It’s hard to imagine a company weathering 2020 much better than Nintendo. Thanks to the outrageous phenomenon of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and continually strong Switch sales — it has been the best-selling console in the U.S. for 24 straight months, according to NPD — Nintendo is riding high, despite a somewhat limited holiday release schedule.
As a way to close out the year, we sat down with Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser to discuss the highs and lows of 2020 for the company and what 2021 might bring, from the possibility of a Switch Pro to the long-awaited Breath of the Wild sequel.
On COVID’s impact on Nintendo
Polygon: Looking back, when did you realize COVID was going to be a big change for basically everyone in the gaming industry, but also, was going to specifically affect what Nintendo’s strategies were for 2020?
Doug Bowser: I would say, during the March time frame, during February, early March, we were closely monitoring the situation. We were in very close contact with state and local governments in the areas where we have our offices and facilities. So that would be Washington state, California, New York state. And then, of course, in Canada, both in Toronto and [British Columbia]. And we were very closely watching the situation and how it was unfolding, and tried to really be sensitive to the changes in various orders around work-from-home or quarantines, etc.
And we began probably in early March, as a leadership team, really shaping out, if this ever got to a pandemic situation, how would we manage the business? Because a part of our business, for us, can can be effectively done working from home or working remotely. But we also have a manufacturing and distribution facility here. And we had to be sensitive to that — if various distancing regulations came into place and other safety regulations came into place, we had to really understand how we were going to be able to operate that business effectively and continue to distribute our products to our retailers, and ultimately, our consumers. So really, it was that March time frame that we start to spool up.
And, you know, I’m lucky we engaged in that manner. We’ve always had business continuity plans in place, but they didn’t necessarily include a pandemic. I’m not sure many companies have a pandemic plan structured.
Yeah, absolutely. How was your release calendar, what you’re putting out to the public, impacted by COVID? Or was it at all, or not really?
It was impacted some, especially during the earlier days, as we were sorting through what was going to happen with retailers, how consumers were going to be consuming content in terms of media content — where were they going to get their news, their entertainment — because that was going to force us to potentially pivot some of the marketing side.
Obviously, my responsibilities are for Nintendo of America, which is much more of a sales and marketing function. We were in close contact with our parent company in Japan, understanding any possible impacts on dev cycles, and if that would alter at all our release schedules. As we watch that, and as there may have been slight changes in dates, then we’re trying to react with understanding what parts of our evergreen catalog could we insert and drive to continue to keep the momentum that we have been seeing as we went into the period.
So is that basically what determines like, “Hey, we’re going to be able to fill in this gap with something like Pikmin [3 Deluxe],” for example?
Yeah. We look at a number of different factors. First of all, we talk a lot here about audiences and the audiences that we want to target through various campaigns, through various efforts. Then, we look at the content that is coming our way, both hardware and software, and determine how that will fit into those audiences and how we want to communicate. And we have a good steady beat of new releases that come throughout the year.
Something unique about Nintendo is, our content is released year-round. But then, we also look at the content coming from our third-party publishing partners, whether those be AAA houses or indie developers, and figure out how to slot those in. And then, one thing we feel is unique about Nintendo is the strength of our evergreen catalog, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and how do we fit those into our messages? So we have news, and we have conversations that we can have year-round. And clearly that was heightened during the pandemic, to really understand as things were shifting. We had to be flexible, and we had to be nimble, and move those around.
Animal Crossing in 2020 and the plan for 2021
For what it’s worth, it ended up being a very strong year. I mean, I think no one really expected — and I’m sure you guys are even included in that — quite what happened with Animal Crossing [New Horizons], which was just, and continues to be, a juggernaut. How far beyond expectations did Animal Crossing go for y’all?
“Well beyond expectations” is, I think, the simplest way to put it in. I don’t know that we expected it to be truly the cultural touchpoint that it became across the globe. And what we were pleased to see is how it redefined how people thought about video games and how they incorporated it in their lives.
