Interview / Marc Franklin, Director of PR at Nintendo

Last Friday, I had the treat of meeting with Marc Franklin, Nintendo’s Director of PR. Given Nintendo’s new announcements, the soon-upon-us DSi, a gradually-increasing third party presence on the Wii, and his twelve years of experience in the industry, I was certainly curious and eager to hear what he had to say.

We got to talking about a number of things. With regard to the Wii, I ask about the seemingly-shaky relationship it has with third parties, how all the big franchises have already gotten major releases and so soon, and what the expected life span of the system is. On the DSi front, I ask about Nintendo’s ultimate goal with the machine, and how it appears to be a bit of a media player, something that Nintendo has staunchly opposed in the past. On top of that, we talk digital distribution, and Marc’s own take on the industry and where he sees things going. Oh, and I tried to get in something about a new Zelda on the Wii.

Tommy Lawler (TVGB): In your experience, how is the environment at Nintendo different compared to other companies?

Marc Franklin (MF): You know, when I was growing up some of my first games were Nintendo games, you always dream of landing or trying to work for Nintendo, and so it’s just been a dream come true to work at Nintendo. It’s been something that I’ve been looking forward to my whole career.

TVGB: So suffice to say you’re enjoying it?

MF: Yeah, I love it! How can you not like working at Nintendo?

TVGB: So the first thing I wanted to talk about is the increasing third party support for the Nintendo Wii. A lot of people are really happy about that, but there’s still kind of a lingering view that Nintendo consoles are good for making games, but they’re especially good and almost tailor made for Nintendo games.

MF: I think that’s a large misunderstanding. Let’s get a couple facts out. First, there are seven publishers with seven titles that have gone a million or more at the very least. And that’s titles and publishers that span a whole variety of interests and genres, from Sega’s Mario & Sonic to Ubi’s [Rayman] Raving Rabbids to Carnival Games. These are all different types of gaming experiences. Also, if you look at services like WiiWare, which is an excellent environment for publishers and developers — large and small — to come in and be able to provide directly and easily to consumers. 90 percent of WiiWare games are all third party and if you look at a game like World of Goo, from 2D Boy, you know, this game was made by a couple people, basically, and made for around $10,000, and it’s one of the highest-rated Wii games on the system. And that’s a third party game. There’s lots of opportunity and there’s lots of experiences. Certainly, another important point is, as you saw from Mr. Iwata’s speech, we announced that there’s 50 million Wiis that have been shipped globally, and that’s a huge install base, and a huge opportunity for third parties. And you’re seeing that more and more third parties are taking advantage of that.

TVGB: One thing Iwata pointed out in his presentation was how Nintendo has gotten out a lot of your major franchises, like Smash Bros., Zelda, Metroid, Mario, all within the first 18 months since the launch of the Wii. Some people have a concern that maybe that’s a little too fast, or maybe they’re concerned about what’s next since it seems like all the great stuff is out the door. It made me wonder, what’s the expected lifespan of the Wii?

MF: In that there’s three questions, really. You’re talking about our classic franchises, what’s upcoming, and you’re talking about the lifespan of Wii, so let me address all of that.

So in terms of our classic franchises, yes, you’ve seen most of them, and I’m glad that you’ve noticed this, because a lot of other consumers are like “We want more! We want more!” So Nintendo, over the last 18 months, has been very aggressive in putting out their franchises. You start with, say, last November [2007], we came out with Super Mario Galaxy, and then followed that up quickly up with Super Smash Bros. Brawl, [Mario] Kart, and [Wii] Fit, and some Pokemon games, and launching into a whole slew of other games. We’ve been very busy creating games that consumers are going to love. Not just on the classic franchise side, but on creating opportunities for more of the casual gamers. So you’re looking at games from the personal trainer series, cooking, and math. All of those have been in the pipeline and we’ve been putting them out and there’s been a steady flow of content to meet a wide variety of tastes.

In terms of what’s upcoming, you’ve heard that we’ve announced games like Sin & Punishment 2, Mario & Luigi RPG. Out here on the show floor you’ve got Punch-Out!! and Excitebots. There are games that are really going to thrill the committed, active gamer. And these are classic games, so that should be very exciting for the gaming crowd.

And then in terms of the lifespan of the Wii. You asked how is that changing, how is that evolving. The Wii is doing something so unique right now, and in its life cycle it’s sold more than any other game system. Demand is still high for the system, and there is incredible content coming out for the system. And what you’re seeing is this average business model, the typical business model of, say, the five to six year generation of hardware is just not valid anymore. The Wii is a very approachable, accessible platform that’s going to interest gamers for years to come.

TVGB: In light of competitors will last probably ten years, would you say Wii is in that ballpark?

MF: I’m not going to speculate on how long the Wii is going to last. It’s really up for the consumers to decide, but I can certainly tell you that the demand for the system is higher than ever. We just shipped 50 million. That’s a huge amount of systems, worldwide. And there’s continuing to be new, exciting content that’s been developed and distributed.

