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Iwata Asks – Wii U: The Console

October 11, 2012

1. Changes in Television

Iwata – Six years ago, the “Iwata Asks” series began with “The Wii Hardware” session practically by chance. I never imagined that it would continue this long. Now that we have made a successor console to Wii, I am deeply grateful for this chance to talk again.

Today begins a series in which I would like to ask about how the Wii U hardware was made. Thank you for coming today.

Everyone – Thank you for inviting us.

Iwata – First, please introduce yourselves. There is no need to introduce Takeda-san again, but he is a person at Nintendo who has been responsible for hardware development.

Takeda – I’m Takeda. Thanks for having me here again.

Shiota – I’m Shiota from the Product Development Department of the Integrated Research and Development Division. I supervise overall hardware development for such products as the Wii U console and Wii U GamePad.

Iwata – This time, supervising overall hardware development must have felt like making a home console and a handheld device at the same time! (laughs)

Shiota – Yeah it sure has! (laughs) I referred to handheld elements while developing the Wii U GamePad, so I feel like I developed two devices, a home console and a handheld at the same time.

Kitano – I’m Kitano from the Product Development Department of the Integrated Research and Development Division. I was involved in mechanical design for development of the Wii U console. Aside from casing design, I also worked on thermal design and designed elements like the connectors and cables.

Akagi – I’m Akagi, also from the Product Development Department of the Integrated Research and Development Division. Everyone else worked on the hardware, but I was in charge of software. When I say software, however, I don’t mean software that people play, but rather I was in charge of testing programs necessary in the process of developing the console.

Iwata – Thank you. When making a new gaming device, what takes the most time is selecting and considering the parts. How did it begin for Wii U?

Takeda – First of all, for the Japanese television, the transition to digital HD terrestrial transmission was completed all over Japan. And much of the world has also switched to HD TV sets, so you could say that HD has become the new SD.

Iwata – HD has become the standard

Takeda – Yes. But on the contrary, Wii supports only SD. The Wii U development kicked off when we thought that we should adapt ourselves to the new HD standard for making everyone enjoy the benefits of home HD TV sets. Our philosophy is that we want to make something that everyone could enjoy the same way under the same circumstances in many different households of the greatest number.

Iwata – And the old yellow connector for sending video to the television from a video game console changed to HDMI™. In some respects, it was inevitable that if televisions changed, the video game consoles paired with them would also change.

Takeda – That’s right. And since it’s a device you have in your living room 24 hours a day, we wanted people to enjoy various things beyond playing games that we couldn’t fully achieve with Wii. We really had to think a lot to provide Wii U at an affordable price while at the same time achieving the solid performance of the game computer.

Iwata – That’s similar to the concept we discussed in “The Wii Hardware” with regard to low power consumption and high performance.

Takeda – Yes. Ever since the Nintendo GameCube, Nintendo has concerned itself with how to improve the game computer’s efficiency while constraining power consumption, and this has been consistent in that design concept.

Iwata – What was the key to achieving low power consumption and high performance this time?

Takeda – First of all, adoption of a multi-core CPU for the first time. By having multiple CPU cores in a single LSI chip, data can be processed between the CPU cores and with the high-density on-chip memory much better, and can now be done very efficiently with low power consumption. And that we adopted an MCM.9

Takeda – This time we fully embraced the idea of using an MCM for our gaming console. An MCM is where the aforementioned Multi-core CPU chip and the GPU chip are built into a single component. The GPU itself also contains quite a large on-chip memory. Due to this MCM, the package costs less and we could speed up data exchange among two LSIs while lowering power consumption. And also the international division of labor in general, would be cost-effective.

Iwata – A big challenge this time was putting silicon chips made at different semiconductor plants into one package. Shiota-san, as the person who actually had to make that happen, what hurdles did you encounter?

Shiota – The LSI chips were made at different companies, so when a defect arose, it was difficult to isolate the cause. In defect analysis, it was inside the MCM, so figuring out the problem was incredibly difficult.

Iwata – When it’s actually running, it’s all inside a single box, so you can’t easily observe what is happening.

Shiota – Right. We really drew on the wisdom of Renesas, IBM and AMD, who cooperated with us. To isolate the problem we devised a way to have a minimum amount of signal travel outside of the MCM, so we could verify the problem with the minimum amount of overhead.

