At Home With Nintendo

Marketing exec Perrin Kaplan says the company's strategy includes finding and reawakening "dormant" game players

We visited Kaplan at Nintendo's offices in Redmond, WA where the company is plotting to turn the tables on its larger rivals in the console space. The firm has offered a dazzling handheld launch in the form of DS, boosted by interesting and innovative games that have more than made up for the hardware's relative lack of aesthetic style and grace.

Sony's PSP might be pretty, but its games line-up isn't a patch on DS.

Then there's Revolution, where the company is hoping to repeat the trick, offering different physical experiences through a daring controller interface, and eschewing looks (in the form of high-end graphics) for content.

Next-Gen.Biz: So, what are you working on right now?

Perrin Kaplan: It's always crazy here because we're really leanly staffed. But it's also fulfilling. Nintendo's approach is the opposite of most other [hardware] companies. A lot of companies decide what technology they want to make next; what multi-capability systems they want to manufacture.

At Nintendo, we spend more time taking a look at consumers and investigating what game players are enjoying and not enjoying. We look hard at those who we consider as dormant players. We try to find ways to stimulate those players who we want to bring back.

The ultimate universe of players is not necessarily expanding as it should. So we are building systems and software to meet that need [to expand], which is the opposite of what I think others do.

Do you feel that recent poor game sales have vindicated Nintendo's view that games have become dull?

I wouldn't say 'vindicated.' Nintendo has always been the highest risk-taker of all the companies. We have always chosen to go into new terrain without knowing what the end is going to be. For us it's always been about innovation so I think it's quite pleasing that we have come out with a lot of products, many of which you can't even fully call 'games.'

The fact that players have adopted those products, literally in droves, has been very satisfying. As artists, we are producing something that is highly desired by a lot of people.

How are you going about getting that message to both hardcore and mainstream gamers?

We are interested in all of them. We are not in any shape or form turning our back on the hardcore games player. Nintendo will continue to make and produce the amazing Zelda experiences, the rich and deep experiences people love and know Nintendo for. That is still a very core part of what we do.

But we have added another dimension, one that is also attractive to people who have not played games for some time. We think this is an audience worth capturing.

Brain Training is a good example. When we show that to a core gamer they immediately see were the challenge lies. They like to beat the game. Other people pick Brain Training up and they see that it is very easy to play. It is enticing and challenging. Core gamers are loving these products as are new players. But we also have all those games that the core gamers have always loved. We won't walk away from that.

You're gearing up for E3. How important is that show?

I have to say that all year around is important for us. There is never a quiet time of the year. Our messaging as we enter E3 becomes more and more refined. Instead of focusing on a whole bunch of things we are focusing on just a few things. That gives people clarity on what to pay attention to in our product line.

This year, we are boiling it down to talking about innovation in the form of Revolution with this amazing controller and the different things you can do on that system. We'll focus on the different games and experiences you can have with that system.

And we'll continue with the DS. We are just now seeing people ripening their development abilities to give games that are truly different.

So the message is about two unique hardware systems and the innovative games that come with them.

What are you able to say about Revolution's E3 showing, right now?

We will have enough games on show, that will keep people interested until launch. As far as the launch goes, we have so far said 'this year.' At some point soon we'll be more specific about the date.

At this show and beyond, it's about people getting a hands-on experience. If you play Revolution for yourself and experience the software, it's much better than me telling you about what our message is all about. It's kinda like your own rollercoaster ride. It's always going to be different for everyone.

The idea is to get as many people as possible to try it and take that experience for themselves. See how it makes them feel.

Do you think the core games press will be convinced by Revolution?

I hope they will get it. The early reads at Tokyo Game Show were positive. Our request is, 'don't think about Revolution just in terms of other things you have played.' This is so different — the other systems are apples, this is an orange.

You have to approach it in the spirit of innovation. Those who have played it realize that it is a whole different experience. It's a little bit of self-discovery in learning how to handle a controller differently and how it works for you.

I think we have pointed this out enough times, so people will go into it with their eyes wide open.

Given GameCube's position in the market, is Revolution Nintendo's last chance in the console market?

GameCube's reputation suffers much more than its game sales do. Not that it is the leader of the pack but it outsold 360 at launch and during the holiday period and it outsold Xbox.

We have a lot of bundle promotions that offer huge value. It's far from dead. The perception of it is different from the actual sales and there is still a lot left life in it. Revolution will take a slightly different direction and we hope that it is a very competitive machine in that it offers something completely different.

What will be the main marketing thrust of the Revolution campaign?

The whole point about touching it and experiencing it and riding the ride is one of our biggest challenges and one of our biggest opportunities. Once it comes to retail, and the viral component of the campaign takes hold, we'll try to bring consumers in to try Revolution for themselves. The machine will be sold through traditional retail outlets, but this part of the campaign is important.

It was a key component for DS as well, and that is really starting to hit its stride.

What will be the 'killer apps' for Revolution?

We hope to have a lot of 'killer apps', rather than just one stand-out. Some of our third party partners have been really impressed with the controller and very excited about the possibilities. Companies like EA, Activision, Ubisoft and THQ are really loving getting a hold of this and creating an experience that is really new and different.

We tell them the direction we are going in, and they understand. They are excited by the chance to work outside the usual lines, they totally get it.

How much of the market will Revolution take?

We aren't predicting percentages at this point. But I can tell you that we believe we are different and innovative enough to chart our own territory. If you look at the horserace we have high hopes of having a prominent position.

Let's talk about broadening the audience of gamers, which is a favored Nintendo theme. Who are we talking about?

Young teen females are one example. They have been pulled in by Nintendogs, which has been a great success. There are also people like myself, who I'd describe as dormant players. I used to play a lot and then it started to seem like the games all looked the same. Nothing was piquing my interest. But I loved Nintendogs and I love Brain Training. People want to be stimulated and these products are bringing them back in.

Games like Nintendogs are non-intimidating, affordable and different. It plays on the nurturing, emotional nature of the person. It's not really a game so much an experience.

Would you like a new name, other than games, to describe these products?

I don't know if it needs a new name. We sell entertainment and we sell joy. People refer to us as the game industry and there is no way to get away from that, but whatever form it comes in, we sell Entertainment, whether its Nintendogs or Animal Crossing or Mario Kart.

Nintendo seems to have worked hard on getting its image and its message very tight, going into the next generation. How much work is that?

It has naturally developed on its own. We didn't sit in a room and fabricate a campaign. We just spend time talking about it. I guess it's like if you are searching for a house, eventually you'll find the one that feels right.

Some of these products we're releasing just feel right to us, and they feel right for the consumer. We have a lot of fantastic core games and we will continue on that road, and then we have this unique approach as well.

What is it about Nintendo's nature that you think allows the company to create different products like Brain Training, Revolution and Nintendogs?

Nintendo is highly profitable. We have the bandwidth financially to take risks. We are the company that helped to bring gaming to life. Many people have cut their teeth on playing our games. We have the loyalty. Nintendo has been so many things to many people, but we've always been about quality and fun and value and that has given us a lot of space to take risks.

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