The general manager of Nintendo UK talks E3 reactions, third party support, and the road ahead for the Wii U.
After spending years trying to crack into the lucrative mainstream market, Nintendo now finds itself in a peculiar situation, fighting to win back the hearts and minds of a jaded audience and restore consumer confidence in its misfiring Wii U campaign.
In the days following the company's questionable E3 press conference - and the resulting impact upon its share price - VideoGamer spoke with David Yarnton, the head of Nintendo's UK division. He agrees that this year's E3 "wasn't one of the better [ones]", but pledges that gamers have yet to see everything the Wii U has to offer.
VideoGamer: What did you make of the reaction to Nintendo's E3 press conference? Were you happy or disappointed with the general reaction?
David Yarnton: I think everybody thought... it wasn't one of the better E3s. I noticed that on the floor, not just with us. I think it's at the stage where there's a change of formats. But one of the things we got with Wii U was that once people came onto the floor and started playing with it, the whole reaction was much more positive. I think a few things stood out and surprised at our press conference, like when [we] showed ZombiU. That is not what you'd expect from Nintendo and that actually blew me away a little bit.
Q: Nintendo's stock price fell by 2.5% in the days following the press conference...
DY: I can't comment on that.
Q: I was going to ask what factors you felt contributed to that.
DY: I can't really comment on those sorts of things.
Q: Why didn't Nintendo announce a release date?
DY: We've said we'll be launching this year. There are so many things we need to organise and plan that it's normal practice for us.
Q: Are you still on track for a 2012 release in the UK?
DY: Yes, we're still planning to release in 2012.
Q: It's looking like there'll be an 18 month period between the announcement and release of Wii U, which is a long time given today's fast-moving technology market. Is such a long public lead time a concern?
DY: I think you always find that when something is shown at E3, by the time it launches it isn't always necessarily the same as what's been on display. If you look at the Wii U we showed last E3, it's actually progressed further than that, especially the control pad. Even though the concept is [similar], the actual design and the feel of it, and some of the extra functionality that's been added to it, it's been developed further. So really the product you saw at E3 this year was a much closer version. We don't stand still.
Q: Since then, of course, Microsoft has developed Xbox SmartGlass, and it's been suggested that will launch around the same time as Wii U. Have you seen much of that technology yourself?
DY: No, I really can't comment. Only what people have told me.
Q: With the exception of Pikmin, the majority of first-party games announced for Wii U - New Super Mario Bros. U, Wii Fit U, Nintendo Land - all appear to be geared toward a mainstream/casual audience rather than a core market. But that isn't typically the market standing in line at a hardware launch. Why is Nintendo's first-party launch line-up focussing on that casual audience?
DY: I think if you look at our heritage, I reckon nearly all hardcore gamers will have a Mario title in their library somewhere. So, I think [New Super Mario Bros U has] got universal appeal. And in actual fact, even though he's a lovely character and the storyline's nice, the actual gameplay is challenging and complex that hardcore gamers will like it. There's a lighter feel to it compared to third-party titles, but that's one of the things [Nintendo] looks at; to play to our strengths and then third-party has their strengths and we have both available.
Q: In January last year, you stated that almost 50 per cent of Nintendo's consumer base was female. Is that still the case?
DY: It purely depends on the formats. On DS and probably Wii it's very much 50/50. In fact, I think a couple of times on DS female was stronger, and older too. But what we've found with 3DS, because of the gameplay we've got there, it's actually quite strong with male gamers. Obviously we haven't launched Wii U yet but we see that as having a broad appeal as well.
Q: Has Nintendo's mission statement changed since the last generation because of that surge of female gamers?
DY: I don't think it's necessarily been a mission statement for female [gamers], but to expand gaming to a wider audience. If we look at other things in entertainment that have broad appeal, video gaming has been seen in some instances as negative, because of that whole image of a teenage boy in a dark room playing by himself. What we've done is taken it out of the bedroom and gotten everyone playing it - male, female, old and young - and having it a much more socially acceptable form of entertainment. If we can get video games to be accepted, that to me is only really good for the whole industry. Sometimes I think people want to try and keep it to themselves, but it's such a great form of entertainment that we really need to have other people being able to enjoy it as well.
Q: From the launch window games I've seen so far, I've noticed that the use of the GamePad's screen tends to add a twist to the standard take on co-op gameplay. A lot of titles seem to encourage players to work together by giving them different roles and gameplay rules.
DY: That's one of the things we found with third-party coming in; the developers have opened up opportunities for us to develop new ways to play and add some new complexities to the game. So you can be playing one game in a certain manner and another in a different way, while still using the [GamePad]. This is what we're talking about when we talk about asymmetrical gaming. It's not only multiple views by having the [GamePad], but multiple ways of playing as well.
Q: There still appears to be a level of confusion amongst some mainstream consumers and outlets over what the Wii U actually is. Just last week, for example, a CNN article labelled the GamePad as a controller for the existing Wii console. That must be a concern?
DY: One of the big things we've found is that once people pick it up and start playing it, they actually see the possibilities with the experiences they can have. There are so many functionalities that we actually haven't announced yet as well. We've shown some things at E3. For example, there's something like 23 games on show at E3, but we know there are others in development as well. Some of the other entertainment functionalities we didn't show. Obviously, we talked a little about Miiverse as far as being able to socially communicate with your friends. But with a built-in camera and a screen and being online, there are a lot of areas there we haven't explored and haven't shown. So I think there's a lot more that people will discover as time goes on.
