The Engadget & Joystiq Interview: Nintendo's Perrin Kaplan

Ryan Block
R. Block|05.15.06

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Ryan Block
May 15th, 2006
The Engadget & Joystiq Interview: Nintendo's Perrin Kaplan
On the last day of E3 we got to sit down with Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo of America's Vice President, Marketing and Corporate Affairs. We still had a lot of questions for her to field after interviewing Miyamoto-san the day before, specifically regarding the naming of the Wii (yeah, we had to ask), what Nintendo's online strategy actually is, what they're doing with launching first party titles like Smash Bros. on the Wii, why the GameCube was suspiciously absent this year, and exactly where homebrew gaming fits into the final equation.

So I guess we should get started. Thank you very much for meeting us. Everybody here has this badge that says "what's your brain age?" so I'm curious to know what your brain age is.

Oh my gosh, I haven't played in a good couple of weeks. I guess down to 30 or so.


Yeah, I need to work on it. Our President [Satoru Iwata] is very proud that his is 20.

Today is the last day, everything is pretty much behind us. How do you guys think you fared?

Even better than we thought. I think we were all really excited coming in, with pretty much trying to say to people, "It's not about what you see, you have to try it," which is why our theme is "playing equals believing." I think you really have to try and take the products for a ride yourself. And that people are embracing that and lining up at record lengths and number of hours and really enjoying it -- saying it was worth the wait is fantastic.

One of the things I've been hearing from a lot of people in the industry is they felt that Sony really fell flat this year, and I was curious to know what you think they could have done better.

That's a hard one. I have my own personal rule: I don't hold a media briefing that's over 60 minutes. I think it's really hard to have a captive audience be engaged that long. Even in school, I could have had the most stimulating presentation from a teacher and an hour starts to get a long time. That's probably one thing I would do differently. But their product line is what their product line is and their approach is their approach, so what I would do differently is really hard for me to say because we're over here doing something really different and it feels really great. I think being innovative, at least for us, is exciting.

One of the things I've also been hearing is that even from the most evangelical and dedicated Nintendo fan base, there's been this -- and Reggie acknowledged it in the presentation -- very negative reaction to the name. Obviously, we're going to have to touch on this. So I was curious to know --

Wii are going to have to touch on it.

(Laughter) I'm trying to avoid that, but yes.

It's made for a lot of great fodder.

What do you think Nintendo could have done to improve this situation or avoid it?

You know, I actually think in many ways, the way that we did it is right. We got the name announcement out before E3 so people could have a chance to understand why we named it that, why we created what it looks like visually, what our thought process was, and why we did something so innovative and so odd as a name, and give people a chance to get over it or be happy about it, and come to the show with jokes or saying, "I've embraced it, that works for me." In the end, it's not necessarily what something's named, it's what it does. But for us, Wii stands for a lot of different things, including the inclusive nature of game playing. And we actually did get some fan mail, but I think most people have settled into it.

One of the things that really took me aback that I've never really seen before in this kind of instance is that people had such visceral reactions. They were making petitions; many people declared that they thought it was a hoax and that the real name was going to be announced at E3.

I think in some ways we took that as a back-handed compliment. These people who are so passionate about gaming and care and really want to see Nintendo do well or do something in the way that they think is the right way. I think we single-handedly choked the internet that day. It was interesting that people were that passionate about it, that they had something to say. I actually think that's a really good thing.

One thing I've been also hearing -- and we don't have to dwell on this too much longer -- that people really got affixed to the Revolution name. The DS had that as its code name and there was talk about change, and then it stuck -- people got stuck on the DS and the DS name got stuck on the device. At what point did you guys decide you were going to jettison "Revolution?"

We've known for some time, which is why we've continued to call it a code name. People are going to get very comfortable with "Wii." There are already starting to be more comfortable at the show. Whether you individually like it or not, that's a different story, but I'm sure when people saw Google, you know, it still sounds like a really weird word.

That was the example that Reggie used. A lot of those names, whereas they sound unusual, I don't think they were called "bad" or "dumb." Google makes sense because it's the combination of a very large number and to ogle something -- there's a brand synergy there. I don't think anybody saw Wii coming."

I don't think they saw it coming because we were pretty quiet about it. But I do think We as in, "the inclusive nature of it," does mean something. For those who don't favor the name, all I can say is hang on and try the product yourself because I think the rest of that is just going to dissipate.

One of the things that wasn't very clear was the online interface and that service. You announced Connect24, so we kind of know that there's something going on there, but that's still pretty nebulous and we don't know how the game experience is going to change from what already exists with the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection.

The two things we did announce: Opera browser, which shows that it will have wireless around the world, and then Wii Connect24 is certainly a magnificent feature. It's sort of unlimited what kind of surprises people could find when they wake up in the morning. And in the coming months there will be a lot more that we will be sharing. We tend to pick just a few items to share at E3. It's a really busy time, it's a really crowded time. There's just not enough room for everybody to be announcing everything, so we really just chose to have people focus on playing and the experience and then all the rest of it, we'll begin to share.

