Reggie Fils-Aimé went out on top. The former president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America retired after 16 years at Nintendo in 2019. He arrived at Nintendo when the GameCube was facing serious challenges from Microsoft and Sony, and left as the Nintendo Switch handheld/console hybrid was on its way to becoming the company’s best-selling console of all time.
Yet Fils-Aime seems ready to have a second act. His autobiography Disrupting the Game: From the Bronx to the Top of Nintendo, out May 3, is not a play-by-play of the game and console launches he presided over, but a detailed telling of his entire life through the lens of advice to others in business or leadership. It spans his childhood as the son of Haitian immigrants, born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island. It includes each of the steps in his career that shaped him, with stints at Procter & Gamble, Pizza Hut, Panda Express, VH1, and others, as well as the more impactful moments from his time at Nintendo.
Polygon caught up with Fils-Aimé a few weeks ago to talk about the book, highlights from his career, and who he hopes reads Disrupting the Game.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Polygon: There are probably a lot of people out there who wanted the behind-the-scenes anecdotes from Nintendo who might be disappointed by this book. There are some, but it’s not a tell-all. Who did you hope would read it?
Reggie Fils-Aimé: So, in writing the book, I recognized there’s this group of Nintendo fans that, for them, the perfect book would have been telling all of these stories about Nintendo products, and how we got there, and kind of bringing them into the room of all of these discussions and all of these activities. But for me, that would not have been fulfilling. Because I’m trying to share principles and lessons that anyone — whether you’re a fan or not, whether you’re an executive or not, wherever you are in your own journey, my hope is that I will — I will have shared some lessons and some principles that you can apply moving forward. And that’s why the book is constructed the way it is. That’s why, you know, this concept of the So What [a section at the end of each chapter where Fils-Aimé breaks down key takeaways for the reader from his experiences] was born to highlight these lessons. So on one hand, I hope that Nintendo fans aren’t disappointed that it’s not just a Nintendo tell-all. That’s not what it is. It really is my personal journey, and lessons and insights hopefully that people can apply to their own situation.
What are you most hoping comes from the book? What would be the dream interaction from someone who reads it?
To me, the dream interaction would be meeting up with someone five years from now, who themselves are successful in whatever it is that they’re doing, whether it’s business, it’s life, whatever it is. I would love five years from now to have an interaction where someone says, “Hey, Reggie, I picked up your book. And, you know, these, these couple of insights really helped me in my own personal journey. And I want to thank you.” I mean, to have that interaction with an individual, some number of individuals in the future would be just so meaningful to me.
I really found that many of the points in your book drove back to the importance of communication, and how you honed those skills. Your career started at Procter & Gamble, and you talk in the book about these memos you had to write, which, to me, just felt like such a different type of work environment than anything that we would experience now.
It really was, I mean, it was such a moment in time, you know, early ’80s, you did not have your own personal computer. The way these memos were being created, was that I would be recording into a personal recorder, a microphone, I’d be essentially dictating a memo that would go to the the administrative person that supported the business unit, a brand, typically, it would get typed up then returned to you. And then there would be paper-based editing going back and forth. That’s how the perfect P&G memo was created.
We all sat in cubicles. So I would have, you know, two, three, four people seated around us. No sense of privacy. I guess one could argue, maybe, that that’s something that’s come back in terms of open, bullpen type of offices. But it was a very different time, a very different age. And one of the things I highlight in the book is that every organization has a culture. The P&G culture really was paper-based on these perfect memos. So you had to learn to become a tremendously effective business writer, which taught, at least me coming right out of undergrad, how to be thoughtful in organizing my ideas, my recommendations. And you know, Chelsea, I can see to this day how this experience helps me today in terms of just how I think and how my brain works.
