In a rather forthright talk, Masato Kuwahara, project leader of the Nintendo DSi hardware group, revealed some of the reasoning and methods behind the redesign of the DS hardware, what Kuwahara calls the “ultimate DS system.”
Game Boy Camera
Kuwahara was previously involved with the Game Boy Camera, and Game Boy Printer projects, launched in Japan in Feb 1998. “I think it was about 1996 that I made a Game Boy prototype with a camera attached,” he says. “When I showed it others in the company, they said it was a trivial idea, which gave me quite a shock.”
But he found that within the company there was another similar project in development on the software side, run by Hirokazu Tanaka, now president of Creatures Inc. They joined forces, with Tanaka on the software idea, and Kuwahara on the hardware side. “The ability to create something from both the hardware and software side is one of Nintendo’s strengths,” punctuated Kuwahara. With their joined forces, they were able to push the project through. “It started out at the hobby level,” he said, as he did all the wiring and circuitry himself. It’s known as “yakisoba wiring,” due to its chaotic and messy look.
“It’s not like cameras are a hobby of mine, but there are also cameras in the DSi, so I guess you can say I am linked by fate to cameras,” he said.
GBA Wireless Adaptor
His next major project was the Game Boy Advance wireless adapter, launched in January 2004 in Japan. “This project, like many others, was difficult to develop, so I remember it as though it were yesterday,” he said.
Apparently, most of the engineers were playing Diablo II across LAN at work almost every day. Including his boss. “None of us were fired, but I want to say I don’t encourage any of you to follow in these footsteps.” This is where he got the idea for a wireless adaptor for the GBA.
Kuwahara took game link cables from the original game boy, and made a crude wireless device. “I took a wireless module from a phone and attached it to a Game Boy, and used it to send email,” he said. “But I didn’t really know CRC at the time, so much of it was corrupted.”
The system originally was tried using Bluetooth, but the engineers couldn’t overcome the development hurdles at the time, so they made their own system. “Miyamoto said he would have liked to use the wireless adaptor with the Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure
,” he revealed, “But we weren’t able to due to time.”
Kuwahara also surprised the audience with the fact that “The GBA wireless adaptor has the ability to download software from a parent system, but this was never used, so it was never publicized. But it did become part of the DS hardware.”
“We incorporated Wifi into the [design of the] Nintendo DS. But at the time there wasn’t any feeling that the company was going to be making any games that would make use of the internet connection,” he admitted. “But I’m pleased to say that now over 100 games do this. And by the way, I’m the one who came up with the name download play. I just wanted to tell you that.”
Kuwahara then shed some light on a few products that never came to market, but got rather far along in development. His team wanted to develop a game console with a color LCD and a 32 bit ARM7 CPU prior to the Atlanta Olympics. This was in 1995. “The housing is surpringly big, isn’t it?” he asked. “We tried hard with this product, but there’s no way you could put it in your pocket.” Apparently the ARM7 graphics engine wasn’t very efficient, so there were some performance issues as well.
The next unreleased product he showed was a touch panel adaptor for the Game Boy Color, circa 1996. The slide shown was of a GBA SP, but it was made for the GBC. “When I originally proposed this, it was not very well received,” he said. “I think this is because I proposed it on a Game Boy Color, which wasn’t backlit, and it was very dark, so they didn’t like it.”
“Later it was proposed to Mr. Miyamoto,” he said, “but they didn’t like it at the time, and it never came to market. However, I’d like to think that my product inspired the eventual DS, but I can’t be sure that’s the case.”
The DSi itself has a significantly different unreleased prototype. “In October 2007, the hardware went through a complete redesign,” he said. “The previous design had two slots for game software. We thought this would be perfect for games you play a little at a time, like New Super Mario Bros and Brain Age, for example. You could have them both in there, and switch back and forth. That’s how we thought gamers would want to use it. When we presented the idea internally, the approval results were not good. It was just too heavy. So we redesigned again, focusing on the weight and size of the system.”
“When we presented the new design, it was much better received, so we pushed forward. This happened all within two weeks. The redesign extended our schedule and put a lot of stress on the engineers – but when the head of development said to me ‘it’s great that the redesign was accepted wasn’t it?’ I felt much better. We had nailed down the design of the Nintendo DSi as the ultimate DS system.”
Goals of the DSi
“At the end of 2006, there was about one DS system per household already sold in Japan,” said Kuwahara. “Our next goal was to increase that number to one system per person. To that end, we developed the third iteration of that system. That became the Nintendo DSi.”
During the early design phase, Kuwahara would get together with his boss, Mr. Nagai. They would talk in the morning, then plan all day long. “We met with the game software developers, and talked on a company level for a really long time,” he said, and the idea that came out of this was “My DS,” or a personalized DS experience.
