Thursday, March 08, 2007

History #2

As promised here is the second part of my last blog, namely the history of Nintendo and more specifically, some of the visionaries responsible for it's transformation from a maker of playing cards, to it's present day videogame glory. When we left off I had just mentioned the name Gunpei Yokoi and charged him with the salvation of the Nintendo corporation.

Gunpei was a mechanical genius who worked on the assembly line machinery. After the crash of the hanafuda industry Yamauchi was reaching for anything to keep his company afloat. The answer was a toy that Gunpei built in his spare time that was an extending arm consisting of a latticework of rods. He was charged with making it ready for the upcoming Christmas season and the Ultra Hand was born to much success. Of course Gunpei was immediately moved from maintenance to development and he craeted quite a few mechanical toys, games, and puzzles.

One day while riding the train home on his daily commute he spied a man fiddling with his calculator and he decided that perhaps he could make a handheld game that tired workers could play with on their way home from work. This idea was realized with the Game and Watch series which were released beginning in 1980. These handhelds only played a single game, had a simple LCD screen and backgrounds for each game were placed behind the screen to add color. Control at the time was accomplished by a joystick which Gunpei insisted was too bulky. His answer was the d-pad, a low-cost, effective solution that has been used on virtually every controller regardless of company or console since it's inception.

The next big contribution he made to the world was as Nintendo was ramping up to release the original NES in 1983. The videogame industry had been experiencing a slump. So much so that retailers were refusing to stock new product. This time Gunpei saved the day by designing R.O.B. the scary little robot that we have all seen pictures of. R.O.B. was packaged with the NES and convinced retailers that it was a robotic entertainment system and the system was allowed into stores. In it's first year the NES sold over 1 million units, a staggering record at the time due to the market being flooded with crappy consoles and worse games. R.O.B. was just a marketing ploy, but a very good one. The robot was quickly retired but he lives on in our dreams (scary).

Around this time Gunpei met a young man named Shigeru Miyamoto who he worked with. They collaborated on a few game designs and both provided the inspiration for games that would become Mario, Donkey Kong. After Miyamoto left to head his own development team in 1984 Gunpei went on to produce Metroid, Kid Icarus and Fire Emblem.

In 1989 Gunpei created the product that will live in history books long after we all are gone; the Game Boy. Gunpei had hit upon an ideology he dubbed "Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology" meaning to take a technology that is old and reliable and find a new and exciting way to use it. This ideology remains a staple of Nintendo today and has driven the success of the DS and the Wii. At the time the 'withered technology' was LCD displays. Gunpei paired the portable Game and Watch idea with the interchangeability of NES cartridges and a gaming revolution was born. He refused to release a color version at the time as it used too much battery power and was much costlier. He turned out to be extremely inspired in this decision as the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear both were released and failed due to high cost and power consumption (the Lynx only had four hours of play time on 6 AAs).

In 1995 Gunpei made his first misstep. He strayed from his own theory of low-cost, prolific-technology products to produce the Virtual Boy. Most of us hopefully have had the chance to stick our faces into one of these. The experience was a stereoscopic videogame system unlike anything ever to grace the market and light years ahead of it's time. The system was in monochrome and the inexperience of VR coupled with the bulky, uncomfortable form factor of the console had it off the market before it had been out a year. Somehow this one mistake undid the confidence of some higher-ups at Nintendo despite all his former successes and Gunpei Yokoi was ostracized to the point where he handed in his recognition in 1996, days after another of his projects, the Game Boy Pocket was released.

On October 4th, 1997 Gunpei was sideswiped by a car and died two hours later as a result. His death was a loss the the world at large. With so many innovations under his belt who can deny that he had more in his mind, waiting for their chance to shine? He was a great man, and like all most great men his contribution to the world will outlive his memory. There will be two more history blogs in this series. The next one will be all about Shigeru Miyamoto, and the last will focus on Satoru Iwata. Expect them to pop up soon.

powered by performancing firefox

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Some History

I thought it might be a bit of fun to go through a history series on my blog. I want to just go through some historical facts of some of the movers and shakers of Nintendo (which just so happen to be movers and shakers of the industry as a whole).

If we are going to delve into a company as deeply-rooted and adapted as Nintendo we need to at least briefly touch on it's inception.

Nintendo was founded in 1889 under the name "Nintendo Koppai" by a man named Fusajiro Yamauchi. Working alone, Fusajiro made hanafuda cards by hand from the bark of mulberry trees. The quality of the cards was such that assistants needed to be hired to keep up with demand. Nintendo grew steadily until Fusajiro's son-in-law Sekiryo Kaneda/Yamauchi took over control of the company in 1929.

Sekiryo was also in charge of Japan's largest card maker at the time and in 1933 he created a joint-venture corporation renaming it "Yamauchi Nintendo and Company"

In 1949 Sekiryo retired and would have passed the company on to his son-in-law Shikanojo Inaba. Shikanojo, however had abandoned his wife and son to be raised by Sekiryo so the company passed instead to Hiroshi Yamauchi, Sekiryo's grandson and Fusajiro's great-grandson.

