Nintendo DS: gaming for grown-ups

How design turned round the fortunes of the great Japanese gaming innovator

When the only thing plummeting faster than a multinational corporation’s sales are its prospects, to whom does it turn to plot a route back to success? Accountants? Market analysts? Lawyers, even? No, step forward the humble designer, whose touch of magic may just be capable of crafting that ‘killer product’ that is able to reverse a floundering firm’s fortunes at a turn.

For Apple and Jonathan Ive’s original iMac in 1998 read Nintendo and its Nintendo ds gaming console in 2005.

Like the Game Boy – a bedrock of Nintendo’s success since 1989 – the ds is a handheld device, yet through a process of canny hardware and software design, the company has steered the form factor in a profoundly new direction. It was in 2002 that Nintendo first noticed that the games market in Japan was shrinking, that in the US it had stagnated, and that in Europe it was actually experiencing a slowdown. Its core products at the time were the GameCube, a home video console, and the Game Boy Advance.

The problem for the global video games industry was that its heartland – 16 to 24-year-olds – was no longer capable of sustaining year-on-year growth. This prompted Nintendo to take the radical step of targeting the over-24s, something neither it nor its competitors had previously attempted. What’s more, it did so without recourse to market research – with the ds, Nintendo designed its way back to success on instinct alone.

“It’s very difficult to know if you’re doing it right [if you don’t test ideas outside of labs] but what we knew was that the traditional method that we and everybody else in the industry had been following for the past 20 years was wrong,” says Rob Saunders, senior pr manager for Nintendo UK. “We knew that actually, the biggest risk of all was to do nothing.”

The ‘traditional method’ to which Saunders refers is the Game Boy approach of employing multiple button-press combinations in order to play, typically, shoot-em-ups and driving games.

“People found traditional games controllers very threatening,” says Saunders. “Anyone who has been handed one will know that you spend more time looking at the controller and joy pad than you actually do at the screen.”

A further factor behind shrinking sales were the games themselves, reveals Saunders. “Women were put off by the type of software associated with video consoles – fighting, shooting and driving are not relevant to them,” he claims. The latter point may be something of a generalisation to say the least but most games companies had done little to appeal to the female half of the population.

Perhaps the most significant barrier, however, was the responsibility-laden lifestyles of the over 24s. “Those of us with jobs and families don’t have 40 hours to sit down and play video games,” observes Saunders.

While the challenge of cracking such a market was sizable, so were the potential rewards. “It was almost like this blue ocean of people who had never been targeted before, and had never even thought of playing a video game,” explains Saunders.

Nintendo’s first step was to design software that the over-24s would want to play. “If you haven’t got compelling software [the hardware is] not going to make a difference,” says Saunders.

He adds that the company’s aim was to identify games that people “would not only enjoy but would feel might be of benefit to them”. Importantly, such games would also have to allow users to dip in “for 10 or 15 minutes after the kids were in bed”.

The company found the answer in the multi-million-selling Brain Training books by Japanese neuro­scientist Ryuta Kawashima. “We didn’t go out and ask a lot of people,” reveals Saunders. “We looked at themes that were away from traditional games.”

The goal was to design an interface able to breathe life into not only Brain Training but all ds games being developed both by Nintendo and third parties, such as Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Sega.

The solution? Two backlit lcd screens, the bottom one of which was touch sensitive, allowing users to navigate menus and access items by touching the screen with a stylus or fingertip. Nintendo ds was the first console to sport such pda-like capabilities, and meant players no longer had to rely on buttons to play games. It also featured a built-in microphone and wi-fi.

“The interface is key to everything,” stresses Saunders. “There are games such as Brain Training that really can work only on ds, because of the touch screen and the handwriting recognition. This is what makes it so compelling; if you can use a pen or pencil then you can use a ds.”

Nintendo’s so-called ‘touch generation’ games are the most popular, and as well as Brain Training there is Sudoku, crosswords, and a compilation of traditional board games, including chess and backgammon. “They’re essentially games for people who don’t like games,” observes Saunders, who adds: “All our ds software is built with the function­ality and design of the hardware in mind. There’s no point in having this really nice-looking, easy-to-use piece of hardware with a touch-screen, micro­phone and wi-fi if none of the games utilise that.”

