It is cherry-blossom time in Kyoto, Japan, and I am dancing the hula for Shigeru Miyamoto. It's not easy to get into the hula spirit in a hushed conference room in a restricted area of the gleaming white global headquarters of Nintendo, with several high-ranking, business-suited Japanese executives watching my every (undulating) move. But I'm doing my best. I'm trying out an electronic device that the Nintendo brass devoutly believes, or at least fervently hopes, is the future of entertainment. Outside, drifting pink petals remind us of the impermanence of all things.
You may not have heard of Shigeru Miyamoto, but I guarantee you, you know his work. Miyamoto is probably the most successful video-game designer of all time. Maybe you've heard of a little guy named Mario? Italian plumber, likes jumping? A big angry ape by the name of ... Donkey Kong? The Legend of Zelda? All Miyamoto. To gamers, Miyamoto is like all four Beatles rolled into one jolly, twinkly-eyed, weak-chinned Japanese man. At age 53, he still makes video games, but he also serves as general manager of Nintendo's entertainment analysis and development division. It is an honor to hula for him.
But Nintendo is no longer the global leader in games that it was during Miyamoto's salad days. Not that it has fallen on hard times exactly, but in the vastly profitable home-entertainment-console market, Nintendo's GameCube sits an ignominious third, behind both Sony's PlayStation 2 and even upstart Microsoft, which entered the market for the first time with the Xbox only five years ago. Miyamoto and Nintendo president Satoru Iwata are going to try to change that. But they're going to do it in the weirdest, riskiest way you could think of.
All three machinesPlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube--are showing their age, and a new generation of game hardware is aborning. Microsoft launched its next-gen Xbox 360 in November of last year; Nintendo and Sony will launch their new machines this fall. Those changeovers, which happen every four or five years, are moments of opportunity in the gaming industry, when the guard changes and the underdog has its day. Nintendo--a company that is, for better or for worse, addicted to risk taking--will attempt to steal a march on its competitors with a bizarre wireless device that senses a player's movements and uses them to control video games. Even more bizarre is the fact that it might work.
Video games are an unusual medium in that they carry a heavy stigma among nongamers. Not everybody likes ballet, but most nonballet fans don't accuse ballet of leading to violent crime and mental backwardness. Video games aren't so lucky. There's a sharp divide between gamers and nongamers, and the result is a market that, while large and devoted--last year video-game software and hardware brought in $27 billion--is also deeply stagnant. Its borders are sharply defined, and they're not expanding.