Video Q&A: Perrin Kaplan's exit interview
As she heads for the exit, Nintendo's longtime VP of marketing reminisces about her 15-year shift at the Mario Factory--and talks about its future.
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So far, 2007 has been a bit of a paradox for Nintendo of America. On one hand, the US arm of the Kyoto, Japan-based game giant has had a banner year. Its Wii console has become a phenomenon, selling over 4.5 million units in the US as of the end of September, according to the NPD group--500,000 last month alone. The DS wasn't far behind with 496,000 units sold during the month.
On the other hand, 2007 has seen unprecedented turnover at NOA. While former VP of marketing Reggie Fils-Aime has been repeatedly honored for helping guide the company out of the GameCube doldrums, his colleagues weren't so lucky. Early in the summer, Nintendo Co.'s president Satoru Iwata quietly decided to split up his company's US division. While NOA's headquarters remains Microsoft's neighbor in Redmond, Washington, its marketing department was relocated to New York and its PR arm put down stakes in Redwood City, California--home of Electronic Arts.
As a result of the trifurcation of NOA's operations, many members of its internal PR and marketing teams were given a choice: Relocate or quit. Two of the company's most public faces--director of public relations Beth Llewellyn and senior vice president of marketing George Harrison chose the latter option. So did vice president of marketing & corporate affairs Perrin Kaplan, who announced this month she will be leaving NOA at the end of the year.
Kaplan's departure came after months of rumors that she was on her way out. It also ends a 15-year shift at the Mario Factory that extends all the way back to the tail end of the Super NES era. Recently in San Francisco, Kaplan spoke to GameSpot about the lessons she's learned over her long career--and her predictions for Nintendo's future.
GameSpot: So, your departure from Nintendo of America is now finally official.
PK: I love my job! But...yes.
GS: When did you come to this decision, and why wait so long/little to announce it?
PK: I wanted to think about it for a while because it's a really big decision for me and for my family, to really walk away from something that you still really love doing. And I don't think I felt any rush to be telling everybody because I will be here until the end of the year, anyway. And I wanted to pick the right time to do that, and do that on a schedule that worked for me.
GS: It's obviously a bittersweet decision. Was the relocation a primary factor?
PK: Well, the relocation made me stop in my tracks and assess, had I really accomplished everything I needed to do at Nintendo, what did I build, how did I feel about that work, what kind of foundation have I laid down for the two systems that are out there. And I could continue to relish my work and move forward and stay at Nintendo, but I think I've completed what I came to Nintendo to do.
GS: Now, many people find it extremely odd that after so many years working dutifully as the GameCube languished in third place, you and the other NOA execs are leaving now that the Wii is such a massive hit. What is your response to this inherent contradiction?
PK: I don't think it's a contradiction, I think it's a compliment to the absolute massive effort that the team put in. I really feel that some of the innovative and different programs we built this year, things we've never done before, have really helped set those products off on long sales. The products are very healthy and I think we're really proud of our work. So, I don't think it's a contradiction, I think it's a fabulous product and behind it has been fabulous marketing.
GS: I know you've had to sound the upbeat corporate PR drum for years, but now given your imminent departure, might you be able to answer this honestly? Were you surprised by the Wii's success?
PK: No, I really wasn't actually. I remember the very first time I played it with Mr. Iwata when I was in Japan, and I wanted to not be sure about it. And I played it, and I'm not as much of a gamer as all of your readers, and he came back and said, "It's time to start our meeting." And I really didn't want to stop. And I just knew, sort of in my heart, that I--it had instilled some joyful emotion in me. And I thought, "You know what? This is going to be a hit."
GS: What prompted the relocation?
PK: Well, it is just the sales and marketing division. I want people to really understand, the whole company is not moving and our headquarters will remain in Redmond. But it's going to be really part of the entertainment core in New York, so the team has settled there and [is] doing very well. Here we'll be part of the whole Silicon Valley belt of high technology, creative thinking, and really be part of the heartbeat of that.
