The Wii as Salesman

WiiSince its debut late last year, there’s been no shortage of adulatory commentary about the Nintendo Wii, which is probably the reason I’ve abstained from writing about it here.

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.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wii

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.

Trapped in the Living Room

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.

Nintendo Wii

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.

Above: Behold, Wii! The console’s furniture-like form factor is a missed opportunity.

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

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  1. Of course, the GameCube famously has a handle on the back of it to invite you to pick it up and carry it around, but it was roundly mocked by the gaming community (though I personally liked it).

  2. Yeah, that was one good thing about the Cube. An original iBook style built in grab handle. Unfortunately, the GameCube was really more of a Cube G4 when it came to lack of success.

    Overall, I’m a fan of the Wii and only restrain my urge to own one through the fear of the time it will absorb in play. But you’re quite right about the power brick. Nintendo took some time over the case design for this thing to make it lighter and smaller than the other two beasts, but I think it’s a real mistake shaving off excess at the cost of sweet tricks like tidy wires and a feeling of “click, click, click” when you set it up to a new TV.

    Mind, I can’t remember them ever avoiding separate power bricks. Certainly my (European) SNES had a great big one. Ah well.

  3. Great points. The Wii should have a rubberized carrying handlegrip, and retractable cables. That would have been true genius.

  4. since i’ve had my first gaming system (a sega genesis in the early nineties) i’ve had no problem transporting any of the consoles that i’ve owned.

    and mr muir, all of my consoles, apart from the first two, the mentioned genesis and a nes have been powerbrickless. oh, and my n64 had one to. so i guess the ps2 and xbox don’t have bricks.

  5. I’m buying one as well. Just love their controller concept. It’s genius. Have a psp and a ps2, but don’t play that much, don’t have so much spare time. Just kind of curious about the Wii, and it’s inexpencive.

    I’ve lugged my old-school “fat” ps2 around, and love the built-in powersupply. I’ve never been a fan of bricks. Traveling with a laptop, camera, phone and perhaps a disk, gives you alot of extra luggage in bricks.

    A compact formfactor “wii, gettoblaster edition” would be great!

  6. I love my Wii as well. I don’t think they missed the portability of it… If it was ultra portable like the innovative DS, they would probably sell less because people would just share with friends… It’s small enough to pack up fairly quickly (minus the annoying ‘sensor’ bar), but large enough that you don’t want to take it ‘everywhere’

  7. I think Wii’s form factor was designed to fit inside our already cramped entertainment centers. DVD Players, Tivos, other consoles, and now the Apple TV will stretch most shelves to the limit. The Xbox 360 is pretty big, and the PS3 is a behemoth. By using a switchable horiztonal/vertical design, sticking the Gamecube ports on a different side, and putting the power brick on the cord makes it attractive to anyone that is worried about adding (and fitting) another device into their lineup.

    The real obstacle to its portability in my mind is the sensor bar. It seems fragile, and loses stickiness every time it is moved.

  8. Khoi, I agree, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo picks up on this in a future product update/brand extension.

    Bryan, if the sensor loses its stickiness, just pick up some gum tack. Simple solution.

  9. Leave it to Khoi to find the fly in the ointment. But you’re completely right.

    As a Wii owner, I spend just about as much time dealing the stuff as I do smoking it. Friends of mine will attest to my consistantly bringing the unit (with 4 Wiimotes and nunchucks) along with me, wherever I go. I brought it to SXSW this year, in fact.

    But I’ve often been frustrated with Nintendo’s obvious lack of foresight in making the unit more portable — you’re right, in that it almost seems as though they didn’t design the thing to be moved at all. It’s the most frustrating part of owning a Wii.

  10. Coincidentally, I gave my wife a Wii last weekend. Trauma Center, Cooking Mama, Wii Sports, and Wii Play later, it’s become readily apparent that my free time has gone from zero to a negative value. Deadlines? What deadlines?

    I live in a rather rural area with no possible destinations for my Wii aside from my living room, so the portability hadn’t really hit home as a potential problem. I do, however, see your point. It seems as though Nintendo was somewhat inclined to agree as evidenced by the carrying case you posted.

    All things considered, I have to give Ninty credit for moving beyond the Tonka toy aesthetic of previous efforts. Hopefully things will continue to improve in that regard.

  11. if you want to make the wii portable, then the most portable mode of design would be to include a simple projector with it. it would eliminate wires, and offer only one cord for operation, the power cable. however, the increased complexity and weight of the system would also increase its cost. so the question is, what would nintendo have to give up in order to improve its portability? would they have to charge more? i think one of its key attributes is its price, which invites experimentation at the impulse level.

    if i had one thing to change, it would be the numb chuck, which should not have a cord between itself and the wiimote.

    i think any other changes would have sacrificed simplicity for portability.

  12. Well, they made the Gamecube with portability in mind from the beginning and look how that turned out. It looked like a toy.

    I really like Nintendo’s new look, and I don’t see the flaw in not making the Wii portable. That’s what the DS is for. Besides, it’s still pretty dang small. I imagine most gamers/tech types are running out of space to put all their gadgets at this point.

    Never thought I’d see a game topic on Subtraction.

  13. People are saying that the Gamecube didn’t succeed, which on the surface I agree with. However, I would argue that at least on the software and hardware side the Wii is pretty much just an incremental improvement on the Gamecube model, so in that regard I think the Gamecube is a success. It worked well as a sort of springboard for Nintendo to be able to make the Wii down the road.

  14. I think you’re right on with this post.

    I want to take my Wii everywhere as well, but it’s quite a pain in the ass. I ended up wrapping the different parts in some old clothes and putting them in my backpack. At least it was a bit easier than fitting everything back in the box. Pretty much every trip I take, I feel I shoud take the Wii along, but it’s sort of a hassle — despite the fact that the console itself is so small.

    Nintendo should definitely think about this for future revisions, or at least sell a reallllly nice bag.

  15. I think the vision for the product was portability for one’s personal Wiimote. This model makes sense to me. It’s a great way to get people to come over and visit.

    Maybe Nintendo should design a wine-and-Wii carrier for dinner parties.

    Encouraging adoption doesn’t seem to be Nintendo’s biggest issue. The only reason I have access to one is that I won an Amazon holiday lottery. I understand that the consoles are a little easier to find in Manhattan.

  16. Erika is right. I have been to a couple of Wii parties now. One friend even borrowed some remotes from his boss who asked why he wasn’t invited to the party.

  17. It so complicated to carry around so you end up convincing your friends to buy one so you don’t have to drag yours along all the time. ;)

  18. So why don’t one of you create a carry case? Think a flat H-shape the user would put on the floor and then place the Wii upon. The H legs would wrap up, perhaps snap together. (You’d need extra H bars to keep it from sliding out of course.)

    You could also add a way to coil and snap the cables to the bundle. It wouldn’t be integral or elegant, but it could look sharp and facilitate allow one-hand-carrying. (And the mark-up could be huge.)