Nintendo’s Perrin Kaplan On Apple Comparisons, The Company’s New Gaming Calendar, And The Missing ‘September Surprise’ (Part 1 of 2)

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Nintendo’s vice president of marketing in the U.S., Perrin Kaplan. I’ve talked to her quite a bit but have seldom formally interviewed her.

She’s not a bad person or anything. She just has a reputation for so-called Jedi Mind Tricks (aka not really answering questions).

Still, the 15-year company veteran must know plenty about what Nintendo is up to. And with news of her end-of-2007 departure from Nintendo hitting the morning of our interview, it was a good time for us to chat.

What follows is the first of a two-part interview, conducted in a hotel in San Francisco, a few floors below the demo suite for Nintendo’s gameplay summit.

In Part One, she and I talk about how Nintendo is re-thinking its release calendar, what Wii consumers are really buying, where the missing “September Surprise” went, whether the Wii jackets are the result of lawsuits, and much more.

Part Two will cover recent criticisms from the gaming press that the Nintendo Seal of Quality doesn’t work, her thoughts on “Smash Brothers” vs Xbox Live and the most interesting moments in her career.

Multiplayer: Who is the Wii audience at this point? Because you see one audience in commercials. And then I’m up on the 32nd floor here and I see, basically, a bunch of dudes playing video games. Those aren’t the people “Wii Fit” was being made for. So you guys have had the Wii out for a year and there’s all this talk of this expanded audience. Can you tell me who your customers are at this point?

Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing, Nintendo of America:
I think there continues to be a misconception that the audience has to be one very specific group. And I think historically that’s what video gaming companies have survived on.

As we’ve explained that pool is only so big. That pool is really precious to us, so those are the core gamers — and that’s who we make the “Metroid“s for and the “Mario Galaxy“s for. We make the unique and new products, the “Wii Fit” and “Wii Sports” also for those core gamers. But the expanded audience — we want them to be really attracted to the system. So what we’ve been able to do is build an audience that is of parallel groups of people. It’s not so much by gender or age, although that’s helpful. It’s really about lifestyle: those who play games a lot; and those who play a little and were hesitant to get in or have never played and now are full-on Wii and DS lovers.

Multiplayer: So the tradition tends to be that when a new console launches for any [company] it’s the hardcore who get it in the first year. What is your research showing in terms of who actually has Wiis in their home now? Is it actually leaning toward a hardcore population for the most part? Or is it actually really casual and the hardcore is a bit smaller part of the population?

Kaplan: Well, what we’re finding is the Wii is really owned by everybody. So someone who is a core gamer owns a Wii. He or she may also own a second system. The people who are in what we’re calling the expanded audience — brand new to gaming — maybe someone who is a female my age for example , is senior citizen, a 13-year-old girl, a 35-year-old guy, also is owning the Wii and frequently owning the DS as well.

Multiplayer: I’ve been wanting to ask people this. When did hardcore gamers start getting called core gamers? When did the word “hard” start getting lopped off? That seemed to start happening a year ago. Was there a memo that went around?

Kaplan: No. I think saying “core gamers” is lazy lingo for … we get lazy. It is still “Hardcore”

Multiplayer: It’s still “hardcore,” but it’s turned into “core gamer.”

Kaplan: That’s lazy talk. I just did lazy talk.

Multiplayer: One of the things I’ve wondered — and you look at the sales of the games — there’s tons of people buying “Wii Play.” People have “Wii Sports” already. Are you guys finding that there are a lot of people who buy a Wii and basically all they play on it is “Wii Sports” and that’s their thing? Because I know there have been PlayStation 2 fans who just buy “Grand Theft Auto” and “Madden.” That’s all they need and all they want. It tends to be the profile of the casual player. Are you guys finding that there are a lot of Wii Sports”-only owners?

