San Francisco (CA) – We had the opportunity to get an unvarnished look at the process behind Wii Fit and the unique Wii Balance Board controller.
GDC 2008 H.264 video of Mark Raby trying the Wii Fit
It was announced at this week’s Game Developer’s Conference that Wii Fit will reach US store shelves on May 19. At that time American consumers will be able to experience the unique Wii experience more than four years in the making.
We spent an hour with Takao Sawano, the deputy general manager of entertainment analysis and development at Nintendo, during which time we learned everything from Shigeru Miyamoto’s original concept of Wii Fit before the console was even launched to the final product.
Like most video game projects, Wii Fit started off at humble beginnings. Shigeru Miyamoto, the famed man behind Mario and Zelda, actually had designs on a “health pack” for the Wii long before we ever saw the console on store shelves.
The very first concept was a simple scale that would track users’ weights over a period of time. The idea struck Miyamoto because he personally enjoyed weighing himself on the bathroom scale and tracking the direction it went.
This isn’t unusual for the Japanese genius. His blockbuster creations that became Pikmin and Nintendogs were based on his love of gardening and dogs, respectively.
The idea was constantly struck down, however, because it seemed like a cumbersome process to turn on the TV and Wii, and connect a special controller just to weigh yourself. After all, everyone already has a hassle-free scale in their bathroom, right?
However, Sawano brought back the concept when he came up with the idea of using two separate scales to not only allow a higher weight capacity but also be useful for other features, such as determining balance and center of gravity.
Now that a more solid concept was in place, Sawano and his team needed to work on making a cost-effective controller. One of the more creative ideas they came up with was to use a part of the Nintendo 64 controller. The “rotary encoder” used to power the N64’s joystick controls could in fact be used to help measure the weight on something.
There was actually talk of implementing a rumble control feature as well, but Nintendo soon realized it would take way too much power to create a vibration strong enough to actually make the user notice it.
The original prototypes essentially used two modified bathroom scales, not physically connected in any way. Obviously that wouldn’t work on a wide scale for a number of reasons. The next prototypes were circular in design, as opposed to the rectangular model that ended up as the final version.
At this stage in the product’s development, the idea was to only sense pressure on the left and right side of the board. Prototypes in this stage looked kind of like huge rolls of Camembert cheese.
Eventually, Sawao was able to convince the Nintendo software developers to include front and back motion sensing as well as just left and right. This led to the creation of a square Balance Board, which was more amenable to multi-directional support.
As things began to come together, Nintendo brought in professional fitness trainers to test it out. The big takeaway the company got from this is that having a square design did not allow enough room between feet. Thus, one other design change was to make it a wider, more rectangular device.
That wasn’t the last change, though. Throughout most of the design process, the idea was to make the Balance Board as a Wii Remote extension, meaning users would need to connect the Remote to the Balance Board. Thus came the last adjustment to the controller.
When they presented it to Nintendo head Satoru Iwata, Sawao and his team were hit with a complaint. Iwata said the fact that you had to physically plug the Wii Remote into the Balance Board was a “clumsy solution” and it should be able to be powered on as a controller all by itself.
After meeting new FCC guidelines and working with constructional constraints, such as how to get a wireless signal to be sent through the Balance Board’s hard layer of metal, the final product was released, in time for the Japanese launch date of December 1, 2007.