From there, I went to work at Pizza Hut and PepsiCo and for them, their culture was stand-up presentations. That’s how we moved ideas forward. And, for me, what was wonderful is I learned how to be a great business writer, I learned how to be a really good verbal communicator. And then at Nintendo, I not only combined those two communication skills together, but I picked up a third key communication skill, and that was nonverbal communication. And that’s because the business would be done through sequential translation. Mr. [Satoru] Iwata would say something that gets translated from Japanese to English. And this is when we were in a group setting. If it were just the two of us, we’d be speaking English, but then a large group session, it’s spoken in Japanese, from Japanese to English. I respond in English, and then it’s translated back into Japanese. And so what I learned to do is I would look at the Japanese speaker and I would try and get as much information as I could. Are they smiling? Are they frowning? Are they excited or not so excited? You know, just what’s going on? Because the Japanese-to-English translation would have none of that emotion. It would just be the words. So picking up nonverbal communication was the key skill that I took away from Nintendo.
You predicted the question I was going to ask, which was how you learned to evolve around the language barrier. But that also meant you had to adjust your own nonverbal communication skills too, right?
Absolutely. Early in my time at Nintendo I asked the question, “Should I learn Japanese?” And I was given the counsel, “Look, Reggie, we need you to focus on other things. The business is in tough shape. You’re bringing commercial knowledge from sales and marketing and advertising, that is just so critical for us. That’s where we need you to focus. And we’ll figure out the communication in a different way.”
And so, you know, a number of key executives do speak and understand English, many extraordinarily well. But I did not learn Japanese. And so it meant any of the large group meetings were in this sequential translation. And it forced me to be very thoughtful in my verbal communication. And, you know, when you think about it, we have so many idioms, and we have so many slang words [that] we, I learned, I had to cut all of that out, I had to be as clear and concise as possible, I needed to be very persuasive in my language in order to move things forward. So it’s certainly something I had to be aware of in all of these communications. And I did that, regardless of being in a situation where the simultaneous or the sequential translation was happening. Or if I was in a meeting with Mr. Iwata or Mr. [Shigeru] Miyamoto, who understood and spoke some English, I would need to be similarly clear and use words that they would understand.
Did presenting so your English would be understood change how you spoke in general, and thought in general? Or did you find yourself switching depending on the situation?
I would say that I’ve always been clear, direct, some would say too direct. But I’ve always been clear. And I’ve always framed my communication in terms of, What’s our objective? What are we trying to do? How are we going to go about it? How do we build consensus around an idea? If we can’t get to consensus, and if I have to be the decision-maker. I’ll make the decision. And I’ll share how I got to the decision that we’re taking. So this clarity, this directness is always something that was there.
And in fact, I touched on this in the book. I was given counsel by Mr. Iwata that, because I was so clear, direct — he used the word “powerful” — that I needed to make sure I was hearing all of the various points of view. Because my bias is to quickly come to a decision. My bias is to be the first one to talk. My bias is to push things forward. And his counsel to me was, “Reggie, you need to make sure you are listening to all of those around you. Because everyone wants to please you, even the folks at NCL [Nintendo Co. Ltd, the commonly used abbreviation for Nintendo’s Kyoto, Japan headquarters], and you need to make sure you’re being fully thoughtful in what it is that you’re recommending.”
That is thoughtful counsel, and also gracious. He really set you up for success.
Absolutely. The relationship is the type that any executive wants to have with their boss, their mentor. We had tough conversations. I mean, let’s be clear. It wasn’t always sunshine and roses. But there was such a deep level of respect, there was such a deep understanding of where the other person was coming from. And again, as I highlighted the book, we didn’t always agree. At times, we have to go back and pick up the pieces on a particular decision. But he set me up for success. Without the support of Mr. Iwata, you know, I would not have been Nintendo for almost 16 years.
We talked about you being decisive and aggressive. How did you always feel that self-assured [to make] decisions quickly?
