Denise Kaigler showed up to our interview barefoot and…well, otherwise, professionally dressed from head to right above the ankles. And it’s not just her lack of footwear that gave Nintendo of America’s Vice President, Corporate Affairs her laid-back vibe: She small talked, she smiled and chuckled a lot, and she made us feel at ease.
She’s almost like the Wii itself: something more casual for Nintendo’s new place in this industry. But push her too hard, and her tough, former-reporter self will come out and try to put you back in your place. OK, so she wouldn’t bite when asked if the iPhone is a threat to the DS platform, but we did get a chance to discuss plenty more. Where are the hardcore games? Why don’t third-party title sell? And what the hell is Rock ‘N’ Roll Climber?
A short video of our interview is here, but read on for all the extra stuff that was left out.
Bitmob: What is Rock ‘N’ Roll Climber? What the heck is this thing?
Denise Kaigler: What do you mean? You were at the [Game Developers Conference] keynote?
Bitmob: Yeah, I saw the keynote. There was this weird rock-climbing game. You climb up to the top, you see a guitar, and you rock out. What’s going on? What is this thing?
Kaigler: It’s another fun experience for gamers who love playing Nintendo games. Our commitment to consumers — certainly to the group of developers that were there — is to provide all kinds of opportunities. [Rock 'N' Roll Climber] was a showcase, an example of [a great new game] coming out for Wii, and we’re excited by it. The reaction that the crowd had was pretty fun.
Bitmob: I was a little perplexed by…
Kaigler: As you saw, Jonathan demo’ed the game and showed another example of how the Wii Balance Board can bring the player inside the game experience. What you’re seeing [Jonathan do] is actually happening on the screen — and you rock out at the end!
Bitmob: [laughs] So weird.
Kaigler: It’s another element of surprise. What Nintendo is known for doing — and what we love doing — is surprising the gamer. Who would have thought that you could do that using the Wii and the Wii Balance Board? Then when you get to the top of the wall, do you really think you really gotta rock out? No, it’s just a great element of surprise. Everybody laughs, and that’s what it’s all about — having fun and laughing.
Bitmob: Talking about surprises and announcements at GDC, you guys showed off The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks….
Kaigler: I think we got a lot of good reactions. I think I heard, “Woo woo, woo woo!”
Bitmob: [laughs] Like a train whistle.
Kaigler: I heard the “Woo!” Yeah, it was great!
Bitmob: People get excited about Zelda in general, but I think they wanted more from Nintendo, like a full-on console version of Zelda, so I think there were mixed reactions. Where’s the big Wii announcement? Where’s the stuff for the hardcore gamers?
Kaigler: This is a game developers conference, right? [It was important for Nintendo president] Mr. Iwata, as a developer, to come here and speak to other developers and to use stories of how Mr. Miyamoto works as a way to inspire other developers. We started off [the platform] by asking, “Who are we talking to?” We’re talking to game developers.
Bitmob: So you’re not necessarily trying to show off something new to consumers.
Kaigler: Nintendo goes to and speaks at different events and different conferences. Depending on who that target audience is, we carve our messages appropriately for that audience. The message here was to game developers, and to give them the tools to help them further understand how to develop games that will succeed on Nintendo platforms.
Bitmob: If that’s the case, why show Spirit Tracks at all? Why not save that for E3? Or do you feel obligation to show off new product?
Kaigler: Yes, we read and we hear the shouts out there about what we’re doing or not doing for the hardcore gamers. [Since I joined the company] I’ve heard different things about Nintendo’s offerings, and by announcing Zelda DS to this audience that is primarily made up of developers, it was a way for Mr. Iwata to say that, “Yes, Nintendo wants you to know that we are absolutely still committed to providing game experiences that you care about.”
Bitmob: I know what the hardcore audience wants, and I suspect that you do, too. Is there something more that you can do besides revitalizing decades-old franchises for them? That’s what they want — they want a new Mario game, they want a new Zelda game. What else can Nintendo do to appease that hardcore audience?
Kaigler: Do you think we can? [laughs] How are you defining “hardcore”? Now, you define yourself as a core gamer. Do you really want to be put into a box? Do you really want someone to say, “Here’s a hardcore gamer, there you go — you do that.” Or do you want to be part of a broader community that wants to have fun, that wants to be surprised, that wants to have this immersive experience in games that you can’t find any place else?
