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Interview: Nintendo president says Wii U is no iPad imitator

Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, introduced the Wii U game console at the E3 video game show before a crowd of thousands inside the Nokia Center in Los Angeles. The new console, pictured above, is smaller than an Xbox 360 and larger than a Wii.

Nintendo hasn’t revealed everything about the console yet. But we tried to pry a few details from Fils-Aime. It will use a 45-nanometer multicore microprocessor from IBM and a Radeon graphics chip from Advanced Micro Devices. But the touchscreen controller, which has a 6.2-inch display, will not have its own processor and graphics. Rather, it will display images that are wirelessly streamed from the console.

The console itself is 1.8 inches tall, 6.8 inches wide, and 10.5 inches long. Up to four Wii controllers can be connected at once, and the console supports all older Wii input devices as well as the touchscreen controller. The system can play 12-centimeter proprietary high-density optical discs and Wii discs. The console will have internal flash memory with options for expansion. The system debuts in 2012.

We sat down with Fils-Aime to talk about the Wii U console at E3. Here is an edited transcript.

VB: What was the reaction to the Wii U?

RF-A: Reaction has been very positive, not only to the journalist side. We have spent time with the analysts, the publishers. I make it a point whenever I have a break just to walk the floor and the reaction is extremely strong [among the show attendees]. People are excited, people are waiting to get their hands on it, people are getting into line twice and that’s true whether it’s for Wii U or for Nintendo 3DS as we have had lines back up. So the reaction has been very strong.

VB: And what can you explain about it now that it’s out there? How did the design thinking evolve and what did you want to do with the next console?

RF-A: We found our developers were coming up with ideas that were game experiences that could entertain players in new and unique ways. And we were finding that the Wii was unable to do that. The way we were thinking about it, even DS was unable to do that. And that was the thinking for Wii U. We wanted to have the potential for a series of experiences happening on the big screen, and different experiences happening on the screen much closer to you that was important for the direction for the eventual console known as Wii U.

VB: Were there some developments in the air that also influenced the design, such as the popularity of the iPad?

RFA: We were well in development before the the birth of tablets and, again, to be clear, this is not a tablet. It is a connected experience to the base console. It talks with the base console. It interacts with other Wii accessories whether that is a Wii Remote Plus or a Wii Balance Board. So it has very different functionality compared to a tablet.

VB: And did you consider actually making the controller into a separate tablet that you would take with you to play at Starbucks or something like that?

RF-A: No. Because what we wanted to do was in a home environment, taking advantage of this multiple screens. This was not conceptualized as an on-the-go piece of equipment.

VB: I suppose you have the 3DS and DS for that. And you don’t have to add the cost of a microprocessor and memory to the tablet, if you only use it to connect to the main console. If you don’t take it out of the home, you can keep the costs of the controller low?

RF-A: Correct. It’s a different design. I mean it is designed to interface with the base console and you know certainly it drives a set of economics for us.

VB: And does this design resonate with certain people? It looks like this one appeals to kids a lot while an iPad appeals to adults, right?

RF-A: You know it is just a gaming device and so we have found that when we put it in people’s hands, it feels very natural. You can see where the fingers rest. It gives you all of the different input devices that you need for a gaming experience and so you know it’s certainly based on everything we have learned to date. It does its job. And it enables experiences that have never been out there before.

VB: At the show, you are only showing concept prototypes for games, not actual Wii U games. I suppose that is similar to how you introduced the Wii?

RF-A: Yeah. And to that end, Dean, I think you would appreciate this. The analogy I would make is to how we discussed our console that became known as Wii back in 2005. Essentially at that E3 event, we did three things. We shared the code name (Revolution). We talked a little bit about the specifications and shared the names of the two chips that were included and we touched on virtual console. That’s all we did in 2005. It wasn’t until February of 2006 that we actually showed Wii Sports and showed a variety of other true game experiences. So, you know, that’s as far as we are today.

Actually we are sharing so much more. We are sharing the final name, we are sharing the remote, we are talking about how the controller will interface with the TV and with the console itself. We are showcasing eight different experiences. And we have highlighted a wide range of third-party support that the system will have. So we have done a lot compared to where we were at a similar point in time for Wii.

