The Techland Interview: Nintendo of America’s Reggie Fils-Aime

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While at GDC, Techland was lucky enough to get a one-on-one interview with Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America. As we talked about his take on the threat of Playstation Move, Reggie showed off a little bit of the swagger that’s made him a sometime-controversial figure in the games business. We also discussed why and when Nintendo lets others baby-sit its characters, and why Nintendo will still do motion-controlled games better than Sony or Microsoft, even after Project NATAL and the Playstation Move come out.

Would it fair to characterize last year as challenging? Wii sales have plateaued and there’s been concern about momentum…

Are you talking about the industry or Wii specifically?

Both, actually.

I would separate the two. The industry as a whole had an up-and-down year. A large part of 2008’s success was due to the growth of the music genre and you didn’t see that replicate in 2009. As far as Nintendo specifically, our DS business did its best year ever. Not just for a handheld, but for a platform total.

You’re comparing it to other consoles?

That 11.2 million beats anything that’s ever been done here in the US, handheld or console. It actually beats the Wii record that we set the year prior ago. Now, when you look at the Wii business, we did 9 million units last year and that was the second best console year on record, second to what we did the year before. A purist could look at that and say Wii sales are down year-over-year and someone else clearly had a better year…

But your off-years are better than someone else’s best year.

Ever! When you compare the Wii’s performance after four holiday seasons to the PS2’s at the same point in time, we’re tracking 5 million units ahead. So, our performance is where we want it to be and it continues to be all historical records. But we’re constantly challenging ourselves to do better.

So what’s the next challenge?

The immediate challenge is getting back consistently into stock. We sold so well during the holiday season that we’re chasing demand again. That’s a situation that will be solved over the next few weeks. From there, we need to figure out how to excite existing consumers and new ones that haven’t decided to jump in yet.

Four years ago, during the Wii launch, you talked about Nintendo being a company that has a legacy of being a disruptor. There have been accusations that the Wii’s just a fad. And, some could argue that, with NATAL and the Playstation Move, your competitors are catching up to that disruption. How do you disrupt again?

For us, it’s all about, “How do we keep bringing about fantastic new experiences?” 27, almost 28 million units into the life cycle for Wii hardware, clearly we’re not a fad. How do we keep it going? With great content like Super Mario Galaxy 2, Metroid: Other M and new content from licensees like Capcom’s Monster Hunter Tri.

Yeah, but you’re talking about content and not a wholesale seismic shift like the Wii generated. Is that genie out of the bottle?

I would argue that what caused that seismic shift WAS the content.

Not the interface? Or are you lumping both of those togther?

The interface needs to be brought to life with the content. Those two are so closely linked. Bu, in the end, it was Wii Sports and the ability for the consumer to do something that they never thought of before. That’s what we see as our mission.

So, let’s talk about interfaces. 2010 looks to be the year where interface in this industry changes, with NATAL and Playstation Move both coming out. Sony was not shy about name-checking you guys in their press conference. What do you think lies ahead about the way content’s going to be structured? Is motion control now a new evolutionary branch that everybody’s going to have to support? If that’s the case, how does Nintendo, having been first-to-market, continue to provide a more robust experience? Or, is that even possible?

Motion control’s a whole new chapter, maybe even a whole new book in the history of video games. But, again, it’s not just about interface, you have to have the content. It needs to be fun and entertaining and until that is fully disclosed by our competitors, and until we fully disclose what we have up our sleeves, all of this is talk.

You’re just going to pit your titles against the competition’s and…

Let the better content win.

During my hands-on time with the Move, it struck me how they’re using the interface for content that wouldn’t necessarily be found on the Wii…

So this is SOCOM?

SOCOM, yes, but also the Motion Fighters game. There’ve been first-person and third-person shooters on Wii; I played the Conduit and actually liked it. But there’s been an image of Nintedo as a family-friendly company that shies away from the kind of violent or mature content that certain developers or publishers like to make. Do you think that’s going to give Sony and advantage when it comes to facing off against you guys?

I don’t think so. So, two things. It’s true that Nintendo does not publish as a first-party ultra-violent content. We don’t like it, we don’t have a passion for it, we don’t do it very well. But, that’s not to say we don’t like to see content like The Conduit or Call of Duty. I play first-person-shooters; I like them. I haven’t had a chance to play SOCOM, but based on what’s been described to me, I’m not so sure that’s going to be a great shooter experience. In the end, for any platform, it just got to feel good.

Essentially, what you’re telling me is that because you’re Nintendo, you’ve got a history of crafting experiences that the competitors don’t necessarily have.

Let me put it this way… What we have shown with games like Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort is that it is a true craft to create compelling entertaining experiences that are based on motion control. If it was easy, there’d be hundreds of these types of games. I do believe that it comes down to the best game creators making the best content to bring a particular kind of experience to light. In that regard, I have full confidence in the Nintendo slate of developers that we can create the best content.

