In Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film “The Hidden Fortress,” a noble samurai withstands a tirade of complaints from a young princess who has been ousted from her kingdom. With a nod to his place in the social order, the warrior waits patiently and then asks, “Is the princess feeling contrary today?”
Kurosawa’s film influenced George Lucas, who used it as a blueprint for Star Wars and translated the samurai character into the iconic Han Solo. Lucas’s unexpected “space-western” blockbuster contradicted the Hollywood formula of its day, smashing box office records when both the sci-fi and western genres were in decline.
A common blueprint for success in filmmaking, contrarianism is also a hallmark of design thinking — the ability of a business to turn abstract ideas into practical applications for maximum growth.
Take the case of Japanese consumer electronics firm Nintendo. In 2006, Nintendo stunned the console gaming industry with the brilliant contra-logic of its Wii platform. Just as the market was delving deeper into fantasy, role playing and shockingly realistic war games, Wii gave us a fresh take on … bowling? And as prices for systems stretched toward $600, Nintendo offered the Wii to consumers for only $250. With less focus on state-of-the-art graphics, Nintendo had budget left over for a breakthrough indulgence: the revolutionary Wii controller, which set users free to get off the couch and move, and put the “active” back in interactive.
The result of their contrarian bet? Wii’s appeal bypassed hard-core gamers and connected with a mass marketplace ranging in age from 3 to 93. Nintendo jumped from #3 in console sales to #1 in a single year and it hasn’t looked back since, selling more than 86 million Wii units worldwide.
Today Nintendo faces a new challenge, and it isn’t from consoles: tablets and smartphones have become highly effective alternative clients for game apps, siphoning off droves of players for whom convenience and mobility are important.
As the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo, aka “E3,” approaches, many consumers, industry analysts and design thinkers are wondering if Nintendo will pull yet another rabbit out of its hat when it unveils its upcoming “Wii 2” system. To do so, they will need to stick to their contrarian ways.
In design thinking, contrarianism isn’t a goal, some “James Dean” sense of disrespect for the status quo. This is just anti-imitation, and though it will get you noticed it guarantees little else. Instead, effective contrarianism is a common outcome of using a different reference point. For example, the majority of companies in any market are focused on (a) their current competitors, and (b) their current customers. Design thinkers, by contrast, are focused on something else: people and their unmet needs.
Nintendo demonstrated design thinking perfectly in 2006 when it zeroed-in on people that liked games but weren’t drawn to digital gaming. These “non-users” were a ripe market for a firm that could connect with their unmet needs, and Wii answered the call by providing:
- Ease of use: The mass market had little time for learning complex rules. It wanted games that were familiar and an interface that was easy to operate. Instead, social groups were unnecessarily split into gamers and non-gamers due to increasingly complex control devices and the intricate multi-button control codes of games such as Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter.
- Exer-gaming and ergonomics: Many people wanted to escape the confines of keyboards and controllers, which were causing repetitive motion and posture symptoms. In fact, some gamers were spending $100 on gaming chairs that discouraged back and neck symptoms.
- Entry price: The mass market always loves a solution that costs less than half as much as the alternative
To succeed with their next-generation system, Nintendo must stick to its contrarian guns, in the design thinking sense. Some possible features that could re-affirm Nintendo’s status as design thinking leaders in the gaming industry include:
- Interface: Look beyond current motion-based control and touch screen interfaces, and improve upon Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect technology to provide a true gesture-based solution, using the player’s own body as the controller.
- Co-creation of games: Get beyond avatars and level-creators, and give us new ways to customize games that allow players to create in-jokes and references that help us signal to our tribe that “this is me.”
- Artifacts: Produce a handful of tangible artifacts that provide precious clues to a digital game. It’s time the analog and digital world became interwoven
From the eyes of a design thinker, these are just a few possibilities of what the Wii 2 might include to shift the trajectory of digital gaming. Nintendo must continue to look at people, not their current customers, and meet us where we are. They need to knock our socks off at E3 with the kind of innovations that will wow consumers like it was 2006 all over again.
This year’s E3 calls for a truly contrarian gesture from the console industry, and to paraphrase “Animal House,” Nintendo are just the guys to do it.
— Tim Ogilvie
Tim Ogilvie is the CEO of Peer Insight, an innovation strategy consultancy, and the co-author of “Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers.”