We saw people celebrating graduations; having birthday parties; weddings, even — virtually, through the game itself. And we were pleased to see that we were able to provide a bit of a respite in what was pretty chaotic times and challenging times for folks. So it’s a result of many things. First of all: Developers did a wonderful job of creating a great universe, a great environment, great characters, and so that was very much engaging. But then, of course, the time of its release allowed a number of people who hadn’t even played video games to come in and enjoy and understand not only video games, but understand Animal Crossing much further.
You know, I was looking back to [Animal Crossing:] New Leaf and the way that game was supported long-term. It had its yearlong schedule. And then, basically, it stuck with that same schedule for several years. And then there was a significant content update that came later.
Given the immediate success of [New Horizons], do you foresee following a similar cadence as New Leaf? Or do you think this becomes more something in line of the Animal Crossing mobile game, which is constantly evolving? At this point, you are releasing, like, once a quarter, a pretty significant update in New Horizons. Do you see that continuing beyond this first year? Or what do you see as the plan there?
Yeah, I see two potential avenues here, one you already mentioned, which has been our update schedule that comes from the developers. And that can be around seasons, it can be around events, it can be around enhanced gameplay features. And that will continue as we go forward.
I think the thing that is very unique and different about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, however, is also the [user-generated content], and people’s ability to really lean into user-generated content and make that available and to share that with their friends. And that doesn’t happen on any cadence. That’s an ongoing, constantly changing and evolving environment where people can visit each other’s islands and take advantage of that UGC, bring it to their islands and share it. So I think that’s another aspect that really is strengthening the engagement over time with Animal Crossing.
Sure. In addition to the UGC, you foresee these sorts of updates that we’ve been seeing in the first year continuing into the next year?
We definitely see that continuing.
On Nintendo Switch Online and whether Xbox Game Pass could come to Switch
I want to talk a little bit about Nintendo [Switch] Online and and the work Nintendo has done with that service. Obviously, some major releases came out this year that were exclusive to the service. Do you foresee that as being sort of the strategy? You know, obviously, there’s a group of people that just want to play online games with their Switch, so they’re just going to subscribe for that. But in terms of bringing people in, do you see that as being the main strategy to get people subscribed — these [exclusives like] Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35, stuff like that, that will give people a reason to subscribe to this service?
We’re continuing to watch how people are engaging with the service. The top two reasons that people today purchase a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online are the ability to play our games online, and the second is the ability to engage in content like you just mentioned — and not only Super Mario Bros. 35 or Tetris 99, but also the catalog of NES and SNES titles. We’re at over 100 titles that are available right now. Some of those now have the ability to be played in multiplayer form, where the originals did not. So there’s a high level of engagement on that side. But those are the top two reasons people choose to subscribe, along with cloud save and some of the other benefits, and we’ll continue to evolve the service as we go forward, making sure we’re providing new and fresh functionality and games for folks.
So the big talking point of this year in the games industry has been Microsoft’s Game Pass. Obviously, they’re different, because Game Pass is a subscription fee to access a library of games, not a fee people pay to play online, but do you see Nintendo Switch Online as the counteroffer to something like Game Pass?
The way I look at it is, we want to offer consumers choices on Nintendo Switch, and obviously, the ability to buy the games and play the games that they choose to play. The fact that we have well over an 8.0 attach rate to every Switch unit that’s been installed over the last four years is an indication that consumers want to consume content that way.
Sorry, just to confirm — by “that way,” you mean purchasing games individually?
Exactly, purchasing games individually. But we also recognize that there are consumers who want to have access to other parts of our back catalog, like our NES and SNES titles, and Nintendo Switch Online is a way that they’re able to access those titles. So we want to give them options on how they would want to consume content. So we’re leveraging both to give them access to a wide catalog.
I know that people have asked and spoken to Microsoft regarding the idea of something like Game Pass ever appearing on Switch. Is that something that you are ever considering?
