Reggie Fils-Aimé Talks Diversity, What a Switch Successor Could Look Like

We sat down with the former Nintendo boss at PAX West.

From former President and Chief Operating Officer of Nintendo of America to internet meme machine, Reggie Fils-Aimé is both well-respected and beloved in the video game industry. He’s had myriad accomplishments within Nintendo, particularly with revitalizing its brand and becoming one of the more approachable personalities of the company.

Even in his retirement, Fils-Aimé’s love for the video game industry never died. He spends his post-Nintendo days helping underprivileged youth get their foot in the door in the games industry, and early this year, he released an autobiography. Appropriately titled Disrupting the Game, the book details his small beginnings from the Bronx to taking the industry by storm.

The former Nintendo executive attended PAX West in Seattle this past weekend and Fanbyte had the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss diversity, Nintendo’s viewpoints on significant moments in its history, the future of gaming, and of course, Reggie’s backlog.

In your book Disrupting the Game, you talk about your growth to eventually becoming the President and Chief Operating Officer of Nintendo of America. When you first started in the industry, we didn’t talk about diversity and representation as openly as we do now. As a Black man, did you feel this weight to that position when there were fewer people of color in video games?

So the approach I took — because I first needed to learn the industry — I was an accomplished executive, but I needed to learn the gaming industry. I was fortunate I had some of the world’s best mentors to learn from in terms of Satoru Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto, all of the senior leaders at Nintendo. As I was learning from them, at Nintendo of America specifically, I really pushed the agenda of diversity in its broadest sense. I wanted my leadership team to be as broad and diverse as it could be. I pushed the company to have a mentality of embracing diversity and not just based on the color of your skin or whether you’re male or female or however you self-identify. It really was addressing diversity in its broadest.

And I have to say, during my time at Nintendo of America, I knew I was making progress as I saw my leadership team become more and more diverse. I knew I was making progress as I heard diversity talked about in Kyoto by our developers at the time. That was the approach I took. I didn’t make it about me. I made it about others, the team touching our constituents in a positive way by having a broad diversity of ideas and initiatives that were driven by a broad diversity of employees and people we worked with.

So that was my approach. It wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about wanting to represent all Black and Brown people. It really was much more of a mentality of, how do I show that diversity has value? And as you practice more and more diversity, there are going to be more and more benefits to your company or your industry.

Do you have any advice for people of color trying to find a role in the industry whether it be business, game development, media, content creation, etc. We are seeing growth in diversity, but there is so much more to be done. What would you recommend to someone starting out in this industry?

The first thing is to build and leverage your network. As any person trying to progress in any industry, you need to generate people who can give you great advice. In my book I talk about three different types of people that you need helping you: You need coaches. A coach is someone who has done the work before so they can teach you the mechanics of doing something. You need mentors. These are people at a senior level who are going to give you the benefit of their experience. The last type of person you need are sponsors. These are people who talk good things about you when you are not in the room and you need to search and get all three different types of people helping on your journey and on your mission.

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The other thing I would highlight, and this is true for anyone… you need to work hard — harder than anybody else — and I think that is especially true for diverse candidates. But the fact of the matter is, if you want to progress, you need to put in the time, effort, and work on your craft. I tell people all the time, what are you doing to get better in your craft and how are you working hard at that mission? Because nothing is going to get handed to you and if you come from a diverse background, you are going to have to overcome some level of bias. That is a fact, and so you’re going to have to put in the work.

Regarding the recent Microsoft and Sony acquisitions, they’ve been buying a lot of the major Triple-A parties. In comparison, we rarely see acquisitions at Nintendo. You helped Nintendo acquire Canadian development studio Next Level Games, but that was after years of collaboration. What are your thoughts on Sony and Microsoft buying up the field? Do you think it is healthy or a little dangerous? Where do you see those decisions leading the industry moving forward?

So I’m going to answer this from a variety of vantage points. First, I think that from Sony’s perspective and Microsoft’s perspective, they needed to buttress their first-party development. Much more so Microsoft than Sony. Sony had gone through a number of acquisitions and strategic relationships during the PS3 and early PS4 years that are now bearing fruit. Microsoft, as recently as two or three years ago, they didn’t have a lot of first-party [titles] and they needed to buttress their first party development studios. It was critically important, and so I understand it.

