Going into E3 2018, Nintendo found itself in a curious position. Last year was a triumph for the company, supported by the launch of the Switch, the release of the critically acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, and the ascension of their new console as a welcome home for independent games. But Nintendo’s success this year hasn’t been as headline-snatching. There are week-by-week success stories, sure, and the constant social-media refrain of “ is it on Switch?” certainly speaks to console’s deep cultural saturation, but there aren’t the undeniable home runs of 2017.
Instead, there have been questions: What big games, besides the already announced Smash Bros., could players have to look forward to from Nintendo in the near future? Would the company improve curation and discoverability for the rapidly-flooding Switch eShop? How would the company improve accessibility on the platform? What’s up with Metroid Prime 4?
And while Nintendo’s yearly E3 video addressed some of the uncertainty about the system, a lot of questions remained unanswered. That’s why Waypoint was happy to sit down with Nintendo of America President and COO Reggie Fils-Aimé, who was able to talk about the future of the company and its games, starting with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Waypoint: This year’s Nintendo Direct was really interesting. In past years, we've spoken about whether you should focus on the stuff that's coming very soon or games that are coming down the line. Last year's E3 Spotlight was focused on a mix of stuff, but it did include some messaging around things for people to get excited for down the line.
Reggie Fils-Aimé, President and COO of Nintendo of America: And, and we had two of those this year. Sure. What are the two that you- Well, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, is one. I mean, that's 2019, right? That still feels soonish. The other, Daemon X Machina is [also] 2019. Which as a Mech fan, I'm extremely excited for. That's going to be fun. Did you see the Treehouse Live?
[laughing] I came home from E3 yesterday and sat down in a bed and watched that entire thing 30 minute segment. I'm that player, you know?
It’s going to be fun!
So we showed some games a little bit further out, but you're right. Typically, with the majority of our content, we focus on “near-in” experiences. That's our mentality, and we believe that in the end the consumer rewards us for this.
And let me give an example: Real time, you look at Amazon best sellers. Nintendo products are the top five including Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu!. Including the Poké Ball Plus accessory. Including Smash, that's been dominating the number one position. The other way to look at it is on Amazon Most Wished For list. The Nintendo Switch hardware is number one.
So for us what we're trying to do is drive that near-in excitement. Here's the content I want to play right away.
You can see how the contrasts, though, with some strategies by other publishers and platform holders. Microsoft started their E3 presentation with a short teaser of Halo Infinite. And Bethesda ended with promises of Starfield and The Elder Scrolls 6, projects that we know are a long time away. That strategy seemed to be about communicating a promise to fans that says "Hey, maybe this experience at E3 isn't for you, but hang on.” For Bethesda, it was “Maybe Fallout 76 and Rage 2 aren't for you. You're the consumer who wants to see the new thing from us, like Starfield, or you’re the fan of Elder Scrolls, and you really wants that core experience back. Trust us.” I know that you have other Directs throughout the year, and other opportunities to speak to people. But what goes into deciding whether to put that balance on near term releases, or like last year, to focus a little bit more of long term projects, with Yoshi, Metroid Prime 4, things like that.
Well, again. Philosophically, our bias is close in versus far away. Philosophically, our approach is to engage the consumer multiple times a year versus one big event. And philosophically, we believe that having hands-on gameplay overall enhances the experience and enhances the message. And so again you'll look at what we have in our booth. These are games that we announced, and we talked about, and now you can play. Whether it's Pokémon. Whether it's Smash Bros. Whether it's some of the third party content.
And so those are the philosophies that drive how we think about not only E3, but how do we think about our messaging throughout the year. You'll see the same mentality at San Diego Comic Con. You'll see the same mentality at PAX West: "Here's our message, and here's what you get to play right now."
Speaking of that even, last year we had a great discussion about the focus at E3 on, then, first party and big publisher games. And we had a conversation about the place of independent "Nindies." [Grins] Right. You're smiling, you remember this. Last year I told you that I’d heard from independent developers who said "Hey we felt left out here. We were a big part of the launch of the Switch." They felt that they were big part of the the early success of the Switch, but weren’t being made to feel like part of the Switch’s E3 story. And you said then, and I held you to it and you followed through, that Nintendo would have a place for them PAX because you felt that that event was the right event to put them on display.
But this year, not only did we get Nindie titles in the Direct, we got a thank you, we got a specific call out. So what's goes into that decision? What changed in the mindset there?
Well, but again, nothing changed. We approach every event, every opportunity through the lens of "What is our message? What will best demonstrate that message? What will best show in the environment?".
And I believe you and I had that conversation of.. You know, in an E3 environment, we have to be thoughtful about what it is that we show because we want the game to show right. And so you know that mindset continues to drive us.
This year we were fortunate. We were able to announce effectively at the close of the Direct that Hollow Knight would be available. And so there, the consumer is able to get at it right away. And I can tell you that Hollow Knight on Switch is doing exceptionally well. And so you know, every E3 is different but the core philosophies are consistent.