So how do you think Connect24 is going to stack up against Xbox Live, which is the leading online gaming service, and then Sony's nascent service?

We're all at the same show, but Nintendo is a really different company than the others. Our products are really, really different, and I would hesitate to even compare. There are different kinds of people that are interested in that. The hardcore gamer is going to have both [consoles]. So it's a very different focus. Our DS Wi-Fi, when we went created it as a free service -- which is something we really wanted to -- its growth was very fast. So we think we figured out the sweet spot for what works for us and for our consumers and we looked at it the same with the Wii console.

One of the things that a lot of fans of Nintendo, especially of the Wi-Fi Connection, have persistently complained about -- and this is something that we tried to address with Reggie and he said we'd learn more about at E3, but we haven't -- is persistent user profile system. Or a less distant form of online gaming community that currently exists with Nintendo's --

I think things will mature and progress more with the Wii console, but there was definitely a safety concern that is a prominence to our company and we just have a different approach. I do think you'll hear more about it in the coming months. Reggie may have said E3, and then things to shift, but you will understand everything between now and when the console launches. It's never as early as you would like.

Of course. So how about online episodic gameplay? The Wii console is not very storage-oriented. The 360 has a hard drive and an HD DVD drive, which they announced, and Sony has a hard drive and Blu-ray drive. These are very storage-oriented devices, and Wii is obviously not as storage-oriented. How does that play into episodic content?

I think when you experience the product you'll understand that. Nintendo is little less about making Lord of the Rings kinds of novels -- Zelda and Mario are deep, rich games -- and for us, it's less about having 10 volumes into one small box. We think there's enough memory and capacity to do all the things that we think will bring consumers fun, joy, stimulation. Again, it's just a different approach than the other companies.

You don't see any specific need for development of episodic content, like what you see with Oblivion? You go online with Xbox Live and you can download new episodes to further the game, so the experience will last for years.

Part of the Wii Connect24 is built on that. There's a myriad of other things that people will learn about that, we're just taking a slightly different approach to it, which will probably keep you thinking a lot.

I find it interesting that you mentioned just a minute ago about the Xbox 360 and making a mild comparison. Earlier this week, Peter Moore said he thought that gamers would buy a Wii in addition to a 360.

The hardcore gamers, the gamers that are their customers, they love to play and they will probably want our system and their system. I do think the casual gamers that we are expanding into will own only one, and it will be ours.

Do you feel that the systems are in any way complimentary?

I think they could be. For a hard core gamer who really wants a plethora of ways to pick from, someone who really wants to spend a lot of time gaming. Yeah, of course I knew Peter. He's one of my favorites in the industry. He's great; a great guy. Known him from the Sega days.

You have any Nintendo tattoos?

I don't have any Nintendo tattoos, doesn't mean that at some point I won't. Maybe he'll put a Nintendo tattoo on his arm. We like what he had to say too.

Moving back a little to the internet integration: one of the things that also seemed omitted from what Reggie said, was that you guys are only going to talk about some things and that you were going to leave a lot of questions unanswered --

Much to people's frustration, but there's no lack of speculation.

Right, and one of the things that Reggie said last time that we interviewed him and was very specific about was that we'd find more information about the Virtual Console. I think there's still a lot of questions to be answered there. What's going on with the arcade titles and actual games?

Our focus now is less on what we're going to have, because we're going to have tons. It's about finalizing and then being able to announce what our program is going to be. Is it subscription based, is it a per game thing, is it for x amount of time, what does that structure look like? Are their different tiers for people to pick from. So you'll have a chance to opt in right away. We still don't have all those details finalized.

So what you're saying is, between subscription, purchase, leased games, etc., these different models, Nintendo's still not yet finalized then?

Oh yeah, not yet finalized. But in terms of what we're going to have, it's a lot. It will be great. We have a big team working on it, Virtual Console's really important to our future.

One of the things about Virtual Console that's interesting is that it opens up doors for casual gaming, and it also opens up doors, potentially, for independent game publishers. Once you start talking about independent game publishers, then you have this issue of homebrew. And homebrew is becoming increasingly popular on all these game consoles that are out right now. So I'm interested in what the barrier of entry is for independent publishers?

It's a lot, lot, lot less expensive; it's an absolute fraction of the cost to be making a game for the Wii console and I do think Mr. Iwata and Mr. Miyamoto really appreciate creative ideas. I think they really would and do encourage if there's anyone who really wants to develop to make sure they contact us and are able to do that.  We think it's the land of creativity, and I actually think this system is a better place for those creative ideas to reside in. It's easier to develop for at a fraction of the cost. The barriers to entry are quite low.

There is so much creativity and so many creative people who have zero resources who just want to develop this as a hobby. Is there room for Nintendo to embrace homebrew development?