Bitmob: Well, since you’re asking, I’d rather actually be part of the former. Yeah, of course I like to have fun. I’ll enjoy Wii Sports and…
Kaigler: That’s my point! That’s my point.
Bitmob: But! If you put me in front of Miyamoto, I’d say, “I know you’ll make Wii Sports 2 — go ahead, take care of that — but I want a new Zelda, new Smash Brothers, new Mario Galaxy…” games like that. If pigeon-holing me is what it takes for you to paint that picture, then OK, that’s fine if you can make me those games.
Can Nintendo do that? And are they in a position to say, “That hardcore crowd is a very specific audience now. We’re much bigger than that, but can we take care of that audience beyond just updating those old franchises?”
Kaigler: Are you saying that we don’t have any games for the core audience on the market right now?
Bitmob: Some. They’re pretty sporadic. There’s Mario Galaxy, Smash Brothers, sure, but…
Kaigler: We came out with so many — [snaps fingers] title after title after title last year. You named them all, boom boom-boom boom-boom! And still it’s, “Where are all the games for the core?” And it’s like, “C’mon, c’mon!”
Bitmob: Do you feel like you’re in a no-win situation?
Kaigler: You just named them all!
Bitmob: But that’s just a couple, though. On the other hand, there’s Nintendogs, Wii Music, Wii Sports…
Kaigler: So Mario Kart…would you define that as a core game?
Bitmob: That’s marginal….
Kaigler: People still like the competition of the driving, and I know that, based on the sheer numbers of how well that game was doing, it isn’t just the expanded audience playing that game. You’ve played that game…?
Bitmob: I enjoyed it, but I think I’m more hardcore — Smash Brothers and Galaxy….
Kaigler: But you already named Smash Brothers and Galaxy. Certainly those games did very well with the core. But you know we’ve got Punch-Out!! and Excitebots…Punch-Out!! is absolutely a core gamer’s game. Wouldn’t you say?
Bitmob: OK, yeah, that’s a good one.
Kaigler: OK, good! [laughs] That’s a good one! And certainly we’ve got the support of our licensees on our platform with Conduit and Madworld and House of the Dead and…
Bitmob: Madworld’s a good one. We’ll give you that one.
Kaigler: Wow! [laughs] I’m actually scoring some points here!
But absolutely, I will give you that hardcore gamers have an insatiable appetite for everything Nintendo, and we love that! We love that. When we get to a point where core gamers say, “OK, Nintendo, enough! We don’t need any more games from you guys….” None of us wants to be put in that position, right?
We don’t want your appetite to ever be satisfied, because when we satisfy you, it’s time for us to go [dusts off hands], “OK! Let’s go on home now!” And none of us wants to go home. So there’s this sort of fun…relationship, I think, that’s happening between Nintendo and the hardcore gamer — which we enjoy and hope that the core gamer enjoys it.
Bitmob: One of the messages Iwata had for us at his keynote was, “Hey, third-party games actually do sell well! It’s a misconception that they don’t.” Yet very, very few of them crack NPD’s top 10 sellers list. You always see Wii products dominated by Nintendo-published games, with the exception of Guitar Hero. Why is it that?
Kaigler: I would ask you to go talk to the third parties. Shoot, we have over 500 Wii titles right now on the market. Only a handful of those titles are first-party titles.
When you talk about NPD — Nintendo isn’t going out into the public, taking them by the hand, walking them into retail, and saying, “Here’s a Wii aisle of games. Here’s a DS aisle of games. You buy only Nintendo.” [laughs]
The consumer makes that decision. We are — same as what the third parties are doing — putting our best product on the store shelves.
Bitmob: It can’t be helped then, I guess.
Kaigler: It’s consumers’ choice!
Bitmob: How do you view the iPhone? It must be some sort of threat to the DS business because it has a lot of the same functionalities the DS and DSi have, but it’s a broader platform with more features. How do you guys view it? Is it DEFCON-4, DEFCON-2 for you guys?
Kaigler: [laughs] It’s different. They’re two different categories of technology, of experiences. We are a videogame company, first and foremost. We are all about making games.
It comes down to the gameplay experiences that we offer our consumer. Currently for the DS and DSi, we have over 850 games on the market, hundreds more — almost a thousand, certainly — GBA games that can be played on DS. They’re just totally different…hardware units. They’re not the same, and that’s how we’re looking at it.
