Forget Nintendo’s lackluster January console sales, forget worries about dwindling interest in game consoles in general — Shigeru Miyamoto clearly believes in the Wii U, and he’s thinking well beyond its appeal to traditional gamers. The man whose iconic video game franchises — Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Pikmin and more — have for decades inspired the games industry views the Wii U’s sui generis GamePad as the Wii U’s saving grace, arguing that its synchronous streaming technology should insulate it from the tablet/smartphone threat while fundamentally reconceptualizing the decades-old viewing/playing dynamic in living rooms.
I spoke with Miyamoto by phone earlier this week in a broad-ranging interview about the Wii U as well as his approach to game design. This is part one; part two is here.
What part of the Wii U’s hardware do you find the most inspiring and why?
From a gameplay perspective, what interests me most are the new types of play you can create using the Wii U GamePad as either a second or fifth screen when you’re playing split-screen multiplayer.
At the same time, one of the other things I find particularly interesting is, it used to be that when you were playing you had to choose whether you would use the television to watch TV or play games. With Wii U and the Wii U GamePad you can do both at the same time. Similarly, there used to be particular activities that you would perform on your computer, like browsing the Internet, and you would have these different functionalities or features that you would use different devices for. But with Wii U and the Wii U GamePad you can now bring these together in one device, and I think that’s ultimately going to make your TV, when it’s connected to Wii U, a more useful thing in the household.
I asked this of Cindy Gordon in September, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts. The Wii U GamePad as a secondary screen seems to have been inspired by the Nintendo DS. In fact I’ve sometimes referred to it as a DS snapped in two.
Well certainly because Wii U has that second screen you can apply some of the ideas that we’ve brought to life on the DS and bring those to Wii U, but I don’t think it would be correct to say DS is where the Wii U idea originally came from.
One of the things I think is particularly unique about Wii U is that up until now, game consoles in the home haven’t been able to function unless the TV was turned on and set to display the game console. With Wii U, our primary goal was to create a game console that functioned regardless of whether the TV was on. With the Wii U GamePad’s second screen, the Wii U itself can be used in the living room without the TV on, which allowed us to bring the sort of applications we’ve seen on Nintendo DS, or just the know-how we’ve developed in building games for Nintendo DS, to Wii U. It’s also allowed us to bring some of the ideas that we introduced with the Game Boy Advance-to-GameCube connectivity to the console.
You could also phrase it as saying the screen that everyone watches together is the television screen, whereas the screen that an individual can watch and interact with is simply the Wii U GamePad screen.
Let’s talk about the Wii U system updates. The Wii U launched with interface issues and missing applications, including slow load times for native apps. Why weren’t the slow load times caught before release, and why is the update to improve system performance taking until spring?
It’s a tough question, certainly, but I think it’s also an accurate observation. For Wii U in particular I would say that in preparing the system for launch, it was a project on an unparalleled scale for Nintendo. We had multiple different teams working on multiple different segments of the hardware and its features simultaneously. Certainly we’d had experience with that type of development designing the 3DS, but with Wii U the scope of the project was far beyond our development of the 3DS hardware. And with many of those features, you don’t get a true sense for how they interact or where the advantages and disadvantages lie within the broader framework until you’re able to bring all the components together into a single unified system.
Even during the testing phase, it’s difficult to ascertain what facets of those interactions between the applications are resulting in inconveniences for the consumer until you have an opportunity for many people and lots of consumers to try these features out — to understand how they’re using those features and what they’re doing as they’re switching between them. Since the system was released, we’ve spent a great deal of time looking at how people are using it and where they feel it can be improved, and we’re currently continuing out preparations for this first major system update that’s coming. What we want to do is make sure that when we release it, that we address as many of the different opinions about how people would like to see the system improve as we can at once. We hope to cover a wide range of requests while simultaneously ensuring it’s a very stable update to the system.
Do you anticipate a significant performance upgrade to the Wii U interface itself?
We think that by this summer, the system is going to be very much improved over how it’s performing currently. Of course when it comes to the actual hardware, those decisions have already been finalized, and one of the things we focused on in making those decisions was the speed of the connection between the Wii U system and the Wii U GamePad. We strongly feel the transfer speed between those two devices is so strong that it’s not something that can necessarily be achieved by other devices that haven’t been designed specifically with that in mind. So as we get into these other system-based updates, our anticipation is that because of the amount of effort we’ve dedicated to the GamePad’s wireless connection to the hardware, these additional improvements are going to make for an overall device that’s even more convenient to use.
You’ve said that the most important thing about the Wii U for you is that it could become the first screen families interact with in the living room. Do you see Wii U becoming the default living room interface? For more than TV and gaming?
Yes, I do think Wii U is going to become a place where people can go to get their overall entertainment in the living room. Certainly there are other devices that are designed with very specific uses in mind, and they might be good at those particular uses. But for people who are looking for a single device that can really meet all their needs in the living room, I think that with everything Wii U can do, people are going to find that it is the one device they’re going to want to have connected in their living room to access all their entertainment.
How worried are you about the elephants already sharing the room with the Wii U, meaning tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices along with set-top boxes from players like Roku and Apple?
I look at it from two different angles. One is how you can use a device like Wii U — to make an experience that up until now has happened on a single screen — into a better and more convenient experience. And I think that the Wii Street U powered by Google application we’ve recently released for Wii U is an example of how we’ve taken an existing application and really enhanced it through the use of Wii U and the GamePad.
I think the other goes back to, as I was mentioning before, the response time between the streaming of visuals from the Wii U hardware simultaneously to the TV and to the GamePad. Certainly from an interactive standpoint, when it comes to interactive content, because of the strength of that streaming capability of Wii U, my feeling is that the more you start to see other devices that are integrating connectivity with smartphones or tablets through special applications, the more that that’s simply going to illustrate the benefits of having Wii U because of the advantages it has in terms of its interactive elements and how the system streams graphics to the Wii U GamePad screen.
As people are using the system and getting familiar with everything it can do and really learning how to use Wii U and the GamePad, I think the last remaining hurdle for Wii U becomes one of storage in terms of being able to store media. But since we’ve designed the system in a way that allows people to simply add the amount of storage media they need to supplement Wii U, we think it essentially gives people the greatest flexibility within a single device to really make the most of their entertainment in the living room.
MORE: Miyamoto: I Couldn’t Have Imagined Where We’ve Ended Up