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Right now the Nintendo Wii seems like the perfect case study in approaching a problem from a different angle. With everyone else spending their time trying to figure out how to pack more power than a Ferrari into a little box, Nintendo decided to take a different approach and it seems to be paying off.
What they did is spend a lot of time looking at the video game market, something they once lead by 20 lengths, and reassessed it. They examined the market and realized that hardcore gamers were driving the choices of its biggest competitors (Microsoft and Sony). They were the ones demanding more power and life-like games.
According to Time Magazine amongst the questions the Nintendo folks asked themselves is "Why do people who don't play video games not play them?" The article continues:
[Nintendo president] Iwata has been asking himself, and his employees, that question for the past five years. And what Iwata has noticed is something that most gamers have long ago forgotten: to nongamers, video games are really hard. Like hard as in homework. The standard video-game controller is a kind of Siamese-twin affair, two joysticks fused together and studded with buttons, two triggers and a four-way toggle switch called a d-pad. In a game like Halo, players have to manipulate both joysticks simultaneously while working both triggers and pounding half a dozen buttons at the same time. The learning curve is steep.
So they did the obvious: They rebuilt the controller from the ground up. No one had actually considered that up to this point, all the biases of the industry had prevented them from seeing a seemingly simple alternative. Instead of one of those confusing controllers with 62 buttons, they built a simple one that looks just like the remote control you know and love. The catch on this special controller is the built-in motion sensor, after all, what could be easier than swinging your arm around to control a game?
They took an approach similar to the one Gordon Rugg took to solve a code that had been plaguing mathematicians for centuries. Rugg's method, which he called 'The Verifier Approach' involves three easy steps: "watching how they work and think, testing their logic, and uncovering ways to help them solve problems."
Shifting gears for one quick second, one of my favorite marketing stories is probably not true, but it goes something like this: P.T. Barnum or another equally mythic figure bought a tuna fish company. At the time, every other tuna brand on the market had grey tuna. There was nothing wrong with it, that was just the color it was for whatever reason. Needing to find a way to compete [insert mythic figure here] decided to change the conversation and came up with the slogan "never goes grey." All of a sudden the world everyone once knew had been flipped on its head. Disregarding any ethical issues for a second, the point I walk away with is sometimes you just need to change the conversation.
That's what they did. They changed the conversation and in doing so created one of the most amazing gaming systems I've ever experienced. I have played a fair amount of Wii in the last two weeks and the magic of it doesn't seem to go away. It's a system made for social play, it makes people smile. It inspires people to create ads for free.
The only problem: They're all sold out.
Update (2/6/07): It must be Wii day because Steven Johnson wrote up a few thoughts on the new system as well.