Looking back in time it becomes hard to realize what exactly transpired and how everything aligned just right to create a massive phenomena. In this case, I am referring to the Wii, and how it completely changed the industry. Except it almost never happened. In fact, one simple handshake from either Microsoft… or Sony… and the rights to even create such a thing would have been dust in the wind. To either one day be used by either of those companies, or to just sit on a shelf of “rights we own but don’t use”.
For those who didn’t know, Tom Quinn is quintessentially the pseudo inventor of the Wii Remote. It was his patent, his ideas and concepts for Motion controls, that lead directly to the creation of the Wii. Back between 1999 and 2001, Quin had put together a rather interesting presentation to pitch to companies on how motion controls could work well with computer devices, namely game consoles. Back then, Microsoft seemed like a logical first choice to try and pitch to. After all, The Xbox had a fairly successful debut for a first time console, and Microsoft was the king of the computer market essentially.
“Through my business connections, the first games person I got in touch with was Steve Ballmer,” he says.
“I pitched this motion control device to him and he loved it. He set me up with the Xbox team in Redmond [Washington] for a second pitch and I remember how incredibly excited I was about it. Things were happening so fast.
“But the meeting went terribly. The attitude I got from them was that if they wanted to do motion control, they would do it themselves and make a better job of it. I mean, they were just rude. In fact, the meeting went so terribly that one of the executives came over to me afterwards and apologised on behalf of others. I remember him saying how this was not how Microsoft should be engaging with potential partners.”
Despite the support from Microsoft’s new top man at the time, the Xbox team pretty much threw the idea out before it was even presented. Their focus was on the hardcore gamers, and creating a more immersed online experience. More power, more online, better gaming. At least, they felt that way. Why not? The power aspect had been the driving force in the industry since the days of the NES.
After failure to get the idea by the Xbox team, Quin and his partners still felt the concept of motion controls can and should work with a gaming machine. Over time, eyes shifted to Japan in order to target Sony. It made logical sense too, as rumors were spreading the head of Nintendo would be stepping down, and Nintendo’s systems including the N64 were not performing that well in comparison to the competition. Essentially, Sony was viewed as the new visionary, with Nintendo becoming the next Sega.
Through a business connection he was able to set up a meeting with Sony’s visionary leader, except the meeting was less than amazing.
“I’ll never forget that meeting at Sony,” Quinn says. “We were in a tiny little room with a big PC projector and Kutaragi comes in, introduces himself, sits down and - I swear this is true - he closed his eyes the moment I started showing my pitch. He never opened them until I had finished.
“It was awkward, very awkward, but I still asked him for feedback and he said, ‘well, can you produce this for 50 cents?’ I laughed and explained that would be impossible, so again I left empty handed and, to be honest, that time it got to me. I felt pretty let down. You have to remember that Sony and Microsoft were by far the two biggest console manufacturers. Nintendo wasn’t doing well and we hadn’t thought much about them.”
That’s right, Kutaragi, the man who made the PS1 and PS2 happen, literally closed his eyes and didn’t even watch the presentation. This from the same people who created the Eye Toy. Rather astounding no? This was before the PS3 launched. Before Sony finally saw a major decline in it’s hardware sales. They just weren’t interested in this tech unless it was cheap, and if they planned for it to be that cheap, at best you may have saw it as an add-on. Of course, that may indeed have been all Quin was looking for at the time anyways.
At the same time, major shifts were happening in Nintendo. The head was stepping down, and instead of replacing him with a new top brass there would be a ceo and a committee of 6 chairman that would collaborate and make all the decisions. Iwata was promoted to CEO and one of the chairman positions. Miyamoto was selected for another of those chairs. Asada happened to also be one of those new chairman, and it so happened that Quin had a networking partner who played golf with Asada. Eventually, a meeting was set up - and Quin got a rare look at exactly how Nintendo of right now operates. A rare look, one that the public still has yet to figure out.
