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Sunday, November 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Putting Nintendo back in the game

Seattle Times technology reporter

Reggie Fils-Aime


Age: 45

Title: President of Nintendo of America, based in Redmond

What he does: For most of this year, he's been preparing his company for the Nov. 19 launch of Wii, Nintendo's next-generation gaming console.

Who knows him: Lots of hard-core video gamers. He's an icon in the industry. Fans have posted videos they've taken of him on YouTube; other sites have doctored photos showing Reggie's face on the bodies of Albert Einstein and Elvis Presley.

Most famous moment: Charging up Nintendo fans with the "kicking ass" quote in May 2004

Currently reading: "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," by Doris Kearns Goodwin

What he plays: Doesn't own an Xbox 360 and hasn't touched a PlayStation 2 game in two years. Favors Nintendo games, including the "Zelda" and "Resident Evil" series.

Retirement dream: Opening a scuba-diving shop on a beach

What people say: "You could make the argument that Reggie and [Microsoft's] Peter Moore are the two most dynamic presenters in the video-game space." — P.J. McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research

Video-game warfare


Sony

In many ways, Sony defines the video-game industry. Its market-leading PlayStation consoles have sold more than 200 million units over the years. Delays in the new PlayStation 3 and concerns over its high price have slowed its momentum of late, but its popularity is bedrock.

Microsoft

Xbox 360 gave Microsoft a year's head start in the current generation of consoles, giving it a 6 million-unit lead. The window also gave the console time to gain a solid following, especially in the Xbox Live online service that's emerging as a powerhouse.

Nintendo

For a company that makes almost all of its $4.35 billion in sales in video games and consoles, the GameCube proved to be a downer. But it still dominates the portable-console market. Known for going its own way competitively, it's betting that the unusual Wii, at left, will be a winner.

A by-the-numbers look at gamers


Age: Average game player is 33 and has been playing for 12 years. Average age of most frequent game buyer is 49.

Parents: About 35 percent of American parents say they play computer and video games.

Gender: Nearly 40 percent of all game players are women.

Older people: A quarter of Americans over 50 played video games in 2005, a 9 percent increase from 1999.

Household: Nearly 70 percent of American heads of households play computer and video games.

Source: Entertainment Software Association

You probably haven't heard of Reggie Fils-Aime or the moment of swagger that made him famous.

Most of us would pass the Nintendo executive on the street without a second glance, and Fils-Aime probably prefers it that way. But for many hard-core video gamers, he is a celebrity known simply as Reggie, or the "Regginator." Confident, articulate and friendly to fans, he is an industry star. His words are pored over. He is stalked at events. His image has been inserted into dozens of doctored photographs and posted online by fans.

As president of Nintendo of America, the Redmond-based Western arm of the Japanese gaming giant, the 45-year-old Fils-Aime has rebuilt the gaming company's image and business this side of the Pacific Ocean. Nintendo went from an also-ran in the console race to creating one of the most daring products in the history of the industry, and Fils-Aime has played a key role in that transformation.

Nintendo's Wii game system — an unusual machine that pushes the limits of console design — goes on sale a week from today, setting up what looks to be an intense market battle with rivals Sony and Microsoft. Gamers are in a frenzy of anticipation about the system, and the $250 Wii is expected to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, must-have toys of the season.

As hard as Fils-Aime (pronounced Fees-uh-mey) has worked preparing North America for the Wii launch, his industry celebrity still dates back to one event: Nintendo's press briefing at the 2004 Electronics Entertainment Expo convention. Fils-Aime, only a few months on the job at Nintendo after turning around the VH1 cable channel, busted out some of the most memorable lines in industry history:

"My name is Reggie. I'm about kickin' ass, I'm about takin' names, and we're about makin' games."

Maybe it was the way he said it. Maybe he gave Nintendo fans hope when the GameCube console was clearly struggling against Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2. Perhaps his words stood out compared with past Nintendo speeches, which were mostly rigid and rehearsed, and sometimes dreary.

The response was immediate and unexpected: Fans adopted him as the new face of Nintendo.

Breaking out of the mold

Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America's top marketing executive at the time, didn't even write the words himself; they came from a strategist and speechwriter at Nintendo's public-relations agency. In fact, it took time for Fils-Aime to be convinced that they were the right way to go. Two years later, people are still talking about the speech.

"It was so out of left field and it was even a little cheesy, but it was so unusual for a Nintendo executive," said Peter Moore, who runs Microsoft's Xbox division. "I think he's exactly what at that time Nintendo of America needed."

Fils-Aime hasn't said anything like that since, but the first impression really stuck, said Brian Crecente, editor of gaming site Kotaku.

"He walks into this environment where you have all these Nintendo fans who are just miserable because they love their company and their company is doing horribly," he said.

There are video-game fans and then there are Nintendo fans. These are the people who grew up on the 1985 Nintendo Entertainment system, playing "Super Mario Bros." so much that to this day they can still hum the soundtrack.

For years, the company kept these fans while playing it safe: It didn't risk spending its mountains of cash, it didn't jump into new technologies until it was sure, and it kept relying on Mario even as rivals explored new ground. The GameCube suffered under that philosophy, with no online capability or DVD player. Its cute look made it seem more appropriate for kids, and it didn't play some of the most hard-core, mature-rated games, such as the popular "Grand Theft Auto" series.

Fils-Aime didn't address these issues directly in his speech, but his message was clear: Nintendo was putting a stake in the ground, it was breaking out of its comfortable, conservative profile to take risks and innovate in unexpected ways.

"It excited people," he said. "It signaled that Nintendo was going to be much more aggressive and much more combative in this space."