Iwata – But it must not have been easy to reach that point.

Shiota – No. We made decisions as we gathered data on our past experiences, but we didn’t notice some things until we actually ran it, so we had to give feedback and repeatedly slog through such areas.

Takeda – They were all different companies, so when it came to defects, it was like, “That isn’t our responsibility.”

Iwata – Usually when there are defects, you would fix it so it doesn’t happen in the first place. The moment that programmers run a program they have made, they hit the key thinking, “Of course this will run!” And when you tell them doesn’t run, they think, “It must be a problem somewhere else.” In the same way, when you pack in chips made by different semiconductor manufacturers, it’s only natural for everyone to think, “The problem must be somewhere else.” Shiota-san, how did you handle that?

Shiota – Simply put, I adopted a policy of “Prove your own innocence.”

Iwata – Oh, that’s interesting! (laughs)

Shiota – First, with regard to the LSI chips before inclusion in the package, we tried to establish a way to test without missing anything, and each company devised an extremely robust method. That way they were able to greatly lower the possibility of defects. They were kind enough to provide the all-important information for defect analysis based on the solid data that had built up.

Iwata – Did that process go smoothly?

Shiota – It took time to reach that point. At first, there was talk to the effect that if we put in a certain process, we wouldn’t be able to make a lot, or that investment in production facilities would balloon. But if you put your heads together, solutions present themselves, so by a little fiddling with existing test facilities, we found an extremely efficient test pattern and managed to do it.

Iwata – There still aren’t many instances where all these key components of a system is built into a single chip.

Shiota – There are a few, but there aren’t many examples of something mass produced like this with a CPU and GPU of this caliber in one package. This is the MCM substrate.

Iwata – This single chip contains the console’s heart. They were separated to two chips in the GameCube and Wii. Is the reason you focused on an MCM because you thought the results were worth it?

Shiota – Yes. As Takeda-san said, lowering power consumption has been our position since the GameCube. By putting LSI chips in this small package, the power necessary for communication between LSI chips drastically fell.

Iwata – Compared to power flowing between chips in separate physical positions on the board, you can get by with less power inside a small module. The latency is also reduced, and the speed increases.

Shiota – Yes. And by putting them in a single small package, we can make the footprint on the CPU board smaller. For the contribution it would make to casing miniaturization too, I wanted to do it no matter what!

2. Hardware as Stagehand

Iwata – Was making the casing smaller a clear target from the start? Kitano-san?

Kitano – Yes. At the start of development, Takeda-san gave us the task of making the console a “stagehand”, a kind of unobtrusive role behind the scenes.

Iwata – But the staff members who were thinking up the structure of the casing might have trouble staying motivated if told that what they were working so hard on what was no more than a “stagehand,” so it must have been a quite difficult task.

Kitano – Yes. I could understand what Takeda-san meant, but for those in charge of it, it was a little cheerless and we went about our work solemnly.

Iwata – Solemnly. (laughs) Being a stagehand comes with its own kind of pride.

Kitano – Yeah. (laughs) And the Wii U has the GamePad, so we adopted a policy of drastically reducing the characteristics of the main console, causing it to stand out even less. (laughs)

Iwata – Nonetheless, it is a much more powerful machine than Wii, so you must have devised various solutions for problems related to thermal design and casing size.

Kitano – We sure did! We talked about the LSI chips earlier, but a major change was having only one heat source. The Wii had two, so we had to cool both. This is for Wii, and this is the one for Wii U, but to dissipate heat, we had to put in a heat sink like this.

Kitano – Compared with the Wii, the Wii U has about three times the amount of heat, so we really had to wrack our brains. We considered solutions such as making the fan bigger and raising the number of fan revolutions. We conducted heat tests for prototypes a number of times and optimized placement of the air holes.

Kitano – Another small detail is the vent cover in the back of the fan. We had to put a lot of work into improving efficiency, making it thinner and slanting the inside so that the air could escape more smoothly.

Iwata – I see. This is like an article breaking down and reporting on a new product right after release! (laughs) It’s not like you have a single magical idea. Rather, you go to a lot of trouble, building up a number of improvements to make it relatively compact despite the heat generated.