GS: Now, when will the Wii shortages end?
PK: It will end when the demand ends. I mean, it's really less a shortage issue and more of a demand issue. The system, this holiday season, and right now, it's still being introduced to people who have not played in many, many years, who've never played video games before, and to those people who are hardcore gamers that have been waiting in line to get it. And I don't think we see any sign of it slowing down. It's a fabulous product, it's bringing people immense joy, and we've got all these additional software items that are coming to it that are brand new and wonderful. I mean, Wii Fit is going to be a unique and different product like Wii Sports.
GS: What do you think was the key of the marketing success of the Wii?
PK: I think, really, at the end of the day, getting it in people's hands, whether they're experienced gamers or people who've never played a game.
GS: Now, at what point do you think the blue ocean of nongamers will reach Wii market saturation?
PK: I think what we've done by being innovative and taking the industry [in] a whole new direction, I think we're seeing the very beginning of it. I think it's going to continue to grow with the DS and the Wii, but I think it is going to permanently change our industry forever. So, I don't necessarily see an end to it, I see this all as a beginning.
GS: Now, after languishing in third place during the GameCube era, you guys are in the lead again. Do you think Nintendo is ready to be the leader again, given its straightlaced, by-the-book corporate culture?
PK: I don't think Nintendo is by the book. I think Nintendo has taken pride in writing several books. And when you ask whether we're prepared to lead the industry, I actually think we already are doing that. We've been doing it for some time, and tried a few things that really didn't work. We have tried things that really are working and leading a lot of companies in a completely new direction. So, I think we're already doing that.
GS: Nintendo just announced some major delays. Are you worried about alienating your fan base?
PK: No, because you're still sitting here. You could be ready to play Smash Bros. next year, and you're going to love it. We are perfecting it, tinkering a little bit more, and you're really going to enjoy the end product.
GS: So, non-Nintendo games for the Wii continue to sell poorly and be far more poorly reviewed than first-party games. Are you guys taking any kind of active hand in helping bring non-Nintendo products up to your standards?
PK: I think that there are some publishers and developers, third parties, who've done amazing work. You know, EA, Ubisoft, there's a whole host of products that are phenomenal, both on the DS and the Wii. So, I really think that it depends on the effort that they put in and then the effort they put behind marketing it. And all of those companies are very important partners for us, and I do think that we continue to try to find ways to support their products, whether it's publicly or in our marketing materials, or otherwise. There are some great games out there.
GS: So, what's the status on WiiWare?
PK: The WiiWare program has had a dedicated team in Japan and the US since the inception of the product. There's a plethora of amazing, incredibly unique ideas that they have been looking at. The program is very robust, and I'm just amazed at some of the creativity, some of the ideas I've seen are things that I never would have thought of. It's exciting to see people just be kind of unleashed to do something.
When you can create a program that's for people to dabble in, and it's not something you're going to put on a disc, I think people are really willing to be more creative.
GS: So what about Internet support? More integrated Internet support in Nintendo games? Obviously, Smash Bros. is the first big stake in the ground. We've seen little bits and whatnot. How much more into the Internet do you think Nintendo's going to be, post-Smash?
PK: Well, there are two aspects to it. One is the Wi-Fi program, which is going to be a big part of our system. The other is the use of the channels and how that reaches the Internet and the different things that we're doing with the channels, and there's more to come on that as well.
GS: Speaking of channels, what's happening with MyWiiStories?
PK: We're getting amazing stories from people! You're going to start hearing more and more. Have you been on to check it out? And? What do you think?
GS: It's interesting. It's like a DIY Nintendo commercial channel.
PK: It is. People just have this great passion for the products, and for the sort of, joy it brings and the different experiences they have. So, we thought that was a really good venue, a way for people to talk about their experiences. And we're going to keep doing it for a while.
GS: Do you see the Wii as something that can evolve? Its form factor seems kind of set in stone.