While it’s true that the ds was in no way billed as a Game Boy upgrade, it does play software designed originally for the Game Boy Advance, such as Mario Kart and Pokémon. As Saunders points out, the idea that Game Boy has always been the preserve of young males is a misconception. “We’ve always had more of an affinity with the female market than traditional games consoles, such as Play­Station and Xbox. With some Game Boy titles like Mario Kart, 33% of the players were female, and a lot of girls picked up Game Boys because of the Pokémon franchise.

“We’re seeing a lot of people now who played Game Boy who are upgrading to ds, because as well as the Brain Training games we still make the core games that will appeal to traditional gamers. It’s a different experience on the ds because it has much more capability than the Game Boy. It is outselling Game Boy on a global level.”

Young girls are among those migrating from Game Boy to ds, and further inroads have been made into this segment of the market thanks to the nurturing type games available for the ds.

“[Girls] are only a tiny fraction of the [ds] market,” says Saunders, “and the appeal rests with Pokémon, Nintendogs, Petz and other nurturing games, which were designed with relevance in mind. Like adults, [girls] were not attracted to shooting, driving and fighting games.”

Nintendo released the ds console in the US in November 2004, and in Europe the following March. In the US, shipments hit 500,000 in the first week, and it has proven the fastest-selling console in European history, shifting over 1 million units in six months – 250,000 of these in Great Britain alone.

As with Apple’s original iMac, inspired design decisions revived the company’s fortunes, although – unlike Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design Jonathan Ive – there is no Nintendo poster child to claim the design plaudits; being a Japanese company, Nintendo has a policy of not identifying individuals involved with given projects. The company would reveal only that the department responsible for ds was the Nintendo Research and Development Team – a collection of high-ranking software and hardware designers.

Yet one key man can be identified – Nintendo ceo Satoru Iwata. Like Apple’s ceo Steve Jobs, Iwata has a solid background in hardware and software design, having been involved in writing the cult classic video games, Balloon Fight and EarthBound. Both Jobs and Iwata understand the design process, and are intimately involved with it.

“Unlike a lot of ceos [Satoru Iwata] doesn’t come from a finance or marketing background, and is very hands-on with the decision-making processes. He knows how to make games and knows how to make games consoles,” says Saunders.

Which is why Iwata rubber-stamped the decision to redesign the ds, because the signals reaching Nintendo were that sales, while encouraging, were being hampered by aesthetics. The iPod generation, it transpired, expects a great deal of its lifestyle products.

“It became very apparent to us that the ds didn’t really appeal to people as a lifestyle device,” admits Saunders. “It didn’t look as cool as it could have done. It was grey and silver and had lots of sharp edges – almost like the DeLorean from Back to the Future.”

In January 2006, Nintendo introduced a redesigned ds, called Nintendo ds Lite. It is 21% lighter than the original ds and has 42% less volume. It features lcd screens with four adjustable levels of brightness, improved buttons, a thicker and longer stylus, and a different layout (the Power, Start, and Select buttons were moved, and the microphone and power leds were moved to the centre hinge). Although the launch model was white, it is now available in eight colours.

“It’s a lot cooler, sleeker and smaller, and people were happy to be seen with it. Basically, it looks a lot more like an iPod,” Saunders admits, candidly.

With the Lite, Nintendo turned a success story into a commercial fairy tale. As of the end of March this year, global sales of ds and ds Lite combined were 71 million, with the Lite accounting for almost 52 million of these. Combined sales in Europe for the same period were 22 million.

The question now is whether the ds can maintain its popularity. “Traditionally, when video games consoles launch they sell a lot [initially] and then sell less and less,” says Saunders. “The ds is in its third year and is selling more than it ever has done, so we’re breaking all the sales patterns. No one could have predicted where we are now five years ago, so it’s almost impossible to predict where we will be in five years’ time.”


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