Wii U console hardware engineering

Nintendo recently published this interview about the hardware decisions for their upcoming console, the Wii U. The interview is part of Nintendo’s Iwata Asks series, where Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s president, interviews engineers, designers and artists who worked on various software and hardware projects to get an inside look into their development. Even though I work at Nintendo, and I’ve even helped a bit during the Wii U’s development, I can learn a lot from reading these interviews, as well.

The interviews tend to be surprisingly honest, detailing both the good and the bad of development, and providing an honest insight into hardware and software engineering that you tend not to see very often. (Although the Xbox Engineering Blog is pretty cool, too.) This particular interview talks to several engineers in IRD (Integrated Research and Development), the primary engineering group who decides on and builds the hardware for home consoles. I’ve dealt with several members of IRD on a personal basis, and everyone I know there is always extremely nice, smart, and works very hard (probably too hard).

One of the major points they address in the interview is the engineering goal of reducing power consumption in home consoles, which is a goal that Nintendo had for GameCube, Wii, and now for Wii U as well. You can see from this chart how well Nintendo has been doing at that goal. of all of the major game consoles released in the past 13 years, only the PSOne uses less power than Wii and GameCube. Considering that PSOne’s processor ran at ~34Mhz while GameCube and Wii run over an order of magnitude faster, this is quite impressive.

Mr. Iwata’s interview touches on cooling solutions that they’ve used for including more powerful hardware in a smaller case design since Wii, which is an interesting topic for me. Case design is tough stuff, and cooling is one of the hardest parts about it. I’m sure that many readers are familiar with the Xbox 360′s “red ring of death,” a failure mode that manifested itself in a large percentage of consoles due to overheating. Even though the Xbox 360 is known for its especially loud fan (due to the high RPMs at which it runs), it still has cooling issues.

The engineers discuss how they did thousands of different heat tests to optimize the fan size and RPMs, heatsink size, and vent angle/placement. These are all interesting thermodynamic engineering problems. I won’t steal the photos for this post, but you should really check them out here.

Finally, as an aside, I’m not sure that most technology company presidents would be capable of legitimately doing an interview like this. Throughout the interview, Mr. Iwata makes several clever and interesting comments which demonstrate his technical knowledge and understanding, and that he’s been closely involved in the Wii U’s development. As a computer scientist and former game developer himself, Mr. Iwata is unfortunately rare in the video game industry. Most of the leaders of successful game companies are businessmen first and foremost. Here are a few examples:

Company Role President/CEO Background
Sony Corp Consumer Electronics/Games Kaz Hirai Business and marketing
Activision/Blizzard Game Publisher/Developer Bobby Kotick Software entrepreneurship
Electronic Arts Game Publisher/Developer John Riccitiello Business and marketing
Sega Game Developer Hajime Satomi Business

It’s refreshing to work for a company that’s headed up by an engineer.