“I’ll never forget that week. I distinctly remember the company’s beautiful board meeting room - a huge cherrywood table and flush carpeting and outstanding ornaments. Asada didn’t speak much English, but he had an entourage of about eight executives, engineers and programmers. I didn’t know who they were though.
“About twenty minutes into my pitch, which was roughly the same one I gave to Microsoft and Sony, Asada stopped things and asked if he could have a moment to speak with his people. I was thinking, here we go again.
“They started talking and, right in front of me, it was growing into this really heated discussion. I was told by Yoshida, who was also in the room, that some executives were resistant to the idea of motion control, while others were completely sold by it.
“And then, in the middle of this debate that was getting louder and louder, Asada barked something and there was total silence. That was it. He decided to license our patents for motion control, as well as buy some of our company.”
So apparently it can be like a war room when making decisions at Nintendo. Arguing, heated debates, and eventually a final say is made by the person who has the power to do so. In this case, Asada thought the concept was at least worth an investment, even if they didn’t know at the time what it would eventually lead to.
In 2003, Nintendo themselves realized that the GameCube was going to be a failure. Several major retailers were pulling the console off shelves due to low demand, and third party support began to wane. Promised life-time exclusives, like Resident Evil 4, were starting to find there way onto the PS2. Nintendo has had a dwindling market on the core gamers ever since the NES, with each console selling less and less. Sure, Nintendo was still profitable, but how much longer could they stay that way?
Apparently, Nintendo knew they had to think differently. They had to create a market where one didn’t exist. Going after the gamers they lost in a three headed race was going to send Nintendo to their grave. Despite all the great franchises they have, competing in the power game was not going to get it done. They had been experimenting internally with motion controls, but nothing had been committed to yet.
Nintendo saw two fundamental reasons the market wasn’t expanding: Controllers were too complicated and and most games were targeted at hardcore gamers. Nintendo began to do some market research to see if an audience existed for families to enjoy games with simplified controls. Games like Donkey Kong Jungle beat. In fact, the premise of the DS itself was a test to see the viability of the market.
After seeing the success of Brain Training and Nintendogs, Nintendo knew they were onto something that no one had yet realized.
Fast forward to E3 2004, and the almighty Reggie made his debut on stage. 2004 is widely considered the pinnacle of E3 press conferences, especially for Nintendo. They revealed a new handheld system, Iwata went on and on about Nintendo’s next console, and Miyamoto walked on stage to reveal a new Zelda game - arguably the biggest and grandest reaction from journalists and fans the world over at any major gaming press event.
As time went on, Miyamoto was hoping to have the Wii itself sell for $100. This wasn’t seen as viable, because many still wanted the system to have enough power to produce quality 3D environments. There was debate raging on about entering the HD era despite the move to motion controls. It just wasn’t seen as viable, and defeated what Nintendo was trying to establish for their new outlook on gaming. They didn’t feel they could compete HD wise and still get a system under $450 at retail. They also knew that they were going to throw up the motion control hail mary and hope it worked: So they couldn’t be pricing a system in a range that families would not consider viable. Enter the $250 US price tag, with a $13 per unit sold profit.
The rest, they say, is history. Nintendo went on to produce one of the best selling gaming consoles of all time. It took people by storm, and even today many wonder a lot about what ifs. What could have been. The question now becomes, with the Wii U launch just around the corner: What becomes of tomorrow? As Nintendo back steps to try and get back what they lost, hopes that what they gained is still there, and tries to provide even more new ways to play than every before, we can only wonder what the future will hold.
Many think Nintendo is just “catching up” with the Wii U. Others see Nintendo shaking it up and doing it yet again. New gameplay innovations, HD capable system with more power than given credit for, an online structure done Nintendo’s way. It may seem crazy to some, but for Nintendo it’s just another chance for them to build upon everything they strive to be. For you. For my sister. For lil’ Wayne… for everyone.
You can read more about the story of Quin, the journey of the Wii motion controls, and get some more insider information about how the Wii really took off by checking out the excellent original article at CVG.