frog Design Mind

The Sound of One Hand Gaming


by David Merkoski

Ever since Nintendo unveiled its next generation console, gamers have been wondering: "Where's the Revolution?" Last week we got the answer. The "Revolution" is not about graphics or speed but about input—a game controller capable of recognizing rotation and 6 directions of 3D space (up, down, left, right, in, and out). But their choice of an input device isn't revolutionary. Much of what's to come from the Nintendo Revolution is already wired deep within our brain.

As the interface between player and game, the controller is a kind of tool. Historically this tool has been two-handed. But one-handed tools are usually simpler. Think spoon, toilet handle, ipod shuffle. The greatest one-handed tool of our time is the remote control. After all, the average American home has 4 of them. So by exploiting our conditioned behaviors with remote controls and shifting towards simpler, one-handed interaction, Nintendo is opening up their product to non-traditional gamers—something the industry is in desperate need of. And in doing so Nintendo will set the expectations, conventions and standards for interactive input once again.

Since becoming the first toy maker to include electronics in its products (the light-beam gun of 1963) Nintendo has been directly involved in the design of modern-day game controllers. The invention that stands out most is the directional cross-pad, or D-pad. This 4-way controller, originally released on a Game & Watch series Donkey Kong device in 1982, eliminated the need for those bulky joysticks more appropriate for flying airplanes than saving a princess. And for the last 20 years the D-pad has been the dominant interactive control paradigm, taking root in cell phones, remote controls and yes, even the competition.

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But let's return to the present. Last week Mastercard rolled out their RFID credit cards nationally. Waving your card in front of a cash register is the new way to pay. Similar technology has been in cellphones for years attempting to replace the wallet. This sort of low-fidelity 'wand' is what the mainstream will most likely experience in the short-term. But 3D gesturing will continue to mature in our hardware and software. It will be used to skip songs on a media player by rotating it left or right; make calls with specific orientations of the phone; get driving directions with a swipe over the dashboard. A new genre of body-movement games will emerge (first-person-dancer?) and sports games will work nothing like today's button mashing analogs. But the most thrilling experiences will come from the social play these new wireless wands afford. Combined with their global wifi-enabled networked service, Nintendo might end up ushering in a form of augmented reality in the living room.

By shifting the human-computer interaction from 2D to 3D a set of possibilities opens up that let us radically rethink how to interact with our hardware and software to create experiences previously unimaginable. With a gestural form of play users can extend their knowledge of real-world behavior onto a screen without the need for an intermediary object (cursor) to represent their intent. Actions loosely analogous to the physical world can trigger similar events in the virtual world. Pressing B doesn't mean swing; swing means swing. Behind all this is the principle of Direct Manipulation—a constant flow of WYSIWYG between player and game. User control becomes more transparent and free. From the Palm Pilot's Grafitti to the Eyetoy, the mainstream is getting physical.

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There is a design revolution going on. And it s not about the winner of round 5 of the console wars. This is about moving our devices out into free space, no longer constrained by their own form factor. This is about how we start using our bodies for communication, commerce and play in a digital world. With the Revolution, Nintendo isn't innovating so much as extending its roots as a 115-year-old game company—a sharp distinction from its rivals Microsoft and Sony. With a risky choice to depart from the entrenched forms of gaming that they helped to design, Nintendo is advancing the industry by making the technology more approachable to a larger audience. Remember this moment years from now when you are about to 'toss' off a phone call or 'flip' through a chat room. Nintendo may have just redesigned your future.

Or perhaps it's just Virtual Boy 2.

David Merkoski is a Design Manager in the New York studio of frog design where he focuses on media applications, social software and gaming.

frog Design Mind