The Wii U GamePad's designers overhauled the device a few times and encountered numerous obstacles during the device's development, according to an interview between Nintendo president Satoru Iwata and some of the GamePad's engineers.
Hardware developer Masato Ibuki, who works in the industrial design group of Nintendo's Integrated Research and Development Division, talked about the endless iterations to the design of the GamePad itself. He and his team used 3D printers to build models, and sometimes carved and sanded them by hand to fit the whims of designers — a fact that astounded Iwata, who said, "When I hear things like this it becomes harder for me to ask someone in your team to make me something real quick!"
The developers also outlined the challenges they faced regarding the wireless technology used to connect the GamePad and the Wii U console. Real-time compression and transmission of video with low latency was key for a gaming system, and Nintendo knew it. "Mario has to jump as soon as you press the button, so if there's latency, it's fatal for the game," said Iwata. "You had to take on a challenge that no one else had before." In addition, CG images are much more difficult to compress than live-action video, due to the way the human eyes processes visual data.
Shortly before the console's debut at E3 2011, said software engineer Toru Yamashita, the development team "held an emergency meeting including [hardware designer Kuniaki Ito] and [wireless technology engineer Kenichi Mae] and were like, 'What are we going do about this?!'" He added that the developers "scrambled to improve the image quality so we could display Wii U at the show."
"We need people with guts!"
Noise in the image was still an issue last year, and it came in unexpected situations. "There were some instances that caught us off guard," said Yamashita, as Mae pointed out the noise that appeared in the video when coins in a Mario game moved quickly. Nintendo co-developed the technology with American wireless-component manufacturer Broadcom. According to Iwata, Broadcom was chosen by Genyo Takeda, senior managing director and general manager of the Integrated Research and Development Division, partly because Takeda said, "We need people with guts!"
Mae added, "In situations like rushing to make improvements for E3 last year, people with the willpower and perseverance to see it through really exert tremendous strength at those heated moments."
The developers later discussed the various design changes that the GamePad underwent. According to Iwata, "The tea table got overturned three or four times for the Wii U GamePad design." For example, the E3 2011 design of the controller featured circle pads instead of analog sticks that can be pushed down, and the tablet was flat until the developers decided to add grips.
The original design was simple with limited protrusions, said Ibuki, because the idea was to design "a device that would be worthy to have sitting in your living room." But the team received feedback from E3 2011 saying that the tablet was uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of time, and the developers themselves tried to play an NES Mario Bros. game on the GamePad before realizing they "couldn't do it very well."
Both Iwata and game designer Shigeru Miyamoto wanted the team to change the GamePad, even though Takeda pointed out, "We usually wouldn't do such a thing at this point, you know!" Ibuki went through numerous iterations of the grips before settling on a final design.
"We usually wouldn't do such a thing at this point, you know!"
Weight was yet another issue. The final GamePad comes in at 500 grams (1.1 pounds); Iwata said, "We made it as light as possible without causing durability problems." The developers originally planned to use metals such as aluminum and magnesium for the GamePad's chassis, but went with a resin to cut down on weight. Ibuki explained the times he had to deny a designer's request because it would make the controller heavier.
Just as Nintendo pushed to show the hardware at E3 2011, Iwata announced the GamePad's near-field communication (NFC) technology before the developers were ready to show it. "When we saw your announcement, Iwata-san, we were shocked," said Yamashita, referring to Iwata's detailing of hardware features in January. "Development hadn't caught up yet."
Iwata replied, "Is that so? Sorry about that!"
The developers also discussed the difficulty of implementing a real-time camera in the GamePad. "The camera has to perform compression and decompression twice to perform a wireless transmission. That traces quite a long path," said Ito." Iwata clarified the process: The GamePad camera captures video, compresses it, and sends it to the Wii U console, which decompresses it, puts together the video, then recompresses it and sends it back to the GamePad, which decompresses it once more for display. "Nonetheless, it's made so you hardly feel any delay," said Tat Iwamoto, an engineering manager at Nintendo Technology and Development.
"the feelings of Nintendo are packed into [the GamePad]"
At the end of the interview, Iwata asked each one of the engineers about their feelings on the Wii U and its GamePad as the console's launch draws near. "The design concept for the Wii U GamePad is that of a controller," said Ibuki, "and our pride, or the feelings of Nintendo are packed into it, so I hope people will try it out." Iwata added that the GamePad only exists because of the "incredibly gritty and persistent hard work of the people who made the Wii U GamePad.
"In the end, it really was about guts," he said.
The Wii U launches in North America on Nov. 18.