VB: Was there temptation to throw everything into this one? Was there something you have decided not to throw in?

RF-A: Well…yes.

VB: Give some examples.

RF-A: What I would say is we have built an approach that we believe is going to satisfy the needs of all kinds of consumers that will allow for new experiences and yet still will be affordable and be consistent with the value philosophy of Nintendo.

VB: And how far along is this prototype toward the final hardware or the box itself?

RF-A: In terms of the form factor of the console, it is quite near final. Similarly the form factor of the controller is quite near final.

VB: Are you guys describing what is inside the console?

RF-A: That’s not what we do we.

VB: Yeah, you never do that. You wait for somebody to tear it apart.

RF-A: We had our two technology partners make announcements the last 24 hours in terms of the processor as well as the graphics. It was IBM for the processor and AMD for the graphics.

VB: It makes sense to use them again since they were in the Wii. You had to go HD for this generation?

RF-A: Sure. I mean, the penetration of HDTVs now versus 2006 is very different. Also, HD is something that our partners told us was important to them and they were holding HD as a key reason why game A on a competitive platform couldn’t be brought to the existing Wii. We have eliminated that issue now.

VB: So they can bring games to four platforms at once now. At first, I thought you guys didn’t want HD. But it is important now?

RF-A: Yeah. At this point, back in 2006, we made the business decision that HD wasn’t important and what was much more important was the innovation of motion. About 86 million units later, I would suggest we made the right choice.

VB: This past generation of consoles has lasted longer than expected. Maybe six years? I don’t know what the normal was.

RF-A: I don’t know that we can say there is a normal right because if you look at the gaps between NES and SNES to N64, it has essentially been 5 to 6 years. Somewhere in that range.

VB: And so what made it more like the right time for the launch of the Wii U for 2012?

RF-A: For us, the timing is always driven by our development teams coming up with ideas the current system can execute. In this case, the development teams were coming up with these experiences leveraging two screens that could not be brought to bear with the Wii.

VB: And you have more positive things being said about this one. EA said this is a better console than you have delivered ever before?

RF-A: The feedback coming from developers and publishers has been tremendous, which is very gratifying to hear. The game developers and designers themselves are creating a wealth of new experiences based on how these two screens can interact with the home console.

VB: It looks like you are able to put development platforms in their hands earlier than ever before. In the past, the third parties got the platforms much later than Nintendo’s own game developers. I don’t know if that means a deliberate strategy change?

RF-A: It’s a kind of deliberate strategy change. Our goal is always to try to encourage third-party development, get development tools to them as quickly as possible. As you know, the more conversations you have externally, the higher potential you have for leaks, the higher potential for information to get out. So we felt now is the right time to share information broadly, to set ourselves up for having more developers with that equipment in their hands. That will ideally lead to a stronger launch line-up and also a stronger grouping of games in that three months after launch, six months after launch. Those windows are just critically important to a system’s effectiveness.

VB: And did you have any worry that you have an Osborne effect? Maybe you won’t sell that many more Wiis now?

RF-A: We don’t think that’s going to be an issue and here is why. Let me focus in on the US. About 36 million units later, the consumer who is buying a Wii for the first time now is very different from from one buying the first 1 million Wii units. The consumer today loves the $149 price point. There is a wide range of software. For the consumer today, having a library that includes Wii Sports Resort and Wii New Super Mario Bros., Wii Donkey Kong Country Returns — it’s a different consumer. And so I continue to believe that the Wii will have a strong summer, fall, holiday season and we are going to continue to drive the Wii part of our business. It will be strong even after the Wii U launches. They are just different consumers and we saw that just as an example when we launched the 3DS and continued to sell other units too.

VB: How do you compare your press conference to the others?

RF-A: You know I don’t get a chance to spend a lot of time watching the other press conferences since we are in deep preparations for our own, but I do see the reaction and I do get a chuckle out of the” who won E3?” and “who won the best press conference award?” judgments that are made. I am pleased to see that in most of those the response has been quite strong for the Nintendo press conference.

VB: The Sony PS Vita in particular: How do you see that as competition for you?

