New Nintendo of America Chief on Game Subscription Services, M-Rated Titles and Remakes (Q&A)
Doug Bowser also speaks to the ever-growing roster of third-party titles on the Switch and the importance of online play.
Nintendo arrived at this year’s E3 convention with a roster of new titles set to launch on its Switch console. With new Pokémon games (Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield), the third installment in the popular Luigi’s Mansion franchise and a remake of the classic Game Boy Legend of Zelda adventure Link’s Awakening, the Japanese gaming company had a robust slate of software to showcase to the throngs of attendees packing the Los Angeles Convention Center.
While much of the conversation surrounding the video game industry (and E3) this year has been driven by the advent of game-streaming technology like Google’s Stadia and Microsoft’s Project xCloud, Nintendo is in the rare position of already offering console gaming on the go with its Switch platform. Meanwhile, as the current console generation comes to a close for competitors Sony and Xbox, Nintendo is just over two years out from the launch of the Switch, and worldwide sales for the system have already topped 34 million.
Attending his first E3 in his new position as president of Nintendo of America, Doug Bowser is “all about the software” as he catches up with The Hollywood Reporter off the show floor. The new head of the company’s Americas branch talks the strength of Nintendo’s IP, interest in launching a Nintendo games subscription service for its extensive catalog, the ever-growing roster of third-party titles on the Switch, the importance of online play, and offers thoughts on the trending issues of streaming services and unionization in the industry.
This is the first consumer-facing event for you since taking over as president of Nintendo of America for Reggie Fils-Aime, yes?
With all of those qualifications, yes, I believe it is. I’ve been with Nintendo for four years and attended a number of different events. From the initial release of the Nintendo Switch in 2017 and, little story, I’ve actually been a fan of Nintendo for a lot longer. I started 38 years ago playing Donkey Kong on the arcade machine, so this has been great for me to share the same love I had for Nintendo properties with others.
Reggie was a beloved figure with fans. You did a humorous bit with Nintendo character Bowser in Tuesday’s E3 Direct video. Do you feel you need to match some of the personality that Reggie had?
My role is to make sure that I’m able to share the joy of Nintendo products with our fans, both current and future. What’s most important for me in the role is to make sure I’m fulfilling that proposition and helping them understand all of our different IP and Nintendo Switch as a hardware device and the great experiences you can have when you combine those two.
Nintendo has a lot of familiar franchises at this year’s E3. What’s the balance between developing new IP and creating new installments of existing series?
Our developers are always looking at various iterations, whether it’s of existing IP or creating new IP. We don’t necessarily have a cadence that we hold ourselves to. We take a look at each platform, determine what would be the right games to bring to that platform at the right time and that’s really the focus. You see Luigi’s Mansion 3 outside, a great new game in the series with a completely different environment that they’re playing in, new gameplay elements. That brings consumers that are fans of the franchise back in and also brings new players in. We look at how we can take our IP and expose both existing and new users to it.
There are also two new Bethesda titles, Wolfenstein Youngblood and Doom: Eternal, this year on Switch. How important is having third-party games on your platform?
Our goal with Nintendo Switch is to bring the best games from the best publishers to the platform. We want to have games for every type of gamer. That includes our Nintendo games but it also includes our publishing partner games, it’s a very important part of the mix for us. You mentioned Bethesda, we’ve got games like Dragon Quest XI, Minecraft Dungeons, games across a number of publishers. And not just your AAA publishers but also indie developers who have a strong platform with Nintendo Switch. We want to have as a broad a selection of titles as possible because that’s how we can appeal to all sorts of gamers no matter what genre you play.
Is Nintendo interested in acquiring publishers or studios?
I don’t know that I can answer that question directly. It’s a little outside of my responsibility at Nintendo of America, but what I can say is that we’ve got great partners, both internal studio partners and those that we’ve worked very closely with. We work with each one uniquely and differently depending on the game they’re building.
There are a number of M-rated third-party games on the Switch. Nintendo has a bit of a family-friendly image, are you focused on maintaining that or appealing to M-rated gamers?