The way I would answer that, Russ, is: We are always looking at various ways that we can engage our consumers right now. We have found that our catalog and the third-party publishing catalog that’s available, whether that’s through Nintendo Switch Online or through frontline game purchase, has really been allowing us to do that.
Why are certain games being removed from the eShop after March 31, 2021?
I wanted to specifically talk about a strategy that Nintendo is doing with Switch Online, regarding the sunsetting — I don’t know what the exact terminology is, but effectively, games that are no longer available after March 31, 2021. What is the logic? Why is that good for consumers?
Yeah, I think I use a simple word: celebration. It just — this is a celebration of Mario’s 35th anniversary. And we wanted to celebrate in unique and different ways, and we’ve done that through games like Super Mario 3D All-Stars, or we will be doing that through future releases, such as Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury.
And then we’ve also done it through releases such as Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros., or through Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. There are various ways that we’re celebrating Mario’s 35th. And with some of these titles, we felt it was an opportunity to release them for a limited period of time. They’ve done very, very well. Super Mario 3D All-Stars has sold over 2.6 million units in the U.S. alone. And so clearly, consumers have been able to jump in and enjoy that. And it’s not strategy that we’re going to be using widely, but it’s one we thought was very unique for the actual anniversary.
Yeah, and the celebration aspect I totally get. Obviously, you have gone whole hog on releasing amazing Mario games this year. I just don’t understand the consumer side of it, where someone who buys a Switch in June of next year is just never gonna be able to buy those games. I just don’t see the upside, quite honestly.
Yeah, at this point, the decision was really made around that celebration feature and aspect. I can’t speak to plans beyond the the end of March.
Is Nintendo holding back games for a Switch Pro?
We talked a little bit about it earlier, regarding the lineup and how the lineup sort of shifted throughout the year because of COVID. And I think it manifested in a few ways. I would not by any means call Nintendo’s lineup in the holiday season a light lineup. But again, just putting it against 2019, for example, with Link’s Awakening and Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Pokémon ... it’s obviously kind of a different beast, versus this year, which, you know, we have Pikmin 3, great game; Hyrule Warriors [Age of Calamity], great game; Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, also really good. But you don’t necessarily have the big new internally developed game. And I understand that delays happen, especially because of COVID.
But I also know that there have been some discussions that Nintendo may be trying to hold back certain titles for potentially some hardware changes in the future. I wanted to know if that’s something that you guys are looking at, strategizing around, to make sure that, “Hey, if we were to update the hardware in some way, we would have, like, a strong enough lineup to do that.”
Russ, the way I’d answer that is, as we look at the fourth year of Nintendo Switch, we continue to see very, very strong momentum. We see the platform appealing to a wide range of consumers. This year, in particular, we’ve seen more women gamers come into Nintendo Switch platforms, women that had not owned a Nintendo Switch platform in the past, and they’re engaging in our content in new and different ways.
We’ve been able to introduce not only games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but from our partners, games like like Hades or Minecraft Dungeons, or Ori and the Will of the Wisps. We have a number of different ways that players are coming in and engaging the content, and it’s not all AAA content.
But former AAA content is doing incredibly well, too. Some of the top titles that are still bought after someone buys a Nintendo Switch today are titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey. So that back catalog is still fresh and new for any new purchaser of a Nintendo Switch. And that plays into how we market and talk with our consumers.
So with a catalog of over 4,000 games available and Nintendo Switch selling very, very well — I think you saw the NPD numbers from October, where we sold 735,000 units, up 136% year over year — November is going to be an equally strong month for us. I can’t reveal the data because NPD will be talking about it this afternoon. But I think you’re going to see an equally strong month from Nintendo in the month of November, with a very strong both Thanksgiving and Black Friday week and Cyber Monday week. [Ed note: Nintendo sold more than 1.35 million Switch units in the U.S. in November, retaining its top spot for a 24th consecutive month.]