Kitano – Right. In regards to heat test, the number went over 2,000.

Iwata – Huh? Two thousand?! I never imagined it would be so many!

Kitano – One test takes about one hour, so we put a ton of time into testing it on the way to its current form.

Takeda – We also do fan-noise testing, so it takes a lot of time.

Kitano – Yeah. If you increase the number of fan revolutions, it makes more noise, so we checked to see how much noise was acceptable while playing games. Adjusting the number of fan revolutions changes not only the noise but the heat level. Our goal was to see how efficiently we could dissipate the heat, so we applied ourselves to one thing after the next.

Iwata – I would guess it’s most advantageous to place the core’s heat source next to the fan, right? It’s important that a lot of air pass through the heat sink, isn’t it?

Kitano – Yes. The basic structure is that the heat sink is over the MCM and the fan is directly behind it. It is advantageous for heat dissipation to have more air on the heat sink. However, we learned through testing that you have to dissipate the heat while securing a certain amount of airways or it isn’t efficient.

Iwata – But in this position, the drive is obstructing the air route. This is purely my own personal interest…

Kitano – Yes, so in the product…

Iwata – Oh! It’s clear! Cool!

Everyone – (laughs)

Iwata – You’ve got to sell this to me! (laughs)

Everyone – (laughs)

Kitano – Basically, this is a vent, and this is an inlet.

Iwata – Oh, so that’s how the air flows. The whole thing, including this structure, allows the air to flow efficiently and dissipate heat.

Kitano – The main intake is on the side, but to support airflow there are also openings on the top and bottom. And, uh…sorry to be crowing about all this stuff (laughs), but see this part with all the fine holes in it? This is called a heat sink shield. It suppresses the electric waves from the board.

Iwata – The heat has to dissipate, but you have to trap the electric waves inside. The area of the holes is really big, but the mesh is comparatively fine.

Kitano – Yeah. There are especially a lot of round holes. Machining that part was quite a chore.

Iwata – (closely holding the transparent casing) Seeing it like this, I can tell there’s a lot packed in here!

Kitano – Yes there is! (laughs)

3. Magic

Iwata – There was a debate as to whether the console should sit horizontally or stand vertically.

Kitano – That started right from the beginning. We on the mechanical engineering team started design of the Wii U back around April of 2009. At first, we considered various configurations aside from the Wii-type like horizontal types and square types like the GameCube. But pretty early on we settled on the Wii type.

Iwata – When we first announced it at E3 in 2011, a lot of people asked if it couldn’t be stood upright. A lot of people think of the Wii as something that stands upright.

Kitano – The Wii went out into the world with a mainly vertical design, so in order to create a distinction, we went with a mainly horizontal design for the Wii U. But we have prepared a stand so that it can also stand upright.

Iwata – A big reason you could make the Wii U that is much more powerful compared to the Wii at this size, was reducing the number of heat sources to one. I remember Takeda-san saying rather early on that we should use an MCM. And we were also making something in an unprecedented way, where we combine various chips made by multiple semiconductor manufacturers into one package. Akagi-san, you were active in addressing the problem of how we could test the completed MCM.

Akagi – Yes. But I wasn’t the only one. The whole testing team worked together. It was my job to take the results and assemble them together into a final test image.

Iwata – To perform the tests perfectly, you have to spend time investigating all sorts of things, but when you do that, inspection equipment expenses and the time spent are reflected in the cost. There’s a contradiction there in that you have to find a way to test thoroughly but also cost-efficiently.

Akagi – Yes. The amount of time we spent testing early on was enormous and not commensurate to the cost. But when defects arose during testing, we had each person in charge analyze the contents of the defect and give feedback to the manufacturer, so we were able to gradually cut down on testing time.

Iwata – Had you built up know-how with regard to which places you should check carefully?

Akagi – Yes. Where defects don’t appear and where we have to be careful are clearly visible in test defect ratios.

Iwata – Statistically, we can decrease the number of test patterns for places that are safer, while maintaining more thorough tests for parts that have a greater frequency of problems. It’s important to vary test methods that way.