That's a tough question, and not one that I'm comfortable answering right now. I'd have to talk more with our engineering group to see what their thought is on that. I know that we encourage creativity most definitely. We've talked about that a little bit.

Most people perceive that as a business decision and less of an engineering one.

Yeah, but a lot of that stuff comes through in thee way in which we work together, they have to leave a place to provide the support for you to be able to do it. We have to have our questions answered somewhere.

We've seen a lot of titles here, but it's still not incredibly clear what's going on with launch titles; how many first party, how many third party?

Isn't that frustrating?

Is that your answer?

No, but it's frustrating, it's frustrating to you. We really just wanted people to come and take this stuff for a ride. You know, the maturity of some of the stuff that's on the show floor is going to have some kind of presence in our launch window, somewhere or another. We haven't final decided what will be on launch day, other than Zelda. But we are going to have a lot of products to pick from and it's something we've already committed to, and then in that first 90 days have a lot else to pick from including really great third-party titles. You can assume Red Steel is going to be in there as well. We know it's frustrating, but there's a lot of good stuff in there.

In terms of Super Smash Bros. which was revealed --

Was that a good way to hear about it?

Well, that's my question. Why wasn't it shown at the original press conference, where I think it would have made a really big impression?

I think that in some ways that was a gift to those of you that we know are the hardcore gamers. That it is important for the general consumers to hear, and the general consumer media, but if there's anything we could save because frequently nothing is saved. It's all given at the media briefing, and that we could have one sweet thing to save and give to you guys, that was it. Our goal was first to give you a diamond and make you happy and second was to get coverage on it, not the reverse. If we wanted to get the maximum amount of coverage, we would have done it in reverse, but it was just more important to us to say, "Hey! Let's keep this thing up our sleeve and those guys will be really excited when they hear about it." That was our strategy, it was to honor you guys at the developer roundtable. San Jose Mercury News cares less about it than you do.

At last year's press conference, Mr. Iwata walked on stage and when he started talking about the Revolution, he said Smash Bros. would actually be a launch title.

He didn't actually say launch title, he said Smash Bros. would come to the new console. It's like baking a cake, all these products are, as stuff comes brewing along they assess do we feel like it will be ready. It's really more important to make it right.

Perhaps it would be better to ask what are the chances of it being a launch title?

It will not be a launch title at this juncture, we're looking at it to come after the turn of the year, although it won't be that long after.

One of the interesting things about Smash Bros. is that it's one of the most prominent first-party titles that's going to be on the Wii, and it doesn't appear that it's going to be taking advantage of the most prominent feature of the Wii, which is the motion control. Can you talk about where this delineation is?

Yeah, there's a ways to go. I think not having it launch with the other games. I think at the end of all this, we will have the best launch of any product that we've ever had. We'll have a plethora of games to pick from that people are just craving, and you also want to save a couple diamonds for shortly thereafter. You want to keep people really keep people engaged. One of the things we did with the GameCube was we had these big gaps in time and that really tested people's patience. They want to always have something new coming in and our goal with the new system is to not make people wait too long.

With regards specifically to Smash Bros., that is a title that is not necessarily going to be using the Wii motion control.

It may or may not, but I guess it's still in development, so let's talk when it's done.

One of the developers said at the event where it was unveiled, "Don't throw away your GameCube controllers." That would imply that maybe --

That would apply to Zelda too, and Virtual Console games...

I guess what I'm trying to get at here is --

That you wish it was different?

No, not necessarily. I'm just trying to understand where you have this really big first-party title and this really important feature to the Wii, and why there's no synergy there.

Again, wait until it's done. We're talking about something before it's completed. But there are 27-plus games on the show floor, all of which do use that. It's the main thrust for us, but Smash is a great game no matter how you play it. Especially if it's called Brawl.

What happened to the GameCube. Why is it not here?

There is a finite amount of show floor space and we really wanted to blow it out with these other products. We're still supporting GameCube. It's not gone. We don't have GBA out there either, it's the DS. We're just trying to blow out these two products and really exemplify there's a lot of software to show for each. We still love our 'Cube.

PlayStation obviously, their motion control was directly in response to Nintendo, I don't think anyone would really argue about that, and some PlayStation developers have even said they only found out that they had to start developing for this control system a couple weeks before. So what could Nintendo have done differently to prevent this kind of situation? What is it that Nintendo is going to do in the future to differentiate itself?

You know, it's one of the reasons we keep this information really close to our chest, we've been copied numerous times. It's happened throughout Nintendo's history. It is, in this particular case, a nice form of flattery because it shows you that innovation is a great thing and that what we came up with is great. We've been working on it for a long time and I can guarantee that what we've got created works pretty darned precisely. But that's why we frustrate you constantly for not sharing. We love that you guys care enough to even be frustrated, that's a compliment.

We appreciate you meeting with us and we appreciate Miyamoto-san meeting with us.

Let me know if there's something you guys need.

I need a Wii.

You'll get one when it's done!

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