Hiroshi was president for 53 years and saw Nintendo through it's most tumultuous times. He was responsible for the corporation during it's transition from a smallish hanafuda card maker into the multi-billion dollar video game company that it is today. He stepped down in 2002, giving control to Satoru Iwata but remaining chairman of the board until 2005 after he felt that the company was in good hands. He turned down his retirement pension which was $10 million or so, giving it back to the company. That might be hard for you or I to do but Hiroshi is worth a cool 1.8 billion (_, _ _ _, _ _ _, _ _ _!!!) and many people don't know that he owns the majority of the Seattle Mariners baseball team.

Hiroshi took control of Nintendo at the age of 21 after his grandfather suffered a stroke. He was very "old-school" Japanese and before his grandfather died Hiroshi had him fire relatives working in the company so that there would be no one to vie for power. Still, his business instincts were exceptional and led Nintendo to where it is today. During and after the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo the playing card market collapsed and Hiroshi attempted to save his company by diversifying into everything from children's games, to taxis, to 'love hotels' (Look that up on your own).

The salvation of Nintendo came through a single man named Gunpei Yokoi, who at the time was working on the assembly line of Nintendo. The next history blog will be all about him.

Thus ends the pre-history of Nintendo as a videogame company. Let me know if this was enjoyable. I like finding out the pertinent historical facts behind some of these figures. In a way it makes the things they did seem possible and yet equally profound.

powered by performancing firefox

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Videogames and Violence

There has been a very real and loud debate going on for years now about the connection, or lack thereof, between video games and violence. I don't want to spend too much time on this as it is something that someone will say something relevant about every few weeks.

If you haven't been keeping up on things heres the scoop: people have been dying or getting hurt. A small fraction of people dying or getting hurt involve children/adolescents. A small fraction of those incidents are tied to video games. Certain other people are claiming that video games make children more violent. Thats the story. Here are some excerpts from an article I came across on IGN the other day.

In a recent issue of the American Sociological Association's Context magazine, sociologist Karen
Sternheimer put some heavy doubt into the theories that videogame violence directly result in real-world violence. Sternheimer claims that there is no such correlation, and that the reality might be exactly the opposite.

Sternheimer cited as evidence of this trend the fact that as annual sales of videogames and accessories has risen to over $10 billion, juvenile homicide arrests have fallen 77%.

In a very frank and forthright manner, Sternheimer stated, "If we want to understand why young people become homicidal, we need to look beyond the games they play."

Rather than paying atte
ntion to more pertinent issues that might nurture violence -- such
as poverty, instability, domestic abuse, unemployment, and mental illness -- reactionaries have been directing their ire at the games industry, effectively exonerating these other factors of their impact.

"It is equally likely that more aggressive people seek out violent entertainment," Sternheimer said. "After adult rampage shootings in the workplace, which happen more often than school shootings, reporters seldom mention if the shooters played video games."

Sternheimer seemed to disagree with the analytical methods of a 2001 study which found that videogames did increase aggressive behavior, stating: "They don't offer much insight as to why a few isolated kids, and not t
he millions of others who play these games, decided to pick up
real weapons and shoot real people."

I couldn't agree with this woman more. I remember many a stressful day that I would come home and UNWIND by plugging in an FPS and killing nazis or zombies or nazi-zombies. I used violent video games as an outlet to get those feelings out in a safe and reasonable way. I still use video games that way.

I also agree 100% that more violent people will automatically seek out more violent ways to entertain themselves. We hear the Columbine massacre being blamed on video games but I see two sick and twisted kids who weren't delusional, they knew they weren't in a video game. They were just sadistic and wanted to hurt people. If they hadn't played video games they would have integrated ideas from books or movies into their plans. The truth is we make our personalities by judging information and either assimilating or rejecting that information. Bad people latch onto bad things because they like it. People who DO the kinds of violent things contained in some video games are obviously bad people. I don't see how there is an argument.

There are differences between video games and movies or books sure, as there are differences between all forms of media. The War of the Worlds was acted out on a radio station in 1938 by Orson Welles and panic ensued all over the nation due to the immersive nature of the radio at that time. You and I may judge a videogame to be more realistic or more immersive than a radio show but they arent any more real to us than the radio was to people in 1938. Are contemporary videogames more immersive than contemporary movies? It's hard to say. On the one hand videogame have a person controlling a character and 'acting out' in a violent manner. On the other hand suspension of disbelief still remains regardless of what you are doing or watching. Your mind knows it isn't real.

I know what I think and how I feel about this issue and it is very simple. Videogames have a ratings system, just as movies have a rating system. Parents need to know what their children are doing and they have a responsibility to keep children playing games that are appropriate for their level of maturity. I can understand a seven year old thinking they can drive because they play a racing game. Small children should never be handed the keys to your vehicle. Or the keys to your gun safe. Adolescent children definitely know how to hurt people, and what reality is. They are their own persons and should be largely responsible for their own actions.

Oh, and check this out...

You can see the Wii is on there twice, and Britney Spear's hair beat out the 360 and PS3. Thats has to hurt...