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TECHNOLOGY | Q&A

A New Nintendo?

A more mature lineup of games is part of effort to recast the GameCube maker's image.

March 11, 2002|ALEX PHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nintendo Co. has always danced to its own tune, spinning out home-grown characters and spurning the ultra-violent games that have proliferated in the industry. That insistence on making family-based games has fostered the perception that Nintendo is a kid-oriented company.

This year, Nintendo is out to change that with a more mature lineup of games and an aggressive advertising campaign aimed at older gamers, the demographic that rivals Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are aiming to carve up.

Sony touts its library of more than 300 games for its PlayStation 2 and its appeal with Hollywood celebrities, and Microsoft emphasizes the technology in its Xbox console. Nintendo is relying on its reputation for old-fashioned fun, as developed by its lead game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, who created "Mario," "Zelda" and "Donkey Kong."

Miyamoto recently discussed with Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's director, general manager and heir-apparent, how the Kyoto, Japan-based company plans to differentiate itself from the competition.

Question: Can you comment on the state of technology in the video game industry--where it's going and what kinds of games it will allow you to make?

Miyamoto: I think for a long time we've looked at technology and at how we can make use of it in games. In the last five to six years, there's been a lot of focus on what can be done with cutting-edge technology.

Now we're getting to the point where the technology can only do so much. People are focusing too much on what you can do with technology, and not enough on creativity. I'm not certain that a high level of technology will necessarily make games fun and interesting.

Iwata: In the early stages of the video game industry, the technology was quite limiting. In game design, you had to find ways to stretch that technology. Now we've found ourselves with new technology, and that puts us in a much freer environment. That's great, but technology is just a tool. It's not our objective.

Q: What about online gaming?

Miyamoto: I definitely think there are new elements of game play that can be introduced with online games. But I think online is just one method of connecting multiple players.

There are many different ways of playing games. Some games you want to play by yourself and others you want to play with other players. I don't think all games are going to go in that direction in the future. I think it's strange that so many game designers are focusing so much on online.

Iwata: People are always talking about the positive aspects of going online, but few people are talking about the hurdles that people still have to get past, such as the costs of putting a game online, how much people are willing to pay [and] how many people have credit cards.

Look at "The Legend of Zelda," a game that sold 6 million copies. If you take a game like that and make it only online, how many units can a game like that sell? Even with "Zelda," it would be difficult to sell a million copies as an online game.

People are also talking a lot about broadband. But when you look at penetration of broadband worldwide, at best it will be 20% of people in five years.

The other simple fact is that people who are going online are doing so with PCs and not gaming consoles. So then the question is, how do you pull that line that's hooked up from the PC to the living room and get that console online?

Q: You've talked a lot about how there's so little risk-taking in the industry, that so many of the games out there are just serialized. What risks have you yourself taken?

Miyamoto: With the launch of GameCube we could have gone with titles like "Zelda" and "Mario," but instead we challenged ourselves, and we launched with "Pikmin" and "Luigi's Mansion."

Had we tried to launch the GameCube with our standard franchises, people would not have been convinced that Nintendo is doing things differently. But doing it this way and taking risks with new titles, I think it's turned out very well.

Q: You've talked before about how your competitors have tried to pin you down as a kiddie-oriented company with little to offer older, more mature gamers. How are you going to change that image?

Iwata: While Nintendo sells hardware, we are the biggest software publisher. We have the strongest software teams in-house. Those in-house teams have a better understanding of what entertainment is and what it needs to be to attract buyers, given the fact that it's not a necessity in daily life.

People have often attacked us for making games that they consider childish. But with games like "Mario," an adult can pick that game up and have a wonderful time.

For a long time, Nintendo's opinion is that we make games everyone can enjoy and people can judge us based on our games. Now, we've decided to make a more obvious effort to broaden our appeal with games like "Star Fox." People will see that we have software that appeals to all ages.

Q: Will you rely on your lineup to spread the message that Nintendo's not just for kids, or will you also have a broader marketing campaign to trumpet that message?

Iwata: It's not a question of one or the other. You can't just change an image with commercials. Nor can you silently put out games and expect people to just know. So it will be a combination of the two. But the one way in which Nintendo is different from the others is that we're not a company that tries to change image based on hype.

Translated by Bill Trinen

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