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London - This promises to be a rollercoaster year for Nintendo, the Japanese videogaming giant whose key products Wii, 3DS, Mario, Zelda, Wii Sports, Wii Fit (to name but a few) have helped revolutionise an industry, and so keep Nintendo's head above water amid fierce competition from PlayStation, Xbox and, now, Apple's iOS games.
Satoru Iwata is the man spearheading Nintendo's future and whose hopes rest on the success of the companies two new products, the Wii U, which features and an innovative iPad-like controller, and the 3DS XL, a handheld with a much bigger screen than previous DS models.
Before he became Nintendo's global president in 2002, Iwata was one of the key figures behind Nintendo's shift from competing with the high-resolution graphics of the Xbox and PlayStation brands and focusing on “fun to play” gaming - an approach that hit paydirt with the Wii, which has sold just under 100 million units and the DS, which sold more than 150 million. In 2007, on the back of these successes, the US business magazine Barron's named Iwata as one of the world's top CEOs, but with a long gap between the Wii and the Wii U, Nintendo has struggled in the past 12 months. We sat down with Iwata to discuss just how his company intends to turn the page.
The Independent: Earlier this year Nintendo recorded its first-ever operating loss. Why did that happen and what is the company doing to react?
Satoru Iwata: It's very unfortunate that we had to record a loss and I feel personally responsible for that. My goal is that this will be the only time we record a loss. There are three factors that led this loss. First of all, we were, in terms of the console life cycle, in a console transition phase, so the fact that sales shrank during this period is actually quite normal.
The next factor is that when we launched the Nintendo 3DS last year it lost momentum after launch, so we had to take measures and cut the price in order to avoid a failure toward the end of the year, which meant we were selling Nintendo 3DS units at a loss; these two problems we will solve this year.
The third factor, which is outside our range of influence, is that the global economy situation is unstable and the exchange rate is very disadvantageous for us with the Yen being so strong. Obviously we have no influence over this, so we need to find a set-up at our end that will still allow us to make profit.
Did the rapid success of the Wii on its release in 2006 surprise you at all?
I think that the Wii offered something really new, something that hadn't existed before. The more people knew about games, the more sceptical they were about the console; some people were thinking this would be the last console that Nintendo would launch.
At the same time I was convinced that it wouldn't be the last console we would launch because I felt that it had unique value. I was confident we would survive; but I have to admit that, quite honestly, I didn't quite predict the sales that we eventually had.
The Wii U features “asymmetric gameplay” [ie, the controller offers different action to the main screen for different players]; is that what you're hoping will help sell the console?
Whether asymmetric gameplay will lead to a similar boom as we had for Wii is something we cannot tell at this point, we will have to release it and see how it goes. But if we look at video-game history there have been plenty of games where multiple people play together, but I think in almost all of them each player would be performing the same role.
Asymmetric gameplay is really about “what if one person gets a special controller and gets a different role than everyone else?”. You could see some examples in the game modes that we presented in [Wii U launch title] Nintendo Land [for instance in one game, one player controls a ghost that none of the other players can see]. But I think there are many more possibilities. Our development teams have plenty of ideas for asymmetric gameplay and are proposing a lot of ideas.
Nintendo hasn't announced Wii U specifications yet, but do you consider Wii U to be “next generation” in terms of graphics, as say the PS4 or next Xbox will be?
A similar topic came up when we launched the Wii, some people were comparing it to other consoles and saying: “Well, is this an improvement on the specs offered by competitor consoles?” But that's not our approach or what we define as “next generation”. We look at the user experience, the gaming experience, how we can improve that, change it, offer new kinds of gameplay. How we can get people to play more often, how we can allow people to connect from one living room to another living room and this is what we focus on and what, for us, makes a new generation.
Later this month the 3DS XL handheld launches in Europe. Is 3D on a handheld console something you wanted to explore once, but might not return to?
Seeing things in 3D is the normal state for human beings, it's how we see our environment. But then when we watch 3D TV we're told we have to put on 3D glasses to see it, which for people like me, who wear glasses, is sometimes too much.
I personally think that for TV, unless someone brings out technology where you have glasses-free very high quality TV, then there's not a big market there. But, in terms of video games, 3D has been a topic for a long time.
So why did we introduce stereoscopic 3D into a handheld? Because there are a various circumstances on a handheld machine which make it possible. You have the screen and the console being one, normally you have almost constant distance between [the user] and the screen, so with the currently available technology it is possible to provide a high quality 3D experience without glasses.
So, now we've created the 3DS and 3DS XL and also have some games out there that are really using that 3D effect that we can see, from my point of view, that it's an important element. But give the way human beings are, this kind of surprise effect wears off quickly, and just to have this 3D stereoscopic effect isn't going to keep people excited.
But I think it's an important element, it makes graphics have more impact, it proves a sense of immersion that 2D doesn't have, so I would say generally that 3D is better than 2D. It's nice to have good graphics but not necessarily on their own, so I don't think we'll present [3D graphics] as one of the key features of our consoles but will probably stick with 3D as one of the minor elements of our consoles in the future. - The Independent