“Since there was an average of 1.8 systems per household in Japan,” he posed, “we needed to think about what we could do to make each member of the family want to have one, and to keep it with them at all times. ‘My DS’ was our ideological solution to this.” The results spring essentially from the ability to customize your DS with a photo on the top screen, as well as the ability to reorganize items and games in the menu, as well as having downloadable content stored on the system, and parental controls.
Changes from DS Lite
The DSi was comparatively slimmed by 2 mm, and the weight is slightly less than the DS Lite, but the LCDs are slightly larger. “I really want all of you to test this for yourselves,” he said. “I think this slight increase, while it’s not much bigger, it is a little bigger, and I think it makes game play much easier.”
Kuwahara personally pushed for the ability to do things like change brightness while playing, rather than having to do it from the menu. At the same time, “we added a reset function to the power button. When you reset, you return to the DSi menu, which makes switching between software much easier.”
The camera was the first thing they decided to add. “there was some internal discussion as to whether the outer camera was necessary,” he said, referencing the secondary camera on the outside of the DSi – there is already a primary camera which faces the player. “Mr. Miyamoto presented the idea of having only the inner camera to capture both the player and the environment. There was a lot of talk about not having an outer camera. But because the DSi software used the outside camera so effectively, we kept it.”
But why didn’t they use megapixel cameras, opting instead for lower resolution? “We thought a greater resolution would reduce response time, and make the camera an irritation rather than a fun device.” Cost was also an issue.
The addition of SD card compatibility was specifically pushed for Miyamoto. In the DSi, the SD card is used to play aac music files, or when printing photos taken with the camera, and for backing up Nintendo DSiWare.
With the ability to play music, the engineers also addressed the DS’ speakers. “We paid a lot of attention to sound quality,” said Kuwahara. “In order to have good sound for listening to music, we completely redesigned the speakers.”
Lastly on the hardware side, he rationalized the move to a digital volume switch instead of instead of an analog one. “We did this for many reasons,” he began. “One because you can accidentally slide the volume when taking the DS in and out of the pocket, and two, because the new speakers can be much louder.” A mute functionality was added as well.
Looking at the DSi menu screen, there’s a photo on top screen, and the bottom screen has the UI. There are 39 slots for software, including built-in programs, and software can be rearranged as desired. “This is the first step in the customization of My DS,” he said.
Kuwahara then went on to detail the DSi camera, which can use local wireless technology to trade photos. The following “lenses” are included to allow manipulation of pictures after they’re taken.
Distortion lens - lets you warp photos.
Graffiti lens – place doodle or stamps over pictures.
Color lens - lets you return color to a black and white photo.
Color Pad lens - lets you change color palates.
Mirror lens – mirrows the image in the middle.
Mischief lens - uses face recognition tech to find ears, eyes, mouth, and put things there, like mustaches or sunglasses.
Emotolens – tweak facial expressions.
Merge lens – allows morphing of photos.
Resemblance lens - compares how similar photos are to each other.
Frame lens - take photos within existing frames, or insert photos within existing photos.
Kuwahara broke from his hardware-oriented discussion for a moment to reveal that the 1,000 point giveaway for new DSi users that took place in Japan will run here as well. The promotion will continue through October 5th, and only requires that you connect your DSi to the DSi shop. DSiWare games will be sold in four price groups – Free software, and then 200, 500, and 800+ pricepoints. There are 30 titles currently in Japan, two of which are free titles.
The U.S. will launch with at least four pieces of software – the DSi browser, Moving Memo, WarioWare: Snapped!
, and Art Style: Aquia
a game that was only announced today, which provides puzzle games for casual and hardcore gamers with an aquarium theme.
Packaged Software Sales Versus DSIWare
Packaged software usually drops to 31% in its second week of sales, and by week 10, it’s dropped to 4 percent, according to Kuwahara’s data. “Of course there are exceptions, but even million sellers follow the same pattern.”
DSiware holds a strong percentage above 90% through week 3, says Kuwahara. Through week 10, it’s still above 15%. “This is the average for many top selling titles, so it seems DSiWare has the potential to sell higher for longer than packaged DS software.”
But Kuwahara admits this data is incomplete – sales promotions during the period surveyed were fewer for DSiWare than for normal DS software. So it may mean that gamers hadn’t been around for the launch, but came on after promotions began, artificially inflating data in the later weeks. He also noted that DSiWare that wasn’t as successful dropped to 50% within two weeks. “I think the reason packaged software drops so low is that it after the 4th week it hits the used software market,” he said.
Kuwahara finished by imploring developers in attendance to develop games for DSiWare, hoping that digital distribution will continue to solidify the idea of “My DS.”