High expectations

Two years later, Fils-Aime was promoted from head of sales and marketing to president at the American office.

These days, he oversees 1,000 employees at Nintendo of America's headquarters in Redmond. He gets to work at 7:45 a.m., eats fresh fruit for lunch and keeps big packs of sugarless gum from Costco in his office. He works 70 to 80 hours a week, and admits that he sometimes has unreasonably high expectations and doesn't like to take no for an answer.

He has rewritten the rules of Nintendo's relationships with American retailers. In the past, video-game sellers would promise to give the company's products better attention in stores, for instance, but only if their supply demands were met. Fils-Aime turned that upside down, telling retailers instead that they would get inventory only if they jumped through Nintendo's hoops.

Nintendo then set very high expectations, but the strategy worked, especially because there has been strong consumer demand for Nintendo's DS system, its new generation of handheld players. The company's rules of engagement are working for the Wii launch as well, he said.

"I push people really hard," he said. "I push our agencies hard and I push our business partners hard. What I think folks respect is that I do what I'm asking them to do — long nights, weekends, whatever it takes to get the job done."

Organized, optimistic

Fils-Aime doesn't have the audacious, in-your-face lifestyle you might imagine from his public statements. He dresses conservatively, drives a navy-blue Audi, buys wine in the $15 to $30 price range, and lives with his longtime girlfriend in a condo on the Eastside. (He doesn't want to say where in case overzealous fans decide to pay a visit.)

He has always been extremely disciplined, friends say, even when he was president of his fraternity at Cornell University.

"In college, most of us got abused for how we kept our rooms," said Michael Strauss, an economist and fund manager who majored in business with Fils-Aime at Cornell. "We weren't necessarily the neatest and most organized. Reggie was the neatest and most organized."

Fils-Aime met his girlfriend, Stacey Sanner, five years ago at VH1, where he was head of marketing and she was director of publicity. The day of their first date, he left her a voice mail at 8 a.m. about their dinner plans. The next morning, he left her another 8 a.m. message telling her what a good time he'd had. During their first vacation, a 10-day trip to Cozumel, Mexico, he presented Sanner with a gift every day.

Fils-Aime is unfailingly optimistic, friends say. Sanner said she has never once heard him complain — about anything.

"He is not given to any sort of negative thinking," she said. "He doesn't worry, he doesn't waffle, he doesn't waver, he doesn't agonize."

Fils-Aime says he gets that trait from his mother, who always saw the bright side even though her own life took dramatic turns. His parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti in the 1950s because they couldn't date each other in their home country. In those days of conflict between Haitian democracy and military dictatorship, his maternal grandfather was a prominent member of the government and his paternal grandfather was a general in the military.

The Romeo-and-Juliet relationship blossomed in the U.S., and Fils-Aime's parents married here and learned English. Fils-Aime was born in the Bronx and raised in Long Island; his father is a retired mechanic and his mother still works in retail selling jewelry.

Expanding the audience

Fils-Aime specializes in marketing to youth — a skill he refined at VH1, where he led an initiative to refocus the channel on younger viewers. He says he loves the chaos of youth marketing, the constant challenge to stay completely aware of this unpredictable, ever-changing audience.

One way he keeps up is by talking several times a week to his three children from a previous marriage. The oldest attends Duke University, and the other two, 16 and 10, live with his ex-wife in Florida.

But much of Fils-Aime's recent work has been figuring out how to reach older generations, the people who don't play video games or gave them up years ago. Nintendo is trying to expand the game-playing audience with titles the hard-core gamer might snicker at, such as the dog-training simulator "Nintendogs" or the brainteaser-filled "Brain Age." The company even demonstrated its products at a recent AARP convention.

Nintendo's move to draw new audiences is driven by one fact: The percentage of the population that plays video games hasn't changed much over time. "We're becoming more and more insular," he said. "We're becoming more and more a core group of players who are spending money on new systems, but are we growing the industry in total? Arguably not."

The rising tide could lift all boats if Nintendo is successful, but it might lift Nintendo's the most. The company's struggle selling the GameCube — a system that is all but obsolete now — shows that it can't go toe-to-toe with Microsoft and Sony on technical achievements alone.

"New era of gaming"

Enter the Wii, which has attracted a lot of attention for its wireless, motion-sensitive controller, which lets players swing their arm in the air to play tennis or stand like Tiger Woods to sink a putt. It's a feature that no other console has, and is risky in that it could change gaming forever — or it could be a dud.

Most of the innovation for the Wii took place at Nintendo's headquarters in Kyoto, Japan, but Fils-Aime participated in strategy discussions at the highest level about the console's design and development.

Nintendo is tying Fils-Aime's star power to the console, to some extent. He'll be at the Toys R Us store in Manhattan early next Sunday handing out the first Wii units to consumers. But he's not going to become a celebrity spokesman; Fils-Aime is careful to note that he is just one executive in a large company, one collaborator in a group effort.

It's almost a given that the Wii will sell out this year, with only 4 million units to sell worldwide. Even if it sells out, future competition will be brutal against Microsoft and its year-old Xbox 360 and Sony and its PlayStation 3, which debuts on Friday.

But the real test won't come until the 2007 holidays, when all three are fully on the market and each has a long list of titles, said P.J. McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research. Over the next year, he said, Nintendo will still struggle to avoid being compared with the other two.

Asked about Nintendo's battle against two industry giants, Fils-Aime returns to the kind of fighting words that earned him so much attention two years ago. Just wait, he said, and see what Nintendo has up its sleeve.

"They will see our results," he said, "and they'll see how much of a challenge and dogfight this new era of gaming will be."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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