Last week marked the 11th time I’ve attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the annual convergence of game developers, publishers, retailers and grubby media folk like myself who get paid to write and talk about games. And one of the highlights of each year’s E3 is getting to sit down with game creators and game company executives and talk to them about what they do.
The last two or three years I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Reggie Fils-Aime, the president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America. This year I interviewed Nintendo’s legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, the third time I’ve had a face-to-face with the man behind everything from Mario and Donkey Kong to Zelda and Pikmin. (If you’re interested in hearing what Fils-Aime has to say, I’d recommend checking out my fellow games biz scribbler Chad Sapieha’s interview with the Regginator here.)
Chatting with Miyamoto is always interesting. Don’t be fooled by his friendly, impish persona – he’s a very savvy veteran of an industry and a company that’s been through plenty of ups and downs over the decades. Also interesting is the fact Miyamoto takes questions in English, but responds in Japanese (through longtime Nintendo translator Bill Trinen), presumably because he doesn’t feel his spoken English is sufficiently nuanced to communicate his ideas.
Nonetheless, when the 59-year-old Steven Spielberg of video games talks, everyone from game fans to CEOs listens. Here’s a sampling of what Miyamoto-sensei had to say about Nintendo’s upcoming Wii U console, the competitors who are nipping at the company’s heels and the industry’s obsession on games with guns. Rather than a straight Q & A, I’ve broken his quotes up with bits of paraphrasing.
The surprisingly technophobic Miyamoto is slowly introducing technology into his own home, such as watching YouTube videos with his wife or Skyping with his daughter
“Although I’m not totally satisfied with it, I’ve also started to use an Android smartphone. It’s pretty inconvenient as a telephone. I often call the wrong people.”
He believes the Wii U will bring web-based entertainment to the living room, even for those who aren’t terribly tech-savvy.
“With Wii U, we’ve designed it to be very streamlined and easily accessible by anybody in the house. For example, with Wii U you can have people in the living room watching a program on television, and I can be sitting here with my Wii U GamePad and scrolling around and finding interesting YouTube content or finding videos.”
“Who knows, people may find because of this ability to share content very quickly and easily like that, soon they’ll start to spend an hour or so every day just watching funny web videos on their television in their home.”
“With the Wii U console, what I think is unique is with this one device you can have control over the television in a way that allows you to use it for anything from watching television to playing games to viewing content on the Internet or accessing some of that social content.”
“In the past when we’ve introduced something like motion control or even when we first introduced touchscreen control on the Nintendo DS, typically it would take a few years before other companies might look at those features and try to bring them into their own offerings. So the fact that just one year after we first introduced the concept of Wii U we’re already seeing companies that are trying to sort of move in that same direction says that obviously they feel there’s a tremendous amount of possibility in what we’ve been showing so far.”
“The fact that we’re already seeing companies already trying to replicate some of what we’re doing with Wii U gives us a lot of courage, because it really says they’re seeing the possibilities that lie within the structure we’ve created.”
One advantage with the Wii U is that everything needed to have those second-screen gaming experiences is included in the box.
“I feel what we’ve done is create a complete product that I think is certainly going to end up being a far more complete product in and of itself than trying to layer on these other technologies. For that reason, I think Wii U is going to be a system that anybody is going to be able to use in the house.”
“With Wii U… anybody who buys the Wii U system has everything that they need to experience those unique new styles of dual screen gameplay through the controller that comes with the hardware system and it’s direct connection to the TV through the console box itself.”
Digital distribution is changing the way Nintendo thinks about making and selling games.
“It’s something that Nintendo has been considering for over 10 years, particularly now when we look at storage mediums and the ability to be able to have devices to store your digital content on.”
Were it released now in the age of digital distribution, Nintendogs might have been different.
“What we really wanted to was release one version for every breed of dog. But unfortunately you can’t do that from a retail store inventory perspective. That could be something we’d eventually do in the future through digital distribution.”
Nintendo listens to gamer feedback, but seldom uses fans’ ideas in games.
“We do continually listen to the feedback of our consumers, but it’s rare that we ever reflect that directly in the creation of new games, because we always want to prepare for the consumers what they’re not expecting.”
The touchscreen-equipped GamePad for Wii U will create different types of gameplay, although it’s not always easy to communicate how these new types of games will work.
“Just watching people play, you don’t have a really clear idea of where the fun is. But as soon as you play it yourself, it immediately comes to you very quickly how much fun there is.”
“As we continue to design these games and introduce these new play styles and new play structures, people will gradually start to understand them and we’ll see more and more people playing them. And then from there they can potentially develop into bigger and richer game experiences.”
[I asked Miyamoto point-blank to just come out and reveal the price of the Wii U. After much laughter and the suggestion I ask Nintendo president Satoru Iwata instead, he responded to my suggestion that Nintendo fans might need to get used to paying a premium for the company’s historically wallet-friendly consoles.]
“I love that you think so highly of the hardware that that’s your expectation. But at the same time, video game machines for many years are something that have always sold at some of those lower price points … whether it’s $200, or $250 for Wii. So it’s very difficult to move away from that, but we’ll try to find a balance.”
If he has anything negative about the competition, it’s the proliferation of extreme violence in video games being developed for other consoles.
“Sometimes I get worried about the continued reliance on making games that are so centered around guns, and the fact there are so many of those games. And I have a hard time imagining, particularly for younger generations of gamers, how they sit down and play and interact with a game like that.”
“With the transition to the more digital mediums, what we find is it becomes more difficult for parents to have a full grasp of what’s going on within that particular product.”
And finally, Miyamoto likes to remind everyone at E3 that video games – and the event itself – are ultimately about fun.
“At a show like this, it’s my job to show that we’re all having fun. Everybody comes to E3 and they want to talk about the competition and who won the show, and all these companies combating against each other. But from my perspective, what we’re really supposed to be here doing is showing the world how we can bring fun to the world.”
“So rather than focusing on competition, I feel it’s my job to go up there on stage and show I can bring fun to the world by having fun myself.”