I recently came across a quote from Cliff Bleszinski (source forgotten) where he contemplated that he’d rather have other game designers ripping off Gears of War’s “active reload” mechanic than its cover-based shooting. Reading that, I was reminded of an observation that my friend and colleague Peter once had while we were playing Wii Tennis together. We were pretty good players, having played that game daily during our lunch break for months. And we finally understood the finesse, the genius, of the service in Wii Tennis.

The service in Wii Tennis works like this: First, you waggle the Wii Remote to throw the ball into the air. Then you make a racket swing-like gesture with the remote in order to hit the ball. The higher up the ball, the mightier the service. When you strike the ball in the moment it reached the apex of its flight curve, you serve with maximal speed. Hit it perfect and you play a “power serve” that smashes the ball across the court leaving a trail of smoke. Countering a power serve requires perfect timing. After failing to perfect his abilities to reliably play the power serve Peter invented the so-called “Lulu-service”. It’s the on the opposite end of the coolness scale.

While the power serve is played by throwing the ball into the air and hitting it with the bat when it has reached its peak, the lulu-service needs the player to hit the ball moments before the Mii catches the ball again with his hand. Why is the service so important in Wii Tennis? Because the game has an intricately balanced risk-reward scheme. After training for months, we reached a point where our games were brutal hit-and-miss duels. Just like in real tennis, we played serve and volley, yet without much volleying. The thing with the power serve is that it is a high-risk operation. If you succeed, you most likely win the point, because returning it is so hard. Yet if you miss that small window of opportunity and fail, the opponent can strike back by returning a 100% uncatchable ball. It’s hard to play that return, but we were good enough, back then. The game punishes you severely for failing while rewarding you for taking the risk if you succeed. It would be a classic risk-reward scheme if there weren’t the lulu-service. Played that way, the ball barely makes it over the net. It touches ground right behind it, making the opponent’s Mii hurl himself across the field. Since the ball ends up so close to the net and has so little velocity, it bounces just a few inches. The opponent can not play and aggressive return from that angle. If he does so, the ball inevitably ends up in the net. He can either play a lob, handing over the initiative to you again, or try to play a similarly limp cross. It is a good service because in most cases it allows you to remain in the role of the attacker. Also, it is easier to play than the power serve. In the end, it is the second-best service in the game.

Nintendo’s genius can be seen in this intricately modeled risk-reward scheme. Above, you find a risk-reward curve of the service in Wii Tennis. You can see how it diverts from a conservative, linear, “more risk equals more reward” balance. Additionally to its merits as a means to win a game, the power serve also serves a second purpose: it rewards spectacular play. Gears of War’s active reload serves the same purpose and is similarly cleverly modeled. The player gets rewarded if he risks to actively reload his gun and gets punished if he fails. Participation is optional, as active reload just shortens – or prolongs, if you fail – the normal reload sequence. Active reload adds depth and playfulness to a dull and repetitive task. I’m sure similarly structured game mechanics can be found in a lot of games, though they rarely come with the attention to detail that Nintendo put into the simple act of thrashing a ball across the court. Nintendo served risk and reward deluxe.