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Nintendo’s Innovation Console: A Q&A With Reggie Fils-Aime

For the past several years, Nintendo executives have been touting such books as “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “Blue Ocean Strategy” as a way to explain why they’ve been zigging while everyone else zagged. That’s why at last month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, when Microsoft and Sony finally zagged with camera-based control systems for their respective video game consoles, attendees should not have been surprised when Nintendo zigged with the Wii Vitality Sensor: a hardware device that will monitor your heart rate for as yet unspecified interactive applications.

For the past several years, Nintendo executives have been touting such books as “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “Blue Ocean Strategy” as a way to explain why they’ve been zigging while everyone else zagged. That’s why at last month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, when Microsoft and Sony finally zagged with camera-based control systems for their respective video game consoles, attendees should not have been surprised when Nintendo zigged with the Wii Vitality Sensor: a hardware device that will monitor your heart rate for as yet unspecified interactive applications. To learn more about Nintendo’s past and present innovations, FastCompany.com columnist N’Gai Croal spoke with the company’s North American president and chief operating officer, Reggie Fils-Aime.

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When you look back at the success of Wii Fit and the Balance Board, how much of this did you anticipate, when you first got wind of it and when it was announced a couple of E3s ago?

Well, we’ve always anticipated that, as Nintendo would demonstrate business potential with an idea, others would follow. And we believe that based on history: rumble, joystick; things that we invented if you will, and first put in video games, others quickly latched on to. So as you look at where we are today, the combination of fun and fitness one could argue is quickly becoming Red Ocean. One could argue that in the future active motion control may become Red Ocean, so from our perspective we always have to be pushing the envelope in ways that we believe benefit our strategy, which is driving more and more people into this category, and that’s what the Wii Vitality Sensor is all about.

It’s all about pushing the envelope as to what can create compelling content, and an entertaining experience in ways that haven’t been done before. Because to date that consumer, who hasn’t yet been compelled with the first-person shooter, or an action side-scrolling adventure, or a fitness game may be compelled with something that we do with the Vitality Sensor.

In terms of what drives you, what drives Mr. Miyamoto, and what drives Mr. Iwata, how much of the balance is the hare trying to stay one step ahead of the greyhounds that are chasing it, and how much of it is actually rushing towards future audiences?

No, it is about chasing. We respect all of our competitors, and when I talk about our competitors, all of our competitors for entertainment time and leisure time. So for us it’s all about getting more and more people into this category, and as we do that at the same time providing them more and more compelling experiences, so that more of their leisure time is spent on gaming.

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That’s why you see in one press conference something like Metroid: Other M, which is very core and very much gamer-centric if you will, coupled with something like Style Savvy, which is what we would call “new core.” These are girls who have bought a DS or DSi, and maybe have played something like Nintendogs or maybe have played new Super Mario Brothers for DS. This is another step in the journey for them, and then also the showcase Wii Fit Plus, and then to showcase the Vitality Sensor.

So for us, we have to do both, we have to continue filling the bucket, if you will, with more and more new consumers, and once we’ve captured their interest to provide them more and more interesting experiences.

So when you look at your competitors’ press conferences of the show–Microsoft with a depth perception-sensing of camera control without controllers, Sony with true one-to-one motion control–what do you think?

My take on it is that they are now seeing the opportunity that we saw. What they have shown and discussed inherently is not new news to us.

And N’Gai, I have to say, we have been in this business for over 25 years. We have worked with a range of input approaches. We’ve worked with the range of mechanisms to drive immersion into the gaming experience. There is a reason why on a DS you get that little click when you press a button. There is a reason that it was important to have a microphone in the Wii Remote. So for us what we see is two competitors who are looking over their shoulder at what we’ve been able to do, and are trying to participate.

Interestingly, our next advance in precision control [the Wii Motion Plus peripheral], launches on Monday. I’m not sure when their products will come to the market, but I can tell you by the time that happens, we will have to continue to move on, to drive more and more immersion on the part of the consumer.

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So you are basically confirming today, that there are more plastic peripherals coming.

I’ve not said those very words, what I’ve said is, we’re going to continue to drive more and more immersion on the part of the consumer.

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Going back to the Wii Vitality Sensors and looking at how one might use it, I’ve used those sorts of sensors for relaxation, and heart rate monitoring. I get the potential for meditation, fitness, that kind of stuff. But thinking about this for traditional games, it seems like depending on where it’s placed, it might take one hand out of play–

Good thing we have a one handed remote.

[Laughs] You thought ahead. I know you can’t talk about specific games but do you see that as a barrier to building a traditional game that also monitors a player’s heart rate?

So what I can tell you is this. You and I probably had a very similar conversation when we first showed the Nintendo DS: how is it going to work, why a touch screen, voice activation–I don’t get it. We probably had a similar conversation about the Wii Remote: how is this going to work, how is it going to work with the games that I want to play–I don’t get it. Now I’m hearing something similar for the Wii Vitality Sensor. And all I can tell you is, with the game developers that we have, we will bring forth an experience that you will say, “Wow, I get it.”

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Until you have that software, it’s tough to understand. If I told you that you would be standing on an oversized bathroom scale, and having fun doing it, you probably would have said, “Reggie, I don’t get it.” And yet here we are with the balance board arguably as the third largest development platform across the globe.

So I’m lacking imagination?

And you’re lacking the specific software example that undoubtedly will show exactly how it comes to life.

At this year’s show, in the case of the Wii Vitality Sensor, you showed an image of what it might look like, and explained how it might work, but you didn’t show anything playable. When you look at what your competitors did, and their decision to show some tech demos of varying degrees of polish–or some might say the lack thereof–is that something you think about? That when it comes to capturing the imagination of consumers, it may be dangerous to show this stuff publicly when it’s not ready for prime time?

N’Gai, I hear you, and we debate this a lot. In this case we believed that was important, especially in the critical role that Mr. Iwata plays in our company, for him to showcase in our view an example of the future, and doing it in a way that is not 100% product centric, but doing it in a much more conceptual way. And it’s a choice that we make, and we make those types of choices every year as we structure our press conferences.

But the fact is that Nintendo will continue to push the envelope on what a gaming experience is. Now, we’re doing that, because as we showed, there are a 150 million consumers in the markets that we do business, that say they’d be interested in video games if they had the right content, but today don’t play. Those are the consumers that we believe something like the Vitality Sensor with the right software could compel to get in the game.

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This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by N’Gai Croal, founder and principal of Hit Detection, LLC. You can follow him via Tumblr (http://ncroal.tumblr.com) or Twitter (http://twitter.com/ncroal).


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