Kaplan: Well, no, we’re actually finding that “Wii Sports,” for the uninitiated, is a great entry point. So they experience it and they experience it for maybe three or four weeks and then they say, “okay, I really like this experience. I want to get more.” And that’s where they’re looking at “Wario Ware,” “Mario Party 8“… products like that that are really intuitive and easy for them. And then they start to get more brave.We think a lot of them will end up playing games like “Mario Galaxy as well.”
Multiplayer: Can you tell yet if you’ve transitioned any new gamers all the way into the deep end of a game like “Metroid”? Or did “Metroid” for the Wii only hit just with the hardcore, who were ready and able to play that kind of game?

Kaplan: Some of a different kind of integration is happening here, but we’ve watched really closely what is happening in Japan. And that is, for example, the female audience getting deeply into the “Zelda” games or getting really deeply into “Mario” games. So we have high hopes that that is going to continue here, that the games we probably only initially conceived for a hardcore player as an initial attraction are now being held as products attractive to the expanded player as well.

Multiplayer: Have you found any alpha-moms who have been playing “Metroid Prime 3″?

Kaplan: We have run into some alpha-moms that play “Metroid,” yes. We’ve run into some slightly younger women who are really into “Metroid” and kind of proud of their work there.

[At this point, Kaplan and I discussed the marketing of “Metroid.” You can find that exchange in this post.]

Multiplayer: Those Bungie guys are a little more free than they were before. They’re not that far away from your guys’ office. Are you going to reach out to them at all?
Kaplan: We don’t have any plans to reach out to them at this juncture. No, Nintendo’s got it’s hands full.

Multiplayer: Would it be nice to have a Bungie game on the Wii, though?

Kaplan: Hard to say. I think it comes down to innovation and creativity. I think they would have to present what it is their idea would be.

Multiplayer: You’re not making them feel very wanted right now.

Kaplan: You know, we love all good innovative companies but we don’t have any plans on the table right now with Bungie.

Multiplayer: I wanted to ask you about a couple of things that Nintendo president Satoru Iwata announced a couple of days ago in Japan. One of the things we obviously now know is that “Smash Brothers” is being delayed. Can you elaborate on the reasons for the delay?

Kaplan: Really to further tinker and further refine the product. People get unhappy about it because they really want the product now. I think people will be very thrilled with the end result. And I guess we realize people see it as a delay, but we see it is a little bit of a perfection program to make sure the game is absolutely as perfect as Japan knows it can be and it will.

Multiplayer: Nobody really releases big games in February. Should we really believe February 10, a Sunday no less?

Kaplan: Why not? Sunday is actually a really good launch day of the week for products. And I think we’re actually starting to look at the annual calendar differently. The first two quarters of the year tend to be more quiet. But now we’ve seen some evidence of sales in that period. Other than the holiday quarter, I think the traditional way of viewing it is not necessarily a slam dunk. I think a really good product can be a slam dunk any time of the year.

Multiplayer: What brought about the change in thinking about it differently?

Kaplan: I think the Wii and DS, for example, are a little more integrated into people’s lives — versus some of the [other] systems, which [might be used more] when school is out kids and families can spend more time playing or during holidays it’s gift-giving or father’s day.

I do think that for Wii and DS it’s sort of… you can get a quick hit of entertainment for 20 minutes in one day, an hour in another day, 10 minutes in other day. And I think the way it integrates into people’s lives is much easier and is a much more fluid way of getting entertainment in during the week.

Multiplayer: Speaking of how it integrates into people’s lives, there was a firmware upgrade a few months ago where the only discernible upgrade was that, now when I boot up the Wii, I have a digital clock on there. Do you know what the thinking was behind that?

Kaplan: The teams always want to upgrade and make sure there are treats there fro people and that things continue to populate into the system to keep it interesting. And if that’s the smallest thing you got that means there’s other big stuff coming

Multiplayer: I’ve heard. Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime promised us a September surprise [on the Wii],and I never saw a September surprise.

Kaplan: I don’t know that he indicated which year.