Let’s go back to holiday, just for a second. I imagined this scenario after getting my hands on the Move: A curious shopper goes into a GameStop or a WalMart, looking for a console they can bowl with. The Wii offers that and the Playstation 3 will offer that. But, Sony has more robust hardware as part of their package and different features as far as home entertainment. What stops them from walking away from the store with a PS3 instead of a Wii?

In the end, the consumer is going to pull out their wallet or their pocketbook and they’re going to make a value choice. They’re going to say, “What do I get for what I pay? What’s the best value?” What we believe is that the software library that we have–everything from The Conduit to Wii Fit Plus–is the winning proposition. What gives me the confidence to say that is that I’m 27 million units into this thing and my closest competitior is two-thirds of that.

But what if this consumer wants a hi-def experience?

Y’know, if hi-def for the consumer is an important part of their decision set, then they’re gonna go somewhere else. I’d argue that the tech angle is important to the early adopter and I’m not so sure that the tech is as important now.

Still, we’re way past the early adopter part of the cycle. The person who may have been put off by the price or the trappings of an HDTV four years ago could very well be thinking about upgrading their whole experience now. How is the hardware packed into the Wii in its current state not a liability in that regard?

Because I’d argue that the whole offering we have is more compelling. Even today. Even today, we could go to 100 stores in the greater San Francisco area and we’d only find hardware in 30 of those stores. But, you’d find mountains of competitive product. The consumer’s voting TODAY that the Wii’s a better product.

Do you think that factors like the economy have something to do with that?

Of course they do. Some consumers spend more because they believe they’re going to get more.

Let’s talk about content a little bit. Other M was probably the most surprising and exciting thing Nintendo announced at E3 last year, with the reveal that Team Ninja would be co-developing. You guys have handed Samus off to others before, but what was the thinking here? Arguably, nothing was broken with Metroid…

We don’t necessarily view this as a third-party development deal. Maybe it’s some hybrid of first- and second-party, as Sakamoto-san is heavily involved. What Sakamoto-san and Nintendo wanted was a different take. It was serendipity that the people at Team Ninja were already taking with Sakamoto and they had a mind-meld. I wouldn’t say that the game wasn’t anything that our first-party teams couldn’t do, but it was more of a desire to work with Team Ninja.

Would you say that Nintendo is as open to partnerships with regard to some of its other characters? People tend to view the company as one that holds its IP very close to its vest.

We do hold them close to the vest. Yet, we have done so. Square’s done games that have used Mario and other iconic Nintendo characters and obviously we did the deal with Sega for the Mario & Sonic Olympic Games titles. But, we believe that in order for those things to happen, that the person we’re going to partner with need to view things very similar to the way we do.

That leads into this question: Team Ninja’s garnered a certain kind of fan base for delivering a certain kind of game. Has there been a creative clash while Other M’s been being built?

I’m not in that room everyday. But, Mr. Sakamoto did mention one moment of difference, which was Team Ninja wanting to make a game that involved the nunchuk. Our in-house developers at Nintendo tend to be very single-minded but what I’ve played so far feels like a true collaboration.

Some might say that Team Ninja’s sensibilities–they make games with beheadings and dismemberments–are egregious but you could argue that they’re part of the core DNA of how they make games. What do you say to the Team Ninja fan who’s expecting that in the new Metroid game?

I’d say that you’re getting a Metroid experience. Metroid is running and shooting and traversal and re-traversal. You won’t get a Ninja Gaiden experience. That’s something else. What you will get is something that is new and unique in the Metroid lineage that I think, based on my own hands-on experience, is phenomenal.

Finally, there’s been a constant pressure for Nintendo to announce something with regard to the next iteration of hardware. People have been calling for a WiiHD for the last two years or so. I’m not going to ask you if or when that’s coming, but I will ask you where do you think that pressure comes from?

There is a legacy of bringing hardware new hardware systems roughly every five years. So, if that was going to happen again, the announcements would need to happen around now. Also, we have two competitors who’d love to have a shot at re-defining the next generation. At 60 million sold, the Wii’s leading this generation and that was not at all expected, either by our hardware competitors or by most software developers. So, there’s a desire to hit the reset button and try it again. Thirdly, from a publisher perspective, there’s a recognition that the three different consoles are each very different to create content for and they’d probably like to see things get a little bit closer. I think that’s what generates all of the talk of what comes next and of a WiiHD. As for our perspective, When Mr. Miyamoto says, “I have this idea and I can’t do it on the current system,” that’s when the next one starts to take shape. And not before.

You’re saying Miyamoto-san and everybody at Nintendo development feel like they haven’t hit the limits of the hardware?


What’s it going to take to hit the limits?

I’m fortunate enough to know what’s coming and let’s just say we’re not there yet.

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