TVGB: I also wanted to talk about the DSi. That seems kind of like a new direction for Nintendo, in a way. Now you have a music player, and you have a camera in there. And before, Nintendo was kind of adamant against putting media things in their consoles, keeping the focus on the games. Then Iwata, not long ago, said you’re not trying to encroach on iPod territory with it. But it kind of sounds like that is the case to some extent.

MF: They’re just totally different business models. What DSi is doing is something very unique. It’s all about entertainment, and that’s what Nintendo has always been focused on: delivering a high quality entertainment experience. So if you look at the system, it contains two cameras, it has sound, Just from a profile perspective it’s got larger screen size, it’s a little slimmer. All of those things wrapped together provides this kind of experience that is unlike any other portable gaming handheld system.

And it’s not just about the individual features. It’s not just about the cameras and it’s not just about the sound. It’s about what you can do with those things in your experience using DSi. I think a great example is what Bill Trinen showed during the keynote during Mr. Iwata’s speech was Wario Ware Snapped!, which is a great franchise. With this new iteration you’re able to use it on the DSi, use the camera on the DSi, and take little snapshots of what you’re doing through the activity in the game, and it gives you this kind of really great, fun video at the end. So that’s an example of how developers can use the system to explore new ways of creating content. And it’s really going to be up to the developers to invent and come up with these new creative experiences. And that’s the exciting part. That’s what we’re all looking forward to.

TVGB: So the MP3 player and the outside camera can be used as part a developer’s vision as well?

MF: Yeah, but let me correct you, it’s an AAC player. You’re exactly right, though. The essence of the features for the developer is you can use the sound and the cameras in the development of a game. And so that’s what we’re all very excited about is to see what kind of creations people can come up with. Another example that was pointed out was [Moving Memo]. And this is a really cool application. You can go in and you can actually make a kind of digital flip book with the DSi, and animate the sequences. So that’s another thing that shows off the features of the system.

TVGB: One other thing left. What’s Nintendo’s stance on digital distribution at this point. It seems like you’re taking more interest with WiiWare, and the DSi, I understand, is going to have some downloadable content as well.

MF: What Nintendo does is it’s giving options to consumers, both from digital distribution side and also from packaged software. So we’re giving a choice to the consumer. From the digital distribution side, you’ve got services like WiiWare — actually let me back up. You’ve got a service like the Shop Channel on the Wii. So there you can go and you can get Virtual Console games, you can get WiiWare games, you can get what we announced recently, Virtual Console Arcade games, and download those to your Wii. Along with that we announced the new storage solution, so now you’re able to download and save even more content than ever before, and you can play them directly from the SD card, and you can use high capacity SD cards. So that’s on the Wii side. And in addition to that there’s also the Wii Channels. You can access the internet, weather, Everybody Votes Channel. So that’s another way to connect online.

On the DSi side, the DSi shop is providing access to DSiWare games and applications. Those are going to be available at a varying price points: free, 200, 500, and 800 plus. And one of the things we announced, if you attended the DSi session with [Masato] Kurahara was that if they purchase the DSi within the next six months from launch date, so by Oct. 5, 2009, you’re able to get 1000 free DSi points, and use them to get applications and games. It’s a great way for consumers to get in and start using the system and finding out what content is available.

So both from the DSi side and the Wii side, those are ideas on how we [approach] online distribution.

TVGB: Last thing that has me kind of curious is what your take on the games industry as a whole is. Where do you see it going and where do you see it now?

MF: I think it’s such an exciting time right now. As you mentioned, the idea of digital distribution is becoming more ubiquitous and more understood by more consumers, and what that allows is more people to get access to games easier and quicker. At the same time, I think we’re also seeing, from the packaged software side, just more creative games, and more experiences that have not been seen before. Everything from Wii Fit, which is consistently been a top 5 game since its launch, to Ubi’s Rayman Raving Rabbids. So you’ve got these really unique experiences that people are introducing to the consumer, and it’s really resonating. People are enjoying these games, and picking them up. Then you’ve also seen the games like The Conduit and MadWorld, offering another kind of experience for mature gamers. So I just think there’s a world of new experiences that are being offered by developers and publishers, and it’s just an exciting time for the consumer. They’ve got so many great choices.

TVGB: I don’t suppose there’d be any word on an upcoming Zelda for the Wii?

MF: We haven’t announced anything yet.

What you’re seeing is (The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks) going to have the same kind of touch control that you saw from Phantom Hourglass. Then you’re also going to have the ability to switch off between Phantom and Link as you explore different dungeons, being able to use new elements during the game. And then you did see in the trailer the steam locomotive that link was using to travel through the world. So that’s about it that we’ve got right now on it but it’s great to see that up there. I think people enjoyed it.

TVGB: Definitely, and can we expect that this year?

MF: I don’t think he made an announcement on a specific date, but we will let you know.