Let's build on that a little bit. Because the new thing I'm hearing from independent developers—who also tell me that they love to be on the Switch—is that there is some growing frustration with the curation and discoverability on the eShop. They think it's a great platform. Fans are finding their games there through external curation: through journalists, through critics, through social media- Through our own support.
Totally. But when I open up the Switch, and I go to the store, if something isn't best selling or didn't just come out, it's just so easy to miss it. What can you commit to in terms of improving that? Improving curation is something that we're committed to do and we've just taken some steps.
We've added two new "shelves," essentially two new categories for you to use to find the content you want. One is an overall best selling category. The other one is a digital only best seller, because from a Nintendo perspective we make our products available dual distribution, and an independent developer might not. And so numerically, the numbers are different. So, you know, that's a step that we've just taken. We continue to look at other ways to enhance curation.
You touched on, let's call it "off-device curation." We're working exceptionally hard to drive that forward with what we do on Nintendo.com and how we enhance search capabilities. There's a lot of work that we're doing.
In the end I believe the reason that the independent developer is saying that their games are selling best Switch is because of, in total, that environment we're creating. Consumers are highly engaged. Consumers are looking for this content. And the activity that we're doing and will continue to do to help consumers find this great content.
Is it imaginable that we could see a store platform on which you could say "Lemme just see the puzzle games. I'm really just a big puzzle game fan. And I know that the types of games I love aren't going to float to the top of the best sellers list, not even in the digital category." Is that something that's, maybe not in the works but at least in a conversation?
There's a ton of hypotheticals and I'm not going to get into hypotheticals. What I will tell you is that we have a significant global focus on driving our digital business that independent games are a critical part of that, and everything we could do to help consumers find all of that stellar content is a huge part of this. And we're attacking it from a number of different fronts.
Okay. So another thing I'm hearing, not from devs, so much as from players, especially players with disabilities is a lot of excitement right now around the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
And there are a lot of questions about how Nintendo as a platform holder can really help allow custom controls and other sorts of accessibility options, not just in first party games, but also as a platform holder. Are there any thoughts or internal conversations about how to make the platform and all the games on the platform more accessible for players with disabilities?
So I'll answers this in two parts. One, the conversation around accessibility is significant and it's happening at the highest levels of the company from the development standpoint in terms of how do we make sure that every player who wants to engage with our product can. So it's it's a huge topic.
The other piece I'd say is, I was over at the Microsoft booth yesterday. And we had some hands on time with the Adaptive Controller. And this is an area where I believe it's in the best interest of the industry to have the conversation, and to think about the longer term solutions because this is not… I would argue this really isn't a platform specific issue. It's an industry issue of how do we make sure that our content and the ability to play our content is as inclusive as possible.
Do you see that conversation being something that happens largely in sorts of conversations behind closed doors? Is that something the ESA gets involved in? What does that look like?
I'm not sure. Candidly. All I can tell you is that I saw the product, Phil and I are friends, we live close by, our our headquarters are close by. And so certainly this is a topic I do think we can continue to engage.
Nintendo Switch Online launches later this year, in September. One of the questions that people have asked is "Austin, I'm already playing Splatoon 2 online. Will that service give me something that I'm not getting now?" And it seems like a tough conversation to have with fans that been playing on the platform already.
Sure, but there's two immediate responses, right? You will get the ability to cloud save your content. And so for those consumers that are concerned about saves, you know, we've now provided a method to address that.
[Laughing] It’s me. It's all all journalists who want that, frankly.
Secondly, you're going to get access to some legacy content. And we've said that we're going to start with 20 games that are going to be available. We've outlined the first 10. And so that's the other benefit that you're going to get as part of Nintendo Switch Online.
But coming out of the gate, there's nothing changing. No new features for games like ARMS, like Splatoon 2.
What I would say is that we've got a number of months until the service launches. We'll continue to provide detail as we go. Right now the message is that it's launching in September. Fundamentally there are three elements to the service: connected play, the cloud saves, and the legacy content. We're going to continue providing more details as we get.
One thing that we talked about last year, and I just want to check in on is external development partners. You're working with Ubisoft again this year with Starlink with Fox McCloud in that. There's the ongoing mobile games. What's the feeling internally around those relationships and are there any new ones that we can be expecting on the horizon—not specifically, but is that something you're still playing with.
Nintendo has a rich history of partnering with other companies whether it's work we've done with Activision back with Skylanders and the access we gave them to some of our intellectual property. You've had Link show up in various fighting games in the past. I mean just look at Smash Bros. and the help that Mr. Sakurai is getting in the creation of that game.
And so we have a legacy of working with partners. In the end though these relationships are based on a number of factors. One is a strong understanding of us as a company and the ways that we like to do business. Second is a strong understanding of the intellectual property that we might be talking about how that might be used. And then third, a mentality of, you know, how does one plus one become something big. We want to do things that are big. And I'm not going to I'm not going to break news per se, but we're always having those types of conversations.