And where that points me is, we will be releasing content, as I mentioned earlier, on a regular cadence year-round. And there’s a lot more to come, obviously, as you think about our IP, and we’ll release it when it’s right and when it’s ready and when we’ve got great gameplay experiences. But in the meantime, we continue to lean into what I think is still a very strong lineup for this holiday and a very strong catalog.
Obviously, rumors of a “Switch Pro” have basically been floating around for years at this point. You know, for a while it was alongside the Switch Lite, and then that didn’t end up happening. These days, hardware strength is all the rage. Nintendo has never been one to push hardware, but obviously, at this point, a 720p handheld screen is getting a little bit creakier. How does that match with Nintendo’s long-held strategy of updating the hardware after, let’s say, three or four years?
Yeah. A couple of thoughts there. There were a few questions in there. Let me just break it down. First, we’re always looking at technology. And as we know, technology is constantly evolving and changing. And we’re always looking at what is coming to determine: How can it enhance and improve the gameplay experience? And whether that’s on a current platform, or whether that’s on a future platform, we’re always looking at that.
However, we also see right now — and we just talked about it — that the momentum on Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Switch Lite in the fourth year is strong. And we believe we’re changing the trajectory of another typical console life cycle. And we will continue, for the foreseeable future, to really lean into both of those platforms and the content that comes with it, because it’s the symbiotic relationship that makes the real difference. And it’s why Nintendo Switch is so differentiated.
First, the hardware form factor, obviously, is something — that you have a gaming system that you can play at home as a console, and you can take on the go and play in handheld mode virtually anywhere — is unique and remains unique within the industry. But then the way we build games onto the platform, and the way partners build games onto the platform, is really what matters and the experience that you have when you play. So that’s what we’ll continue to lean into as we go into really what will be the fifth year of Nintendo Switch. And as Mr. [Shuntaro] Furukawa [president of Nintendo] mentioned in his corporate management policy briefing, we believe we’re just at the midpoint of this life cycle on this platform.
So I guess that that goes back to my question, which is to say, because of the success of the Switch and the Switch Lite, does that buy you time with hardware that, if it wasn’t doing as well, you would need to refresh sooner?
It allows us to to manage the life cycle differently, I would say. I think that’s the easiest way to put it. Right now, with the momentum that we have, our focus will be on the existing form factors.
On Joy-Con drift
I wanted to talk a little bit about — I know it’s kind of a four-letter word — but Joy-Con drift. Obviously, Nintendo has a long reputation of really strong hardware, but this is something that has not gone away. I know you offer free repairs for people; they can mail in their Joy-Cons. It kind of feels like this continues to be, like, a Band-Aid that’s being put over it. And I wanted to know, long term, are there hardware designs planned to address this so that when people buy a new Switch, they’re not necessarily worrying, “Hey, I’m going to need to send in my Joy-Con every six months or so”?
First and foremost, we want every consumer to have a great experience with their Nintendo Switch and with the games they play on Nintendo Switch. That’s of utmost importance to us. Our mission is to put smiles on faces. And we want to make sure that happens. If consumers have any issue with our hardware and/or software, we want them to contact us, when we will work through the proper solution to get them up and running as fast as possible.
Specific to the Joy-Cons themselves, we’ve been working very closely with consumers if and when they might have issues, whether it’s a replacement or repair. And then, what I will say, as we look at our repair cycles, we’re always looking at what is being sent in and for what reasons, and understanding that better. And without going into any details, it always gives us an opportunity to make improvements as we go forward.
Checking in on Breath of the Wild 2, among others
I realize there’s very little you could probably say about these titles, but there have been a few titles that have essentially gone super radio silent. I wanted to see if there’s anything you can share regarding their status. Specifically: Bayonetta 3, Metroid Prime 4, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2.
You’ve followed Nintendo long enough to know that as we progress on any title, and we deem it’s the right moment, we will share with the community where we are in the development. At this point, though, I have nothing more that I can share on those titles.
