SPOnG first met Satoru Iwata before he became president of Nintendo during his days as head of all things to do with money. Back then we asked him difficult questions about the screen on the original Game Boy Advance. He declined to comment.
This time, however he was somewhat more candid.
Having been gifted a company buoyed by the phenomenal success of Pokemon, Iwata-san’s achievements are immense. Many raised their eyebrows when Iwata-san, a relative new boy was given presidency of Nintendo. Though his bottom-line focus and distinct fiscal-report-driven leadership is now Nintendo’s strongest asset.
It would have been easy for a lesser executive to fritter away the US$4 billion or so Pokemon legacy. Iwata-san has simply expanded Nintendo’s coffers, by an estimated further $2 billion.
And in spite of a failing GameCube program, the company is still profitable in all areas of activity and in all markets in which it operates, a truly amazing achievement, starkly contrasted with the botched efforts of so many third-party software giants in recent years.
Iwata-san, flanked as ever by Nintendo’s head of communications Yasuhiro Minagawa, sits down to answer the questions that matter.
The DS took off like a rocket in Japan and launched at an aggressive price in the US. “The launch of any new platform needs momentum. This is the key. And if you have this momentum, it pushes new interest and new consumers. People see others taking up the machine and they follow, whether it be in Japan, the US or Europe. We feel that now we have had successful launches in the rest of the world, the time is right to reproduce this in Europe.”
And third-party support? “Again,” explains Iwata-san, “third-party support has to come from actual sales of hardware. The popularity of the DS in two regions has enabled developers to see that we have much more than a viable platform."
Speaking of momentum, the PSP has launched in Japan though has been met with supply problems. Right now the DS is outselling Sony’s machine, though whether this can this be sustained once the PSP product flow has been eased is an issue Nintendo, and its armies or spin doctors, need to address. “There are two things here you need to understand,” asserts the Nintendo president. “Number one; Sales of the DS have never slowed, even with the launch of the PSP. And the second thing is; even though Sony claims it would have sold more given one circumstance or another, the situation is pretty much similar with the DS. At various points, if we had have had more product on store shelves, we would be boasting even bigger sales than we are today. So that argument from Sony is invalid.” Tough talking indeed.
One of Nintendo’s most serious obstacles to the DS roll-out, arguably most prominent in Europe, is that of consumer unawareness. While the Nintendo brand incites natural interest in Japan and the US, the core company brand has been left to flounder somewhat in Europe. Whereas NOA and NCL Japan sought to augment Nintendo with the success of Pokemon, NOE seemingly sought to replace one brand with another. And so the message that underpins the DS will be something of a harder push than it has been in the rest of the world, simply due to the fact that the natural interest in Nintendo products isn’t there.
This lack of core brand-awareness, combined with the simple fact that the DS isn’t ‘just another games console’ make for a significant task. “Of course, the easiest way to understand DS is to actually touch a DS console and it is for this reason that in Japan we had the Touch DS campaign and the US saw Touching is Good across the media. In Europe Touch Me. We will also be including Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt in limited launch numbers with the hardware. We know that there are people who enjoy the FPS genre very much so we want to give a broad spectrum of users the opportunity to actually touch the machine, rather than just reading magazine articles or watching television coverage. This is the first phase of DS rollout.” Iwata, resolute and confident as ever, continues, “There will be a second phase. It will see games like Nintendogs, games that can be easily understood by anybody. Simply by looking at the game, you’ll know what you have to do.” But that doesn’t overcome the initial comprehension problem the DS may face. He continues, “We will release different games and different styles of games over time. For example, there are many male gamers who might spend too much time playing videogames and it’s likely that their girlfriends will not like this so much. But again, think about Nintendogs. Avid gamers want to play it, as much as their girlfriends and perhaps those girlfriends will get deeply into gaming, starting with playing Nintendogs. It's the kind of picture I can easily imagine.”
And further into the third-party support issue. To date third-party support has offered little to challenge Nintendo’s own offerings. Games like Feel the Magic, though compelling, are merely an adaptation of an existing mechanic, namely that found in Wario Ware. Is third party support doing to get better, in terms of quality and quantity? “What happened with the third-party community, at the very beginning when we explained the hardware for the first time to them behind closed doors no one really understood what it was we were wanting to do. And unfortunately, we were not persuasive enough at that time. However, Sega’s Yuji Naka proved himself to be something of a special person and from the beginning, somehow understood what Nintendo could do for him and his games.”