RF-A: My attitude is that until a product is in the marketplace with clear pricing and a clear launch line up, I can’t react to it. It doesn’t exist until it is in the market.

VB: Everybody thought Apple was out to compete for attention with you guys again because you’ve got the same announcement times. (Apple’s WWDC event was scheduled at the same time as E3).

RF-A: I have not had the opportunity to really truly consider what was said at the Apple conference. It doesn’t look like it has impacted our buzz at all. Certainly what I see in the lines wrapped around our booth and the overall buzz online and on the web is pretty strong for what we’ve had to say.

VB: How did you approach this development? In some way maybe it was similar or different that you guys did the last one?

RF-A: From the whole console view, the core tenets of our development process stay the same, meaning we are always pushing for innovation. We believe that new and different experiences are critical to keep the consumer engaged. The second tenet is that we aim for why a potential user group is possible, meaning we are out to shatter the boundaries between the experienced and inexperienced consumers in our category. We look to create environments where our business partners will be effective and we believe we’ve done that for Wii U. We believe we’ve done that for Nintendo 3DS. So the core tenets are quite consistent.

VB: Last time, you had a dual release of the Legend of Zelda. It could run on the GameCube or on the the new Wii. It looks like there is no opportunity for that this time?

RF-A: Correct. And it’s because Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was built to be played with a Wii controller.

VB: You did show a Zelda demo on the Wii U. Will there be a Zelda game on the new console?

RF-A: We showed what Link (the main character of Zelda) might look like in a 1080p environment, and it got people pretty excited.

VB: You showed those Wii U game concepts. Can we expect those to become games?

RF-A: You shouldn’t expect them to turn into games. What I mean by that is we’ve been very clear that these are interactive experiences. We use E3 as a way to gauge our feedback. So certainly there may be some experiences that turn into games, but others have been purely experimental.

One of the things I would be clear about is that if you look at the history of the original DS, or you look at the history of the Wii, one of the things that is clear is that in order to truly drive a hardware platform, there needs to be a series of compelling experiences that generates strong momentum. For DS, it was the combined screens for games like Brain Age. For Wii it was Super Smash Bros. and Wii Fit.

As we look at Nintendo 3DS, we think the sequence is going to be the eShop, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and then the drum beat of five new titles with Star Fox, Kid Icarus, Mario Kart, Super Mario 3D, and Luigi’s Mansion 2. Those will drive significant momentum for the 3DS.

VB: Do you feel like the Zelda game has sort of the makings of the killer app for the 3DS?

RF-A: I think it is certainly, if not the killer app, one of the killer apps. I say that because I think what we are doing in the eShop is really compelling. We are showing examples with Pokemon or the Pokedex 3D. We are showing Star Fox where you can play with the gyroscopic controls or Kid Icarus with the multiplayer augmented reality. Each of these games has elements that can make it the killer app as well.

We have learned that relying on just one killer app is not the right approach for us. We want a sequence of great applications.

VB: This Wii U box is a little bigger. Is there a reason it’s bigger than the Wii?

RF-A: The size is driven by the componentry and what’s inside. When you compare it to any of the competitive systems, it’s still dramatically smaller.

VB: Have you made any comments about whether the performance will be better than the PS 3 or the Xbox 360?

RF-A: Again, the point is not about a comparison versus our competitors. What we’ve said is it will be 1080p. Check the box on the best graphics capability. It will have a robust online environment. Check the box. That will not be a disincentive for purchase.

The specifics of how we get there — we still have a number of months to share more and to show more.The reason we showed that visual demonstration with the bird in the garden is just to reinforce that the visual horsepower of this machine is there.

VB: Do you think it was fair or unfair that Engadget criticized you folks for showing third-party games during the Wii U demo that were actually running on the PS 3 or Xbox 360?

RF-A: What people don’t understand is that when products are this early in the development environment, visually things are all being made on a variety of different platforms. What I can tell you is everything we showed is in development for the Wii U. Everything. That’s it.

VB: You are already practicing to be the best tennis player on the Wii U?

RF-A: Tennis? if we have tennis, I actually want to be the best golfer on the system. I don’t golf in real life, but that demo has me excited.

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