It’s something that I grew into, if you will, over my 20 years prior to Nintendo. And then certainly during my time at Nintendo, I was fortunate that I was, in my history, I was in situations where I needed to take control, I needed to make recommendations, I needed to live with the consequences of my decisions, good or bad. So I brought all of that history to Nintendo. The other piece, fortunately, that I brought to Nintendo, is I brought the perspective of a player. I played early, early video games, during my high school days. In my 20s, I gravitated away from video games; I think it was life, having kids, and pursuing a career. And then got back into video games in the very early 1990s. And I played a lot of games: SNES games, PS2 games, Xbox games, and N64 games. And so I did bring the orientation of a player and a knowledge of the franchises as I joined the company, and that was just so incredibly helpful. And I think that combination of business experience and a sense for the industry gave me confidence to put forward ideas. And I was fortunate that the ideas worked, right? I think if some of my early ideas hadn’t worked, again, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. But I was fortunate to get early wins and build momentum.
It does seem like that knowledge and understanding of the franchises especially helped you with getting buy-in from Mr. Miyamoto and having that level of authenticity when you were approaching making recommendations, especially when suggesting Wii Sports be a pack-in title with the Wii.
The broad knowledge of our franchises, the knowledge of our history, you bring up, you know, the the pack-in software concept, you know, the fact that as I’m trying to sell the concept of packing in Wii Sports in order to being able to say, “Look, Mr. Iwata, Mr. Miyamoto, I know we’ve done this before. Because I bought my Super Nintendo Entertainment System with the pack-in of Super Mario World. So I know you’ve done it, and you understand the benefit. And so here’s my rationale. And here’s why I think this makes sense.”
I wanted to ask about something that I noticed in the book. You talk very much about your parents and growing up in the Bronx. And then I noticed that you weave in small threads about being a Black man, but it’s rarely a prominent theme. Some of what really stuck out to me is the very small anecdote you gave about your first E3, and while waiting for Nintendo’s press conference to start, someone mistaking you for security. But it also seems like that you have this ability to let an uncomfortable interaction where someone maybe made an assumption about you because of your race roll off your back. I wanted to hear you speak more on that. And just kind of, obviously, growing up coming from a Black American background, from immigrant parents, is going to lead to a different experience, and how did that shape your growth in your career?
So just maybe as a little bit of background, especially as my family moved from the Bronx out to Long Island. Certainly in that situation, it was clear to me that I was different. You know, there’s not a lot of Black faces where I went to elementary school, junior high, and then high school. Not a lot of Black faces in the honors courses that I was taking. And so on one hand, you learn to accept that you’re different.
But, you know, there were many situations where I couldn’t let it roll off my back. And I’ll share a specific story that’s not in the book. I was a young brand manager at P&G. And the brand manager level is the first level where you’re managing people, And you are the one primarily responsible for key initiatives for the particular brand that you’re working on. And one of the brands I was working on is this brand called Sun Drop, a small Mountain Dew competitor, with strength in the Carolinas and northern Florida, Tennessee, that swath of the country. And in those territories, it sells as well as Coke and Pepsi. So it’s a dominant business in those areas.
So I am in my first meeting with the sales teams working for this brand. And because the strength was in some key parts of the South, the sales representatives came from those same key parts of the South. And for one sales manager, I’m sure this was the first time he’s having to deal with a Black man in a responsibility situation. And he was not dealing with this very well at all. And we’re at a cocktail party. And this was a very big man, 6’5”, 6’6”, 300-plus pounds. And he’s had a few too many cocktails. And he swaggers over to me and says, “Reggie, I don’t care that they made you the brand manager. I don’t care. I’m not listening to you. I’m not supporting any of the ideas you put forward. You’re not the brand manager to me.”
I’m 25, 26 years old, something like that. And this is happening in front of 30, 40 people. And I made the decision then and there to turn to this person and say, “You may not believe I’m the brand manager, but I am. And I have responsibility for this business. And so either you’re going to support me and the initiatives I put forward, or you’re no longer going to be on this business, period.”
Now, never mind I didn’t have any authority to fire him, or move him off the business, right, because he’s in the sales function, mine is kind of the marketing function. But that was a situation where it could not just roll off my back. I couldn’t slink away. And I had to make that forceful point.
