What classic gaming consoles say about understanding user experiences

Patrick Shannon

Patrick Shannon

December 4, 2018

Now that you can actually FIND them, I imagine a lot of gamers will be pulling retro gaming consoles like the NES and SNES Classic out of their stockings this Christmas. And lucky them: both of those products are an absolute delight for people my age.

I also imagine there are surly technophiles out there eager to remind you that there is such a thing as a tiny and affordable project board called a Raspberry Pi, able to be adapted into a gaming console that can be loaded with 7000 games. You’ll also be told that you’re a fool to dare pay for anything that can be had for free.

While I’m hardly an angel with digital media, I need not explain what’s morally wrong with considering piracy as a legitimized alternative. Demonizing companies asking compensation for their own efforts (how dare they!) – or ridiculing buyers who choose to support them – is also confusing and misguided. (Sadly, digital piracy has harmed our ability to judge integrity, regrettable for younger generations in particular who grew up on file sharing.)

But the point of this article is NOT to preach about intellectual property. Rather, I think retro consoles really have a lot to say about understanding why an audience buys into a good user experience to begin with.

The difference between a NES Classic and a Raspberry Pi is quite simple: one is a PRODUCT while the other is a PROJECT. The former is an officially licensed (and supported) option for the consumer, while the latter is a pursuit for those with time and know-how.

Nothing wrong with preferring a DIY approach, I’ve known people who are absolute ninjas at building awesome retro machines and arcades for the sheer enjoyment of it. But what is considered frictionless for a savvy builder greatly differs from that of the mainstream audience classic consoles are intended for.

A tongue-in-cheek article on the web skewers the actual “ease” of setting up a Pi gaming machine, and it’s not terribly far off from the truth. My recent RetroPie build wasn’t difficult but not straightforward: involving a second computer and resorting to formatting an SD card in a digital camera (!) to get a bootable image. Even then, further efforts involved SSH, SFTP and config file work.

If I have to explain why all that isn’t appealing to the average consumer (let alone expect them to understand the jargon), then I suggest never to attempt to design a product for any audience beyond those behind a command line.

The success of classic consoles also shows that perceived limitations may be seen entirely differently by the real-world user. Classic consoles are criticized for being locked to only about twenty or thirty games, but busy adults may see that number as a huge time commitment in itself. The handful of titles they ARE interested in represent far more value proposition than any number of unfamiliar offerings they can freely load and forget about.

Thus far I’ve been comparing retail products to home-brewed options, but is it possible for another retail product to also miss the point?  Amazingly, I think Sony just found a way to do it.

The biggest usability faux pas is that the PSX Classic may not even be ready to play out of the box…no power adapter is included. Counting on all users having a TV USB outlet or spare power adapter is a very large assumption.

The PlayStation Classic is on it’s way to stores and has been receiving a lot of flack for a number of reasons. While the exterior looks the part, the unit is described as being a minimal / soulless effort with barebones menus, a lack of options and a tiny sprinkle of A+ game titles filled out with a lackluster library (some of which might run worse than you remember). It’s a paint-by-numbers attempt that says little about what made the console great.

In comparison, the Nintendo products come with everything you need, including a deeply curated and diverse collection of major titles covering the gamut of genres that has something for everybody. The emulation is faithful (with options to adjust it), and little touches like the 80s/90s system menus with music and even a pack-in poster add a ton of personality. While Nintendo could have done just a little more (let’s talk controller cord length), the entire experience feels very fun and authentic; a celebration of the console’s era.

And that’s the biggest takeaway here, whether the efforts are from a company or a hobbyist building from parts. Anyone can provide a functional solution. But it’s emotion and ease-of-use that’s harder to capture and makes the biggest impression on people.

Don’t simply offer a retro product built from a blueprint…make a bold statement on what made that experience worth remembering.

About Patrick Shannon

As a user experience (UX) designer / researcher based in St. Louis, I've worked with technology partners across the country to study end-users and create fictionless products and solutions that today's audiences connect with. In my spare time, I enjoy photography and building ideas out of anything from electronics to wood...still determined to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime someday.