Multiplayer: Oh, September 2008, I’ll look for the surprise then. Another thing about the announcements in Japan was the WiiWare program, which are going to be these smaller downloadable games. That had been announced earlier this calendar year and then Mr. Iwata had talked about 100 projects being pitched. I looked down the list of what was announced and I only saw products being announced that were being developed any Japanese developers. I can’t tell if any of the very many American developers who would love to make a game on a Nintendo platform are involved…

Kaplan: Yeah, you’re the third person who has mentioned it. One of the things that Mr. Iwata does, respectfully, is he will talk — he is the president globally, of course — but he will talk about what’s happening in that market. So the WiiWare announcement there is really reflective of the program in that market.

The WiiWare program in North America is robust. A lot of products that are being looked at. The team is busy, busy busy. So people would hear more about it. But there are plenty of North American and European developers doing products for that.

Multiplayer: What’s the scale of it for North America?

Kaplan: I don’t want to pin a number, but I would say it’s a lot. And a lot of pretty fascinating and highly innovative programs that I hope people will really want to get into trying.

Multiplayer: Can we talk about the Wii jacket for a minute?

Kaplan: Sure. Wear you’re jacket.

Multiplayer: People were talking about Wiis going through TV screens a year ago. You guys have updated the wrist strap three times. I thought we were done with that and then suddenly the jacket gets announced. Where did that come from? It seems like somebody must have sued you guy?

Kaplan: No. We talked about it and said, “People are going to think we’re being sued right and left.” It really kind of goes back to Nintendo’s core of integrity and quality. We did it because it sort of really is the right thing to do. It took us a while to get the material that would fit right and operate correctly on the remote. In creating that kind of material there are all kinds of product development issues. So it took us a long time to get it right and out perfect.

Multiplayer: But you guys didn’t create the Wii remote embedded in soft silicone. So it wasn’t something you guys knew you needed from the get-go?

Kaplan: I don’t think so. I think that we never thought people would be quite as exuberant as they are. So that was a bit of a surprise and it’s a little bit of you want to help people protect themselves from themselves. So… [it’s a] put your jacket on kind of thing.

Multiplayer: People are talking more and more about Nintendo in the same breath as they talk about Apple. And there’s a lot of flattering comparisons to the two. One of the things that I get and that people accept and even enjoy with Apple is a rapid turnover in hardware. They expect new, better models right away. Is that a direction you see Nintendo going in where instead of a model of five years between any given hardware product that we’re going to get the experience of having a lot more upgrades?

Kaplan: I don’t know that I would make a comparison in lifecycles in products between Apple and Nintendo. Two very different companies. Two very different kinds of consumer expectations. I think the similarity in the companies comes in complementary braveness for taking risks and being highly innovative. And I think that’s where the mutual recognition comes from. Nintendo has taken risks and had huge success. Apple’s obviously watched it. We’ve watched them do some unique and innovative things as well, things that consumers have loved.

They’re on their own lifecycle program in terms of what consumers expect. Nintendo’s on it’s own. The Wii and the DS are really flexible systems in that, for example, channels, there are more things that can come down. WiiWare and Virtual Console. There are a lot of ways to adapt new things without bringing out a new piece of hardware for it. So two really completely different kinds of arenas.

Multiplayer: When those WiiWare games come out, what am I supposed to save them onto?

Kaplan: [pause] Hmm, you just asked me a good question.

Multiplayer: You just insulted the rest of my questions!

Kaplan: I know. I did because now you’re going into the technical arena, aren’t you? I actually think you’re supposed to save them on your system, that you then make room for it.

Multiplayer: That “Final Fantasy” [WiiWare] game in Japan looked pretty nice. I don’t think I could fit that on the system.

Kaplan: Well, you’ll have to get an extra card.

Multiplayer: Maybe I’ll have to buy a second system and save it onto the second Wii.

Kaplan: You’ll just have to have a lot of extra cards.

NEXT: Kaplan on the Nintendo Seal of Quality, Club Nintendo not being in America, “Smash Bros.” vs Xbox Live and more.