So briefly going back to the online service, you talked about the legacy games that come with that subscription. We also spoke briefly about Microsoft. I'm curious what you as an executive and as a player, what you think about the Games Pass service that they offer and what you think the future of those sorts of digital offerings offerings—subscription offerings—look like in the marketplace.
I'm not going to comment directly on what others are doing. What I would tell you is that we know that Nintendo has a deep and rich library. We know that consumers enjoy playing those legacy games. And we also know that we've done a lot in making that content available. Whether it's the work we've done on past platforms, whether it's what we've done with microconsoles in the NES Classic and SNES classic.
For us, it's really about being thoughtful around what's the best way to enable consumers to have access to this content and to do it in a meaningful way. We think the work that we're doing with the Nintendo Switch Online is one way to to address that opportunity.
Speaking of alternate ways to get games out, there were a couple of Humble Bundles some had Wii U and 3DS titles. That's a partnership a lot of people didn't suspect they'd ever see, even if you go back just five years, because while Nintendo has always had very close relationship with retailers, there was something about that digital relationship that seems surprising. Are relationships like that still something that Nintendo is pursuing?
Absolutely. With retailers and digital, one of the initiatives that we've driven, from the Nintendo of of America perspective, is the ability for the consumer to buy digital goods at retail. And, Austin, you might say to me "Reggie, why would a consumer want to do that?" Well, there are consumers who have only cash. They don't have a credit card. And for them, the ability to buy a game with cash that is a digital download has power. And so we've enabled our retailers to have this digital retailing capability and it's doing phenomenally well.
And so, we are looking at a range of different ways to enable consumers to get access to our digital library. Humble Bundle did quite well. And you know certainly is that something that could happen again. Yeah.
At E3 this year, you held the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Invitational, and I'm curious, is that sort of competitive style of play something that Nintendo hopes to support going forward, and if so, how?
Oh, we have been supporting it! The approach we've taken, though, is very different than what some other companies are doing.
Our approach is, first, we want to make sure we have great content for competitive play. Whether that's Splatoon and Splatoon 2, whether that's Smash Bros. Ultimate. We think there's an opportunity for ARMS, and we've been nurturing that both in the US as well as in Japan. We think there's an opportunity with Mario Tennis Aces. So that's where we start. We believe we've got a range of different intellectual property that can be used.
Second, we look to drive consistency in the rules so that the community knows how to get engaged. And then thirdly, we've partnered with a range of different entities—Evo as an example in the North American Market—to help them as they execute their tournaments. Again, whether it's for Splatoon or whether it's for Smash Bros.
The last thing we've done is worked with broadcast partners. So we had a broadcast partner for the two tournaments we've executed here. We've worked with broadcast partners in the past. And so, you know, we are nurturing the community. We're getting the word out. We're making sure that the rule set is consistent. That's the approach that we're taking.
So in competitive gaming, there's kind of two publisher support strategies: There is the "We are going to run the events" approach, and the "We're going to give you the toolset to run the event…".
We're much more of the latter.
Can you give us any sort of insight into what goes into that decision? Is that about focus?
In our view it's from the orientation that you we want to focus on the player and the community, versus the alternative approach which it feels a little heavy handed.
So, you're sitting in front of Mario Tennis Aces poster. I need to know your main is?
[Forcefully, while holding back a laugh] WALUIGI.
OK, well listen… Why does Nintendo hate Waluigi then?
I… Oh- CLEARLY-.
[laughing] The Washington Post says-
You saw the headlines!
CLEARLY, Nintendo does not hate Waluigi. Because here I am with him as my main character. I mean look, we're making every character that's ever been in a Smash Bros. game available in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
[Laughing] But not Waluigi .
[With faux exhaustion] You would think that would be enough to satisfy the fans. But noooooo! The fans have to focus in on one character that isn't part of the series and to demand their inclusion.
So, one of the good things about the way we approach E3 is when it's all said and done we step back. We look at all of the feedback and share with the devs and certainly Mr. Sakurai will be aware of the groundswell of support that appeared for a Waluigi. And in the end it's his decision to make. Just like when we were getting ready to launch the Wii U and 3DS version there was this groundswell asking for Reggie to be a playable character in the game. I mean…
I got that question today from people: “When is Reggie going to be in the game!?”
Nah, no. I'm not a video game character, much as others might disagree.
What about as an assist trophy? If you were an assist trophy, what would your move be?
[Waving it away] No, no.
Fine. Fine. But actually a real question on this. Which is, you think about Waluigi arc—and the Washington Post article kind of says this— when Waluigi was first debuted as an extra character, he seemed like, ugh, another B.S. character and now there is this fandom for him. Genuinely! Does it feel good that there was that swing?
Oh absolutely. I mean, look, I love that our fans have a passion for our intellectual property that feels so good. You know, I could remember as a new executive with the company being asked about Kid Icarus, and I'm like "Kid Icarus? I thought I was the only one who loved you know the Kid Icarus game!" And so it's it's humbling, but I've got nothing to announce about Waluigi.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.