, no, no, you are related to, and yes you are connected to, and yes you do have a relationship with video games." So we really put a lot of effort into trying to build that connection, or at least build that image.
So rather than, doing any research into play patterns or what people are doing with their free time and that sort of thing -- I think because it's such a habitual part of our process and that we're always thinking, "What is it that we can do again to make people go, 'Yeah that's for me' or 'Yeah, I'm connected to that.'"
What do we do to engage them? That thought process is always going on, but actual research, as you said, into more of those smaller component areas, we didn't do that, no.