17 November 2006

Wii in your living room

Nintendo’s web site has a hidden gem: filed away under Iwata Asks… you’ll find a series of lengthy articles talking about the entire design process behind the Wii. If that’s not enough Wii to float your boat, BusinessWeek are also getting in on the act.

Nintendo have gone in pretty much the opposite direction to the rest of the industry. Sony and Microsoft are in an arms race of graphical and CPU firepower. The Xbox 360 has a custom IBM PowerPC CPU which has 3 G5-like processor cores, each at 3.2GHz, with a 5.4GHz front-side bus to connect it to the graphics chip. The PS3 has a 64 bit PowerPC core for general purpose tasks, connected to 7 independent vector processor cores known as SPEs, all at 3.2GHz. (There are 8 SPEs on the chip, but to increase yield they are using chips where 1 is faulty, as well as the faultless ones.) For the tasks needed for video games—3D geometry and the like—each SPE is allegedly about as fast as a general purpose CPU of similar speed.

So, 3 CPUs for Microsoft, 8 for Sony, all 3.2GHz—what about Nintendo? Turns out the Wii has one 729MHz PowerPC, a 243MHz graphics processor, and…er, that’s it. In terms of raw power, it’s a souped up GameCube. Instead of counting on bleeding edge CPU power, Nintendo are counting on innovative gameplay, convenience, and a host of other subtle design factors.

I won’t bother to talk about the controller, because you can read about that everywhere. Suffice it to say, the idea is to dramatically increase the approachability of the system. If you can point, you can play, hopefully. The rest of the design is what interests me more, and doesn’t seem to have received as much attention.

One of the first directives during the design process was that the Wii be as small as possible. In fact, you can just about fit 4 Wii systems in the space occupied by a single PS3. This should increase what is often referred to as the Wife Acceptance Factor; you can slip your Wii in discreetly down the side of the TV, or next to the amplifier. No need for another set of shelves.

The next thing I find interesting is that the Wii was engineered to minimize power consumption. It takes a little under 20W to power it when it’s active, compared to a staggering 380W for the PlayStation 3. You’ll be able to huddle around it to keep warm at Christmas, assuming you manage to find one. Some people are having trouble powering their TV, amplifier and Xbox 360 from the same circuit; expect to hear of similar problems with the PS3.

As Miyamoto puts it in the BusinessWeek article:

Our goal was to come up with a machine that moms would want—easy to use, quick to start up, not a huge energy drain, and quiet while it was running.

In “sleep” mode, the Wii uses under 2W. The intention is that you leave the system on 24/7, and it periodically connects to the Internet while you’re not using it, and downloads new and interesting content for you. I’m already thinking about all the stuff they could do with the Wii version of Animal Crossing. The Wii controller also goes to sleep when you leave it alone. So to play with your Wii, you just grab the remote like it’s a TV remote, and everything wakes up and is ready to go.

Nintendo tend to design their hardware to be robust and reliable, perhaps because in the past their video games have always targeted kids. The Wii is no exception. The PS3 and Xbox 360 have hard drives in; the Wii relies on flash memory, and uses SD cards for expansion. The PS3 controllers have a separate power switch and non-replaceable rechargeable battery, and need to be plugged in via USB to recharge; the Wii controller uses regular AA batteries. (Obviously, you can use rechargeable AAs.) The controller needs batteries because it had to be wireless, to avoid having wires trailing around the living room annoying Mom.

Another decision triggered by Wife (or Mom) Acceptance Factor was that the console had to be able to play every Nintendo game ever made, so you could get rid of all the old consoles and replace them with one small white box. Also aimed at Moms is the feature that logs how many hours are spent playing those games. The log is non-eraseable, so mom can check up on whether the kids are playing too much.

The controller also brings the intriguing possibility of video games that actually count as exercise. Wario Ware: Smooth Moves looks like it could get players involved in a kind of Nintendo Tai Chi, and allegedly people who really get into the sports game packaged with the console can end up drenched in sweat. Another interesting possibility is that Nintendo say many of the games end up being nearly as much fun to watch someone else playing as they are to play.

So, are Nintendo right to eschew bleeding edge graphics? While I was playing Metroid Prime I found myself thinking that I really didn’t need graphics to get any better. If the best the GameCube can do is typical for the Wii, I think that’s plenty. In fact, some of the FPSs I’ve seen advertised for the PS3 and Xbox 360 seem to me to be heading into uncanny valley.

The other big problem with high end graphics is the high end price tag. The games are far more expensive to develop, which means that they’re more expensive to buy, and also that developers are less willing to take risks. Perhaps that’s why the PS3 lineup I’ve seen seems to be filled with FPSs and devoid of, well, anything I want to play.

So, I think I’d like to see the Wii do well. I’m not sure I’ll be trying to buy one on Sunday, but I want to at least see if I can try one out.

© mathew 2017