Akagi – However, even with that variation, as time went by, we encountered the problem of defects appearing in parts for which we had decreased the number of tests.

Shiota – In cooperation with the manufacturers, the hardware team and Akagi-san’s software team analyzed defects and provided feedback, in a loop like that, over and over countless times, shortening the amount of time. Having the CPU and GPU together took more time than ever to have it optimized.

Akagi – If they didn’t know the cause of the defect, those in charge would go around the manufacturers and look at the compatibility of each one’s LSI chip and reflect that in testing.

Iwata – Hundreds of times you analyzed defects, imagined why they arose, ran and tested a program, and confirmed what actually happened.

Akagi – Yes. If a defect arises right away, that’s fine, but there were times like when we left the Wii U’s power on for a whole day and then a defect arose!

Iwata – You ran what’s called an aging test.

Akagi – Yes. If you don’t do that, defects will eventually arise when the product is in the customers’ hands. Toward the end of creating the product, a lot of tests that take a long time are left over, so it took an extra long time to analyze each single defect.

Shiota – But this time, our partners were very positive about cooperating with analysis, which really helped.

Takeda – I think that’s the magic of game-console development. We carry out development together with other partner companies, but rather than having IBM employees and AMD employees and Renesas employees, we joined into what might be called “Team Nintendo”. That happened because, it seems like they can talk to their families like their children, grandchildren and spouses about what they have made. In that respect, one of the good points of game-console development is how the participants’ motivation inspired the team as a whole.

Iwata – Instead of just designing a GPU, for example, you’re making a game console. It’s interesting how even different companies can form one team. So when defects arise, we are blessed to have people who will take a personal stake in it and cooperate with us even if the cause doesn’t lie with them.

Shiota – Actually, a lot of the CPU and GPU designers this time have been working with us since development of Wii—which is a plus. They really like our products.

Iwata – Especially since the Wii U had to be backwards compatible with Wii.

Shiota – Yes. The designers were already incredibly familiar with the Wii, so without getting hung up on the two machines’ completely different structures, they came up with ideas we would never have thought of. There were times when you would usually just incorporate both the Wii U and Wii circuits, like 1+1. But instead of just adding like that, they adjusted the new parts added to Wii U so they could be used for Wii as well.

Iwata – And that made the semiconductor smaller.

Shiota – Right. What’s more, power consumption fell. That was an idea that only designers familiar with Wii could have put forth. We were able to make such a small semiconductor because so much wisdom bubbled up!

4. A Game Console That Doesn’t Leech Off the TV

Iwata – What is it about the Wii U hardware that you want people to pay attention to the most? Akagi-san would you start us off?

Akagi – I worked on the SDK and absolutely love CPUs! (laughs) So I myself have been happy to see how far game consoles have come. I hope people will be impressed by the types of software enabled by the CPU.

Iwata – I like the way you say you love CPUs! (laughs) It turned out to be a CPU without any strange habits—one that runs just the way you expect. All right, Kitano-san?

Kitano – Speaking from the standpoint of casing design, while the basic structure resembles the Wii, there are various differences that made things more convenient. For one thing, the SYNC Button is on the outside. We heard that a lot of customers had made inquiries about how to synchronize the Wii Remote, so I thought there was a merit to that. Also, the USB connectors, which are only on the backside of Wii, are in front as well, making it easier to connect USB peripherals from the front.

Iwata – There are two on the front and two on the back.

Kitano – Right. Another detail is the cover. For the Wii, it came out forward, but this time it goes in.

Iwata – Oh wow! That way it isn’t in the way when it’s open!

Kitano – Yet another point I’d like to emphasize! (laughs)

Iwata – How about you, Shiota-san?

Shiota – From the point of view of design, we didn’t just simply apply the latest technology to improve performance. We decreased power consumption and made the casing smaller, so I think this console achieves a good balance between performance, power and chip size.

And, expecting that this would be a device that would allow people to experience much more than playing games, from the very beginning of development of Wii U, we adopted a policy of increasing the main memory capacity.

And another thing I would like to point out is how it comes with an HDMI™ cable as a standard accessory, included with purchase of every Wii U console. We want as many people as possible to enjoy HD images.

