Seeking Wisdom from the Wii-Maker

Ubisoft and other video game outfits are asking the industry leader for help in wooing casual gamers. Nintendo's advice? Keep it simple

In late December last year, two senior executives from video game company Ubisoft made a rare pilgrimage to Kyoto. Chief Creative Officer Serge Hascoet had flown in from the company's headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, and Montreal studio chief Yannis Mallat had come from Canada. This was no sightseeing trip to take in the temples and kyoryori haute cuisine of Japan's ancient capital. They had come to learn from Nintendo (NTDOY) the art of making video games for the mainstream.

Hascoet and Mallat had been personally invited by Nintendo's president, Satoru Iwata. Only a month before, Iwata had dropped in on Ubisoft's San Francisco office to see a game being developed for Nintendo's portable DS game consoles. Code-named "Pasta Letter," it tested a person's vocabulary. The game was hardly in the same league as Nintendo's Mario and Pokemon games, but Iwata instantly recognized a word game's potential to attract a mass-market audience, and he offered to help.

That's how the two Frenchmen found themselves spending Christmas last year at Nintendo's headquarters. For the occasion, Nintendo trotted out the team that created Brain Age, a mind-training math and puzzle game that has sold close to 10 million copies globally since its launch in May, 2005. The Japanese developers likened the game to a grand buffet in a kitchen with an entryway that was too narrow. Translation: It was too hard for ordinary adults who weren't gamers. Back at home, Hascoet and Mallat made a tough call to start from scratch. "That kind of insight was really valuable in the final product we created," says Tony Key, Ubisoft vice-president and head of U.S. marketing.

Waiting for Wii Fit

The game, which went on sale Nov. 6 as My Word Coach, marks a shift at Ubisoft to reach beyond the 18-to-34-year-old males who typically buy and play video games. My Word Coach is one of Ubisoft's first games since it set up a division in May to develop a whole line of so-called casual games. On Nov. 5, Ubisoft also acquired Japan's Digital Kids to tap into the company's specialty in mass-market games.

Never before has the $30 billion video game industry been so eager to attract casual gamers. In recent months, Redwood City (Calif.)-based Electronic Arts (ERTS), Los Angeles-based Vivendi Games, and Britain's Eidos have formed their own casual gaming units. Sony (SNE) and Microsoft (MSFT) are also racing to load up on easy-to-play arcade games, and Sony recently announced two titles—MyStylist, a wardrobe organizer, and Talkman Travel, which acts as both map guide and trip recorder—in an attempt to make its PlayStation Portable console more appealing to ordinary consumers.

But if you're looking for the movement's most influential proselytizer, many industry execs will point to Nintendo. The success of the portable DS and Wii has contributed to Nintendo's credibility and made it a profit juggernaut. On Oct. 25 the company said first-half profits nearly tripled from the previous year, and it revised full-year operating earnings forecasts upward to $3.7 billion, an 86% gain from last year. Analysts expect Nintendo's new fitness game, Wii Fit, which goes on sale in Japan on Dec. 1 and in the U.S. and Europe early next year, to give Nintendo's already stellar profits another boost. The game relies on a wireless, pressure-sensitive mat that players stand on to mimic ski-jumping and yoga poses.

Nintendo Not Playing Favorites

Nintendo has used Brain Age with companies other than Ubisoft to spread the gospel of making games for consoles simpler and more intuitive to play. In early spring, Iwata spent six hours at Electronic Arts' Vancouver studios going over Brain Age and other examples with executives. Recently, Nintendo also has collaborated with Namco Bandai on Flash Focus, which features hand-eye coordination drills, and with Sega on Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. "Sometimes we let our internal developers be involved in some aspects of development with independent developers," Nintendo's general manager of marketing, Shinji Hatano, told reporters on Oct. 26.

Nintendo officials refuse to talk about details, perhaps out of concern that their help might be interpreted by others as playing favorites. That's because console makers rarely offer design tips as generously as Nintendo has. Help is usually limited to suggestions that will prevent games from looking too similar to rivals' products or fixes for minor technical problems, says Simon Jeffrey, president and COO of Sega of America.

Why would seasoned game developers turn to Nintendo? One reason: Most aren't used to designing software that's easy enough for anyone to pick up and play. They usually focus on making graphics more lifelike and virtual worlds complex enough that diehards, who play for hours at a time, won't get bored. It's nothing like programming light entertainment that a family can huddle over at home for only an hour or two each week. Getting programmers to think differently has been a "cultural challenge," says Nick Earl, senior vice-president at Electronic Arts, which specializes in hard-core titles Madden NFL, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, and Medal of Honor.

Brainstorming with Refrigerators and Ovens

Casual games don't require the massive resources of the traditional hardcore variety. Small groups can crank out a casual game under a tighter deadline and with a fraction of the budget of the blockbuster titles, which can involve hundreds of programmers and production staff and cost up to $20 million. "For example, a team making a DS game is going to be 20 people compared to a team making Assassin's Creed, which might be 200," says Key.

With Ubisoft, Nintendo developers were very hands-on. They advised Hascoet and Mallat to make My Word Coach's startup screens less cluttered. To brainstorm for ideas, Ubisoft programmers studied how people use appliances like refrigerators and ovens. They whittled down the game's prestart options so users could get to the game play in just a couple of clicks and ended up making a menu list resembling those of Apple's (AAPL) iPods. One of the game's opening scenes, a school map, was deemed too confusing and was scrapped.

Ubisoft officials also acted on Nintendo's suggestion of testing early versions of My Word Coach with a larger sampling of consumer focus groups and people in age groups that aren't big on video games. Those lessons have since been passed on to project teams working on Petz and Imagine brand games for teenage girls, which simulate fashion designing, cooking, and raising pets. "Our strategy is to build brands like we do in other sectors," says Key. The advice from Nintendo that Ubisoft now uses in those games: Remember that it can never be too simple.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.