Yeah. I do want to specifically talk about Hyrule Warriors [Age of Calamity]. Zelda’s canon is kind of wild, as you well know. But doing this tie-in for a game that you’ve announced, sort of as a setup to it, is a pretty unique strategy. Is this something that you foresee, given the success of Hyrule Warriors, continuing with other franchises? Like, “Hey, we’re gonna have these games that are the big internal AAA studio games. But maybe we can enlist other studios to work in ways to sort of set those games up.”
I’m careful never to speak for our developers. I want them to be speaking for themselves when it comes to how they develop games. But what I can say at a macro level is, each developer really has the right to make decisions as to how they want to manage the IP, how they may want to introduce sequential titles as they go forward, how they may want to develop those titles. And so I can’t say that there is a set pattern that you will see, because every developer looks at their IP and looks at their games very, very differently.
Yeah. But from your perspective, you’re generally fond of this strategy?
I think it’s worked very well for The Legend of Zelda. I think this has been a perfect interlude as people come off playing Breath of the Wild. And if they haven’t even finished Breath of the Wild, there’s still many [who are] still very, very much engaged in the game. And there are many more that are coming into the game. But I think this is a great next game in the franchise.
Nintendo into 2021, from theme parks to Lego
Cool. I’ll end it just by asking, what can people broadly expect from Nintendo in 2021?
Yeah, as we look forward, first of all, we will continue to lean into the momentum that we’re seeing from a hardware perspective in bringing more consumers into video gaming. Obviously, video gaming throughout the pandemic is becoming a very popular form of entertainment. It’s been a safe form of entertainment — whether it’s families at home playing on the couch together, whether it’s friends playing with friends online. More and more people have been introduced to video gaming, have come in through the Nintendo Switch, as an example. And we’ll continue to support those consumers through our hardware, and through our software, and through our services. And that really will be our focus as we go into 2021. As I mentioned earlier, we believe we’re at the midpoint of the life cycle on the platform. And there’s many more good things to come.
Yeah, that’s gonna be a long life cycle for the platform.
Oh, yeah. And there’s one other thing, Russ, I was going to mention as we look forward to 2021, and I almost forgot to mention it. Because we’ve been so focused on video games, let’s not forget the other ways that people have been engaging in our IP.
It’s an important part of Nintendo’s strategy: We want to share our IP with as many people around the world as possible. And it’s not all directly through our video game experiences. Some of those may be through our entertainment experiences. So I think you’ve seen, just recently, we announced with Universal Studios in Japan that we will be opening the Super Nintendo World in February of next year in Osaka. So that’s one way that we’re going to be able to really share Nintendo, in our immersive worlds and our IP, with consumers who may not be playing video games today. Or through some of our licensed activities, such as some activities we’ve done with Levi’s or with Lego or with Puma, and all those touch points allow us to expose people to the fun that is Nintendo and the smiles that Nintendo delivers. And our hope is that it brings them deeper into the integrated video game experiences that we offer.
I just want to talk about the [theme] parks strategy, which is obviously a major new sector for Nintendo. How much of a focus is that, moving over the next five years, in terms of turning Nintendo into something that is the equivalent of Harry Potter World and stuff like that? Turning Nintendo into this place that you can visit, versus just playing it on a screen?
It really is what I was mentioning. It’s this opportunity to create incremental touch points and introduce people around the world to Nintendo who may not be playing video games today, or may not even have access to video games today. And that can be through experiences like Universal. It can be through experiences like movies, which, we have a project we’ve announced with Illumination Studios; it can be through our mobile content; but with the goal of ultimately continuing to bring them into our dedicated games ecosystem experiences.
Doug, what is the Nintendo World park attraction that you want to do first?
Mario Kart, without question. I am so excited. I look forward to the day I can travel again, and I look forward to getting out there and experiencing it live.