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This is true not only of the acquisitions that they’ve done but other mergers and acquisitions going on in the industry. [With] Take-Two and Zynga as an example, I do believe [that in the next few years] we’re going to see a number of senior accomplished developers leave these mega corporations and go on their own because these are the people who want to create something new, something exciting.

They’ve got a game idea in the back of their head that they want to bring to fruition and the fact of the matter is in the big mega studios, they’re working on the next sequel. They’re working on the next Halo, they’re working on the next fill-in-the-blank that was a part of that prior studio. You’re typically not seeing a lot of innovation coming from those mega development combinations.

So, I do think senior developers are going to go on their own, and bring new creative content to the industry. In the end, that’s going to be a good thing. So, you know, I understand the M&A activity as a business executive. I am hopeful, and dare I say optimistic, that a number of developers will go out on their own, because I do think that’s going to drive more and more innovation for the industry.

Was there a collaboration you did with another company during your time at Nintendo where you were surprised it worked out and became a reality? 

So what’s interesting there is I’m not a developer. And by the time I saw game content, development progress was typically pretty far along. So you know, the collaborations that happened on the development side, candidly, I wasn’t part of. Maybe there’s one exception, and that’s in the days of the Nintendo DS.

When the game Brain Age was created, that was a game that was largely based on content generated by a Japanese neuroscientist, but when we were looking to bring it to the West, one of the things that I saw was that, by itself, it wasn’t going to be enough to capture the attention of the Western player. So I pushed for the inclusion of Sudoku, which at the time was new, it was novel. So that’s probably the only development idea that I brought to bear that actually happened. Just because that wasn’t my area of influence, largely. But that’s something that I’m really proud of, because I’m convinced Brain Age would not have been nearly the success it was in the Western markets if it didn’t have Sudoku included.

After the huge success of the Wii, what was Nintendo’s mentality going into the Wii U era? And how did that compare to entering the Switch era after it?

Well, look. Nintendo is a company that fundamentally believes in doing things that are new and different. They’re always taking risks, so there needed to be something substantively different from generation to generation. For the Wii U, it was all about that gamepad. It was all about this connected screen that Nintendo believed could bring new forms of innovation to games.

The company also knew that, you know, as a player, the ability to play games on a big screen — what you could do on the Wii U — and then play that game on the smaller screen, the gamepad, was really interesting and really provocative. So that was a core belief, the core insight. Unfortunately, the Wii U did not perform in the marketplace. You know, over 100 million Wiis were sold… [in comparison] 13 million Wii Us were sold.

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In working through that transition, the company needed to pivot really quickly and it really doubled down on this core of big-screen and small-screen gaming, doing it in a way that what the player could really enjoy was something that could be unique and differentiated. And that’s the Switch, right? In it’s connected state, you could play on your big screen TV, you undock it, and then play it on the go. And so, even though the Wii U was a failure, that failure and the learnings from that failure gave birth to the Nintendo Switch, which is now the best selling console in Nintendo’s history. And it’s certainly on a path to give the Nintendo DS a run for its money in terms of the greatest install base that a Nintendo system has ever had.

If you were still in charge, what would the successor of the Nintendo Switch look like to you?

What’s so provocative about that question is, again, Nintendo is a company that just believes in innovation and doing things fundamentally different and so in all likelihood, the successor is going to be something completely different. If I were, you know, the king of Nintendo for a day, I personally believe that we’re almost at the point where a streamed gaming experience can be brought to bear.

Essentially, all we need today is better routers in our home and any game including fast twitch games, can be experienced through a cloud stream type of experience. What I would love to see is a cloud-based experience. So no platform in the home — everything is done through the cloud. This way, it truly becomes an experience where you’ve got new content, [and] you’ve got the best of all of the old content that’s made available through some sort of subscription service. That’s what I would do. But candidly, I don’t think the router improvement is going to happen for another probably three to four years. So that’s when I would bring the successor platform to bear.

During your time as President and COO of Nintendo of America, what was that one video game or video game series you always wished you had time to play but never did? 

On my PS2, I played a ton of Grand Theft Auto. I have not played since and part of it is having the time.  Especially [with] console gaming, it was challenging during my time at Nintendo and it’s even challenging now given all the other stuff I do. I would love to get engaged to that next Grand Theft Auto experience when it comes out and to spend dedicated time on it.