The OG Nintendo Game Boy: what a beloved gray stone can teach us about understanding what consumers really value


Jeremy King, CEO and Founder, explain that,

There are probably not many people who would describe the Nintendo Game Boy – a device that resembles a gray stone – nicely, but I would. Why here

33 years ago, one of the most iconic gaming products of all time was launched. The Game Boy hit stores in Japan on April 21, 1989 and became a sensation almost overnight. Within two weeks, 300,000 units – Nintendo’s entire stock – were blown off the shelves.

That OG Game Boy launcher didn’t have a flash. Popularity remained high for the next 16 years across several generations of Game Boy devices and a range of diverse competitors. By the time the Game Boy franchise ended its run, more than 120 million had been sold. It killed all the challengers – including the Sega Game Gear, the Atari Lynx and the NEC TurboExpress – and all those challengers were, to the casual observer, technically better and more attractive products.

So what did Sega, Atari and NEC do wrong? How do objectively superior products lose out? And what did the Game Boy hit that others missed?

How did Nintendo overcome its bias to meet consumer needs?

Look, I can’t claim that Nintendo was made aware of the internal discussions over the design of the upcoming Game Boy in 1989. However, it’s clear to me that Nintendo bases its decisions on more than instinct or guesswork.

Nintendo’s competitors chose the wrong battlefield and focused on color screens and flashy games from big brands. Nintendo had the courage to think objectively about its consumers. It could easily have been drawn into a feature war with the goal of beating the competition (or reaching parity) by discriminating against and demanding the best technology.

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Instead, Nintendo put aside its prejudices (and perhaps its ego) and humbly laid it at the feet of its consumers by simply asking, “What’s most important?” This helped Nintendo discover the winning side of each trade-off.

While the competition wrongly assumed that consumers wanted a beautiful color screen and other advanced features, Nintendo came up with three aspects that would beat all others in the early handheld gaming market: simplicity, fun and battery life.

These principles formed the core of the Game Boy product roadmap and led to generations of industry leadership. Nintendo fixed it. The device’s non-backlit monochrome LCD screen was objectively terrible, but led to longer battery life – and it also meant Nintendo was able to keep the price down. The simple, robust gray box and low price meant that consumers could take their Game Boy everywhere with confidence and also give it to friends. Games co-developed with Nintendo and third parties kept the playable range broad and fun, opening up a huge potential market for buyers. Games can load quickly and play for a long time, making life easier for players. It wasn’t flashy, but it was what the consumer wanted.

In addition, the Game Boy’s simple and effective design replicated the layout of the tried-and-true NES controller (already popular for TV play). There was no learning curve for the users; You can easily lift the device with both hands and operate it with your thumbs. to measure Tetris With bundled games, memorable music and highly addictive gameplay, Nintendo has got the whole package right.

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When it launched in the US on July 31, 1989, the Game Boy cost $89.95. Two months later, the Atari Lynx came along and cost $100 more. Sega’s Game Gear cost $149.99 when it launched a year later. The NEC was the last and most expensive on the market when the TurboExpress went on sale in December 1990 for $249.99.

All “better” products were dropped. Over time, with an established pioneering position, Nintendo was able to add color screens – even dual screens – when those capabilities were ready, but always stayed true to the formula of simplicity, fun and battery life. .

If you know the truth, stick to your guns

So from the start, the Game Boy seemed like a bad product on paper. Initial reviews agreed. Because it didn’t have a color screen or the familiar headline games, it was considered sub-par. This could easily have been taken as a sign that it had chosen the wrong path, but Nintendo stood its ground and turned out to be right. In its first Christmas season, the Game Boy sold over 1 million units. Consumers chose the winner, not reviewers or side-by-side tech comparisons.

Nintendo’s commitment to discovering the real needs of its target customers – without guessing or getting caught up in a competitive or discriminatory arms race – ensured that the Game Boy brand became the heart of nearly every gamer. The lesson here is that knowing the real needs and choices of customers is of great value. By rejecting prejudice, taking a scientific approach and exposing reality, Nintendo won.

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Guessing in business should be illegal

The process of seeking truth should be as universal in business as it is in science. Tech companies planning their product roadmaps should regularly nod to the status of Nintendo’s Game Boy in the product development hall of fame. There’s no room for guesswork when building what customers want, and bias is the enemy of progress.

The Game Boy won the market, despite bare-bones features and a gray look, by understanding the real foundation of consumer decision-making: bravely building a winning product and swimming against the current. Nintendo put favoritism aside and focused on simplicity, fun and battery life. Rivals who thought they knew what consumers wanted went way back in history. This timeless formula kept the Game Boy ahead of the game for generations.

So, the next time you’re worried about finding “better” competitive products or variations, think about the simple gray box: The Game Boy story contains the ultimate truth about what it takes to win, and rightly so . Finding insight can take 33 years. (and counting) of category-defining wins.

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