Iwata – Not many devices out there come with an HDMI™ cable yet. You can use the cable that came with the original Wii, but that wouldn’t make the most of the Wii U’s capabilities. And you, Takeda-san?

Takeda – I would draw attention to how efficient it is. For a computer to function efficiently, memory hierarchy structure is very important, and this time the basic memory hierarchy is tightly designed. Although that is an orthodox solution, it makes the foremost feature of this machine’s high efficiency.

Iwata – That has been our policy since the GameCube. No matter how great the numbers are that you can boast, can you only draw that out under certain conditions, or can you actually draw out its performance consistently when you use it? Insisting on the latter way of thinking has always been at the root of hardware and system development at Nintendo.

Takeda – That’s right.

Iwata – You’ve always been involved with video game consoles, and you told me earlier how game consoles have always leeched off of televisions, but this is the first game console that doesn’t have to leech off of TVs. With Wii U, you can play games on the GamePad, which slightly changes the idea of game consoles as something in your living room. By the way, what are each of you excited about that can be done only on Wii U?

Shiota – I always play video games with my children. With Wii U, you have a screen right there in your hand. You may notice your children hiding it, and be like, “What’re you doing?” and try to look, but they’ll be like, “No, I won’t show you!” I feel like this will increase the amount of conversation that takes place. (laughs)

Iwata – How about you, Kitano-san?

Kitano – I have a small child, too. We can play together using the touch screen of the Wii U GamePad, so I think it would be good to set that in the living room and enjoy it.

Iwata – And you, Akagi-san?

Akagi – I don’t have any children (laughs), but when you touch an object on the touch screen, it’s reflected on the television, so it’s easier to recommend to my mother and father—especially my mother, who doesn’t usually play video games.

Iwata – A lot of people still don’t intuitively understand idea of touching the controller and seeing it reflected on the TV. But one reason that such people liked the Nintendo DS was that when you touch the screen, there’s a response. That has now come to the world of home television video games, with the added fun of being able to share the results with people in the same room as you. Takeda-san?

Takeda – When you’re watching television in the living room, all kinds of conversation arises. If a question arises, you can use the Wii U to immediately look up the answer. I think having a tool to assist learning and curiosity will make everyone happy.

Iwata – In other words, it’s a machine that will increase conversation in the living room.

Takeda Yes. I would be the most thankful for that. Of course, playing video games is still the centerpiece, though.

Iwata – You don’t have to play the Wii U in conjunction with the television, so people may turn it on more than any home console before. All right, let’s finish up by having everyone say something to the customers—starting with Akagi-san

Akagi – We’re testing and testing it (laughs), so I hope you will be at ease playing games on it.

Iwata – All right. Kitano-san?

Kitano – As with Wii, I hope people will give Wii U a central place in their living room and enjoy it with many of their family members and friends. And please put in a little extra effort to connect the included HDMI™ cable and enjoy it in HD!

Iwata- Okay. Shiota-san.

Shiota – You can, of course, enjoy video games to the fullest, but we’ve also included many elements for enjoyment besides the game capabilities. I’ll be grateful if people would turn on the power and touch Wii U often. You’ll have both the television screen and touch screen, which I think will increase possibilities for conversation, so please enjoy it, everyone!

Iwata – All right. And you, Takeda-san?

Takeda – Hardware is indeed a stagehand. We have finally passed the baton of SDK. I hope everyone will enjoy the methods of gameplay and the specific content. With the hardware we made, the SDK that we were involved with, and the effort from the application creators, I hope we can get all the great content across to players.

Iwata – Thank you. Hardware is indeed a stagehand, but without it, you can’t do anything. When you actually use it, it runs as a matter of course, but in order to achieve something that appears so effortless, you thermal test it thousands of times and revise the test patterns hundreds of times and perform defect analysis.

I hope that the people, especially those who bother themselves to read this interview to know that in order to make this hardware at this size, with this performance, while also suppressing power consumption—and all at this price—a lot of people had to work awfully hard. That is my candid wish.

We also cleared the challenge of
making sure that the Wii U could send images to the Wii U GamePad continuously without latency. I’d like to ask about that in more detail when we discuss the next “Iwata Asks: Wii U GamePad.” Thank you for your time today.

Everyone – Thank you.

From → Wii U

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