One evening in the late 1970s, an engineer from Kyoto was riding home on the Shinkansen, when he recognized the man sitting next to him playing around with his LCD calculator, punching buttons in boredom. The engineer, who worked at a toy and gaming company, had an idea: What if commuters could kill their time with a portable device that was both a watch and a gaming device? The engineer went to work and, after its release in 1980, the product that resulted from his idea became a huge success. Its name: Nintendo Game and Watch.
Not too much is known about the life of Gunpei Yokoi, the designer and engineer behind many of Nintendo’s most successful products. To control a game called “Donkey Kong” on the Game and Watch, Yokoi invented the D-Pad, the four-way directional control that can be found on almost all modern game consoles and controllers. He went on to produce games like Metroid and the Super Mario franchise and, in 1989, Nintendo introduced the product that would become Yokoi’s greatest success: The Game Boy.
Both the Game and Watch and the Game Boy were innovative products but there was something about them that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from such breakthrough devices: When it came to their hardware, they weren’t cutting-edge. The LCD screens used in both devices, for example, were already cheap and prevalent at the time. While competitors were outdoing each other with the latest hardware features like color displays and computing power, Nintendo focused on providing great gameplay with cheap and readily available technology. Gunpei Yokoi called this philosophy “lateral thinking with withered technology”.
Using cheap and readily available technology and combining it in new ways was a stroke of genius. Hardware-wise, Nintendo could not compete with larger competitors at the time. But in Yokoi‘s view, this wasn’t that much of a problem. As David Epstein writes in his book “Range,” Yokoi was sure that once users were playing a game with the gameplay good enough to be fully drawn in, they wouldn’t care at all about technical details like screen resolution or colors. And thus, the seeming disadvantage of using cheap technology turned into a huge advantage: The Game Boy was affordable, durable, portable, and played for hours on AA batteries. And because developers were already familiar with the underlying technology, they could easily build new games for the platform. By using “old” technology, Yokoi removed barriers to entry for both developers and users. As a result, with more than 118 million units sold, the Game Boy became the most successful game console of the 20th century.
I feel like we could use a bit more of Yokoi’s philosophy on the Web. With all the craze about the newest and dopest tech, it is easy to mistake using the latest technology for progress and innovation. It is, however, important to remember that technology is only a means to an end and that there is an alternative route that can be equally, if not more, successful. A route that puts the user and the experience first. A route of inventing new products not by using the latest technology available but by applying and combining existing technology in new ways and contexts.
The Web now consists of an ever-growing number of different frameworks, methodologies, screen sizes, devices, browsers, and connection speeds. “Lateral thinking with withered technology” – progressively enhanced – might actually be an ideal philosophy for building accessible, performant, resilient, and original experiences for a wide audience of users on the Web.
This is the 46th post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.