You have one that is subscription-based, certainly a lot of free apps, versus ours that isn’t subscription-based and certainly not free apps and games for DS and DSi. But, unlike what you [press] guys are doing and what you guys try to get us to do, we are not comparing ourselves to anybody.
Bitmob: But you must have to worry about it in some form. If we’re talking about consoles, you worry about new systems like OnLive, where everything’s digitally distributed and all the advantages that comes with.
And you guys know this because you have your own digitally distributed channels through Virtual Console, WiiWare, and so on, so it’s got to be on your radar at some point because we know you’re not shortsighted and that you’re looking at the next generation, maybe the next generation after that. These guys have got to be threats on some level…iPhone, OnLive….
Kaigler: Why do you say it has to be a threat?
Bitmob: Well, because they’re doing what you guys are trying to do now, but without some of the barriers like physical storage and the retail channel and stuff like that. They’re doing what you guys are doing, but maybe in a more efficient manner.
Kaigler: You heard Mr. Iwata announce that we have a 100 million installed base for DS, a 15 million installed base for Wii. The consumer clearly continues to accept Nintendo products as part of their lifestyle.
Bitmob: Well, you guys are doing OK — I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that — but are these guys on your radar for the future?
Kaigler: We applaud any new surprises — anything that is going to bring a new, fun experience to consumers. It’s great for the industry as a whole, and it’s certainly great for consumers, so we applaud that.
But we do look at it differently. We do. I know that the media likes to [build up a rivalry] because it’s sexy, it’s fun. We’ve got the Pepsi wars and the sneaker wars, so you gotta have the videogame wars!
So, OK, you guys like to create that; you want us to play ball like that. We’re not! We’re doing what we do best, and that is making sure that we continue to give consumers what they expect from us. We are committed to making sure [our games -- whether they're first party or third party --] bring hours and hours and hours of fun.
Bitmob: During GDC, Iwata talked about what it’s like in the development studios. There are “random employee kidnappings” where Miyamoto might just grab a random employee and say, “Focus test this game. We’re not gonna talk. Just play. We want to watch you.” And Iwata showed a video of some of the developers who took dance lessons to learn rhythm for Rhythm Heaven.
Have you been there? Is it really that eccentric and crazy — this wonderful, magical, chocolate-factory type world where there’s all kinds of fun stuff going on all the time?
Kaigler: [laughs] I’ll tell you a story. I’m not a developer, but I have been there a couple of times since joining Nintendo, and I can attest to [Mr. Miyamoto's "random employee kidnappings"]. When I went I was introduced to Wii Music because we were getting ready for E3 [last year].
I was taken to a room by some of Mr. Miyamoto’s developers — Mr. Miyamoto wasn’t there, but his developers were — and I didn’t really know much about Wii Music at the time. This was in one of the development rooms with probably about eight or ten developers. They put Wii Music on, and I didn’t know anything about the game, and they handed me the Wii Remote.
Bitmob: No set-up, just, “Here’s a controller?”
Kaigler: Nothing. They put Wii Music up, and I picked the different instruments, and I had so much fun! And they didn’t say anything. For one thing, they speak Japanese and I don’t. Few of them spoke English, so we wouldn’t have had that ease of communication anyway. I was in that room maybe half an hour to 45 minutes rockin’ out to Wii Music.
From there, they went back to Mr. Miyamoto, relayed the excitement and fun that I genuinely had with the game, and I get an email from NCL [Nintendo Co., Ltd.] two weeks later asking if I would be part of his demo finale at E3 because I’d had a genuine response to the game.
Bitmob: You were auditioning, and you didn’t even realize it.
Kaigler: [laughs] I didn’t even know it! But it just shows that they do want that unrehearsed reaction to the games, and they process it and actually do something with it.
What I didn’t know at the time was they wanted me to replicate that same experience at E3, which was easy to do because I had so much fun. I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s my experience in a different kind of way to what Iwata said, so I could definitely relate to that.
Bitmob: It doesn’t sound like a stuffy suit environment.
Kaigler: No, well…it’s a videogame company! It’s fun.
Super thanks to James Howell, Head Editor of Deltahead Translation Group, for transcribing this interview.