First and foremost, we do want to have content for every kind of gamer. We want to be a platform of choice and those choices may be by genre, by artistic styles. We support the ESRB and believe every game should be rated accordingly. We won’t have AO (Adults Only) games, but we will have other games rated M to make sure we have that strong variety. From the family-friendly perspective, we have great games for families. I think Link’s Awakening will be very friendly and fun. Then, when you go to our catalog, you can see a breadth of content that is very family-friendly from Nintendo.
Nintendo has a vast catalog. Do you have any interest in launching your own subscription service?
We’re always looking at different business models and opportunities to expose our players to our games. Right now we’re seeing our catalog is going very strong. Even though we launched a number of our games a few years ago, there are new players coming onto the Switch platform who will want that catalog. We’ve seen a strong model that allows us to offer that catalog along with new content. From a subscription standpoint, one example we do have is Nintendo Switch Online, which not only provides access to online services and ability to play with your friends online, but also provides cloud save data backup and a catalog of great NES games, some of which have been remastered or remade to allow for online play. I think we’re up to 40-plus games and we’re always adding more.
How do you decide what games to put on that service?
That’s a development decision. (Laughs.) As you can imagine, on the NES there’s a deep catalog and some of that content is ours and some of it comes from our publishing.
How important is online play for the Switch?
If I go back to the idea of having games for every type of gamer, it’s also the way people want to play. Whether it’s alone, with friends on couch co-op or online, it’s an important part of what Nintendo Switch offers. It also becomes a decision that each game developer makes as to what types of features they want to include, but we want to make sure we’re offering those options to consumers.
Do you offer developers the freedom to choose whether they support online play or not?
I think it’s more the former where the developers determine, based on the game they’re building, what are the best gameplay options.
One of the major trends this year has been game streaming, which would allow players to play games anywhere. Nintendo already offers that option with the Switch. What are your thoughts on streaming?
You answered my question for me. (Laughs.) It’s always interesting to see what others are doing in the space. We’re always interested in how various new technologies can enable different ways to play games. As you look at the Switch, it is a unique device in that you have the ability to play games at home, pull it out of the dock, walk away and instantaneously be playing games on-the-go in any environment you want. We believe that is a unique experience that applies to a wide variety of gamers.
There were rumors ahead of this year’s E3 that Nintendo would introduce new hardware. Are you working on any new versions of the Switch?
[Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa] going back to his April financial review spoke to the fact that we wouldn’t be speaking about the hardware here, it would be about the games. Here’s what I will say: We’re just entering into the third year of Nintendo Switch. In the U.S. its been the number one performing console in the first two years of any platform in the last two generations. Clearly, there is demand for the Switch, and that’s what we’re showcasing here. Again, always looking at new technologies and what’s next, but right now we’re focused very much on the new device.
Will there ever be a drop in price for the Switch’s Joy Con controllers?
No plans at this time. We’ve found, depending on the style of gameplay, that people have been purchasing additional Joy Cons for a few reasons: being able to play multiplayer and to stylize their Switch with different colors.
How do you decide what games to remake and what is the benefit of remaking games in comparison to simply re-releasing them?
The decision on which games to remake is really a development decision. The question of why to remake certain games — the last Link’s Awakening was on a handheld device, going back to the Game Boy, at a time when a different generation of gamers was playing. We have an opportunity to expose a whole new generation to Link’s Awakening, and it was our decision to do so in a very unique and different artistic style. We’ve added gameplay elements, different dungeon creators, remixed the music. I think it’s an example of how we can take iconic games and IP, make it appropriate for the current platform and either reward existing players or bring new players to the platform.
What are your thoughts on “crunch” time during game development?
Overall, for us at Nintendo of America we strive for work-life balance. It’s critically important for us and our teams. It’s the way you can bring your best work. It’s very important to us. We encourage people to be spending time with their families, their communities, whatever they choose to do outside of work. That’s my responsibility and I take it very personally to make sure that’s the case.
How do you make sure that’s the case?
In our leadership behaviors, how we work with our teams, we make sure we’ve got that right balance. It starts with our own personal behaviors.
What are your thoughts on unionization?
Again, my responsibilities are for Nintendo of America and most of our game development communities are in Japan, so I don’t have direct responsibility. My focus is on making sure I am creating a good work environment where people can grow, learn and develop. I continue to focus on that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.