Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

A while ago, I wrote about Chabudai Gaeshi, Nintendo's design philosophy that entails effectively restarting a project when it is already well underway. Here's another one of Nintendo's design philosophies: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology ("Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō").1

You only need to have a superficial knowledge of Nintendo to know who Shigeru Miyamoto is. He's the guy who invented Mario and Zelda; how could you not know him. Fewer people know Gunpei Yokoi, even though he's equally important to Nintendo's history. Gunpei Yokoi was a videogame designer who created Nintendo's Game & Watch handheld systems, and the Game Boy. He invented the D-pad, and designed Metroid.2

Game Boy's D-Pad3

But perhaps even more importantly, he came up with the concept of "Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology". The basic idea is to use existing, cheap, well-established technology, and use it in new ways, thus allowing Nintendo to introduce new, innovative concepts at affordable prices.

It's always seductive to take a single aspect of a company, and view that company's whole history through that lens. It's also usually wrong. But it's surprising how well it works in this particular case. "Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology" seems to correlate quite well with Nintendo's ups and downs. Whenever Nintendo produced videogame systems that used established technology in surprising ways, it did well. When it tried to compete on specs, it did poorly.

The Game Boy won against better-specced competitors, because it used cheaply available parts in an innovative package. The better-specced Game Gear and Atari Lynx could not compete. It's even more plain with the Nintendo DS and the Wii. Both used cheaply available components (the low-end ARM chips in the DS, or the cheap accelerometers and infrared camera in the Wii Remote) in interesting new ways, and were able to outsell technologically superior competitors.

Nintendo tends to do less well when it tries to compete on specs. The Gamecube's specs were easily superior to the PS2's, and roughly on par with the Xbox's, but the console failed. It was just a better version of Sony's console, with fewer games. The Wii U's controller sports a huge screen and increases the price of the Wii U, but fails to turn the console into something unique. We've all seen enough iPads to not be impressed or intrigued by the Wii U's controller.4

The philosophy of Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology isn't relegated to Nintendo. Apple, in particular, often tends to use established technology in new ways. Back in 2001, Apple noticed that small harddisks were becoming available in larger numbers, and at cheaper prices. Using these cheaply available disks in a new way — inside an MP3 player, instead of a laptop — allowed Apple to introduce a new kind of product. Of course, industry analysts didn't realize what Apple had done, discounting the iPod for its mediocre specs.5

Which is exactly the same thing that happens to Nintendo every time it releases a new product that follows this design philosophy.


Marco Arment writes:

Game-system successes are made by specific, exclusive, new, mass-market, category-defining hit games. That’s it.

I agree completely. Games are ultimately almost the only factor in a console's success.6 But I think there's a causal relationship between Nintendo's philosophy of "Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology" and fresh, compelling games.

  1. To my eternal shame, I actually didn't know that this concept had a name, or originated with Gunpei Yokoi, until reader Mario Vukina sent me an email and pointed this out to me. ↩︎

  2. And more. The Escapist has a good article on Gunpei Yokoi's contributions↩︎

  3. Image Credit: William Warby↩︎

  4. Now, if every controller had its own reasonably good screen, and you could play local multiplayer games where players could keep secrets from other players (like this, but better), you might have an entirely different story. ↩︎

  5. "No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame." ↩︎

  6. And the fact that the 3DS still lacks the kind of unique system seller that Nintendogs was for the DS explains the discrepancy in sales between the two consoles, in my opinion. In fact, the 3DS is selling better than it should, given its games. ↩︎

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