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A Level Closer To the Mainstream

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nintendo of America's president and chief operating officer, Reggie Fils-Aime, says that when he talks to groups, he tries to make a habit of asking one question: How many of you have played a video game?

When he started at Nintendo, years ago, only about a third of adults raised their hands. Now that ratio has flipped in the other direction. In Washington last week, Fils-Aime said that only about a fifth of the people he encounters these days say they've never picked up a game controller.

That's an anecdotal sign of audience growth, and one that game and hardware sales figures generally bear out. But as a video game executive who'd like to see his industry more firmly entrenched in pop culture, Fils-Aime wants there to be a day when the question itself is a little superfluous -- along the lines of asking whether a person has ever read a book or seen a movie.

"We're moving from being a niche market into the mainstream," he said, "but we're not there yet."

Once upon a time, Nintendo trailed its competition, but in recent years the company has been well ahead of the pack both with its Wii console and its DS mobile game device. At the end of September, the company announced a price cut for the Wii, to $200 from $250, a move that the company hopes will boost the system's recently slowing sales again this holiday season.

The No. 1 player in a market has the luxury of not fessing up to a lot of mistakes. Analysts say the company may have left millions of dollars on the table during the Wii's first two years, when the device was priced at $250 and nearly impossible for people to find at retail stores. The company could've made more money with a higher price, the argument goes, but Fils-Aime said that Nintendo wouldn't handle the Wii's launch much differently if given a second chance.

"Absolutely not," he said. The device's lower price was central to attracting the mainstream consumer who might otherwise have tuned out the Wii, goes his argument. "We wouldn't do it any other way."

Microsoft and Sony have also cut their prices recently. Microsoft now offers one version of Xbox 360 priced at $200, and in recent weeks Sony has offered a slimmed-down version of its game console priced at new low price of $300. Some consumers are finding the prospect of a game system that also doubles as a player of high-definition Blu-ray movies attractive: Sales are up 300 percent, according to the company.

With Nintendo's advantage on the price front eroding, Michael Pachter, a video game industry analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities, predicts that console sales will start to even out this year among the three companies. Having spent years in which meeting demand was its biggest struggle, the Wii may be starting to see competition in its rearview mirror.

"Nintendo is a victim of its own success now, because sales of anything less than 25 million a year for the Wii looks like a failure," he said. "But they're still selling more consoles than the other guys."

Both Microsoft and Sony have announced new types of game controllers that appear to be inspired by the Wii's popular motion-detecting controls. Both companies already offer consoles with better graphics and more multimedia capabilities than the Wii.

Fils-Aime shrugs off those developments. Those motion-detecting controllers don't exist yet, so there's not much to comment on, he said. And with new game software such as Wii Fit Plus, the sequel to a best-selling exercise title from last year, the company figures plenty of people will take an opportunity to grab the Wii console at its new price.

The closest he comes to taking a jab at a competitor, in conversation, is when Sony's PlayStation Portable, the PSP Go, comes up. The device eschews physical media -- there are no game discs or cartridges, in other words -- and opts instead for a download store.

The executive offered that he thinks the device may have a "fundamental concept problem in terms of 'Who's it for?' and 'What's the benefit?' "

"I have the utmost respect for all our competitors," he said, "but it's interesting to try and answer the consumer question of 'What's in it for me?' in that product."

Some of the company's competition going forward might come from a relatively new direction. Apple has started to position the iPod Touch as a game machine, and with the App Store's thousands of games priced at a buck or two, compared with $30 or $40 games for the DS.

With big-time game companies such as Electronic Arts putting out some of their biggest franchises on the App Store for less than $10, Pachter said, consumers may very well come to expect those lower prices.

Fils-Aime, again, seems unfazed. The DS, with its dual screens, offers an experience that cannot be replicated on a smartphone, he said. And have you tried Scribblenauts? It's a cool new game that has received acclaim from all corners. The title's unique feature, which has players writing words on the screen that the game brings to life, couldn't be done in an iPod.

"That's a fabulous experience that can only be brought to life on the DS," he said. Same for other DS hits such as Mario Kart DS, Nintendogs and New Super Mario Bros. "All of these experiences are very unique and very different and what you cannot find on their App Store."

Nintendo fans sometimes hope that the company will take its expertise with mobile devices and turn the next handheld game gadget into a phone.

But don't look for a Mario-branded phone anytime soon. "We don't have a desire to get into the phone space," Fils-Aime said. "We think the game business is competitive enough."

That Sounds Like . . .

Lawrence Reppert says he gets the occasional puzzled look from friends and colleagues these days when they hear the news. Reppert's singing voice is featured in a much-watched trailer for an upcoming video game called Assassin's Creed 2. Funny thing is, the classically trained tenor was just as surprised to find that out as everyone else he knows.

Here's the story: A few years ago, Reppert, who now works as the director of administration at the Cathedral Choral Society at Washington National Cathedral, did some vocal work for a piece of software designed for composers. With the software, composers can create musical works, complete with voices, without ever having to work with pesky human beings. Reppert received a one-time payment for his work.

Reppert doesn't know how many composers have used the software, which was published by a company called Bela D Media. But recently, the singer learned that the software -- and his voice -- had been used to create the soundtrack for a commercial for one of this year's hotly anticipated video games. The adventure game, set mostly in 15th-century Venice, is scheduled for a release in November.

The game's trailer, which depicts an assassination and a high-adrenaline escape on the streets of that city during a masquerade carnival, has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube.

"It was a little crazy, at first, to hear my voice in a video game trailer," Reppert said. The sheer number of folks who have heard him now is a little daunting, too. "That's more people than have ever heard my voice."

Reppert doesn't know whether his voice will be used in the final version of the game, but he says he's so curious to find that out, he might end up buying a game console just to find out. In any case, the game looks like it might be pretty good, he said.

He's leaning toward getting the PlayStation 3, mostly because of its capacity to play high-definition movies. "That Blu-ray option really seals the deal," he said.

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