Nintendo U.S. president Reggie Fils-Aimé on why the Switch is a hit—and how all the moving parts of the company’s business fit together.
As president and COO of Nintendo of America since 2006, Reggie Fils-Aimé has seen a lot of history—from the era-defining success of the Wii console to the Wii U’s underwhelming reception to the arrival of the company’s intellectual property on smartphones last year with Pokémon Go and Super Mario Run. Most recently, the company has rebounded in a big way with the Nintendo Switch, a console that lets you play games on a TV or on the go. Strong sales for the Switch and its games have led to the best financial results for the Japanese gaming giant in years.
With last week’s release of Super Mario Odyssey—a new Switch game that sold 2 million copies in three days—I chatted with Fils-Aimé about the state of Nintendo, its platforms, and its venerable franchises.
Fast Company: In the period when you knew about the Switch but the world didn’t, was it obvious to you that it at least had the potential to be a blockbuster and silence some of the people who were saying “Nintendo, hardware is dead, you should just be a smartphone app company?”
Reggie Fils-Aimé: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I was fortunate. I saw early prototypes. I held a plastic model of the device and gave input. And I can honestly say that when I first saw the games, the experiences, like 1,2, Switch , and Legend of Zelda, I had the same feeling that I did when I saw prototypes of the Nintendo DS or prototypes of the Wii. I knew that we had something that was differentiated out in the marketplace that would be compelling to the consumer, and would provide experiences that they’ve never had before, and that was very exciting.
RFA: Certainly commercially successful, but I would say the other piece that gives our development teams a lot of pride, are the games that are coming out on the system and how the games are breaking through. Legend of Zelda: Birth of the Wild is a completely innovative take on the Zelda franchise. It’s not linear. You don’t go into an area and earn a weapon to go beat a particular dungeon. There are no dungeons. It’s a whole different way to play Zelda.
Super Mario Odyssey is a different type of Super Mario experience. Yes, you have to beat Bowser and make everything right in the world, but it’s this big sandbox experience. Brand-new franchises like Arms. Continuing intellectual property like Splatoon. I think that’s what excites us so much, is bringing all of these great new experiences out to the marketplace.
FC: Do you have a sense as to whether the people buying the Switch are classic Nintendo fans? Or also people who either aren’t Nintendo fans or maybe were once Nintendo fans but not so much in recent years?
RFA: We look at our demographics constantly and certainly there’s a group that are Nintendo fans. There’s a very large group that are new to Nintendo, and that’s very exciting to see. For these consumers to get exposure to our intellectual property, to be able to play games that they can’t play anywhere else. That’s another signal to us that we’ve really struck a chord with the Nintendo Switch.
FC: I’ve seen them out and about quite a bit, with people taking advantage of the ability to roam.
RFA: Personally, I see them in airports. I see them on planes. The ability to take a home console with you and play anywhere really has struck a chord with the consumer.
FC: Now that it’s clear it’s doing well, have the larger third-party publishers gotten more interested?
RFA: Absolutely. And it’s fair to say that when we first showed the concept, third-party publishers were excited at that point. You know, they saw what we saw, which was this is differentiated, this is compelling. This is going to add an audience to their marketplace. And certainly with FIFA, for example, from EA launching the same day, same date, as on other platforms, they made a commitment. Ubisoft, with their products. Bethesda and Take Two, which are companies that, certainly in recent memory, haven’t been on the Nintendo platforms. They see the opportunity and the potential. And there’s a lot of opportunity and excitement, both with the big third-party publishers, as well as the small independent developers to get on board.
FC: When I started using mine I was impressed by all the indie games and I wasn’t sure if that’s because there were more of them than usual or there’s just a little less noise and it was easier for them to pop out. Do you expect it to be a good indie platform?
RFA: It will continue to be a good indie platform. I think the reason the great indie content came was because we made the decision early to have [major game engines] Unity and Unreal Engine support for the system. So that enabled the independent developer to have an easier pathway to develop for the platform, and that’s enabled them to bring the content. I think the other piece that they see is that we give them a lot of support. Support in terms of the news feature on Nintendo Switch, and we highlight a lot of the independent games there. Our strategic communications group gives them a lot of support. You know, things like PAX [Penny Arcade Expo]. We feature the indie content exclusively. And so they’ve been able to break through and to be noticed on our platform, maybe more effectively than on some other platforms.
FC: When we did our Switch review, we said lots of nice things, but we also said that there’s things it doesn’t have yet, like the Virtual Console, and there’s no entertainment beyond gaming. There’s some online stuff it doesn’t have yet, too. Is the experience going to get richer as time goes on?
RFA: Absolutely. Let me address those in reverse order. We just did a network update that continues to give additional features. Now it’s easier to transfer content from one Switch to another, and so we’re going to continue to build out the infrastructure for the system just to make it easier and easier for our consumers to utilize.
In terms of other entertainment, we were clear, at launch, that we wanted this to be a gaming device and to deliver on that proposition, but we also said that VOD [Video on Demand] services would come in due time. And they will.
In terms of Virtual Console, we’ve said that with the launch of Nintendo Online and that service, that there will be executions on legacy content as part of that, and that’s something that’s going to launch next year. And so we’ll detail that at the appropriate time.
But we’re aware of these criticisms and certainly, our focus is to continue making Nintendo Switch a product that people want to spend time on and can say, “This is a great innovation and something I’m proud to have.”