Q&A: Nintendo Vice President George Harrison

NOA's marketing and communications chief talks about the Revolution, Game Boy Micro, and the future of gaming.

At this year's E3, both Microsoft and Sony showed off their new consoles, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with much fanfare and flashy tech demos. Not so in Nintendo's case. While it did show off a prototype of its Revolution console, it preferred to keep its cards close to its chest. The company did not show any next-generation gameplay, nor did it reveal the unit's controller, where the real "Revolution" reportedly lies.

But as far as Nintendo senior vice president of marketing and communications George Harrison is concerned, that's just fine. Like fellow speakers president Satoru Iwata and vice president of sales and marketing Reggie Fils-Aime, he believes Nintendo's long-standing history of innovative gameplay and its ever-popular franchises will trump anything rolled out by its rivals. He also hinted that the Revolution will be more powerful than expected, and that Nintendo is making an effort to make it the easiest next-generation console to develop for.

The Revolution also marks a reversal of sorts for Nintendo. It includes DVD playback functionality, giving the console the multimedia functionality that Nintendo railed against when it rolled out the games-only GameCube. It will also have a major online component, with built-in Wi-Fi and an Xbox Live-like multiplayer. But it will also have a distinctively Nintendan touch, allowing users to download every NES, SNES, and N64 game and play it on the Revolution's built-in emulators.

Despite analysts giving it the bronze medal of the big three E3, Nintendo talked tough at its E3 conference, proudly showing of the new Zelda and the iPod mini-sized Game Boy Micro. But with Microsoft and Sony hogging all the press, how does Nintendo intend to regain the headlines--and stave off a two-pronged assault in the next generation of gaming? GameSpot sat down with Harrison under the hot California sun to find out.

GS: So let's start off. You guys obviously have the advantage of being last. You've seen what the other guys have got, you've seen Sony's next-gen console and Microsoft's. So how do you think the Revolution is going to stack up to those?

GH: Oh, Revolution I think will have really no problem standing up to them. Sony spent so much time focused on technical specs, it's like they threw in the kitchen sink trying to compete with Microsoft. So for us, we're going to have plenty of power and plenty of capability in the Revolution, but the real thinking and the real value come in the creative game development, and that for us is what's really going to separate the three consoles.

GS: They are putting a lot of emphasis on power. But USA Today said that the Revolution is only going to be two or three times more powerful than the GameCube. Can you give me those details?

GH: Yeah, well we haven't released any of the technical specs. We're working with IBM and ATI, so certainly all the capability that we need is there right in our development partners. We try to figure out how to strike a balance between giving the developers everything that they need to make great games, and not having it be so much that they have to spend inordinate amounts of money. In the end it has to be a business. Publishers have to be able to create the game and sell it effectively, and be able to then support the next game.

GS: So do you think that's really going to ramp up more third-party support for Revolution? The fact that it's going to be easier to make games for than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3?

GH: Well, we hope it will and, in fact, it's really important to us. There's some games that we do extremely well, our game franchises obviously, but there are others that we don't do. I think if we look at the GameCube and say, "OK, what's one of the things we missed in this generation?" Well, we really didn't have the Grand Turismos or the Grand Theft Autos, so those are the things that the publishers with their particular expertise can really fill in the gaps on, and that's important to us.

GS: So do you think that's Revolution's most compelling aspect from a development perspective--will it be just the cost-effectiveness or the ease of it?

GH: Well, I think those two things go hand in hand. Ease of development reflects on how many people it takes and how much time it takes those people to make the game, but [it's important to] make the point that not every game has to be an epic, photo-realistic game--there are many games that can be entertaining, enjoyable, and a great value to consumers that aren't pushing against photo-realistic graphics.

GS: Speaking of photo-realism and such, traditionally you guys have said that basically game consoles should be for games, and now you've added DVD functionality to it. What was the prime motivator behind that?

GH: I think at this point that's a fairly low cost add-on for the DVD player, but we're certainly not trying to turn into a multimedia center the way that our competitors are. They have different corporate motivations and we look at that and think that that's fine for them, but it really is not the heart of what we do. The heart of what we do is try to bring great games to people who own and play their console intensely for maybe three to four years, and as a result are looking to upgrade every three to four years.

GS: How are you planning on a transition between formats from GameCube to the Revolution? Are you going to phase out the GameCube over time? Are you going to make dual versions of it?

GH: Typically one console will sell for a year and a half maybe after the next one is introduced, and I think that will be fine. In this case, the Revolution is backwardly compatible right out of the box. You can just put your GameCube disc right into the slot. So we'll have to just watch the transition there and see what the consumer interest is.

GS: You guys haven't decided any price point at all so far, right?

GH: No, we haven't, and we're really in a good position in that we don't have to declare ourselves first. Microsoft is going to launch this fall. They'll probably have to tell people where they are by, we think, August. That will give us a good chance to understand what they think they can sell it for and also to estimate how much money they're going to lose on their box.

GS: Now, what exactly is so revolutionary about the Revolution? Is this still kind of a state secret at Nintendo?

GH: That will be a number of things. I mean, certainly the virtual console concept we describe with the ability to download the past Nintendo games is going to make it very unique. Not that someone else couldn't add that function, but they certainly can't add that kind of library and that kind of archive.

GS: Do you plan on having like a per-download pricing model along the lines of the microtransactions that will be used in the next-gen Xbox marketplace?