PK: Yeah, when you say set in stone, that's interesting that you describe it that way, because it is built with the channels program for it to be completely flexible. I mean, at any given time those channels can be swapped out and we can continue to do different things with them. That's something that we technically could not have done with our past systems, the hardware was the hardware, and was solely on really, the disc of the software. So I think that this is the most flexible system we've ever had.
GS: Well, I think the issue is memory, because I know a lot of people are already running out of room...
PK: That's what everybody says.
GS: Because all the Virtual Console titles...
PK: Yeah, because you have great passion for those. But you own every one of those you buy. You can always go get it again if you want to play it.
GS: Yeah, but its kind of a pain to have to keep redownloading games if your 512MB of built-in Wii memory is full. Is that--do you foresee a time that there would be like, I mean, there's been a [rearward] hard drive. Do you foresee a time to give people sort of, alternate storage methods?
PK: There's nothing planned right at the minute. I know some people who really like to collect a lot are running into the storage issue. You pack rat, you! So, it's something that I think we're paying attention to, but it does force you to keep things cleaned up.
GS: So where, because again, you're talking about leading the industry and you guys definitely have innovation in gameplay and game design and the stuff that appeals to the core gamer, but you're also, again, kind of over here left of center, you've got stuff like Wii Fit. How many more types of applications like that do you guys envision?
PK: Many. I envision the continuation of amazing games like showing the Wii Zapper with Zelda, today. What a great product. Smash. Mario Galaxy. All the kind of games, [like] Metroid, that a core gamer loves. And new gamers really like that kind of product as well, and then things like Wii Fit that a core gamer may like but is really built for that expanded audience. So I think, I see us at a parallel and both those arenas continuing forward quite heavily.
GS: What do you think the life span of the Wii will be? Typically a console life is about four years...
PK: It used to be six! You know, it's really hard to say. I mean, again, the Wii system is built to be flexible so how long the life of it is, is going to be anyone's guess at this point. I think that we will continue to have a lot of robust things as part of that system, whether it's channel additions, channel content, the software. It's got a long life ahead of it. How many years? I guess I wouldn't want to speculate at this juncture.
GS: Though the Wii is different, it seems you have the same dearth of mature content. I mean, you've got Manhunt back now, but...
PK: When you say we have gaps in mature content, I'm not sure what that means. We do have a certain percentage of our games that are M rated. But to have a game that someone of a mature age wants to play does not mean it has to be M rated, either. So, for example, someone's going to play Smash who's 35 years old. He or she does not necessarily require an M rated game.
GS: OK, one thing that Nintendo has usually been really famous for is new colors. We're a year in with the Wii now and we're still at white. Do you foresee a time when there will be different colors?.
PK: The white has worked very, very well. We do spend time on colors and there's nothing immediately planned, but stay tuned.
GS: And as far as the DS goes, where to go with that? You know, we've seen some new colors launched in Japan, we've seen a few different features there like a TV tuner, that little camera. In a sense, it just seems like a lot of Nintendo's attention has been focused on the Wii and the DS has been allowed to stay the course.
PK: The DS has a really long life ahead of it. It is still a very youthful product. It's--the DS Lite is a new design. The colors are selling really well. There is a lot of manipulability of what's going to come with that system, ways that it can interact and interface. There's a lot of legs still left in it. So, people should just pay attention. But the glory of that system is the current experience people have, whether it's Brain Age, or Zelda DS. Very in depth games, and a huge, huge, huge library.
GS: Last two questions. First one is, what have you learned in your time at Nintendo?
PK: I'm still reflecting upon my great time at Nintendo. The people have been amazing. Lifelong friends, business compatriots who I've learned so much from. I've learned to love technology in entertainment in a way that wasn't part of really who I was when I came there. Patience. Laughter. Perseverance. Staying very focused and always having great passion for your work.
GS: And the last question is, what's next for you?
PK: I haven't yet announced what is next for me, and I'm exploring those options right now and until the end of the year, I'm very committed to continue to throw as much passion into my work as I always have.