He walks off. The next morning, he comes to me and apologizes, his boss comes to me and apologizes. By the time I get back to Cincinnati, where we’re headquartered, people are coming to me telling me that I handled the situation the right way, and they were proud of me, etc., etc. But, you know, we all face these types of situations. One of the points I do make in the book is either you get tough, or you wither away. And I fundamentally believe that in these types of situations, you have to confront them, and you have to deal with them, you have to deal with them in the right way, in a positive way. But there are situations where it can’t just roll off your back.
Thank you for sharing that story with me. I am impressed that you were able to react that way as a 25-year-old, and have that level of foresight and strength and also be very controlled and composed.
Very controlled. Yeah, it shocks me to this day, [laughs] I have to say, just given how early in my tenure it was. But these are all tidbits of learning that I’ve been fortunate to have in this wonderful journey.
I think your relationship with the audience, first as an executive and then COO, felt unlike any other video game executive. You became memes, you became catchphrases, but also you became very human to fans. How did that evolve? Was there a conscious choice to lean in and benefit from that?
The Reggie in the office, the Reggie with Mr. Iwata, Mr. Miyamoto, the Reggie at E3, the Reggie with fans, the Reggie with journalists, it’s all the same Reggie. It’s not versions or flavors thereof. My first E3, the company was in a challenging situation. Xbox had launched the same year as GameCube. In the United States, Xbox was doing a little bit better than GameCube. You know, at the time, Microsoft really didn’t yet have a strong business in Europe, and wasn’t existent in Asia. But in the U.S. market? We were in third place. The E3 prior to my joining, Sony had announced that they were entering the handheld business with the PlayStation Portable, and Nintendo stock took a 10% haircut. So, this was a difficult situation that we were walking into where we were being pressured on our home console business. We are about to be pressured in our handheld business.
And yet, I had seen with my own eyes the early prototype for the Nintendo DS and the work that was being done on what would become the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I was convinced by the leadership of Mr. Iwata and Mr. Miyamoto that we had great plans in place to drive the business forward. And so that first E3 it was a conscious decision to come out with an aggressiveness and a directness and, and a changing of the formula in how we were going to market and it was born out of the products. Let’s be clear, if we didn’t have the products, it would have been all smoke and mirrors. But it was also born of my own aggressiveness, my own passion, my own push to drive the business forward. And clearly the fans saw it. Our employees saw it. And there was a level of excitement as we continue to drive the business forward.
So it’s, it’s all the same, it’s all the same person, it’s all the same desire to win out in the marketplace. A lot of the memes, you know, they were, they were a fortunate turn of phrase that happens. When you’re doing hours and hours of rehearsals, you practice different things. And, you know, “My body is ready” was a line that I used in the rehearsal with Mr. Miyamoto for the Wii Fit demo in 2007. I tried a number of lines beforehand. That one made him chuckle during rehearsals, so I decided to use it live. But, you know, so many of the memes were just fortunate moments in time.
Now that you’re on this new chapter, is there anything you’ll miss from your time at Nintendo?
The biggest thing I miss is that today, I’m like any other fan. And what I mean by that is, all of the initiatives and products that were in the pipeline — not all of them, the vast majority of them — have reached the marketplace at this point. And so I am like any other fan, waiting to be surprised, waiting to hear the next new big idea coming from Nintendo. What I miss is being on the inside and being able to help shape those ideas. I miss that a lot. But the flip side is, you know, I’m like the fan I was 20 years ago. And I get the opportunity to speculate a little bit on the industry in total. I’m now an investor in the space, if you will, with the SPAC that that I have, where we’re looking to acquire a private company in the broad digital entertainment space, and in doing so, help it reach the public markets. So today gives me an opportunity to look at all the different things that are going on and to figure out the opportunities; that’s the good side. But I miss being on the inside of one particular company and a company that has had a legacy of driving so much innovation in the space.