During his presentation on the development of the 3DS at Game Developers Conference on Thursday, game developer Hideki Konno explained why he was put in charge of a hardware project, the goals the team identified, and how the system evolved.
Nintendo's EAD -- Entertainment Analysis and Development -- is generally responsible for only software with minimal hardware staff. But after the success of Wii Fit, says Konno, the company identified that collaboration between hardware and software teams would be the best path forward for the development of the Nintendo 3DS.
Konno works for legendary creator Shigeru Miyamoto, and alluded to how he learned to please the famously demanding developer.
During the development of NES title Ice Hockey of which Konno served as director, he shared a memory of "Mr. Miyamoto being very picky -- that is to say, critical of the feel of the controls and gameplay... I believe he must have been really passionate about it. This critical eye, being picky, has become an important part of my game experience."
Miyamoto famously "upends the tea table," or forces staff to refigure their projects drastically to continue development. "It's a scary thought," Konno says.
"One time I hope to catch the tea table as it's being upended," says Konno. "I've been doing research on how to acquire this skill at this point I have not mastered it. One thing I have learned to do and strive to consistently do is to make reports, consult with my bosses in a timely fashion."
The Path of 3DS Development
In 2008, Nintendo president/CEO Satoru Iwata and Miyamoto asked Konno to take over development of the 3DS project -- up till then a hardware-only concern.
"I said 'yes' without worrying too much," Konno says. "This was the beginning of my journey into the unknown. I believe that being consistently curious about things provides us with the driving force to learn and grow."
However, he admits, "While I had some truly enjoyable experiences... the truth is I had more difficulties. This is something to contemplate from now on."
One thing the project did confirm to him, however, is "The incredible power we can produce when we all work together for a common goal."
The team identified three major goals for the new handheld -- which was not 3D when the project began development. Players must be able to carry it with them, connect to each other, and get something new every day.
To meet these latter goals, Nintendo brought in two features known as StreetPass and SpotPass, respectively. In the former, strangers who pass in the street instantly exchange data (for up to 12 games installed on the system.)
"Doesn't this seem like a new form of social innovation?" asks Konno.
In the latter, Nintendo will push new content via wifi both for games and in the form of extra-game content, such as movie trailers. "You can deliver additional data for games without customers even being aware it's happening. Customers having to take an action is really a high barrier," says Konno.
"These enhanced communication features are an important feature of 3DS."
These new innovations over the DS present "an exceedingly fresh personal experience -- I believe the game creators among you will be able to use these features to create a new play experience," Konno says.
"The world is connected via the internet today and while we've entered an age of convenience, the means by which we connect are loose... I've begun to like this loose form of connectivity."
"Playing is Believing"
Konno resurrected a phrase that first showed up in Nintendo's E3 presentations prior to the Wii launch -- "playing is believing." He feels this is essential to the 3DS not only as a consumer product, but also in terms of getting the project to move forward internally at Nintendo.
"I really believed the whole 'playing is believing' thing when we adopted the 3D LCD panel," says Konno.
"The members of the software team came to the surprising opinion that by using the latest technology... We could come up with a good product," he says. However, due to negative experiences launching the Virtual Boy in the 1990s -- Nintendo's first 3D system -- there was much resistance at the company. "When we said to them, how about 3D, they didn't believe in the potential right away. Most of the people we spoke with took a defensive stance."
The team brought in an LCD panel and hooked it up to a Wii system with Mario Kart Wii. "Every experiment required demos," says Konno.
The benefit? "I believe we were able to instantly capture the emotions of everyone." In these presentations, "when we heard, 'We will be able to bring this to market' and 'The time for 3D has arrived,' we were extremely happy."
But crucial challenges remained, including adding the 3D depth slider to the product -- which the team hacked into the Wii nunchuck using a volume slider. "It was an exceedingly fresh experience," says Konno, and it "solved the issue of how different individuals view 3D."
Integrating an analogue controller as well as a traditional digital pad into the system was also a challenge, Konno says. "Starting from Miyamoto, we are very picky about the feeling of controls and we spend no effort in making the controls better."
Bearing that in mind, "It won't surprise you, for the plus control pad and circle pad, when I tell you we went through a lot of prototypes and made a lot of adjustments." The team got bogged down in fine tuning, till they created a prototype with the controls in blocks that could be inserted and repositioned in prototype hardware -- adding them to an original DS and playtesting with a modified version of Mario 64 DS until things felt great.
"'Playing is believing' is a tool to grab people's hearts in an instant, and if you use it effectively, it may lead to good results," says Konno.
He recounted some advice he received from Miyamoto many times over the years. "Just start by moving a box. That's all you need to do." This concept was used in development of Mario Kart. "What this means is, just by starting something simple, like moving a tissue box and expend your energy on how that feels."
Miyamoto and Iwata have often spoken of the need to surprise players, and Konno says that principle also applies to hardware design. "Now our teams were working under the same roof so we inspired each other to bring out our best, and that's how I believe we completed the Nintendo 3DS."