GH: Well, we can use it in a variety of ways. We've used some of the older games already as little bonuses, either as bonus gifts or hidden in levels of games. Certainly for the first-party titles we'll be making some of those available. We haven't really talked about whether we would sell them. The third parties can make their own decision whether they want to sell them, or maybe they will add it on as sort of a free benefit when you buy a current version of the game.

GS: To continue with what's so revolutionary about the Revolution...

GH: Well, I think certainly being wireless out of the box is revolutionary. People sort of picked on us for not jumping in prematurely into online or Internet gaming, but we just looked at it, the way it was evolving, and just felt that it was not time to jump in. But certainly with the next console it would be, with a couple of important changes like eliminating the access fee so there's not really a monthly subscription, and making use of first-party games, downloadable for free. That to us will be really revolutionary. Right now the estimates are anywhere between six and maybe 10 or 12 percent of console owners are playing online. You know, if you really have people embrace it and enjoy it, we think that should be well over 50 percent. I think I heard Nintendo president Mr. Satoru Iwata, and Nintendo vice president of sales and marketing, Reggie Fils-Aime, say this morning as much as 90 percent is the goal for DS online, which is a great goal, rather than keeping it a niche aspect of gaming, to make it a broad-based application.

GS: So do you have any plans on maybe making just one standard for an online service or is it going to be two-tiered like they're doing with Xbox Live?

GH: Right now we're not looking to have a two-tiered service. So for first-party games it would be free, and for third party, I think they just have to determine it for their own game. Not any kind of general access fee again, but for their own game, it's fine if they want to charge them that kind of a price for that.

GS: OK, let's move onto the Game Boy Micro. Now what was the primary thinking behind that?

GH: We think about new ideas for Game Boy all the time. Whereas the consoles are typically a five or six year lifecycle and we finish one and start up the next one, Game Boy is a continuous process of invention, looking at all sorts of ideas. The idea for a small Game Boy came maybe two years ago, and we refined it to the point where we felt like it can really have a place. It plays all the current Game Boy games, but it's got a place by virtue of its size. It's a little bit more image-focused, and maybe more appropriate for some of the people who are more casual gamers now.

GS: And you mentioned that the screen was the brightest one you've made so far, right?

GH: Yeah, it's a 2-inch screen. The Game Boy Advance SP screen is about 2.5 inches, so it's little smaller. But as a result of that we can get a clarity that's really incredible, and the screen is done by Sharp.

GS: So this is just kind of a remix of the Game Boy, a hipper Game Boy. Is this going to have a different price point?

GH: It may. We're also looking at what the price and bundle combination might be for the fall. One of the things that they've launched in Japan that we're considering is--it's called the Play-Yan and it allows you to play MP3 music or MP4 video files in your Game Boy. We're trying to see how that's doing and if that makes sense to bring out as a companion to this.

GS: There were some rumors that this would actually have the Play-Yan function built in...

GH: No this does not have it built in. The Play-Yan function can work either on the Game Boy Micro or on the regular SP.

GS: So is this going to work for games just like a regular Game Boy?

GH: Right.

GS: Now you mentioned the longevity of a Game Boy platform. It's been around for a while, and this will probably be around a lot longer. A lot of people heard there was a new Game Boy at E3, and some thought it was a completely new Game Boy, a totally new handheld platform. How long do you see the life span of the current Game Boy, and when can we expect its successor?

GH: Oh, the Game Boy, we don't really manage it on any kind of a fixed lifecycle. It really has to do with when consumer interest is ready to move on. We think there's a lot of life left in the SP at $79. It's a great value proposition relative to the DS. Backward-compatibility has been a big strength for us in Game Boy and there may come a point where you have to sort of break with that, and that's always more challenging.

GS: You've shrunk the Game Boy. Do you plan on a smaller GameCube? Something like the slim-line PS2?

GH: No, I think GameCube will stay in its current form. We'll be looking at more value in bundling options late in the lifecycle. As we get to the holidays we're going to announce this afternoon to the retailers that we're going to launch the Super Smash Brothers GameCube bundle in August at $99. So that'll be a good piece to carry us into the fall, and then we'll look at a couple of other options for the holidays.

GS: Now you guys announced a lot of games here and with the new Pokemon title and the new Zelda, you've given kind of a darker edge to them.

GH: Yeah, well I think Miyamoto has really taken Zelda in many directions. Now that he's given [Twilight Princess producer] Eiji Aonuma, the opportunity to go off and sort of create his own vision, you know, Link has gone from mostly animated style to a more realistic style. But it always starts with the storyline and what we have Link doing, who will be the adversary and those kinds of things. The Pokemon XD [: Gale of Darkness] game, I've seen only little bits of it, but you could do storylines and graphics and environments on the GameCube that you can't do on the Pokemon games on Game Boy. So it gives him a chance to do something a little bit more--let's say more aggressive that we think will be very interesting.

GS: At the beginning of the press conference, Reggie said actions speak louder than words. What actions can we expect from Nintendo in the coming months?

GH: Well, certainly you saw a lineup of games that we're going to launch that are very important to us. And we're not going to take our eye off of existing players, but most people can't buy the hardware right away, and so they want to know, "what's good for me in the next six to nine months?" And we think we've got a great game line to do that. And certainly in the handheld area, making the effort with Game Boy Micro to add on the DS, there should be a whole lot of innovation coming that will keep them excited.

GS: Sounds like a plan.

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