Thu 05 Apr
Suffice it to say, I think it’s a home run of a console, a real breakthrough device that has expanded our collective idea of what non-gamers — regular people — can expect from video gaming. I know, because while I’ve long been a huge technology enthusiast, video games had left me cold for about fifteen years. Before the Wii was introduced, I never gave a serious thought to owning a PlayStation or an Xbox.
Now I own a Wii. Or rather, my girlfriend does, because I bought one for her as a gift in February. We play it regularly, and we consistently marvel at its elegant learning curve and high degree of fun. It’s a wonderful example of smart, empathetic design.
But I think I’ve found a flaw in it: it has the wrong form factor.
Like the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, the Wii’s designers created the machine’s housing as something of a piece of furniture, a tower-like configuration that’s meant to be positioned conspicuously in the home (though it can be set on its side, it’s almost invariably propped upright in its product photography). It even ships with its own pedestal.
This is a defensible strategy when a brand is fighting the battle for the living room — these consoles are almost literally intended to be stakes in the ground for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo in their customers’ homes. But I think Nintendo, anyway, is missing the bigger picture.
Last weekend, my girlfriend and I decided to tote along our Wii to a dinner party and plug it into our hosts’ living room television so that everyone could play a few rounds of Wii Sports. It was an immediate hit, turning a roomful of gaming agnostics into instant Wii fans.
As it happens, a scenario just like that was also how I myself was sold on the Wii: a colleague brought his console into the office and plugged it into our conference room projector one day after work. I’d been intrigued up until then, but once I had my hands on it, I knew that I’d own my own before too long.
Here’s the thing: the Wii is so immediately and potently compelling, that, like the best vacuum cleaner salesmen, its only real challenge is to get in the door, after which you can consider the sale virtually made.
The problem is that the Wii is not really designed to travel. Nintendo was smart enough not to fight on the same turf as Sony and Microsoft by using clearly innovative thinking in developing the Wii’s interaction model. But here, they’ve fallen into the same trap as those companies in choosing their product’s form factor. Aside from the brilliance of how its controllers work, the industrial design is something of a failure of imagination.
The Wii seems intended to sit and to be gazed at, admired, when it should implore its owners to “Take me with you!” Though it’s not a tremendous amount of trouble to unhook its wires, nothing about its form factor encourages that behavior. Once the wires are removed, it’s actually highly awkward to try and fit the device back into its box (if you’ve even still got the box). To be sure, Nintendo sells a carrying case that makes it nominally easier to carry the Wii around, but why should customers pay for something that will so clearly yield sales for the company?
Rather, the Wii should be designed less like a precious lamp intended for the living room, and more like a boom box, something that begs to be taken along when you’re heading over to your friends’ place to waste a weekend afternoon. Its wires should fold into compartments on the back of the unit, perhaps even work as retractable coils. The innards of its power supply’s brick, which sits at the end of the cord, should be incorporated into the unit itself, so that the cord can remain a simple cord. Even its controllers should be able to snap onto the unit somehow, so that the whole console system can travel as a single unit. And everything should be ruggedized, so there are no inhibitions to traveling with it.
I’m only spending this much time talking about the shortcomings of the Wii’s form factor because I’ve become such a Wii partisan. It’s one of the most vivid examples of brains triumphing over brawn in a decade, and for that, I badly want to see it succeed — much as I want all intelligent, judicious design to succeed against more short-sighted, more technologically beefy competitors. As it stands, it’s a great idea trapped too easily in the living room, where it should be moving freely with its owners out in the world, realizing its full potential as a traveling salesman for its own genius