With Miiverse, you seem to be trying to develop your own social network. Did you ever consider integrating Facebook or Twitter?
DY: One of the things that we did announce is being able to use Netflix and other entertainment, 'normal TV' as such, and also browse the internet.
Q: Will you be taking Wii U on tour prior to release to let consumers experience it for themselves?
DY: Before we launch, we'll be having tours around the country where people can sample it. We've also almost finished designing interactives that will go into retail so people can try it. It's really important to us for people to get hands on.
Q: Nintendo doesn't set RRPs for its products, but how important is it for Wii U to launch at an accessible, affordable price?
DY: Historically, I think all of our products [have been] good value for money and accessible to as many people as possible. What we're offering now with the features that [Wii U] has, whatever it sells at will be great value.
Q: Last week, a UK retailer priced Wii U at £280. Is that in line with your expectations?
PR: We can't comment on that.
DY: We don't set the price. People can only speculate. We haven't discussed pricing with retail either so whatever they do is off their own back. It's only speculation.
Q: That conversation must be happening pretty soon, though, if you're still backing a 2012 launch?
DY: I think if you look back at a lot of console launches, people start looking to pre-sell and start putting them online. I've seen some prices in the past that have been so astronomically out of the ball park that they just put it there and then sort it out later.
Q: Is 3DS still selling at a loss following last year's price cut?
DY: We don't... We try not to sell any of our product at a loss, and that's one of the things Nintendo's prides itself at. 3DS has been a really good product for us.
Q: Has it been successful? It appeared to struggle initially.
DY: If we look in comparison to DS Lite, in the UK 3DS is only just slightly behind. When we launched 3DS we didn't have all the functionalities that it does now: the free WiFi, the games and the video.
Q: There still hasn't been much information released on Wii U's online infrastructure...
DY: We haven't actually released any of the detail when we talk about online. We're actually... Even with 3DS, we haven't discussed the detail.
Q: Isn't that approach detrimental when trying to attract the core consumer?
DY: At some stage we will release details, but at this stage we're just not in a position to do that.
Q: That strategy seems to be shared with the Wii U's tech specs, too. Obviously, it's understood that Nintendo never discusses the specific technology and components powering its consoles, but nonetheless, it still isn't known what the Wii U can do on a technical level, nor what to compare it to.
DY: I think it's a bit like comparing some computers to other computers and their specifications are different. At the end of the day, they provide what they do. Looking at the product we've got and noticing things like Assassin's Creed III, that looks fantastic on Wii U.
Q: Until today, I hadn't realised that the Wii U's software relied on the use of the Wiimote quite as much as it does.
DY: One of the things that we're looking at is that people have made a big investment in the past. If you look at hardware manufacturers over the years, okay, sometimes the software has been backwards compatible but a lot of the other pieces haven't been. With us being such a social gaming platform, where you have multiple controllers, people have invested quite a bit of money and we want to make it easy for loyal users. And if you look at things like Wii Fit U, I don't think it's fair for consumers to buy another Balance Board just because it's a new model Wii. So I think it's a positive thing. And there'll be new accessories and more things to come as we progress with the technology.
Q: Will there be any interoperability between Wii U and 3DS?
DY: We haven't discussed any of that.
Q: Call of Duty: Black Ops II is obviously going to be a huge title for the industry. Would you like to see that on Wii U, and can you comment on whether it's in development for the console?
DY: I think a lot of third-party companies are developing for Wii U and a lot of it hasn't been announced, but we can't comment on speculation. There are lots of things everybody wishes for.
Q: Is Retro Studios developing for Wii U?
DY: I can't comment. There are a lot of things being developed, but I don't know. I don't get told.
Q: Reggie Fils-Aime compared Nintendo Land to Wii Sports during the E3 press conference. Will Nintendo Land be bundled with the Wii U hardware?
DY: I think Reggie was being a bit broad there, because I think Nintendo Land has a lot more depth and a lot more opportunity. So we haven't given any specification as to what will be in the hardware package at launch.
Q: Where do you see the Wii U in five years' time? There's a lot of speculation that your competitors' next-gen consoles will be significantly more powerful.
DY: If you look at Wii and how it's progressed, and where we actually took gaming out of the bedroom and into the living room, Wii U makes it even more compelling for people and is something they can use every day. Part of the thing with the control pad is, say the kids are at home playing a game and Dad comes home. Normally what would happen is they have to get off the TV because Dad wants to watch the news, and they go off somewhere else. But with the Wii U, he can come home and the kids can either use the control pad to continue playing the game, or Dad can use the control pad to watch the news. To me, it makes it something that will be on the coffee table in every home.
Q: In that situation, why would Dad choose to watch the news on the GamePad rather than picking up his iPad or tablet PC?
DY: There are games being developed specifically for Wii U that you just don't get on any other platform. [Wii U] brings more diverse forms of entertainment into the living room.
Q: We're so used to hearing Sony talking about its 10-year cycle for PlayStation 3, and now Microsoft has chosen to extend its Xbox 360 cycle as far as possible through Kinect. Wii U replaces Wii after six years. Are you actively working to shorter cycles than the competition?
DY: I think it's time moving on and trying to move with it as developments occur. One of the most important things we look at is the content and the software, and trying to look at experiences changing for people. There isn't a specific plan to set times on things, it's as it progresses.