Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Zen of Wi-Fi

(Translation of article on Famitsu.com)

On 24th March 2006 (US Time) a session titled The Zen of Wi-Fi: A Postmortem of the Wireless Features of Nintendo DS was held at GDC 2006 by Mr Takao Ohara of Nintendo's Development Section. Mr Ohara led development on the "Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection" which kicked off in November 2005. He spoke about the initial development period and current state of the service, as well as things to come.

According to Ohara, in just four months the Wi-Fi Connection has registered over 2.9 million connections from over a million unique users. With the popularity of the service spreading like wildfire, Wi-Fi compatible software titles such as Animal Crossing: Wild World and Mario Kart DS have been huge hits.

Ohara: "Starting with the Famicom Net System in 1988, and continuing with the Super Famicom Satellaview in 1995, the LandNet DD in 1999 and the Mobile System GB in 2001, Nintendo has tried many times to develop an online service, but we did not attract as many users as we thought we would.

"So when we came to develop the Wi-Fi Connection, we used our experience to work towards a goal of being the most used network service in the world, and to have users who buy compatible games try the online component at least once. What is necessary to achieve this? We came to the conclusion that there were four barriers we needed to break down."

Those barriers are difficult setup procedures, the psychological barrier preventing newcomers from joining in games, the unpleasantness of receiving abuse from other players, and the cost barrier. In order to break down all these barriers Nintendo created the Wi-Fi Connection according to the concepts "Simple, Safe, Free".

In actuality, Nintendo has created a service that's easy for anyone to use by instituting such policies as a lack of User ID or password settings, placement of free access points in game stores, limiting online play of Animal Crossing: Wild World to users who have exchanged friend codes, and making the service completely free or charge. All of these concepts were explained in detail at the GDC session, and we will omit most of those details here as there was little new information. However, we would like to share something of interest from Mr Ohara's explanation of the "safe" part of the Wi-Fi concept.

"The original title of the project was "Project House Party". At a house party, you make new acquaintances by meeting friends of friends. We wanted people's networks to expand in this way. This idea developed from the "safe" concept.

Ohara: "Furthermore, we understood that until now a lot of people had been hesitant about playing online games. On the other hand, they weren't so resistant to playing games with people physically beside them, for example, using the wireless adapter in Pokémon Fire Red/Leaf Green to battle and trade monsters. So we thought it would be ideal if playing wireless games online with people far away could feel just the same as playing with them in the same room."

One game that represents the "safe" concept is Animal Crossing: Wild World. This game can only be played online between users who have registered each others' Friend Codes. But not all games are limited to this kind of play. Mario Kart DS also has a mode enabling users to play with anyone around the world. "We think it's important to change the setup to suit each game," Mr Ohara explained.

After explaining the concepts, Mr Ohara said with conviction, "We have broken down all the barriers. We firmly believe that this is the reason the service has become so popular so quickly."

He continued to talk about the initial development of the service.

"It was our plan from the beginning to develop the service globally, so beta testing, too, had to be carried out on a global scale. We tested the service with Mario Kart DS, but with the time differences there would be no-one in the game lobby. We at Nintendo of Japan would come into work early, and the people at Nintendo of America would do overtime (laughs). But we were able to play Mario Kart, so while it was a beta test and work, it was also a lot of fun. The company president, Mr Iwata, also took part in the beta test, but we didn't let him win just because he's the boss. Mr Iwata complained that we wouldn't take it easy on him... (laughs)."

It seems that the Wi-Fi Connection started to take a concrete shape from the beginning of 2005. With no time at all until the launch in November 2005, the project continued under the direct supervision of President Iwata, with meetings taking place twice a week. Mr Iwata attended most of these meetings. "Communication between management and the development team was very fast, so things went smoothly." Ohara continued with a wry smile, "To be honest, though, it made me really nervous to have the company president sitting next to me, so in a way I'm glad those meetings are over!"

And so with Mr Iwata enjoying the beta tests and giving the project his metaphorical seal of approval, the service finally got started on the 14th November 2005. "I think the Wi-Fi Connection probably helped push along the current incredible growth of the Nintendo DS," Ohara stated confidently.

Finally, Mr Ohara gave his perspective on the future of the service.

"By the beginning of 2007 there will be 40 Wi-Fi Connection compatible games in development, including Winning Eleven. In addition to the current player matching capability, we are currently working on expanding the service to include features like item downloads. Of course, we're also working to use this experience to create fun network play on the Revolution."

Mr Ohara revealed to us after the session that Nintendo plans to begin item downloads in April, and said we'd have to wait and see what kind of items will be available. With the success of the DS Wi-Fi Connection under Nintendo's belt, we can be sure the Revolution will have a fun network component. Nintendo is working to create a network service that will continue for many years.


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