Intuitive Design Stomps Mario

Sorry Mario, but the Princess is in another castle., a website tracking the video game industry, reported last month that, at 40.29 million units worldwide, Wii Sports has eclipsed Super Mario Bros. to become the bestselling video game of all time.

Not surprisingly, many within the gaming community are skeptical and have rushed to the aid of their favorite rotund plumber – questioning the validity of VGChartz numbers, the eligibility of Wii Sports (due to bundling), even the definition of Wii Sports as a game (vs. an elaborate proof of concept).

Controversy aside, I’d like to take a step back and reflect upon what this milestone means.  While many will likely ascribe the success of the Wii console (and the bundled Wii Sports) as reflective of Nintendo’s strategy to forgo core-gamers and focus on the ‘casual’ game market, I find this explanation lacking.

After all, the casual game market was hardly invented by the Wii; many classic games would be considered “casual” by today’s standards. The answer occurred to me as I watched my mother attempt to navigate an Xbox 360.  “No ma!  You have to push the left thumbstick the direction you want the character to walk.  As the camera’s perspective rotates, you need to rotate your thumb to point him in the direction relative to you, not the direction relative to him!”  Trust me, it makes just as little sense to you as it did to her.

The success of the Wii stems not from its fantastic casual game library, but from its adoption of intuitive controls.  By using the Wii-mote, Nintendo has made gaming accessible to a class of gamers who were uncomfortable, unable or unwilling to grasp the complexities of the traditional console controller.  Want to drive the car?  Turn the wheel. Hit the ball?  Swing the controller like a bat.

Mario Kart Wii's steering wheel makes the control scheme obvious (Image Credit: IGN)

Mario Kart Wii's steering wheel makes the control scheme obvious (Image Credit: IGN)

It makes perfect sense, then, that Nintendo’s follow up to Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort will utilize new hardware, the Wii Motion Plus, that promises true 1-to-1 responsiveness, bringing the level of intuitive control to the next level.  No longer will you need to swing the controller in a motion that resembles the desired action.  Cock your wrist and your character onscreen will too.  The demonstration they staged at E3 lets you see what I mean.

Nintendo’s innovation, while groundbreaking, is actually endemic of the digital industry at large as it pushes to create digital experiences that are accessible to everyone.  Readwriteweb’s Alex Iskold points out:

[M]y wife has no trouble using Apple products, because they are simple. More important, they, like physical things, behave as expected. Every user action results in a reaction that makes sense. There are way fewer choices, and things do not pop up out of nowhere.

This is not happening just with Apple products; it is happening all over the web. With the advent of AJAX, a new breed of web applications is teaching users that software can indeed work better than hardware. And that it can be way more fun. (via Readwriteweb)

Platform advances have enabled real world physics to seep into our digital worlds – objects onscreen have physical relationships with their surroundings.  It means something if a window is above, below, behind, or obscured by another.  Menus that can “roll” or “slide” out – experiences that transition.  This is the reason theme changes slide from an unseen drawer beneath this blog or posts come from “filing cabinets” displayed across the top of the screen.

Urbanspoon's "slot machine" wheels make navigation a snap and their "shake" interface is an apt physical metaphor for mixing it up

Urbanspoon's "slot machine" wheels make navigation a snap and its "shake" interface is an apt physical metaphor for mixing it up

The Compiz-Fusion project for Linux has taken windows management to the next level — expanding on the best ideas of Windows and OSX. Granted, some of the effects are pure eye-candy, but many of them bring a level of real world logic that enhances the intuitiveness of the OS.  I particularly like the multiple visual metaphors they’ve incorporated to help users understand and utilize multiple desktops (which I personally find conceptually difficult).  Check it out at 1:22.

These advances pave the way for more exploratory navigation systems as well.  Grow Interactive’s “Thank You Begins with a ‘T’” uses a very unique navigation system that changes as you explore the site, but careful planning and strong visual cues ensure the user is never confused by the controls.

For years, people have thought of usability advances as mere eye candy or visual flair.  Nintendo’s success reveals that they are often the difference between struggling to survive and stomping the pack.

Now there’s something Mario can get behind.